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Health & Grooming: Herbal Renewal

William Kissel

In 1221, an order of Dominican monks cultivated herbs in a monastery garden in Florence, Italy, to produce medicinal balms and creams for the sick. Such acts of charity were not uncommon in the 13th century. Many convents and monasteries set aside space for infirmaries and pharmacies that mixed early elixirs such as rose water, which was believed to be an effective household antiseptic during epidemics.

Rose water is still produced by Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella located at 16 Via Della Scala—though the label’s emphasis today is on cosmetic benefits rather than medicinal ones. In the neo-Gothic pharmacy, which was originally built as a chapel, historic frescoes, sculptures, and other artworks share space with almond hand creams and pomegranate shampoos. And for those who cannot make the trip to Florence, Santa Maria Novella has begun distributing its herbal concoctions through eight selected Saks Fifth Avenue stores.

“Santa Maria Novella is the crown jewel of body care—the most important, the best product, the most prestigious,” says Jon Bresler, owner of Lafco New York, a 10-year-old body care business that was recently granted U. S. distribution rights to the brand’s handcrafted soaps, fragrances, facial creams, potpourris, and shampoos. “With Santa Maria Novella, the relationship between prestige and price is skewed: Prestige is not born out of price but out of authenticity.”

Of course, it is hard to dispute the authenticity of a company that was founded almost 800 years ago and is considered the world’s oldest perfumery. Santa Maria Novella’s signature fragrance—a blend of bergamot, citrus, and wildflowers—was developed in the 16th century to mark an historic event: the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici to Henry II of France.

Bresler discovered the phar-macy’s fascinating history and its unique products six years ago while researching Italian manufacturers to produce his own Kimono collection of scented soaps, fragrances, teas, sea salts, and candles. He was so taken with the Santa Maria Novella experience that for the past year he has stocked a significant portion of his Lafco New York shop with Santa Maria Novella merchandise.

Bresler’s passion and commitment to the brand convinced Santa Maria Novella’s owner and managing director Eugenio Alphandery that Bresler was the one to introduce the collection to a wider American audience. Previously, Alphandery considered the American market to be unwieldy, affording him little control over key elements such as an educated sales force that interacts with customers. “They thought that entering the United States would dilute their image,” says Bresler, who notes that a black market for the collection has existed in the United States for years. “Store owners visit the Florence pharmacy and bring back shopping bags full of products.”

Over the years, retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Vestiti in Beverly Hills, have carried limited quantities of $35 jars of lavender shaving cream and other Santa Maria Novella offerings. But Saks is the first major American retailer to present the complete product range in specially designed boutiques that are modeled after the Lafco store and managed by trained Lafco employees.

Saks hopes to have the collection in as many as 25 stores by the end of 2002. The next step for the brand could be freestanding Santa Maria Novella shops in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

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