“The first time I was in the training room with Kerstin Florian, she was passing around a raspberry extract—like fruit for your face,” recalls renowned spa consultant Sylvia Sepielli. “It smelled beautiful, it felt beautiful. She was wearing all white—she looked like an angel to me.”
That year was 1986, and the training room that Sylvia was referring to was at JW Marriott Desert Springs—a spa that helped set the standard for resort spas as we know them today. I, too, have known Kerstin for decades and am telling this story now because she has been a real angel in the development of what might be called spiritual skincare—the realization that the heart of what we do in the spa and beauty business is much more than skin deep.
I recently spoke with Kerstin in her native Sweden, about beauty today, but before we get to that interview, I want to continue the story of how her skincare business came into being, and at the same time, how the spa as spiritual lifestyle evolved. The fact is that Kerstin Florian is a natural Swedish beauty who managed to translate her looks and culture into a lifestyle that is shared at spas across the globe. Kerstin’s story is about the transformative power of beauty and living the spa lifestyle.
Kerstin’s story is about the transformative power of beauty and living the spa lifestyle—that the heart of what we do in the spa and beauty business is much more than skin deep.
But back to our story. Longtime spa professionals will remember that Sylvia Sepielli had been hired at JW Marriott Desert Springs by spa director Janet Denyer, who had chosen two radical lines for the new spa: Kerstin’s for skincare and Judith Jackson’s for aromatherapy. Janet had met Kerstin at Bonaventure, where they had been using the classic Lancome line before switching to Kerstin’s line.
“Kerstin had a whole different approach to skincare,” says Sylvia. “Back in the eighties, people in the States were advertising the fact that they had European-style spas, and it was a big deal. But the truth of the matter is that you had either old-fashioned lines that weren’t really that good for you or low-level hippy stuff being created out of somebody’s basement. Kerstin offered a fresh clean line that had a healthy philosophy behind it. She also portrayed everything you wanted in an esthetician and everything you wanted to express and share with your spa guests.”
It helped that Kerstin was a knockout Swedish model who exuded a healthy and naturally fit beauty. She still does. And, to this day, the JW Marriott Desert Springs still carries the Kerstin Florian line. As we all know—that’s no small feat in today’s marketplace!
“Kerstin works on a different level,” shares Sylvia. “She has traveled around the world in search of authentic, unique, and clean ingredients. I was with her when she found her special mud in Ischia.” Throughout the years, Kerstin has sourced salts in Hungary, algae and aromatherapy in France, birch in Scandinavia, and much more.
A Swedish Girl in the States
Kerstin was born in 1944 in Stockholm, Sweden, and started modeling throughout Europe when she was 17. At 20, she met a tall and handsome young American landscape architect who had just graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He asked her to dance—they met again in Paris, where he had bought a blue MG so they could tootle around Europe together. Two weeks later, they were engaged. “My parents were shocked, and probably never forgave me for leaving Sweden, and my family,” reminisces Kerstin. “But as Wayne used to say, ‘We had fifty good years.’”
Kerstin moved to the States at 21, where she spent ten years working with renowned Beverly Hills-based skincare pioneer, Aida Grey, founder of her eponymous franchise.
Then at 30, she “had a revolution with myself.” Instead of driving her daily 60 miles to work, she wanted to be home with her husband and young daughter, Charlene. “I made up my mind that I wanted to change my life—I wanted to stay home and take care of my husband and be a mother.”
She was enjoying doing just that—until she received a call from a former client who asked if she would give her a facial. She did, and the client returned and told someone who told someone else . . . and before she knew it, Kerstin had a business—out of her home in Laguna Beach. Wayne couldn’t take all of the women coming and going, she recalls with a laugh, and he said, “I will give you money to get you out of the house! And so began her business at Surf and Sand, where her line was simply called “Kerstin.”
And that’s where spa veteran Eva Jensch found her in 1979. Jensch had been charged with opening the Sonoma Mission Inn, and went to see Kerstin for help with her skincare department.
As Kerstin recalls the experience, “Eva came to my place and said she wanted me to help her at Sonoma Mission Inn. I flew there and had to teach them how to do facials—fast! Edward Safdie, the owner, looked at me and said, ‘I don’t understand why we didn’t get Estee Lauder!’ I said, ‘I am trying to become Estee Lauder!’”
And that’s just what Kerstin did.
“One reason she has stayed at the top of her game,” says Eva, is that she never lost her European heritage. Kerstin has stayed true to her mission.”
That certainly proved true when we spoke.
Here’s what Kerstin shared.
You talk about the importance of outer beauty and inner health—how do you see that in the larger context of your own spirituality?
My own spirituality is the wonders of nature. Stop and smell the roses. Right now I am in Sweden and I look out the windows and see the new life of the birch tree. The leaves are just about to sprout. Magical, and I can sit and watch it and be mesmerized of what life energy is. How delicate life is. Enjoy and love the moment, live in the now. Feel in my heart the energies. Being grateful, freedom, alive, kindness, blessed of how beautiful life is.
How does spirituality manifest in your own life, and in the evolution of your products?
The spirituality for me is a positive life force, choosing ingredients and making skin care products is an art. The energies must be compatible and all of the five senses need to be touched. The product is a sensual experience, a wellness feeling. Feeling good, sight, smell, touch. Being whole and proud of who I am.
Tell me about how your native Sweden—and its natural bounty—has played an immense role in the development of your company and products.
