I have just entered the new Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare shop in the Chelsea shopping Mecca of Duke of York Square. Girls in white shirts are replenishing shelves with pastel coloured packages, and there is an encouraging hum of commerce, despite tales of beleaguered High Streets across the land. Co-owner Liz Earle is sipping lemon tea at the back of the shop as two PRs dance attendance. There is something regal about Liz that commands this kind of attention; she is good-looking in a wholesome, Laura Ashley model way, and her manner is serene but focused.
I ask her if she ever lay in bed and promised herself that she would own a global business empire one day. ‘No, for me personally, it was about a quest for great skin. I had problems with my skin, particularly through my teenage years.’ Her skin, she says, is ‘drier than the Sahara Desert’, but she claims that it has improved since she started using her own products. Of course, she would say that, but Liz looks radiant and, in her forties, offers something for us all to aim for. She started the mail-order beauty range 13 years ago with co-founder and friend Kim Buckland. ‘It was actually Kim’s idea.
She could see that elusive gap in the market for something that was affordable, knowledgeable and trusted with a real person attached to it.’ Like most start-up companies, the beginning was no picnic. ‘We were in our thirties, with young children, so we would get up, do the school run, work until 3pm in our respective homes, collect the children from school, tea, bath and bed, and then start again and work through to the small hours.’ They maintained this pace for two years, aided by a potent combination of skills: Kim had a marketing background and Liz was a beauty journalist, broadcaster and the author of numerous books on the subject, with an unquenchable thirst for communicating her knowledge.
Much rubbish is spoken on the subject of skincare, particularly when it comes to anti-ageing, but Liz trades in common sense, and makes statements such as ‘there’s quite enough to worry about without fretting over the state of your skin’, and ‘skincare isn’t rocket science. It’s like cooking. If you put good ingredients in a jar, you’ll get a good result on your skin’. One of the most interesting things about the Liz Earle phenomenon is that the company has never advertised.
‘When we first started, we’d have an order from somebody living at 10, Acacia Avenue, and then it would be from No 12, and then it would be No 14, and you could almost see the powerful dynamic of word of mouth. We never have to sell our product, because our customers do it for us.’ She is now selling to customers in 83 countries worldwide, and beginning to make her first forays into retail; when the brand went into the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis recently, it tripled its space within a day.
The days of swirling fax paper in the spare room are well and truly over, and Kim and Liz now employ 332 people. ‘For me, now, it’s really about spending more time on the land,’ says Liz, for whom home is an organic farm in the West Country with her husband, Patrick Drummond, a film director, and their four children. ‘We’ve gone for the rarer British breeds: Lleyn sheep, Welsh Blacks, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs and Marron chickens.’ Liz describes harvesting her kitchen garden as her ‘home passion’. ‘Berrying, picking salads, then blanching the beans, freezing and jam-making.’ They are activities that she remembers helping her father with as a child.
The world of Liz Earle seems strangely bright and shiny in these days of doom and gloom. There is now a men’s range and, recently, a teenage boy accosted Liz outside Starbucks in Pimlico saying: ‘Are you that cleanse and polish woman? I just wanted to tell you that it’s been brilliant in sorting out the zits. Me and the lads all use it.’ The story might sound a bit odd, but after spending time in the land of good Queen Liz, it all seems perfectly plausible.