Art, philosophy, beauty, and botanical life have existed in an intertwined framework for centuries. Whether it was Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Monet’s water lilies, Plato waxing lyrical about objective beauty, or Shakespeare’s ode to the olfactive qualities of a rose in “Sonnet 54,” this fourfold matrix is an ever-replenishing point of enquiry.
No creative interprets this premise quite like Lia Chavez, who adds in the dimension of light. Chavez began exploring light since her early childhood, and since then the luminous phenomena has permeated her entire artistic practice, evidenced in extraordinary interdisciplinary installations such as The Octave of Visible Light: A Meditation Nightclub, which traces the interrelation between brainwaves and light, as well as sound, frequencies. A graduate in Feminist Aesthetics at Oxford University and Art at Goldsmiths University, her patient and meticulous artistic practice has been profiled in the The New York Times, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal. She has now set her sights upon light as it relates to the illustrious wonder that is botanical life, founding Hildegaard, which exceeds the premise of a traditional beauty line. In fact, calling it such would be far too reductionist given the creative platform’s pursuit of artisanal craftsmanship, the essence of beauty, and a reconnection to the very earth we stand on. Aesthetic philosophy incarnated in material form seems a more fitting description. Enveloped in its creator’s inherent elegance, eloquence, and inviting aura, Hildegaard, named after 12th-century polymath and mother of the Rhineland Mystic Movement, Hildegard von Bingen, is a sight and experience to behold.
Hildegaard’s debut collection, Creation: Internal and External, is comprised of four facial oils: Immortelle, Rose, Olibanum, and Neroli. While the product names and sophisticated black glass packaging may strike one as having minimalist flair, the process behind their creation is anything but. Chavez’s artistic practice has seen her commit to 30-day meditations in caverns, 3-month fasts, and vows of silence lasting 40 days, all in pursuit of finding creative clarity. Her wholehearted and impressive dedication to crafting exquisite compositions is no different. The Hildegaard press release reads like poetry while the accompanying visuals invoke a hypnotically beautiful, ethereal, alternate reality. Inside a single 50ml bottle one can find up to 450 Tunisian orange blossoms, or 300 Damask roses, depending on the variety. Each oil is assigned a character: actualization (Neroli), devotion (Olibanum), creative inspiration (Immortelle), and joy (Rose).
Fresh off the release of this unique premise, Chavez connected with BeautyMatter to discuss the divine forces at play in botany, the Picassos of horticulture, and elevating beauty to a ritualistic art form.
What inspired you to dive into beauty? How does the concept of light as it relates to botanical life tie into the evolution of your artistic practice?
It's a fascinating story, because this segue into beauty has come out of the very organic matter of my creative practice. As an artist, my driving passion has always been creating transformational encounters with physical light that usher in deeper forms of inner illumination. I've always focused on that, whether it's in photography, painting, performance art, immersive installation, or my work in emerging technology and neuroscience. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would find myself within the realm of the beauty industry. It's really a wonderful surprise.
But as an artist, I've always been very passionate about beauty and the connection of aesthetic experience to philosophy, which is not terribly popular within the art world. From the YBAs [Young British Artists] onwards, there's been this resistance to beauty as a direct subject of focus. To come up through the art world as an artist who loves and reveres beauty, I think of it as the embodiment of the unseen principles which govern our existence. Beauty, for me, is a very precious thing. It's not decorative, necessarily, it doesn't stop at the surface. Instead, beauty is a revelation of inner truths.
Plants are masters of the process that I have always sought to perform in my artistry. They gather up celestial physical light and convert that into energy for vibrant life, as well as our inner enlightenment. Once I realized that, I became intensely interested in studying, cultivating, listening to, and working with plants. It's been a 20-year-long process, before there were elevated, 100% botanical beauty products on the market. I remember going into a Whole Foods in Shaftesbury, buying some almond oil, and feeling like this is a good starting place for me. But I had also studied Ayurveda in India, that was my inroad into folk herbal medicine. From there, I started creating my own beauty products for myself and my family. I never thought I would end up sharing this work with a wider audience. But my realization that plants are the great professors of light and illumination drove me to find a way to share this work in the context of my creative practice.
