Irene Forte: ‘All women have the capability to become empowered leaders’

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  • You will have heard of Irene Forte skincare, with the Instagrammable brand being a firm favourite among beauty gurus and celebrities alike.

    Known as ‘the Mediterranean diet for skin’, the collection ranges from orange blossom face oil and hibiscus night cream to pistachio lip balm and almond eye cream – the ingredients of which are grown on a Sicilian organic farm.

    If you want Mediterranean wellness and luxury in a bottle, this is the one, with ‘Natura e Scienza’ being the vision.

    But you probably aren’t acquainted with Irene Forte herself, the incredible founder, leader and driving force behind Irene Forte Skincare.

    Irene Forte skincare

    ‘The business world is tough and without working hard and giving it your all, you will never succeed,’ Irene told Marie Claire, going on to add: ‘All women have the capability to become empowered leaders.’

    Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates trailblazing female founders who are shaping the future and changing the game for us all. Irene, her vision and her determination to uplift those around her is that in a nutshell.

    MC Features Editor (and Irene Forte skincare addict) Jenny Proudfoot sat down with the wonderful and empowering Irene to talk skincare, business mantras and her hopes for women…

    Irene Forte skincare

    Take me back to the start of Irene Forte Skincare…

    I launched the line two years ago. I had been working at Rocco Forte Hotels for the last nine years, overseeing their spa and wellness offering (amongst a few other things), and only recently became a consultant for them to focus on my line. During that time and through my experience working with the spas, I saw the opportunity for natural and experiential formulations to be improved by scientific insight. I also wanted to create a business with sustainability at its core. I had the perfect base from which to start a natural line with our organic farm in Sicily, but I knew that I needed a brilliant scientific mind to help me formulate. After a lot of research in Italy, I came across my formulator in early 2014: Dottoressa Francesca Ferri, who had started formulating clean cosmetics and food supplements over 35 years ago. Her philosophy lined up with mine, and I thought that she was the perfect fit to help me bring a ‘natural skincare line made better by the guidance of science’ to life. After a number of years of development, as well as then trying and testing them with elite spa professionals at Rocco Forte Spas, we created natural, plant-based formulations inspired by the Mediterranean diet, using ingredients grown at our organic farm in Sicily. They are guided by science and clinically proven with outstanding fragrance and feel and low allergenic potential. I also built a brand with sustainability at its core.

    Irene Forte Apricot Face Peel Group, £69

    How has the pandemic changed business?

    Our ‘bread and butter’ business was spas, and we have now lost this business for over a year. This made us switch our attention to retailers. We have signed with 24 new retailers over the last year, notably Liberty in London, the Frasers group across the UK, Niche Beauty in Germany, and Luisa Via Roma in Italy. It also really pushed us to focus on digital, and our eCommerce is up three times on last year. It also gave us time to work on ‘newness’; we have been working very hard over the last year to take the brand to the next level. First and foremost, I have focused on clinical testing. We have clinically approved a number of our products for sensitive skin, and are now testing the full range. We have proven hydration results in clinical trials, are proven to fight free radicals in laboratory testing, and are currently running a number of anti-wrinkle trials. Responding to new scientific insight, 2021 also sees the roll out of a series of new products; five will launch in the next six months alongside the brand’s first travel kit, containing six hero products. Following our guiding principle of sustainability, we’ve improved our packaging. All packaging is now 100% made in Italy and the boxes will continue to be made out of 100% recycled fibres with vegetable-based inks. Each bottle and jar will be made of recycled glass with a stone finish inspired by Mount Etna’s volcanic stone. Most will be refillable with bio-based plastic components that can be recycled via our recycling scheme with First Mile. We’re introducing an olive wood spatula made by a carpenter in Puglia in Italy. We’re also integrating more zero waste upcycled ingredients, made from nutrient rich plant-based leftovers, as well as being newly certified vegan.

    Irene Forte skincare

    What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

    I’m not sure I’m very brave. It was a very tough decision for me to stop being a full time employee with my family’s business so that I could focus on my skincare. I love the hospitality industry and am very attached to Rocco Forte Hotels. Staying in it would have possibly been the ‘safer’ option. When you do strike out on your own, there is always the fear of failure!

