Tata Harper's clean skincare line has grown from cult favorite to skincare staple. We caught up with Tata on how her heritage informs her approach to beauty, and how her experience in the industry has shaped her ever-evolving line.
Julia von Boehm: So I’ve followed the story of your stepfather and how his cancer treatment inspired the research that was the first thought of your line, could you tell us more?
Tata Harper: Every time that we would go to doctors there was always this underlying theme about like, how do you live, what do you do every day, what are your daily habits, what do you get in touch with daily? And then we started looking at his personal care products, diving deep into what chemicals you get in touch with, and I started evaluating that stuff for myself too. I had never heard about this stuff, what they call the toxic load.
JVB: Yes, we are much more familiar with it these days, if only we’d known sooner. So what did you do?
TH: So then I became psycho about it, because I thought that before this, going organic and doing the natural thing was more about being an environmentalist— which I am— but I never thought I had to change my cleaning products or my moisturizers. After this experience, we re-evaluated things in a different light and so I became very negative about things, like don’t do this, don’t do that. I was able to switch a lot of things like my food and my cleaning products, but when it came to switching a super high tech skincare line, I was faced with two scenarios. Either the whole foods little apothecary scenario where yeah, things are mainly natural but they’re not going to give you the results you expect or the experience you’re used to, or, I’d go and try the naturals at department stores which are luxury level; products with algae, orchids, roses— but then turn around the box and see that this company makes all of these botanicals with tonnes of industrial chemicals. So it was like oh great I see that algae but it’s mixed with all these chemicals that when you google them, they belong in cars, in machines, like propylene glycol – oh what is that? Its anti-freeze! Why is that in my creams? Or you’d google something else and see it’s derived from petroleum. I was like how do we do this but without all of these synthetic chemicals?
JVB: Right, like do we really need these on our skin and can we have these products without them?
TH: Yes, what I realized after a lot of research is that a lot of synthetic chemicals that are used in products were there not necessarily to provide you results for the most part, but were things that you need to have like preservatives, emulsifiers, or stabilizers so that your formula doesn’t separate, essentially they made up what’s called the functional part of the formula. I couldn’t find anything and I always had such a negative message, so one day I decided I’m going to dedicate my time to creating a solution. There’s nothing worse than not having an option for the people like me who are really uncompromising and not just about “clean beauty”, because clean beauty is about avoiding chemicals and I wanted something beyond that, something that was completely green. The reality is that a lot of chemicals haven’t been studied long enough to know if they’re harmful in the long term. Customers that are paying high prices for clean products are not wanting to find industrial chemicals used in machines. I wanted to do something that was completely pure, derived from nature, and to challenge the idea that we’ve been marketed for fifty years, that is to only add one ingredient to a formula like a silver bullet for a problem. I wanted to use multiple active ingredients, so when you bought one of our moisturizers for example, it came with 20 active ingredients so it was like a product diet, rather than needing four bottles, you could use just one.
JVB: I need at least four of your products daily [laughs].
TH: But what happens nowadays is people buy a lot of single active products separately, like a Vitamin C here, Vitamin A there, Hyraulonic [acid] over there, and it’s the same as supplements, you can take ten supplements or a really good high quality multivitamin rather than taking so many. For the formulation not only did I want everything to be derived from nature but I wanted everything to be really hard working and to really create for the first time a natural product that was beauty 2.0 next generation beauty. Because a lot of that movement started by people that just wanted things to be natural you know, like the lifestyle movement that wants everything to be natural and organic, but wasn’t really formulated for results. I became obsessed with solving this. It was 5 years of scientists, learning, deconstructing a lot of formulas and figuring out how do we work with natural ingredients and looking at where they come from, as well as incorporating different natural disciplines because in that world there are a lot of traditions you have Ayurveda, homeopathy, herbalism, botany… It was working along with a lot of green chemistry, which is on the other side of the spectrum. We said OK, instead of parabens, where are the natural preservatives? Or PEGS which are emulsifiers, so you say ok water and oil need help to mix together and we don’t want to use battery acid so where do we find this in the natural world? Gums from trees in Africa, or waxes from Italy from the process of olive oil making. It was a lot of deconstruction and rebuilding.