Why do you feel it's important to give beauty products meaning beyond function?
The skin is this phenomenological site of exchange between the human being and the rest of the cosmos. That makes the skin a particularly important locus for bringing the refinement of our perception through the vehicle of art. In order to perceive the genius of nature clearly, we need to be calm, and our skin needs to be calm as this organ of interaction with the rest of the cosmos. We don't use the word “product” in describing our haute botanical creations, because these aren’t products in the traditional sense within the capitalist system. What we are doing is introducing a new paradigm of beauty into the industry that we are calling haute botanical, premised on a very high level of cultivation and craftsmanship.
I would liken the craft that we apply to our creations to the same level that Madame Grès or Mariano Fortuny would apply to selecting a piece of silk which has a very precise drape. We’re specifically selecting heirloom seeds within this constellation. Our first collection brings together 70 plants of noble provenance. When you read our composition, we don't refer to plants as ingredients or resources, because we really believe they are subjects. We approach the way that we talk about our creations within that same kind of vein: as an artistic composition.
With the term noble provenance, what we're speaking about is this extremely meticulous process of not only growing the plants ourselves, but working within this progressive tradition of permaculture, so soil well-being. From the soil up, we are invoking haute botanical.
When we are using calendula, it’s a very specific kind that you would not find within the world of herbalism—this is something that is intentionally grown. When we use echinacea, it's called a double-headed echinacea, a profoundly beautiful heirloom variety. You have to source the seeds from the stewards of the environment, who are saving seeds and preserving this heirloom tradition.
Our network and supply chain is very much a work of art as well. When I decided to go into this realm of beauty, like with everything I do, I never want to create more noise. I want to create crystalline clarity and silence. With Hildegaard, I wanted to create something that didn't exist before, that was worthy of art. Within our supply chain and every plant that we choose is this heightened level of cultivation, which requires very personal tailored attention to the entire lifecycle of that species. You could say Hildegaard is an exercise in materiality.
As an artist, one of the things that I’m quite curious about is how would the introduction of a heightened level of materiality affect our experience of beauty on a personal level, as well as on the level of the industry? How would that impact the wider ecosystem of the beauty industry? The unique offering that I bring into this new realm—which I'm thrilled to be in and constantly humbled by all of the expertise and wonderful people I encounter—is my awareness of connoisseurship and the importance of cultivating senses that are fully alive. This is something I have always focused on in my artistic practice. I aim to bring that to the industry through Hildegaard, through this very meticulous sourcing, process of growing, and crafting where everything is handmade and hand-poured.
We eschew terms like cosmeceuticals for that reason. We're trying to introduce something that has this timeless nature to it. Even though these are perennial creations, they're released in very small-batch limited editions. This enables us to speak very deeply and intentionally about the provenance of the specific plant’s features. We have this gorgeous exclusive partnership with LMR Naturals by IFF, and it has been an absolute dream to collaborate with them because they also approach their artistry of plant essences with that incredible level of connoisseurship that we're passionate about. It’s a match made in heaven.
So within Hildegaard, our rose features a very specific, high-altitude Damask rose from Turkey. With each edition that we release, we are sourcing a different harvest of that rose. This enables us to tell a very in-depth story about the provenance, geography, any of the idiosyncrasies that exist within that particular plant harvest. It helps us to lead the collectors of Hildegaard into this heightened sense of connoisseurship, because we're starting to appreciate the nuances just as you would with biodynamic wine. We're working with the fluctuations of our marvelous planet and nature. Each season brings something totally new and you can sense it because the craftsmanship that is applied to creating an essence is so defined and meticulous. LMR are particularly passionate about preserving the energetic signature of a plant. Everything is treated with the utmost care and gentleness, with minimal heat applied so that you can experience the full bio-dynamism and the emotional qualities of the plants. What we want to do is create an experience that enables our collectors to experience the best of what plants have to offer.
