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The Interview: Korres Co-founder Lena Korres

Gaelle Walker
05 October 2021

Lena Philippou-Korres is the Co-founder and chief innovation officer of the renowned Greek skincare brand Korres.

Established in 1996 following an earlier meeting of minds, and later marriage, between Lena (a qualified chemical engineer) and pharmacist Giorgos Korres - the brand has evolved to become a global force in natural skincare - fueled by best-selling products including its Wild Rose 24-hour Brightening Cream and Greek Yogurt Nourishing Gel Cream.

Ethically sourced and sustainably-grown Greek plants and ingredients sit at the heart of the brand, which also strives to safeguard the country's treasure-trove of endemic plants.

Lena’s keen commitment to empowering women in science has also helped to forge the development of the brand’s female-led research and development team, who, under her guidance, have developed a unique ‘Full Circle’ approach to beauty.

With six laboratories for the creation of each and every Korres product (a Soil Lab, Extraction Lab, Molecular Lab, Formulation Lab, Design Lab and Recycle Lab) the Korres brand truly sets itself apart with its full circle of science and sustainability - from "soil to soul" as Lena puts it.

Here, Lena takes Gaelle Walker, Contributing Editor of TheIndustry.fashion on an equally full circle journey of the brand's creation - discussing the finer points of Korres' unique birth, key milestones and future plans, as-well-as her own personal ambitions.

Lena, you have been a key driving force in shaping the Korres brand that we know and love today, but can you tell us a little about your earlier years and the qualifications that you accrued prior to founding Korres?

I am chemical engineer and a hopeless devotee of all-things-nature-and-science. I joined Korres back in the 90s and this was actually my first full-time job.

Having completed my MBA after a degree in Chemical Engineering, I was looking for an exciting break into the field of chemistry, biology and mathematics. The opportunity came through an ad that Giorgos Korres had placed in the job section of a popular paper; he was looking for a chemical engineer to work with him on a natural skincare product line.

In my mind, cosmetics was the number one option for a female chemical engineer looking for some excitement and I was drawn in by Giorgos’ early vision.

Please explain that early vision to us and the inspiration behind it? 

It all started out of the oldest herbal apothecary of Greece back in the 80s; this is where Giorgos, a pharmacist, started familiarising himself with the power of natural ingredients as he prepared the more than 3,000 herbal remedies of the pharmacy. He then started thinking of ways these unique benefits could be translated into skincare solutions.

His passion and respect for natural ingredients, as well as his deep knowledge of their properties was inspiring and fascinating. I wanted to be part of it literally from day one and together we founded Korres in 1996.

Our passion for, and deep knowledge of, plants is what differentiates our brand. We know herbs inside out; we know how they work in our bodies as natural remedies and how they work on our skin as beauty remedies. 

We were both motivated by the belief in the power of nature and that, combined with the latest scientific advancements, it can provide the answer to every skin need.

We were also motivated by the fact that when we started, in the 1990s, any natural beauty options available were not of competitive efficacy or aesthetics compared to established conventional brands.

We wanted to be different from other natural brands, we didn’t want to be boring, we wanted to be safe, effective and indulging! We took a breakthrough approach in formulation, in research, in design, in communications, we became explorers.

We wanted to develop products that could address even the most demanding skin needs and at the same time are pleasing to use. And so, we became a pioneer in terms of primary research and innovation, presenting worldwide product breakthroughs and driving demand for natural beauty.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

We kicked off our journey at a time when concepts such as eco-cosmetics, clean beauty, sustainability were far from a trend. Our philosophy focused on safe, natural products consciously made for visible results; affordable for everyday use, with distinctive aesthetics that can make people happy.

We go by the same principles up to this day. I must admit it was tough breaking into a market dominated by high-spending conventional brands and into a consumer world that had little faith in what nature could do for skin.

We wanted to develop products that we were proud to offer to our friends and family and these were actually the ones that first tried all our products back in the day!

Our first ever product was the Wild Rose 24-hour Brightening Cream that became an instant success, fuelling us with the will and power to keep going.

We didn’t have a business plan in mind when we started. We were inspired by our obsessions and things we loved, we were driven by our instinct.

Korres famously makes its products via a ‘6 Step System’, can you tell us more about this full circle process?

I still remember the day when Giorgos and I wrote on a piece of paper what we wanted the Korres brand to stand for. Greece, nature, apothecary, science, aesthetics, ethos. This is our heart and has been our springboard for pioneering our Korres Full Circle process.

A Full Circle from soil to soul. We do our own research and development in every step of the way from seed to skin and back. That’s why we have developed six distinctive Labs: Soil Lab, Extraction Lab, Molecular Lab, Formulation Lab, Design Lab, Recycle Lab. Our Full Circle process is a universe that includes everyone and everything.