JVB: Wow that sounds very intense. What was the first product you launched?
TH: I didn’t want to launch just with one product; I launched with 12 for a regimen to replace all the toxic products I used to use. A cleanser, essence, serum, eye cream, moisturizer, mask, face oil, and a body oil. A little collection.
JVB: Which makes total sense. So you have this farm in Vermont, did you have the farm before you started thinking about the beauty or did it come along with the research process?
TH: We had the farm. We were living in Miami and my ex-husband was from Manhattan and wanted to move up north, so we decided to look for a farm. We loved Vermont. We’ve had that farm for about 18 years, it’s an old dairy farm. When I started the business, another interesting part in beauty that I realized and also rejected is that a lot of beauty is subcontracted, so there’s this whole ecosystem of outsourcing in beauty entrepreneurship. You outsource to a lab, you start from a base and they’ll hear you’re from Colombia, for example, and they’ll say: oh we have great ingredients from the Amazon, we’ll use it across the range, it’ll make a great marketing story. And then they’ll make the formula. That formula then goes to a subcontractor called a contract manufacturer and in that plant they make the formula, and then it goes to a filler, the person who takes the goop, the formula, and packages it. Sales are even subcontracted to get the fastest most immediate global distribution. So I just said no because as a customer, you have all these stories about where a product comes from and that it’s made by the people you’re buying it from. I wanted to keep that fantasy alive for real. One of the great things about not subcontracting is that you don’t have to meet high minimum quantities and end up storing product for months and months and then by the time it gets to store it’s actually quite old.
JVB: Your way is much more direct, no?
TH: Two months later they’re in stores, and they last a year and a half. That way they’re super fresh, and super active when the clients get them. I decided to use the barns on my farm for this. We gutted them out and remodeled them into the Tata Harper factory. So we get ingredients from all over the world, like 78 countries. As soon as those raw materials arrive at the farm, we do absolutely everything there. Everything comes from those barns.
JVB: Wow. What did you do before? How did that inform your approach to everything and creating the Tata Harper farm?
TH: I’m an industrial engineer, I was working in Miami doing real estate development when Midtown and the Design District was just getting started. We were doing lofts and different projects.
JVB: Both of these worlds are fascinating. What would you say are the three must dos for those looking to change their approach to skincare?
TH: I don’t know if there’s three, but for example if you have a product or routines that you want to change to something natural, don’t dive right in. Dip your toes in and start with cleansers or masks for example. They’re two great gateway products to start something new so you can get a feel for different lines, and then if that works move into toners and moisturizers. The last step would be to move into the heavy hitters like serums and eye creams. Because that way you know what works for you and what doesn’t. I find when some people dive right in and they happen to have allergies or sensitivities, they can’t identify the one product causing the issue and sometimes it might just be one product or an ingredient rather than an entire line. So take it slowly and evaluate what you’re liking, what you’re loving and keep moving along.
JVB: Very true. It’s the same thing taking a photograph, if you change everything all at once— the hair, the lighting, the makeup, the dress— you don’t know anymore what was working and what wasn’t. How did your columbian heritage influence the line, if at all?
TH: I’m from the coast of Colombia so we are like the epitome of Latin culture. Super done up, never sloppy, very feminine minimal clothes, very sexy; the whole thing. So I grew up in a family where it was a sin to be sloppy or not put together, you always had to be ready for whatever you might encounter. The approach to beauty is not minimalist, over here we are maximalists, more is more so it’s all double cleansing, triple masking, everything. I grew up with my mother and grandmother being obsessed with beauty and they would always host spa parties in their homes. I was very close to my grandmother. Every Saturday she would invite friends and family over for morning spas. I’d wake up really early with her and create avocado and oatmeal masks, there would be manis, pedis, blowouts — it was crazy! We’d spend almost a full morning pampering ourselves and applying all sorts of stuff, which influenced my approach to beauty in a big way. So maybe that’s where the approach of including multiple actives in a product comes from. Yes, I would say my latin heritage has affected the formulation of the products in a really big way, and also the beauty philosophy of how I recommend clients to use and layer products — it’s never just one thing. We don’t see skincare as a chore, people in America are always like: oh I don’t have time I’m a mother, I work… Listen, I’m a mother of three, I work, I’m busy too but I have ten minutes for myself. I like to teach people to see it as time for themself, time to enjoy ourselves.