You can understand why LMR is coined “the Rolls-Royce of raw materials,” because the complexity you get in the single essential oil scent profile is pretty spectacular.
We are very fortunate. The President of Scent [at LMR Naturals] has been a mentor to me throughout the development of our collection. When we selected our rose, he brought 25 samples of different roses. It's been an amazing journey of being very in depth with that process, learning the stories of the plants. LMR have been so gracious to us, they are allowing us access to raw materials that aren't even on the market yet. They are giving us this amazing opportunity to develop a collection which is extremely original, coming from the vanguard of green chemistry, green absolutes, green essences. It's an honour and I couldn't ask for a better partner. They are exemplars in everything that they do, and their approach is also very personal. We have had the privilege of working at the most intimate level with the essences, and that's guided the choices that we've made.
What made it feel imperative to introduce this haute botanical approach now?
Haute botanical elevates beauty to art. It's an inner transformation that we're inviting our collectors into. It's an enriched experience bridging the gap between daily necessities and ritualism; ritualism that can truly elevate, not just physical beauty, but philosophical beauty. Ultimately what we want to do from a philosophical standpoint is two things: we want to bridge the gap between philosophy and aesthetics, because that's something that needs to happen for us to fully honor nature and her plants. Secondly, we want to elevate and transform the perception of nature, so that we're approaching it not from the perspective of nature being an indifferent resource to exploit, but instead nature is a subject to be encountered.
What we are here to do is to amplify the subject and correct that philosophical fallacy of Aristotle for stating nature as indifferent, which has set Western civilization particularly on this course of exploiting nature and objectifying natural resources. Haute botanical is an invitation into this deeper belonging to the cosmos and cosmic order. As long as we see nature as a thing, as opposed to a personality and an entity with volition, we see ourselves separate and distinct from it. That makes us nomads unto ourselves. We’ve expelled ourselves from the archetypal garden. What we're here to do in that philosophical sense is to join that cosmic communion.
The namesake of our brand is Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century scholar, genius composer, and botanist, who wrote prolifically in this same vein of eco philosophy, which welcomed the human being into that larger whole of nature. Here we are in 2022, but it feels like the perfect time for those ideas to come to fruition, especially in a post-pandemic world. We're more porous to that way of thinking now.
Certain essential oils have been called out for causing reactions in sensitive skin, what would your counterargument for critics be on this matter?
It’s a worthy argument, because there have been beauty brands that have introduced products onto the product that incorporate oils to a degree where the proportion is too high. Essential oils are the spirit of a plant—they're incredibly potent and the correct dilution is essential. There has been worthy backlash due to not diluting the oils properly, which can create a very dramatic reaction within the skin where it attempts to fortify its barrier against what it reads as a toxin. A lot of people have encountered these issues. That said, when these oils are diluted properly, and applied with a very clear understanding of precise dilution rates that are both beneficial, as well as essentially pleasurable, they are incredibly powerful. It’s always about finding that balance.
My understanding of plant-based wellness comes from very in-depth studies with Rosemary Gladstar, who’s considered the godmother of American herbalism. I also completed intensive training with Dr. T. Colin Campbell at Cornell University—he is the world's authority on plant-based nutrition. My work with him has been so informative because it's drawn from the hardcore science of plant-based wellness and how it applies to the various systems in the body, including the integumentrary system. What I'm doing with Hildegaard from that scientific perspective is looking at what, within a 100% botanical paradigm that honours that and reveres nature, creates optimal health for the skin, the whole person, the soul—this wonderful matrix that plants address.
We’re working in this middle ground of loving and revering the earth and plants. Based on the human science of nutrition, and without any of the propaganda that's out there, a plant-based nutritional regimen produces optimal health in the human. We see that time and time again in various large-scale studies on nutrition. Applying that to the skin is very easy. What's interesting about the plant-based paradigm versus synthetic chemistry is that when you engage whole foods and whole plants into your regimen, you are not only engaging the beneficial vitamins, minerals, and molecules, but also all of those beneficial components that we are not yet aware of. That’s the humility in creating something that is the opposite of reductionist science: a 100% botanical paradigm which incorporates that vast array of benefits that come from plants, many of which we're aware of, and many of which we have yet to discover and uncover.
