About a week ago, I finally got a chance to interview Natalia Lavaggi, one of the smiling faces (with impeccably glowing skin!) at Okoko Cosmetiques. I had met Natalia briefly at Okoko’s open-house late 2018 after already falling in love with their Instagram account’s creamy textures and the vibrant orange of their Sublime balm. The scents and other-worldly luxury of their products was impressive, but I was mostly taken with Natalia’s passion when speaking about the social responsibility of luxury and how Okoko, from the beginning, wanted to empower those it came into contact with.
Over the phone, Natalia unpacked some of the questions I had about Okoko’s ethos and the rapid success of their products.
SP: How did Okoko come into being, and what drove its formation?
NL: Oyeta Kokoroko is the CEO and owner/founder of Okoko. The official launch of Okoko, as a full-time brand, was in Vancouver in 2016. Oyeta had been on her own journey of cleaner and healthier living in response to health challenges, and the combination of consulting doctors and enrolling herself in a holistic naturopathic course crossed this passion over into examining her beauty routine. The beginning was DIY, small-batch production that she gave to her friends, who encouraged her on, and she eventually moved into natural, organic skincare.
SP: Talking of your production, Okoko does a lot of research. Of all the marketed ingredients out there, how do you narrow the process to create and perfect new formulas?
NL: There are a few steps we follow when we want to create a product. First, we look for comments and feedback on community forums to discover what women are looking for and where gaps exist between their experiences and the products they are using. Balms are a great example: how can a balm be different than the [uncountable number of] ones on the market? Are they too greasy? Too oily for those women dealing with acne? Many women who deal with acne don’t want burning harsh chemicals, synthetics, or unpleasantly-scented things, but need formulations that are effective. Second, Okoko researches non-common, un-used ingredients that have been known to create phenomenal results, as well as speaking with our suppliers about what they have available. This is a massive months-long process! Our dragon’s blood [resin] is an example of a clinically-proven ingredient, where indigenous people in the Amazon have been using it for hundreds of years for inflammation, irritation, and healing of the skin. It’s not about being trendy, rather, it’s a multi-step process of meeting those gaps discussed. And, overall, it is not just about being natural, but advanced and elevated by using more active, concentrated ingredients that are proven and results-driven.
SP: So, two questions stem from these gaps in the market – attempts by women to find their perfect skincare regime – the first being around skincare mistakes women make in this process of discovery, and the second being the issue of the greenwashing of “natural” skincare.
NL: Mismatched skincare is a huge issue that we see: women using products that aren’t matched to their skin, or pouring money into similarly-priced products that are mostly fillers. We don’t use fillers: each ingredient is active. Women aren’t educated as to which ingredients do what, and established brand-name companies have slick marketing, Instagram influencers, and celebrity endorsement. For example, silicone-based products fill in skin issues [like wrinkles and acne scarring] rather than deal with the root problems, yet acne-prone skin shouldn’t be using silicone. Further, skin has different needs all year long – we wish women would know how to adapt their skincare regime over time! Ask more questions, be less influenced by 19 year-old models on Instagram! Fear-mongering around aging is a big thing – Okoko is not interesting in shaming and fear-mongering, but rather into educating women about their skin. Skin needs to be looked at holistically – inside and outside – and there is no quick fix. Our consultations aren’t about false promises, but emphasize that real change requires work, not a purchasable one-size-fits-all routine. Good skincare will be a support and supplement to other work that needs done as well. It will cost something.
SP: Well, I think “true change costs something” is a good lesson for life in general, no? But this is perhaps where you have to fight greenwashing amidst a saturated market, one where claims are often false and ingredients disproven, but at a higher price point…in what ways does Okoko stand out?
NL: I was a freelance makeup artist and skincare consultant working in a green beauty boutique, and saw Okoko’s products online: I was impressed with their effectiveness. Marketing the product should be about empowering consumers: which ingredients should they be looking out for? What should they understand? What blogs should they read? Not a lot of brands actually educate their consumers – they have amazing ads, but the consumer doesn’t understand the ingredients, and the brands aren’t transparent. Seeing what we have to do to create products and sustain a brand is vital to our brand. We often blog about ingredients at length and will inform readers on why each ingredient is chosen. Education is a key Okoko value. Our customers love that they can make educated decisions about their skincare, even if they don’t exclusively use Okoko. But our ethos is also collaboration v. competition, which has been a challenge. The market is straight-up competition, but we believe in the uniqueness of women’s offerings, experience, and stories. We can complement and help each other.
SP: I think women are starting to see now that there is room for everyone, and that women can build each other up rather than tear each other down. And obviously your focus on education, empowerment, and transparency is a good long-term business strategy: it’s not built on anti-something, but rather a pro-something, collaborative and networking approach.
NL: Yes! And also, Okoko is a luxury brand – we’ve marketed it as such. It’s not just anti-acne or age-support products, we want to have people feel like our products are an act of self-care. Some natural brands will provide consumers with great results, but they sometimes contain stronger scents and aren’t as delicate or don’t create a sensual experience. Our particular niche of customer is the person who wants to set aside that half hour to have a calming, sensorial experience. And that’s part of the fun – getting the perfect combination of an aesthetically-pleasing product with immediate and long-term results.
SP: You’ve touched on something deeper – holistic lessons in life – in that our base human nature is to want a quick fix, whether it’s for climate change or our skin. We want a lot of results immediately for minimum effort, i.e., can a pill allow me to have great skin without changing anything?
NL: Absolutely. People will often comment on my skin – wow, your skin! – but it’s literally reflection of this whole approach: spirit, soul, and body. Without the work, I wouldn’t feel the same. That for me – the ‘whole-ness’ approach to rest and relationships – is very important. Relationships are so fundamental to a fulfilling life. Particularly at Okoko, our relationships with our consumers, stockists, other business-owners, and with our suppliers are not just transactional. It’s about finding similarly-minded people and creating long-term relationships. If transactions are just about money, the idea can’t go very far because it has no vision for a bigger picture. We want to use Okoko to empower, to change, and to give back at each of these relationship intersections, and if ingredients aren’t ethically sourced or other relationships are poor, what are the ripple-effects? These drops of oil a woman takes time to massage into her face are, at Okoko, built upon good relationships and without cruelty.
At the end of the interview, I asked Natalia if she were relegated to a deserted island, what product she would take with her. Natalia revealed her expertise:
Rather than answering with her favourite product – the answer I would have given in my one-size-fits-all-skin-problems programming – she assessed the situation first: dry climate, sun damage, etc., and then responded, based on defence, protection, and intense hydration components for harsh conditions: the Prestige Edition (or “Red Label”), Sang du Dragon elixir. Good to know for anyone flying to warmer, desert climes this year!
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