JVB: I like that, I started to think that way too lately, and I try and teach it to my children. Yesterday we did little face masks in front of the mirror together.
TH: Absolutely, you include them and you create good habits for them too.
JVB: Yes, it’s good that they learn that, not in an exaggerated way but to take care of ourselves. Especially your products, it’s like drinking green juice!
TH: Yes, definitely a lot of them have aromatherapy benefits from the botanicals so they also help your mood. Ingredients like rose or neroli are things that are not masked so you can really smell them. People say it makes them look forward to the ritual of putting on their skincare and how it makes them feel.
JVB: Totally because normally I hate the smell in creams because it’s perfume and it’s gross. You can tell the difference between natural aromatherapy and synthetic fragrance. Are there any up and coming brands that you feel are doing a great job in the green beauty space?
TH: I love Kure Bazaar, they do nails and we did Stella McCartney backstage together because they have a green approach to nail care and polish that uses natural pigments. They’re not just about avoiding ingredients, so he’s present a lot of time in the lab researching. I also love Christophe Robin for hair products. The scalp scrub is amazing, also a shampoo made of roses that’s like a paste, it’s for dry hair and it totally changed mine.
JVB: That’s great because after our skincare we can tend to forget things like the hair routine, which for me is a whole other world. One more thing, do you feel that there’s a positive shift to more natural and green products in the industry or do you feel that there’s still a long way to go?
TH: I feel that the beauty industry has made huge strides in comparison to others. I know that what we create is a really tall order for other brands but then again the clean beauty movement is catching on. They’ve reacted, and even if their formula might not be completely clean, they’ve heard their customers and are starting to remove harmful ingredients. Eventually I think everything will have to start going clean. It’s like an unstoppable movement that’s happening around the world; people are demanding better, safer products to elevate the quality of their lives. There’s more information out there now, people know what they’re using, and of course everybody has their own parameters for clean but now there are options for all different parameters. For example if someone is just focused on paraben free, that’s available. If someone is completely clean and only wants pure ingredients derived from nature, now we exist. From an engineering and technical standpoint, the majority of the newness now in labs and skincare revolves around natural ingredients, whether it’s fermentation and biotech, ingredients that come unaltered and were grown in sustainable ways or stem cells from plants that can be replicated to preserve endangered species. It’s very exciting. Also having our own philosophy, we can do whatever we want and add as many ingredients as we want.
JVB: Yeah. You can react much faster.
TH: Yeah. You may get so many results. Like now there’s ingredients that may make the effects of Botox. Now there are ingredients that actually come from Germany because the Germans have perfected a lot of the volumizing and redensifying technology to imitate fillers. You know, it’s incredible the options that we have. I’m always surprised that we are still talking about the same ingredients from the eighties. The same vitamin C, that same Vitamin A, you know it’s not, but it’s true. I mean, you laugh and it’s true, there’s so much more. I talked to my chemists and it’s like, wow there’s still a new Vitamin C serum. Our Vitamin C, it’s just a basic ingredient that we add in all the formulas.
JVB: So funny. No, you’re so right. Oh, I wanted to know how old are your kids?
TH: I have an eleven year old boy Hunter. I have a ten year old girl, Grace Paloma and an eight year old, Amia.
JVB: Incredible. Such great ages. That’s the best.
TH: I know. It’s so fun.
JVB: It’s so much fun. I really have real fun with them now. They’re like my friends, because I’m a single mom as well, and we just go everywhere together and we just do things. We don’t have to ask anybody for permission. It’s great.
TH: Exactly, that’s so fun. Embracing my single-hood and also having my kids at this age where they still consider hanging out with you cool. Let’s go there. Yeah. It’s a really special age.
JVB: Oh yeah. Very special. It’s very special. I love it. It’s my best times.
TH: How old are yours?
JVB: Mine are eight and ten.
TH: Oh We need to do play dates together. My ten and eight are also girls.
JVB: That would be great! Thank you so much for your time today.
TH: Thank you!