Dara and I went out on our first blind date at Sant Ambroeus in Nolita. We both ordered tea and berries, and then we talked about our love and obsession with body work for the next hour. Turns out we’re both junkies for any kind of healing massage, psychic, energy healer- you name it. Eventually we moved on to our actual work and Dara dazzled me with the story of how she started her business (right after she had her first baby) and how she travels far and wide to find the non-toxic, clean products she carries at her San Francisco-based store Ayla. She carries only the best of the best, and lots of brands you’ve never seen before that previously were only found in the treasure troves that are European pharmacies. Dara has also started making products in collaboration with makers like Marie Veronique and MyHavtorn. As luck would have it, after our meeting she was about to disembark on a trip to Sweden with family in tow to harvest sea buckthorns berries with the MyHavtorn team. We got the first glimpse into her trip and the new product collab, and how she balances motherhood with running a successful business.
Laney: Hi Dara! Clean beauty is such a big part of your life. What does clean beauty mean to you? How does that vision of clean beauty imprint on Ayla?
Dara: The world of clean beauty is a funny one. To many people, it’s very black and white: it can seem as though you have to make a choice between slathering your face with cooking oil or doing the same with human stem cells. But you don’t. We all deserve to use beauty products that really work, and that do so without harming us; thankfully, there are plenty of them out there. To me, those products and the businesses and communities supporting them are what clean beauty is about.
At Ayla, we focus on carrying those products as well as on empowering our customers to make the best decisions for themselves: we go deep on education, because knowledge is power. We also work very closely with our brand partners — I just got back from the trip to visit our brands in Sweden and spent a day picking sea buckthorn berries, which was so much fun. And we hold a lot of events at our SF studio to underscore the fact that this is such a great community. Clean beauty is a fun movement to rally around.
Laney: What kind of conversations do you want to start with Ayla?
Dara: I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to work in marketing and global product development for a variety of beauty brands (Elizabeth Arden, Soap & Glory, and Living Proof, among others). I learned a lot through that experience; researching and testing every product I came across was part of my job, and I had the information I needed to understand which products really worked, and why.
I’ve always been interested in creating products. But over time, I began to think that the world didn’t desperately need that many more products. We really needed a better way to find great products that truly make a difference and are safely formulated — and a shopping experience that would make us feel good, too. So, with Ayla, which means “bearer of light”, I set out to establish a beauty retailer that offers the world’s most effective non-toxic beauty products, sourced by someone who really knows what to look for. We pair that with a truly caring, knowledgeable team of Guides that’s devoted to finding every customer the perfect product matches, because each customer is beautifully unique and deserves to be treated that way.
Our focus on healthier products is a direct result of my background, too. Some of the brands I worked with in the past were very careful about the safety of the products they put on the market; others weren’t. It seemed crazy to me that this wasn’t more of a consideration in those cases. Many people still don’t realize that a beauty product can be widely sold with surprisingly little testing to ensure its safety for people and the planet alike.
Laney: How do women shop in San Francisco? How do you think it differs from other cities?
Dara: Our overall mission is to show women they’re beautiful through a deeper, more empowering retail experience and truly excellent products. We keep trying to do that in different ways; our newly reopened storefront in San Francisco is one example, and it’s helped us learn a lot about how women shop here! I love being able to chat with our customers in person.
In general, I think San Franciscans are a lot less likely than women in some other major cities to buy a beauty product just because they’ve heard a lot of buzz about it. That might be what brings them in the store, but they want to know that there’s depth behind it. And we’re all about depth — so it’s nice to be in a city where most people are looking for that. I’ve been telling everyone all about sea buckthorn berries lately, for example, and I’m so glad that no one’s eyes seem to be glossing over yet.
Laney: What was it like starting a company as a mom?
Dara: Ayla opened its virtual doors three months before my daughter was born and opened its not-in-my-house office, which has become its SF studio location, three months before my son was born. I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking. It might have been slightly insane, in retrospect. But I do recall deciding that I had no idea what was in store for me as far as motherhood was concerned, so I might as well have a professional adventure at the same time — one that would give me a little bit more control over my own schedule.
And I do have more control over my schedule; I just don’t have more time. It’s not ideal. I end up working on most nights these days. I certainly don’t sleep as much as I would like to, and I’m sure I’m more scattered and less available socially than the typical person who focuses either on parenthood or on their career. But it’s like my favorite Rilke quote: I want to live everything. I can’t imagine giving any part of it up. I tell myself this is as crazy as it will be — and one day I’ll miss these crazy times.
There’s already too much negative energy (I need to get rid of this wrinkle, I need to get rid of these grays, freckles are bad) surrounding beauty; I think we should continue to inject more positivity into the process of taking care of ourselves.
Laney: What makes you most excited about the Clean, non-toxic space right now?
Dara: We’ve already seen a lot of positive change since Ayla launched in 2011, when “clean” and “green” and “non-toxic” beauty was a weird, fringe-y idea. So many more people are interested in making healthier beauty choices, which I love. And I’m seeing more people embrace different ideals of beauty than I recall ever seeing before.
I think I’ll always want to see more honesty and transparency; this is just an industry where you’ll probably forever see a little snake oil in many forms. But I notice that some clean-focused companies are starting to become more careful about making sure there’s hard science backing their claims, and that is really, really exciting.
And I’m also excited that we’re beginning to see less fear-mongering.. I don’t relish the idea of scaring someone into buying a product; that’s not going to make them feel good at the end of the day. There’s already too much negative energy (I need to get rid of this wrinkle, I need to get rid of these grays, freckles are bad) surrounding beauty; I think we should continue to inject more positivity into the process of taking care of ourselves. That’s one of the things I love about The Moment.
