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The Beauty in a Legacy

By: Abby Penning
Posted: March 24, 2014, from the April 2014 issue of GCI Magazine.

A family legacy can be a lot of responsibility, and Gabriel Balestra’s heritage is certainly rich. Balestra, who is now the creator and executive director of Italian skin care brand Skin&Co Roma, has a story that started decades before he was even born. In the early 20th century, Balestra’s great grandfather bought a small piece of land from the Italian government in the Umbria region of Italy and began to farm produce, including truffles, there. Eventually, Balestra’s grandparents took over the farm and opened a small shop on the land where they could sell their produce, as well as bread and some beauty and personal care items Balestra’s grandmother, Giuseppina, made.

“My grandmother was interested in things that she had a passion for, which were botanicals,” Balestra explains. “That’s what she did most of her life.” By the 1950s, Giuseppina was incorporating items from the farm into her beauty offerings at the store, including botanical oils developed with the farm’s homegrown truffles.

The truffle oils began to make a name for themselves, offering exciting skin care and anti-aging benefits. People from all over Italy and beyond were seeking out the Balestras’ store to purchase the oils. This led to an expansion to a shop in Rome, La Galleria, in 1950. And Giuseppina brought the botanical oils and formulas that were acclaimed at the Umbrian shop into this new store. This is when the oils began to gain a more international, and even celebrity, following, when Giuseppina’s brother, who was a camera assistant for movies, brought American actors and actresses to the store to experience these authentic Italian products. “She was selling botanical oils in several different formulas—the ones we still had when we started Skin&Co,” says Balestra.

La Galleria stayed open until Giuseppina’s death in the late 1980s, continuing to garner fans of the niche beauty oils and skin care products. The Balestra family also stayed in the truffle farming business, becoming one of the largest providers of truffles in the world. But why was the truffle beauty oil so effective? It wasn’t until 2008, when Balestra was visiting his family in Italy and came across an old suitcase containing pages upon pages of diary entries from his grandmother—as well as five vials of botanical oils—that Skin&Co Roma really kicked into gear.

“I was doing something completely different—I was working at a fashion magazine as a fashion stylist,” explains Balestra. “Out of pure curiosity, I went through this big old suitcase with old pictures and old diaries from my grandmother. It was like going back to my roots. I found out about this great story [about my grandmother and her botanical oils and store], and I spent a full year finding out about the formulas, about old stories that had been a bit lost throughout the generations.”

This suitcase’s contents inspired Balestra to get into the skin care business. He and his team worked with the University of Bologna in Italy and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. to analyze the oils in the discovered vials. Over time and through the vials, he and the researchers whittled it down to find that not just any truffle offers the anti-aging effectiveness that had become a signature of Giuseppina’s products—it was one signature type of truffle grown on the family farm, found to be very rich in superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that catalyzes the dismutation of superoxide into oxygen and encourages the fast turnover number of any known enzyme. It’s an incredibly strong antioxidant that reduces free radical damage in the skin. “Truffles, in general, have this enzyme, but this specific truffle has the highest amount of it,” Balestra explains.

From that base, Balestra and his team worked to develop the products for Skin&Co Roma and launch the brand in 2011. Growing in the intervening year, the brand’s products now include cleansers, scrubs, serums, moisturizers, lotions, bath and shower gels, and body lotion for three different lines—the Truffle Therapy Anti-Aging Collection is a luxury option; the Italian Countryside Collection celebrates and includes other Italian ingredients such as rosemary, verbena, olive oil, honey and Sicilian orange; and the Sicilian Light Brightening Collection tends to invite in a younger demographic with its citrusy, fresh signature scent.

Getting the products into consumers’ hands was the next step, and Balestra brought the new brand to Cosmoprof Bologna Worldwide and Cosmoprof North America in 2013 to get the word out among retailers. As part of the Discover Beauty Pavilion at Cosmoprof North America 2013, which features and promotes young brands, Skin&Co Roma made a great showing, winning the 2013 Discover Beauty Award. “The feedback from buyers and from the public was beyond what we expected,” he notes.

Skin&Co Roma was able to make retail distribution deals with Henri Bendel in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, as well as expand its European roots. The brand also retails online via its own website, Amazon and Dermstore.com, reaching countries such as South Korea and Japan, where it also has appeared on TV shopping channels. Further, Skin&Co Roma made its QVC debut in February 2014, and it also has partnered with Birchbox to help garner brand fans. Additional retail development is in the works too, including a deal with a national pharmacy chain.

For Balestra, if consumers just try the products, they have a great chance of loving them. Skin&Co Roma creates events with its brick-and-mortar retailer partners it calls “Skin&Co Roma Tours,” where its skin care specialists offer free Skin&Co Roma mini facials, as well as champagne and truffle popcorn, to shoppers. They answer questions and are able to engage consumers in the products in a way that makes people familiar with the brand’s unique story and heritage.

“We really involve our customers with events at the stores and with our community online. There’s really a strong sense of community in the consumers of Skin&Co—and I think that is also one of the successful keys to the way that we approach the business,” Balestra says.

The brand develops new products and lines based on customers’ needs and loves, getting feedback from global Skin&Co Roma fans. And moving forward, Balestra is investigating a dedicated men’s care line and growing the profile of Skin&Co Roma so its fans can find it more places. “To be honest, probably 70% of our success today is based on the fact that the industry itself—from buyers to really everyone—was so collaborative and interested in the line. They gave me suggestions. They helped out with what would and wouldn’t work. It was a really, really strong collaboration.” Those lessons have been well learned, and Balestra and Skin&Co Roma are set to make his family proud all over the world.