My heart is still in Sweden, and my memories of my childhood are the smells of the forest, moss, mushrooms, berries, and the glorious colors of the ocean and the forest. The stillness. My favorite thing was go with my mother in the forest picking mushrooms and berries, picking the spring flowers, lily of the valley and the lilac were my favorites. Skiing with my dad through the forest and stopping to sit down in the snow and open a thermos of chocolate, and a cheese sandwich. I was close to my mom and dad and they allowed me to dream and fantasize. I was happiest when I could help out. I think all said has helped me in business, be authentic and don’t hide anything. I like authentic products and hopefully Kerstin Florian products are a reflection of me and the KFI family.
As a child, which plants were you most drawn to? Do you have a favorite botanical ingredient that has stayed constant with you?
Growing up in Sweden, I did not know what synthetic was. It was natural to use plants for everything; bathing, eating, beautifying, sauna, and also the saltwater from the ocean. The sun and swimming in the ocean were for the vitamins to last through the winter.
My first botanicals (that were also used in our family) were chamomile, camphor, birch, pine, and fir. Black and red currants, and raspberries. The botanicals were medicinal and effective, used for stomach, colds, and aches in general. Chamomile and pine have stayed with me, and I made the whole line of “Krauter” products using chamomile and pine. We have evolved the brand and some of the original products, but still use chamomile for both face and body and pine for the body.
Did your mother and grandmothers practice any beauty and lifestyle rituals that they passed on to you?
Nobody talked about beauty, it was a lifestyle, Sauna and then swimming in cold water and taking up the sun to store for the winter. Algae pack and bath was very healthy. We made rosewater and chamomile. My father sat in front of infra lights in the winter to keep healthy and brown. The sun in the summer was important to us all. My dad was the vain person in the family. I am sure I got a bit of it from him.
Sweden conjures up hot springs and steaming. Tell us about your first experiences, or your favorite experiences.
Sweden had special places that my family took us to as children in the summers on the west coast. To experience drinking special waters that came from special wells, and the sauna and seaweed baths, the ocean water was pumped into wooden bathtubs and then seaweed was added. I did not experience healthy or vegetarian food until I was older. Healthy food was not something we thought about—all food was supposed to be good for us. My family did not have money, so we ate meat on Sundays and fish on Fridays and lots of homemade bread. We were glad we could fill our stomachs.
What is it about foraging in the forest that you so love, and how long have you been doing this?
For me, the forest is nature, peaceful and healthy. The fragrances from the pine and the moss are very special. It is a place I feel at home and that I have a soul connection to—and have had it since I was born. The forest in Sweden is most beautiful in summer and fall, but, even in the wintertime it is so beautiful to ski through the forest.
First the blueberries and chanterelles come, then lingonberries and more mushrooms. It’s like hunting for precious gold. The happiness and the joy and the satisfaction are extraordinary. Coming home with a basket full of mushrooms is worth more than most. Underneath the moss is a whole eco system, all connected. All I can say is that the forest here in Sweden for me is a vitamin injection.
On aging . . .
For me, it’s always been about preventive health and anti-aging. I can’t remember when that started, I think I have always liked the natural way, doctors in general are something I like to avoid if I can. I like to look and stay strong and healthy. There was a time in my life when one of my family members had issues with depression, and it had a big impact on my life. I promised myself that I would do everything to stay in the now and enjoy every moment. Be true to myself and to others.
You describe spa as a sensorial experience. What is your ideal spa experience?
My ideal spa experience is to NOT HAVE TO THINK, getting undressed taking off the daily costume and feeling free, putting on a bathrobe and slippers, coming into a warm room with maybe a fireplace and quiet. Being in that environment, nothing matters. I like warm pools, swimming in a salted pool, and outside warm pools to hang and look at nature or having a good conversation with loved ones. I can spend a whole day like that just being in the spa environment, it reminds me of being in the forest. Treatments, I like them all—by caring, loving people. And I like products that reflect the meaning of wellness.
You tragically lost your daughter Charlene to cancer—how has your loss affected your life and your company?
It is very lonely and empty to lose a loved one. I am blessed to have all the loving people around me, and my two beautiful girls (granddaughters) Alexxa, 14, and Milan, 12. I don’t think I have completely absorbed what has happened. I am grateful to have had a daughter that was my best friend, my soulmate, my partner. We had the good fortune to work and travel the world together and be in an industry we truly love and are passionate about. I don’t feel that I have lost Charlene—she is with me/us. She is not going anywhere for a while.
Charlene was stubborn and wanted everything perfect. She set the tone for the company and inspired the continuing vision of wellness. Nothing has changed. The team is tight. We are finishing the development of Charlene’s new line—seven products that are in the final stages, and it is CHARLENE all over the products and in the products. The legacy will continue.
Where do you see spa headed?
“Spa should be the community house where people can gather, where they can be quiet—a sanctuary, a community where people come to learn about life, where families come for advice, where children can learn how to cook or swim. That’s how I see it, but it’s not going to happen that way. There’s so little emphasis placed on families today.
My goal hasn’t changed. I know I’m on the right track—making everyone happy, being a good human being, getting calmness in life. If I can help in any way to help a person find a direction in life, then I’m happy. I was lucky to get a direction, and I never changed it. It is sharing with other people.
Kerstin’s message? “Be in the moment, live in the moment. That’s Eckhart Tolle, who I read in the nineties. What is going on right now is reality. Tomorrow a dream, the past a memory . . . I have to live right now. Not to remember. Planning, dreaming, that’s okay. Just live in the moment.”
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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