From the local organic farmers that cultivate our ingredients, to our zero-waste plant processing, our academic and research partners, product formulation and production, design of sustainable packaging solutions and finally recycling our empties.

This is the Korres way of creating a product. Everything is made in-house with full ownership and A-to-Z responsibility.

Korres is a brand that prides itself on its use of natural actives, could you tell us a bit re about this ethos?

We believe that nature has the answer to every skin need. It is commonly accepted and proven that natural ingredients are extremely powerful. More than half of modern medicine are actually naturals. The big advantage of natural ingredients is their true compatibility with our skin. For example the composition of olive oil is very similar to the composition of our own skin lipids!

Just take a moment to think that we are using multiple beauty products for many decades during our lifetime. At the same time, our skin is our bigger organ and it absorbs those multiple products every day for so many years. It makes so much sense to feed our skin with natural, skin-friendly ingredients that have amazing skin benefits and do not disturb skin balance and skin critical functions.

At Korres we are really lucky to be a Greek natural beauty brand because Greece is a paradise of plants. Despite its small size, it hosts more than 6,000 plants, 1,200 out of which are endemic, they cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

These plants have survived since the ice age, having developed unique defense mechanisms and amazing powers. These defense mechanisms are what we focus on in order to formulate our skincare lines, empowering skin against any damage.

Speaking of endemic plants, can you tell us a bit more about the great work that you do to help preserve them?

We feel proud to be able to contribute and do our part to preserve our amazing biodiversity, while supporting our local communities.

We protect endangered species and sustain plant populations, working together with dedicated organisations, such as the Institute of Plant Breeding and Genetic Resources, and the Hellenic Agricultural Organization “DIMITRA”, supporting its initiatives, including the Balkan Botanical Gardens of Kroussia - an important scientific effort for the preservation of the unique Greek plants.

At the same time we work together with local farmers that share our obsession and love for Greek nature. Take for instance the tea blossoms that grow at the foothills of Olympus mountain, infused in our Olympus tea detox cleansers.

Olympus mountain is known for its unique biodiversity; it is home to 1,700 different plant species, including some really rare ones. The antioxidant-packed tea blossoms are cultivated by an amazing, really dedicated family of farmers - the Chalkia family. They are the first in Greece to cultivate mountain tea with organic methods, protecting the herb’s wild populations that were threatened with extinction.

Our plant hunter (yes, this is a real job at Korres!) works closely with the Agricultural University of Athens to identify the best cultivation areas around Greece for the specific herbs we need. Social criteria such as unemployment, underdeveloped rural regions, the need for financial support are a significant part of the process. We support solely organic farming through contractual agreements. We work together with micro-farmers, agricultural unions, social and educational institution. Our network supports around 1,000 families and keeps growing.

How challenging is the use of natural actives vs synthetic ones and how has Korres become such a master of the process?

When we first started, natural cosmetics meant using just oils, extracts, waxes, limiting options and results. Natural cosmetics smelled and felt good, but were not up to the anti-ageing challenge. As research and technology evolved, our Molecular and Formulation Labs focused on discovering and studying powerful natural actives that often outperformed long-used synthetics. Potent antioxidants, polyphenols, peptides, stabilized vitamin C, plant stem-cells are some of our own beauty buzzwords. We have used natural alternatives to synthetic peptides, to synthetic retinol, to silicones. Our aim is to offer safe products based on ingredients with documented efficacy, delivering visible results without disturbing our skin balance, and offering a great product experience; this can only be achieved by bringing together nature with research and science.

The challenge, however, lies not only on the powerful naturals we chose to include and the way we formulate, but on the ingredients and compounds we choose to avoid when formulating, as well. Developing a silicone-free hair line that was the efficacious answer to the protecting and conditioning properties of silicones, or the best-selling ammonia-free hair colorants were some of our achievements in the early days. We have adopted an extensive negative list of hundreds of ingredients -microbeads, silicones, mineral oil, PCM, phthalates, select sunscreen filters being among them- because we care for our skin, and we care for the environment.

What are your best-sellers today?

The Wild Rose collection that was born with the brand, inspired by the most popular beauty elixir of the Korres Apothecary, the wild rose oil, has become a synonym of glowing skin and an all-time-Korres-best-seller. The Yoghurt Cooling Gel, on the other hand, is an iconic Korres product and a personal favourite.

The first ever product in the world with real edible yogurt inspired by this very Greek memory of grandmas slapping yogurt out of the fridge on our back to remedy sun-burn. I think this product was one of the greatest challenges in my career so far, as yogurt is a living ingredient made of 4,000 living organisms!