Are your limited-edition, seasonal releases intended to promote conscious consumption?
We work with United Plant Savers, the world authority on the conservation of wild medicinal plants, precisely the ones that we are incorporating into our creations. This exploding botanical beauty industry is using medicinal plants, and sometimes not responsibly. There is a lot of overharvesting. Take frankincense for example, such a powerful plant, and yet it has been serially overharvested to the point where it's now a deeply endangered species. Every single plant we are harvesting and incorporating into the Hildegaard formulation, we ensure that it is both sustainably and mindfully cultivated.
With our frankincense sourcing, we worked closely with LMR Naturals by IFF to pinpoint a harvester in Somalia, who maintains a private grove of frankincense trees which are harvested for two years in a row and then given one year of rest. Frankincense is a fascinating plant: the resinous tears that emit from the bark are called “the tears of God” because they're so potent as these therapeutic agents. These are plants that can only be wild harvested. It's very rare when you find a private grove that is caring so rigorously for the health of the plant, but this is the kind of engagement that we need to preserve the species and ensure that these medicinal plants are available for us to enjoy in years to come. That's where we start to touch on that symbiosis between humans and the rest of nature.
In addition to that, we partner with 1% for the Planet to donate at least 1% of our annual proceeds to United Plant Savers to support their conservation work. We’re in the process of getting the many parcels of land that we cultivate certified as medicinal plant sanctuaries. From our perspective, the ethics, and the way that those are embodied, is extremely important. That's why partnering with this kind of organization is so important. Another thing that we work very closely with them on is repopulating currently endangered plant species, so American ginseng, goldenseal, and echinacea, in the various fields and forests that we cultivate for Hildegaard. Those aren’t even plants that we incorporate into our formulations, but certainly will in the future.
This is the big picture: when you hold the bottle of Hildegaard, it's not just about what's in the bottle—this wide and wondrous constellation of plant wisdom—but it's also a story of what's not in it. We practice contemplative botany, a very ancient practice that involves meditating with plants, cultivating them extremely mindfully to have a conversation with the plants to ascertain their beneficial qualities directly from them. This is something Hildegard von Bingen herself practized quite rigorously. She was the mother of European botany. Everything is cultivated with not just this ethical foundation, but also the passion and presence that comes from mindful farming.
What ingredients are sourced from your own farm and which from Mama Farm?
Mama Farm and our atelier share the same lovely little community on Long Island, where the ocean meets the countryside. We’re fortunate to be in a place that has a rich history of conservation practice. We are in this ecosystem where the value system is like a living laboratory for very progressive agrarianism, for creative experimentation within nature. Brookhaven Hamlet is a very unique place because it's attracted lots of artists, conservationists, farmers. It’s this perfect cocktail of creative synthesis with nature.
Mama Farm has been our heart and home. It's a very special place because it's animated by Isabella Rossellini. She’s not just an incredible icon, actress, and model, but also a passionate conservationist, animal behaviorist, scientist, and also a patron of the arts. There are many kinds of artists who cultivate there; I'm one of several. We cultivate about 85% of our plants at Mama Farm and the rest, about 120 plant species, are cultivated at our atelier. We're always experimenting and creating new things outside of what we have on the market.
Is that shared ethos what made them the right partner?