Laney: How do you find your balance in all of this? Beauty, wellness, business, motherhood?
Dara: Quite honestly, a lot of it comes down to yoga. I’ve practiced it since 1999, and more than anything, it’s what grounds me and helps guide me towards a sense of balance.
I think the most significant way in which it’s affected my outlook on beauty, food, and wellness — and even my business and motherhood — is by prompting me to embrace the journey instead of focusing on the destination. I’ve always been very Type A and goal oriented, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, but you can miss a lot of learning opportunities by focusing only on your end goal.
And as an entrepreneur, that idea of focusing on the journey — learning as much as I can every step of the way, trying to do my best with whatever it is I have to work with, accepting that it’s not a straight line to success even when you’re trying your very hardest — has been everything. Everything.
Laney: Amazing! Tell us more about this trip to Sweden and their approach to beauty over in that part of the world.
Dara: I love working closely with our brands — I always want to know more about them and their products and how they think about things. One of the brands that’s closest to my heart is MyHavtorn. It’s a family company with a rich, beautiful story that surrounds their amazing products: they grow sea buckthorn berries in an orchard on their centuries-old farm, then use those berries to make skincare products fresh to order for us.
I’d been dying to visit their farm in Sweden, and this year my two kids were old enough to make the trip with me and my husband for the sea buckthorn harvest. I felt as though I already knew them and their farm well — they’ve visited us in San Francisco a few times, and I’ve seen tons of photos — but immersing ourselves in it and really feeling it was just as magical as we’d hoped.
There were a few things that struck me during my trip to Scandinavia (I went to Denmark, too, to check out a few potential brands for Ayla more closely). The concept of hygge is one that a lot of people are familiar with, but its meaning is much richer and more layered than we typically realize. It’s not just about cashmere blankets and a cup of tea. It’s a feeling: a conscious focus on the present moment, and a commitment to keeping things as convivial and special as possible in that moment for a greater sense of well-being. And while the word is Danish, the feeling is everywhere in Scandinavia, including on that farm. The most frequently asked question among the family members on the MyHavtorn farm in Bollebygd, Sweden during our visit seemed to be “Would this be cozy?” And you could tell there was a real focus on making every moment special and feeling a sense of gratitude for those moments. I think that goes a long way towards a happy life, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.
I also noticed a lot of things on that farm that are key to beautifully healthy aging: good food, a pristine natural environment, a tightly knit community. But most importantly, everyone possessed a striking level of groundedness — one that’s sure to help them approach any obstacles with resilience. That’s something that I think is critical to a happy life, too.
There’s nothing like magical, farm-to-face products that are made with real care and commitment, but those underlying qualities of happiness and gratitude and resilience are gold. And they all fit together in a beautiful way.
Laney: So what are these amazing products you’re working on together?
Dara: OK, you’re the first to hear about this. It may sound crazy, but it’s a foot cream! I got to fill the first bottle on the trip. I have these weird, calloused feet since I’m always on the go — but I don’t have enough time for pedicures. And I don’t want my feet to look scary in yoga class. So I’ve been looking for an exfoliating foot cream, honestly, for years. YEARS. Finally I decided that we should make one, and I asked MyHavtorn if they’d partner with us on this because I thought sea buckthorn would work so well in the formula. Thankfully, they agreed, and they created what Ingrid (one half of the couple that’s the driving force behind MyHavtorn) calls “magic cream.” It’s perfect. It exfoliates just enough, and it gives the perfect amount of moisture so that your feet are nourished — but you won’t slip around in your shower the next morning. It’s coming in a few weeks. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the waiting list!
Laney: Oh! Can’t wait to check it out. Last but not least, how do you stay in the moment?
Dara: The best way that I know of is to put my phone and computer away and hang out with my kids. Years of yoga taught me to focus on the present, but it took having kids to really appreciate and savor it more than I ever thought I could. They show me the beauty of that lesson every day, and I could not be more thankful.
P.S. Dara just participated in our #MomentofBeauty! You can watch the full takeover in our highlights on our Instagram. Here is her morning routine:
Dara's Morning Routine
- The day starts with a little exercise and fresh air. It’s either yoga or a hike. Today’s a hike day 🙂
- Find something that makes you feel grateful each and every morning. For Dara it’s the Presidio.
- Do a little light stretching before hopping in the shower.
- Brush dry hair with a hand-made Tek brush to distribute the hair’s natural oils.
- Wash with Twelve Beauty Purifying Cream Cleanser outside of the shower if you have sensitive skin (shower water is too got!). It’s creamy and doesn’t leave a residue.
- Next step, the totally magical Balancing HypoTonic from Kristina Holey and Marie Veronique. Apply with a cotton pad.
- Luzern Labs Firming Collagen Booster is a must for face, neck, and chest.
- For moisturizing, your skin needs a water-based and oil-based moisturizer. If you use a cream, the work’s done for you. If not, prep skin with a hydrosol and massage oil in, or blend with a hyaluronic acid based serum. Use Twelve Beauty’s Ideal Moisture Level Serum and Marie Veronique’s Dara’s Oil (specially formulated for Dara and sold at Ayla!). When you apply oil, press them into the skin. Where you feel tightness…. give those areas some more love.
- Before you run out the door, apply Suntegrity sunscreen, a tiny dab of Kosas lipstick, and loads of Myhavtorn lip balm.
Special thanks to Dara!
Photo courtesy of Myhavtorn