Black Pine featuring a powerful anti-ageing ingredient we discovered on the highest peaks of Pindus mountain, now all-new powered with our breakthrough 4D Bio-Shapelift technology, is our number one franchise worldwide.

Talk us through some of your most recent product innovations?

The all-new Black Pine collection powered with our breakthrough 4D Bio-Shapelift technology and polyphenol-rich Greek black pine extract from the highest peaks of Pindus mountain, is our new powerful formula for firming, defining and sculpting facial contours, enhancing cheek, chin and jawline.

The new Up-Lift Contouring Serum of the line, with roller application, is my go-to product for the perfect y-shape. In August we also launched the Santorini Grape Velvet Skin Drink that gives skin a beautiful velvet feel. This product features the most resilient grape grown at the foot of Santorini’s volcano - arid volcanic-ash-rich soil rich in minerals, contributing to the grape’s uniqueness. This next generation dry oil bottles its antioxidant power, boosted by potent antioxidant resveratrol, to replenish and re-texture.

KORRES BLACK PINE

From recyclable packaging to locally sourced ingredients, Korres is also a brand with solid ethical credentials, can you tell us a bit more about those and why they are so important to you?

We have always done things that came naturally to us. Support and promote our homeland, grow together with our farming community, “hunting” for the most powerful naturals, crafting products based on pharmaceutical standards, avoiding hundreds of ingredients, using ultra-pure water, and natural solvents in our 100% zero-waste herb extraction process, focusing on sustainable design, recycling our empties.

We have been following our consciousness since the 90s and have worked for 25 years to make sustainability a real practice. This is all part of our Full Circle process and the result of our pursuit for balance and poetry in our lives.

Is the beauty industry generally doing enough when it comes to sustainability? 

I feel that “enough” will never be the right word when it comes to efforts embracing our planet. The beauty industry is doing a lot to reduce packaging and plastic, to preserve water, forest and other natural resources, to protect the marine environment, to encourage recycling, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the list goes on. Biodegradability, upcycling, refillables, waterless, super-concentrated formulas to mimimise packaging, naked packaging, transparency from supply chain to vegan claims, are now part of the beauty sustainability agenda. The effort is continuous and the number of initiatives and studies leading to innovation ever-growing, as the global mindset focuses on sustainability demanding brands to do their part. Our buying habits have now more power than ever.

At Korres we have been taking steps in this direction since the beginning and we are trying to improve our environmental and social footprint every day. We are reducing plastic -our promotional boxes are already 90%-less-plastic and 100%-all-recycled-paper. We aim to use post-consumer-resin in all our plastic containers by 2024. Refillables are also within our immediate future plans. All our paper packaging will be FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified by next year, ensuring forests’ viability and helping preserve the ecosystem balance.

An active role in recycling and turning empties to recycled objects has now become part of the equation. Korres Recycle Lab, launched in Greece in late 2020, is not just about collecting empties; it’s about transforming beauty waste into design items -curated by our in-house Design Lab-, into recycled packaging for our products, carton boxes for packaging and branded bags or into recycled merchandising material.

We are also really happy to actively support reforest the Aegean Seas through our partnership with the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation. More than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea and that’s only one of the reasons we should protect our seas -something that we take very seriously when formulating our sunscreens as well!

You are also a big supporter of female employment within the science and beauty sectors, do you feel that more still needs to be done in terms of empowering women within these industries?

At Korres we take pride in having an all-women team of scientists running our Formulation Lab. Women creating products for all women around the world. I feel that the beauty industry is filled with female intelligence, talent, skills and valuable knowledge that is driving innovation and advancement.

There is always more to be done, and I myself love mentoring young women scientists that join our team. Looking at the bigger picture though there is definitely a gender gap in science and I stand by any initiative aiming to empower women from an educational and social standpoint.

As a female scientist myself I felt really proud when Sarah Gilbert, a scientist actively involved in the fight against Covid-19, got a standing ovation at Wimbledon. We should make sure we get more of these moments of recognition in the future.

Please tell us about any new strategies or approaches that Korres has introduced to help consumers discover and shop the brand in recent times?

We invite all to join the Korres universe through our digital platforms. If you take a look @korres on Instagram you will immediately get that Greek natural beauty vibes we are all about. Images filled with Aegean blue colours, mesmerizing landscapes, our Greek light, powerful naturals growing in our homeland’s soil, with our innovations and best-selling products for real results as confirmed by everyday women and influencers, everything that inspires us is there. I often take over our account and share some of my favourite stories and products.

What more can we expect to see from Korres in the coming months?

We will keep focusing on Greek herbs, on science, on innovation, staying loyal to our values; we will keep challenging ourselves to offer the most advanced skincare solutions consciously made through our Full Circle process, capturing that effortless Greek glow we love!

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