    What has been your biggest challenge?

    There are challenges every day, especially with a start-up. I have learnt to persevere, be resilient and never give up. I have also learnt to adapt!

    What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

    When it’s your own business, every little milestone is an accomplishment… And there have been so many! To be honest, if I think back to two years ago when I launched the brand for Rocco Forte Spas, never in a million years would I have imagined being here today. If pressed to choose, signing Net-a-Porter was definitely my first big accomplishment. Signing Liberty in London, the Frasers group stores across the UK, as well as a few other big retailers were also exciting moments. Also, in December I closed a big investor raise, and this is extremely important in allowing me to take the brand to the next level. I’m also proud to have built a wonderful team of people around me.

    Irene Forte Hibiscus Serum

    Have you ever felt discriminated against?

    I’ve been very lucky; I went to great schools and managed to go to Oxford University. I then got the opportunity to start my own business in an industry that is dominated by women. So, to say I have been ‘discriminated’ against is not quite right. However, I often see people roll their eyes when I say I have a skincare brand; many just say, “what a sweet little hobby” or, “that’s nice”… Nevertheless, these kind of comments have never phased me – I love what I do, and am very passionate about it, so it doesn’t matter.

    Do you have a favourite product in your collection?

    Choosing a favourite product is a little picking a favourite child. I love them all for different reasons. However, if pressed, I would probably go for our Pistachio Face Mask. It’s a quintuple award-winning mask that is clinically proven to hydrate the skin over 12 hours after just one application, as well as to give an immediate plumping effect to the skin. It’s also clinically approved for sensitive skin, and great to leave on overnight. It’s enriched with Olive Oil and Rice Fractions, rich in skin-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants, and a Multi-Vitamin supplement (Pro-B5, C & E) to condition and protect. Pistachio, Pumpkin Seed and Avocado Oils replenish the skin’s natural moisture barrier for smooth, supple skin.

    How can you achieve the right work/ personal life balance?

    It’s really difficult, but vital. I place an emphasis on self-care, which helps me be more balanced. Sleep is extremely important to me and I never jeopardise sleep for work; I sleep about 8.5 hours per. I eat a healthy and balanced diet. I exercise regularly. I also think it’s so important to make time for people I love.

    Irene forte Skincare

    What is the best advice you’ve received?

    My father has always told me that the business world is tough and without working hard and giving it your all, you will never succeed.

    When have you been proudest?

    Taking the leap to actually launch my brand.

    How can we all ask for more?

    All women have the capability to become empowered leaders. However, I’ve noticed that we often have lower expectations. The problem with having lower expectations is that we end up getting lower outcomes, as expectations drive behaviour. If it’s something like a promotion, I would suggest preparing; you should be ready to share your strengths and why you’re right for the position – do not undersell yourself. Still in terms of preparation, you should also know what others in a similar position have, what your company typically offers, what other similar companies typically offer, etc. Also, have a plan b; you’re going to be a much stronger negotiator if you have another option. The more competition there is for your attention, the more people want you.

    What is your superpower?

    I don’t think I have one. Rather boringly, I would just say that ability to concentrate/ stay focussed for hours on end.

    Irene Forte Rose Body Oil

    How do you celebrate success?

    With COVID, and having to work with my team virtually, we haven’t been able to properly celebrate success. However, we tend to celebrate with a nice meal all together whenever something good happens.

    What will you never compromise on in business?

    When it comes to the production of our products, we never cut corners; our ethical standards come first.

    What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?

    I don’t think there has been a ‘biggest’ mistake. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I don’t regret any of them. I’m a true believer that one learns from their mistakes; you learn by doing.

    Irene Forte skincare

    What is your mantra?

    Treat everyone as you would like to be treated.

    What would you want to change for women?

    There are so many changes I would like to see. Here are my top three:
    1. Safety from violence and sexual harassment.
    2. Equal pay and opportunities.
    3. Equal care, such as parental leave.

    What could we all achieve if we supported each other?

    A lot. All women have the capability to become empowered leaders.

    Irene Forte Skincare available at ireneforteskincare.com

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