After facing trauma and tragedy during his life, Nicolas Travis decided to launch his own skincare brand, Allies of Skin, available at Mecca in Australia. Here, Travis shares with Jo-Anne Hui-Miller, Content and Insights Director at retail strategy and innovation agency, The General Store, the brand’s expansion into Europe and his journey of healing through his business and helping customers.

Tell me about how Allies of Skin began. 

When I first started in 2016, because Singapore is so small, I knew I needed to go global. But when I would go into buyer meetings, everybody would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Singapore had beauty brands. I only know of your airline and your chicken rice.’ And then I’d pitch and they wouldn’t stock the brand. It was so difficult, but I always believe that in life, all you need is just one person to believe in you and focus on them.

And who was that person for you?

It was Cult Beauty before they got acquired and they were really about incubating emerging brands. After that, came Barney’s (rest in peace), Net-a-Porter and we expanded. But it took that one company to believe in us. When you’re a new brand, especially coming from Asia, the West doesn’t want to touch you until somebody else stocks you.

You’ve just opened your headquarters in Berlin – that’s so exciting. You’re taking over Europe! Is it hard creating a brand for different parts of the world with different climates and people with different needs?

I love that question. When I first started, it was always centred around the percentages of the actives, and then we created universal bases that everybody can love and appreciate. In the West, there’s been a shift because previously, it was really about having a very matte look, but in Asia, it was all about looking dewy and having glass-like skin. But I think we’ve managed to marry them both really well, because we’re in 34 countries and we’ve never had an issue with textures. I think it  also has to do with the delivery system of your products. If it sits on your face, then it’s not doing anything – the product needs to go into your skin so it will work.

You actually have a background in biochemistry and it’s something you’re really passionate about. There is a flood of brands in the skincare market, but not all of them are scientifically backed and clinically proven. What are your thoughts on that?

I had been told before that if I got a PhD or if I was a doctor, I would make a lot more money. But it comes back to why we exist, what we’re about and the value we add to consumers. You could have a science degree, or you could be a doctor, but doesn’t mean that you could formulate really great products.

I know I can make really incredible products that deliver results that keep people coming back for more. We have a retention rate of 40 per cent, which is very high in the beauty industry. That’s not because of my background, it’s because the products work and that’s the most important thing.

I also think that at the end of the day, the pie is big enough for everybody to succeed in the beauty industry. It’s about the intentions of why you run your business.

What did you originally think you were going to do in your career?

I was always going to be in the beauty industry. Because I had no connection to it or any experience, I thought I had to pay my dues [and studied biomedical and pharmaceutical science]. It was when I was doing my master’s thesis [in international business] that I created a business plan for a startup skincare line and did all the research. Then I applied for jobs at every single beauty company in every single country that I thought I could work in. Nobody got back to me about a job, so I ended up doing PR and social media.

About nine months into the job, I was doing well. But I had this urge that I just couldn’t shake off to revisit the business plan. Then I realised that I could start with just one product. Then one became three. And that’s how we launched.

You grew up with some quite serious acne issues. Can you tell me about that experience and how it’s shaped how you approach your consumers and the development of the business?

My approach has always been one of servitude. I had really bad acne as a teenager, but I also had a really horrible accident and smashed my face. I needed to have reconstructive surgery, but I picked the wrong surgeon and I ended up having necrosis and multiple infections and holes in my face. It really shattered my self esteem. After a failed suicide attempt, I went to see a therapist, who asked me: “What do you want to do with your life by the time you’re 30?”

The skin is the largest organ that we have. It’s the only modality that we can change. So I thought maybe I can’t fix how I look, but I can fix my skin. And if I feel bad about myself, other people probably also feel lousy about their skin. If you have acne, I understand how lonely and how debilitating it can be. Everyone thinks you’re dirty, or that you’ve got a problem. Because of what I went through, I can really empathise with that.

So I thought, if I can help somebody else, then my pain would have been worth it. And that’s our reason for being today.

I also feel like traditionally, there weren’t a lot of aspirational brands that focus on acne. They were always seen as being more functional rather than sexy. What are your views on how the industry has changed in that regard?

I think it’s changing for the positive, but I also think that a lot of the times we really focus on “the after”. On social media, nobody really talks about the journey between the “before” and “after” and sometimes, healing is not linear. You’ll often hear someone on social media say, “Guys, I used this three-step program and my skin cleared in three months.” But what happens if somebody’s acne takes longer to clear? You might think there’s something wrong with you or you’re not good enough. It’s so important for people to realise that just because something works for somebody else on social media, that doesn’t mean it will work for you – and if it doesn’t, it’s not your fault.

It’s also important to know how to look for ingredients and understand the percentages. Ten per cent of something might work for your friend, but it might not work for you.

We try to be as transparent as possible and it’s why we list the percentages of our  key ingredients on the packaging, so people know exactly what they’re buying.

We’re also one of the few brands that have the steps listed on the front of the package. Step one is the cleanser. Step two is the mist or toner. Step three is the serum. I just want to make the whole experience really easy for people.

You’ve been on a real personal journey since you launched Allies of Skin, which was really born out of your trauma and vulnerability. That was only six years ago. How have you evolved personally in that time?

Thank you for asking. I love that question so much. When I started the line, I poured my whole life into it and it’s been healing. Today, I just got a message from my customer service team that said, “Hi, I’m going through chemo and I’m so happy that I found your brand. It’s the best product I’ve ever used. Even though I’m going through chemo, my skin is still glowing.”

Even though I was 19 at the time and I’m 35 now, I’m still healing and hearing stories like that helps me. My pain had a purpose and I know I’m on the right path.

This article was first published in the Spring issue of Retail Beauty.

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