In Conversation: Nina Garcia and Francisco Costa on the State of Green Innovation in Fashion and Beauty
While most people know our editor-in-chief Nina Garcia as a fashion editor and Francisco Costa as a celebrated designer, few realize that their deepest connection is through a commitment to sustainability. They both work and partner with the environmental non-profit Conservation International, one of the foremost leaders in protecting the planet. They also both use their platforms to drive the green conversation forward in fashion and beauty.
This commitment is the bedrock of ELLE’s beauty coverage. It is also the foundation of Costa’s skincare and aroma brand, , which sets a new standard for ethical ingredient sourcing—a critical element to sustainable beauty. Now, with Costa, who was born in Brazil, as chief creative officer of Amyris, the parent company of Costa Brazil, ELLE and Amyris have teamed up this Earth Month to amplify changemakers in sustainable beauty. It’s a partnership that represents a commitment to the innovation and inspiration needed to protect the planet.
Here, Garcia speaks with Costa about their long friendship, the inner workings of their two brands, and what they both see as the path to progress in beauty and fashion.
I understand you just got back from Brazil—tell me about it!
As you know, we source Breu [the signature ingredient in Costa Brazil products] from a couple of communities there. Breu is our first native ingredient of Brazil and the genesis of Costa Brazil. It is a natural resin that grows organically on the bark of the Breu tree deep in the forest. The resin oxidizes and falls, so if you don’t collect Breu for a year or two or three, you have rocks about three kilos each.
Before I started the brand, I had spent time with the Yaminawá people [in Brazil] for about 10 days and there was this scent that was really incredible. There were bonfires throughout the area, but I didn’t know where the scent was coming from. Later on, I realized that they were throwing those rocks into the fire.
How did this end up in beauty products?
Besides the beautiful scent that I experienced, I took the Breu with me to a lab in the northeast of Brazil and we did all the testing. The resin had incredible properties including being antimicrobial, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory. So it’s a real powerhouse of an ingredient. That was really the beginning of Costa Brazil.
What drew you to the Amazon? I know I’ve heard you speak about this incredible force and clarity.
On my first trip I was just very curious. Now we have become very close friends with the community there [that collects Breu]. Through Conservation International, we supported them to help protect their own land and that is something that we are very proud of. Now I’m actually the chair of the board of the Americas with CI so it’s exciting and I’m getting a lot more involved.
That’s also what really strikes me about Amyris. Amyris is really transforming the ingredient industry by using biotech for more sustainable alternatives that don’t take directly from the land. By mimicking ingredients in the lab you can actually create the most clean, the most sustainable, the most beautiful ingredients, and remain very responsible to support the local people, which is something we’re very committed to.
I met you when you were at Calvin Klein many years ago and even then I could see you really dipping into your roots and your interest in nature. With fashion, you were dealing with fabric and now you’re dealing with a beauty product that is also a tactile material that touches your skin. How was that transition going from fashion into beauty?
That’s so funny to bring this up because when I started a collection, I always started from the yarn. I had one collection—at the time, nobody talked about sustainability—where I went to a couple of knitwear manufacturers in Scotland and in North of Italy, and I just ended up buying all their leftover stock. Anything that was sitting there for years. And I just wove everything, all knitwear yarns and the whole collection was completely sustainable in that sense, because I was reusing all that stuff that was left.
The intimacy, as you just bring up, dressing the body, is something that came together very instinctively and very organically because I believe that what we are doing here is food for skin. I always wanted to make the woman feel good and look good. Here, I kind of mimic the process without thinking about it. When you put an oil on, you smell it, you feel it, and it’s there to make you just feel good.
Some people think opting for a green lifestyle is restrictive. I find it’s the opposite. It’s really very joyous, very positive, very indulgent. It’s a unique experience when you’re dealing with a very natural product or doing something sustainable in your life.
Transparency is fundamental [to this]. You know the difference. You feel the difference. We believe that beauty really is the beauty of the planet. The spirit of beauty, it really is a safer planet at the end of the day, because they go hand-in-hand. I was talking to a friend this morning, we [as a society] are going through such an enormous transition when it comes to the way we communicate. We start abbreviating. Our language is changing. The way we commercialize things is changing. Look at cryptocurrency. All of that is just so fascinating. Our responsibility here is really to have the awareness to make better choices.
The only constant we’re seeing is that there is change. Is that part of what motivates you these days?
I love change, and change, for me, is growth. If I hadn’t gone on this trip, I probably never understood fully what we are offering as a company, as a corporation, because we are set up for a sustainable future. Costa Brazil really is a wellness brand. I think we have tremendous possibilities here to really create rituals in which one could feel a lot better. What drove me to the Amazon is the fact that I couldn’t find anything like what we represented in the industry. And I can’t just go and put my name onto something that any lab is offering me. So I’d been very inquisitive, and that really pushed me.
It is so interesting, I see a lot of products in my position at ELLE, but you know the ones where there is real passion, you can identify them immediately. When I first saw Costa Brazil, I was blown away by the passion there, Francisco. I could see there was something so unique about the product, the packaging, the way it felt in my hand, the way it feels on my skin, the way it looks on the shelf. It just felt right.
Thank you. Our path is really to bring the best, most unique ingredients. It’s also giving other companies use of our ingredients and the opportunity to do the same and to be better. I think that’s the magic of it as well. When I first started looking for partners, the minute I identified this company I was shocked, “Oh my God, it’s almost like we are speaking the same language here.” We were. That gave me a lot of confidence.
Speaking the language, you have to speak the same language.
As a designer, we’re very instinctive and we feel the world, we feel things that perhaps other people just go by and don’t realize. I felt like things were changing and I always felt that Brazil was more my spirit. There’s something that’s so vast about it. There’s magnitude there that could be explored and nothing more likely for me to bring that essence to the next thing. We are a luxury brand, but we want to be broader. Sometimes people misjudge the ability to do beauty and high-level design or high-level products at a good price.
You want inclusive, not exclusive.
I think that’s what we would do. You can’t treat the customer like they don’t know. So we want to offer the best. It’s time for green chemistry. You think of clean or green, those words are so misused, there’s so much brainwashing out there. We are very excited to be on the edge of something new because we’re offering the most sustainable ingredients and very effective ingredients. To quote somebody here in the company: “We are here to change the direction of human consumption through science and sustainability.” I think that really summarizes our mission. It’s really beautiful. Very inspiring to me.
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