This is an exercise in relational aesthetics in that sense. I first moved my studio from New York City to Brookhaven Hamlet in 2016. Isabella and I became fast friends, and she commissioned me to create a series of performances for her farm. My introduction to the farm into cultivation was through the channel of my performance art practice. From there, I became wrapped up in, animated, and inspired by the life of the farm. I joined her CSA [community supported agriculture] and began apprenticing under her farmer Patty Gentry, who taught me everything that I know about permaculture, soil care, and heirloom cultivation. She’s known as “the Picasso of the vegetable.” The level of connoisseurship that is being practiced at Isabella’s farm goes beyond what Hildegaard is doing. The CSA there is the crème de la crème of vegetables. To taste a tomato from this farm is a revelation, the kinds of heirloom squashes they grow are magnificent, the various sculptural forms that these vegetables take is a next-level experience of agriculture and that farm-to-table paradigm. Isabella, along with her daughter Elettra, who is now the executive director of the farm, has created an extremely unique ecosystem for creativity.
As an outsider looking in, what's your perception of the beauty industry at large?
I want to be very reverent here. My chosen industry of art has its weak points as well. We live in a critical age where we are critiquing ourselves into oblivion. It's easy to critique the beauty industry and the culture of waste and unconscious consumption, and, sincerely, that needs to be contextualized and put in check. But when I look at the beauty industry, what I really see and gets me inspired is that the opportunities for a deepened aesthetic experience are tremendous. Not just from the perspective of packaging, which clearly is an exciting area for innovation, both from an aesthetic as well as a sustainable approach, but also the actual experience of the so-called products. What I am interested in embodying with Hildegaard is its tremendous opportunity to enhance the perception of nature's formidable gifts to us. With this approach, I'm hoping to train our collectors to recognize the supreme preciousness of nature.
The beauty industry has been another vehicle within the culture, among the many vehicles out there, for objectifying nature and exploiting natural resources. One opportunity that I see for growth and the expansion of consciousness and awareness within this industry is to have a serious conversation about where these raw materials are coming from. With Hildegaard creations, what's so inspiring to me is the efficacy, sumptuousness, and revelatory experience that you have when you place it on your skin. This oil in our first collection, it's a direct result of the sustainable and responsible practices that go into the cultivation of the plants. It's an exercise in education and deepening awareness. We're all doing this together, experiencing a very important cultural shift.
What do you think the role of luxury is in today's landscape?
The choice of being a luxury creative house is a very intentional one. Luxury has been an overused word, especially in a late-capitalist era. Luxury is the assignment of extreme value creation. Its role for us is to place that deserved extreme value on nature and her plants, especially in that paradigm in which they are mindfully and responsibly cultivated. We know we're going head-to-head with the likes of La Mer and La Prairie. We know who we are and what we're doing here. We want to be the extreme luxury beauty brand within the botanical paradigm. The price point is not marketing in our case. It reflects, not just a conceptual kind of valuation, but craftsmanship, process, couture-level decision-making and intentionality, literal hands working within nature and the laboratory.
It’s a fun experiment for us, because luxury is the language that we have decided to use to assign the rightful value to nature's unsurpassable gifts. There is a mysterious kind of richness that plants give us. They do something that we're not able to do: gaze at the sun, all day every day, meditate on that celestial light, gather it up in themselves, and, as possibly the greatest alchemists on the planet, convert that light into energy for our vibrancy and vitality.
Organic chemistry has evolved to understand a wide range of the benefits that plants can offer us, but there's still a lot we don't understand. Plants give us so much more than we pay for. It's such an incredibly generous act that they are doing on our behalf and for our well-being. Luxury, for us, is a different kind of approach: it's discretion, consciousness, having an intimate and personal experience that brings you to a realization about yourself that nothing and no one else can give you. We strive to create a transformational encounter with the regenerative power of plants, in that same spirit of how a great work of art creates a transformation within the viewer.
We are bringing this new paradigm into the marketplace, but on a daily basis in a way that you can experience in front of your vanity. It's creating this depth and richness of experience that hasn't existed within the space before. Luxury is a bit of a slippery fish, but it's something that we're engaging with in order to redefine it. This isn't just something nice that you're doing for yourself. This is a revelatory experience. This is art. Not everybody can wear a couture gown, but there is a level of craftsmanship that can be made available through a different kind of experiential art form. In this case, for us, it's haute botanical.
When going into the beauty market, were there any worries you had launching with a luxury price point?
