Could Costa Brazil Be The Next Billion-Dollar Beauty Brand?
After 13 years at the helm of Calvin Klein, and a three-year hiatus, Francisco Costa is back — and he's swapping clothes for skin care.
On a hot, airy day in Northeast Brazil, a rare, 98-foot sapucaia tree stretches toward the clouds that hang low over the Amazon. It’s one of the lesser-known timber species, but its benefits are endless: indigenous tribes of Amazonia use its potent leaves to calm skin irritations, the Kaya oil extracted from its seeds soothes muscle pain and regulates blood sugar, and its woody exterior has been used to construct boats and tools. It’s hard to believe its flowers, vivid and purple, are pure decoration.
And that’s just one-third of designer-cum-beauty entrepreneur Francisco Costa’s dynamic Jungle Complex, the holy-trinity of key ingredients of his debut skin-care line Costa Brazil. The other two, Cacay oil and Breu resin, are also Amazon gold — puissant and seldom featured in products within the industry. But, before you think Another beauty brand?, take it from us: Costa Brazil stands apart from the millennial-targeted lines du jour.
It’s been three years since we last heard from the Brazilian designer, formerly of Calvin Klein, Gucci, and Oscar de la Renta. “Who’s counting?” he jokes. “I’ve been very quiet because I’ve been very focused. After working on a corporate level for so many years, I was pretty exhausted.” Known to many as a fashion designer, Costa is a certified minimalist. His designs during a 13-year tenure as creative director of Calvin Klein were muted, winning him critical acclaim in an industry reared on flash and sex; they also emphasized the importance of suits for women. Costa preferred sensuality to sexuality — despite the brand’s longstanding emphasis on the latter in its campaigns.
“The last years at Calvin — I loved the brand and it’s part of my life as a professional, working with that company — but at the end, I felt I needed to express myself even deeper,” Costa tells me. Somewhat of an art freak (if he wasn’t collecting it, he was reading about it), designing clothes was Costa’s art form: the spring 2005 collection inspired by sculptor Brâncuși; photographs by Max Eastman that live on his mood board (and probably his walls); the angular prowess of minimalist Donald Judd; Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and so many others. In 2006, Costa served as chairman on a Whitney Museum of American Art project, where he collaborated with artists to create fashion out of art.
For his newest venture, however, he’s going back to his roots. After announcing his departure from Klein in 2016, Costa returned to his home country to take a creative repose. “I felt the urge to engage myself with Brazil, which I hadn’t done for a while. It was a very fruitful experience, very instinctive and not with a lot of help. I just kept going to the Amazon to see different parts of it, trying to do the research to see how I could actually incorporate ingredients and how the Amazon could become the core and soul of the brand.” Costa pauses. “I had to.” When asked what was missing, Costa replied: “A lot. The full expression of oneself, right? We’re creative, we’re instinctive people. That was missing.”
At its heart, Costa Brazil isn’t so much about taking care of one’s skin as it is the idea of rituals and the sensorial experience of humans in nature. Costa launches the line with key products: Óleo Para A Face, a $125 anti-aging face oil; Óleo Para O Corpo, a $98 firming body oil; Resina de Breu, a $165 rock of Amazonian resin that comes with its own burning tray; and Vela, a $165 candle inspired by Piero Manzoni’s scandalous “Merda d’artista” during the Arte povera movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Here, Costa was inspired to create vessels for his products that were too beautiful to throw away.
“Once you touch the containers, you want to keep them or collect them,” Costa explains. As Costa Brazil develops, he says the packaging will evolve (depending on the product) to create dynamic pieces that can sit atop a shelf or coffee table as a legitimate piece of art. In other words, Costa hopes to minimize waste, and urges his customers to recycle as much as they can. Costa Brazil uses sustainable, recycled, and biodegradable materials whenever possible. Their crisp white boxes, reminiscent of Costa’s time at Klein, are made from FSC-certified paper, sourced in an “environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible” manner.
To source his ingredients, Costa has linked up with Conservation International to work with and around the comunidades ribeirinhas, or river communities. “That gave a lot of legitimacy to the brand and the process in which we work. Once I source or find something [on my own], I bring it to them and they give me the guidance of how to deal with that particular community. We have so many ingredients, so we want to make sure that whatever we’re buying is clean and that the community is being respected in many ways.” Other Amazonian ingredients featured throughout the line include Babassu, Camu Camu, Pequi, and Murumuru oils (among others), and Tucuma butter. Costa Brazil is timber-free, meaning the nuts are cold-pressed for their oils after they’ve naturally fallen from the branches. The label’s work with CI supports their initiative that plants 75,000 trees in the Amazon each year.
The brand’s website aims to be educational, as well as something worth bookmarking and revisiting. Taglines like “Your Beauty. Your Earth,” repeated throughout the site, are catnip for beauty fiends in search of the next best thing. For example, if you want to know how the Cupuaçu extracts shield the body from damaging UV rays or which tree species each oil comes from (from the astrocaryum murumuru to the lecythis pisonis), you can. But it’s the creative direction — its images of a living, dripping rain forest, testimonials of bronzed models using the products along the beaches of Copacabana, and its seamless blend of serif and sans serif fonts — that will move customers to fork up the $200 it costs for a kit.
“I wanted things to be like unfinished film...” Costa says of the site and its Instagram. “To create something that people engage in and feel comfortable with,” says Costa, a novice to the beauty industry but a seasoned veteran when it comes to brand-building. “It’s not so pretty; beauty that’s going to do this or that.”
Though Costa is somewhat of a novice to the industry, he’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to building a brand. The brand's Instagram, for example, is more of a personal vision board than anything. It’s ripe with inspiração: David Bailey and Antonio Lopez polaroids and works by Brazilian conceptual artists Cildo Meireles and John Baldessari sit comfortably next to original Costa Brazil content, like photoshoots featuring the ingredients and products themselves.
All of this, plus the label’s upcoming hair and body products (on the docket: a cream, bath salts, soap, shampoo and conditioner, a fragrance in September), makes Costa’s current chapter his most promising — and personal — to date. His work for global fashion brands may have taught him the values of entrepreneurship and teamwork, but it was his time off in Brazil that reacquainted him with his heritage (he moved away when he was 21 and spoke no English) that reignited his love for people, places, and things.
“Brazilian beauty transcends,” he says. “Brazilians are not afraid of the sun. People will catch early sun, between 6am and 8am on the beach. Then they’ll go to work and come back to the beach, around 6pm or 7pm. In Ipanema, for example, when the sun is setting, everybody stands up on the beach and applauds the sun as it goes down. It’s so lovely.”
As beauty startups like Glossier, Kylie Cosmetics, and Pat McGrath Labs surpass the $1 billion mark, Costa Brazil feels authentic and fresh — and will likely attract the same affluent millennials driving other experiential lifestyle brands. Don't be surprised if the company surpasses what Costa achieved at Calvin Klein. Though he claims much of what goes on behind-the-scenes of Costa Brazil is “completely spontaneous,” it’s quietly calculated — with campaign imagery shot by fashion photographer Sam Rock, content that doesn’t promise inner peace via $125 oil, and products that are as full-bodied as they are pretty.
“Being in fashion for so long, things move so fast. In beauty, it’s much more based on protocol and timing, almost sitting and waiting; it takes time to develop something that is this genuine and beautiful. That kind of put me in my place,” Costa reflects. But it’s his pragmatism that could help Costa Brazil go all the way. “It’s very easy to start a marketing company or to do something superficial. But this is out of reality.”