I am conditioned by my industry of art, but when I see the price point of a Hildegaard creation, I honestly think it's a bargain for what you're getting to experience. On one hand, the price point reflects the craftsmanship and provenance, and that's essential. It’s an anti-inflammatory, so it calms the skin. Within that paradigm, it gives you wonderful skin, but then it creates this calmness so that we can have this extremely unique and profound encounter with the plants, these essences, and the wisdom of the plant world. That is something that you can't put a price on. It provides access to an experience with a work of art and, in that sense, as far as works of art go, it’s extremely reasonable within that context.
But within the beauty world, I do understand it is a higher price point. However, I think there are many lovers and seekers of beauty who have been waiting for something of this nature: a hyper-luxurious botanical offering. They are dropping $800 on chemical composites, and we can provide them with another option that has an unparalleled aesthetic experience, efficacy, and craftsmanship.
How did you fund the brand?
I funded it myself. I felt this was really an important work to bring into the culture. I'm proud to have self-funded it. This is my love letter to nature. At this stage in my life—I became a mother four years ago and have been doing a lot of deep thinking over the pandemic—as I transition into the next phase of my creative life, I feel that service is really important. Creating within the culture in a way that can serve a larger purpose for the next generation and creating an awareness of our inner and outer ecology, comes out of a place of passion, but also of mission.
When my daughter, Ocean, was born four years ago, I was so restless because I knew once this little girl came into my life, I had to do something beyond what I had been doing within the art world. I felt convinced that action had to serve a broader purpose for nature. This wrestling match that I've been going through simultaneously while creating Hildegaard has come out of this inner necessity to create something that moves the dial of that wider cultural perception. That's also one of the reasons I'm so excited to step into the beauty world, because it feels like I can drive conversation that's more egalitarian, and that's really important. The price point keeps it within this rarefied place, but in terms of what we offer within the broader spectrum, we intend to have that conversation with everyone. There are some wonderful things that we are planning in terms of artistic activation, public art projects, things of that nature which make it available to a wider audience.
How do you scale products with such a bespoke production?
We're going through that process right now with our Europe launch this year. We will be scaling to a degree, but this is where the scarcity and bespoke nature of our creations works for us. We don't want to be everywhere or the biggest. That is not interesting for us. Making a real impact is, and that happens on the personal level. We will be working with the crème de la crème of retailers, and nobody else. We’re totally committed to partnering with retailers who understand our vision and support unique transformational encounters with our creations. We don't want to dilute that experience, but take a couture approach, which is going to be very particular, personal, and will have a rarity to it. That's part of our value system.
The opportunity to make a million Hildegaard creations tomorrow and distribute them throughout the world would not be interesting for me. What we are working with is a conceptual and experiential art project, premised on the preciousness of nature. Just like a biodynamic wine producer, there are only so many creations that we will be releasing. When one edition finishes, we will accordingly release another, but good, deep, sustainable beauty takes time. It's a craft. Beyond the craft, it's also an art. That’s what we're drawing attention to through this approach.
In terms of the future of product offerings, is there any kind of idea that you're able to disclose or are you currently working solely on the launch and distribution?
We’re in the latter right now, but also have our eyes on next steps and new collections. With Hildegaard, I wanted to bring the aesthetic and conceptual sophistication of art, as well as that fantasy of fashion, to beauty. We don't define ourselves as a beauty brand, we're a luxury creative house that can function in a variety of ways. Our output can be performative, organic, scientific, spiritual, wearable, anything. It's a platform for my artistry within this service of the plants and that wider mission to elevate and transform the perception of nature.
We are in the process of developing new creations with LMR by IFF. We will be traversing many wonderful things within the realm of skincare and beauty, but we're not limited to that either. One thing that I've learned in my creative career as an artist working with light is: oftentimes to achieve the ideal expression of what you're after, it's important to stay flexible and nimble, engaging new disciplines, discourses, and materials. I'm very open to the inspiration and where it leads us, but the skin itself is an exceptionally important site of encounter and we're looking forward to exploring that in depth.
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