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Food for Thought with Galina Achkasova-Portianoi

Food for Thought with Galina Achkasova-Portianoi

I recently had an Un Common conversation with journalist and “ The Curiosity Gap” blogger Galina Achkasova-Portianoi on trends in the green beauty market and debating whether the term “green beauty” belongs to the artisan makers.

Please introduce yourself to the Skin Alchemists community

I was born and brought up in Moscow by my amazing parents and grandparents until my early teens, when my father came to the UK to work and took us along. I moved to London to study at University and has been living here ever since, starting a family & charting my creative endeavours, so while I have a European mindset, I also pride myself on my Russian soulful sentimentality.

As to my website & blog, The Curiosity Gap - gosh, that’s really a long story. I wanted to be like my father, who worked in finance and was a truly extraordinary man, so I got two degrees in finance and rolled up my sleeves. Unfortunately shortly after I graduated and started interning, I had to take a prolonged sabbatical for personal reasons, which took much longer than originally anticipated and made me seriously re-evaluate my life.

I always loved reading and writing (my mother was a journalist who worked in print and on radio), so I did a short course in journalism and at the end of it my fierce former war correspondent tutor took me aside and told me I had “potential". This was still the golden time for print media, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get a third degree, this time in journalism. I thought long and hard, but on the day I started a postgrad course….I found out that I was expecting what turned out to be my wonderful son. As the course progressed and my fellow students and I were looking for emplyment, I was getting more visibly pregnant, so no-one really wanted to hire me.

A friend suggested I start a blog to get me going, so I dived in and combined writing blog posts with getting to grips with "the highs and lows" of motherhood. I tried getting a foot in the door of glossies, but even then it was a closed circuit for the privileged few, so I just continued writing blogs. The more I did it, spotlighting people and brands that you weren’t likely to initially see in glossies, the more I loved it.

Where did your love of wellness and beauty come from?

I grew up in the Soviet Union, but interestingly enough things like kefir, healthy lifestyle - meaning regular but varied exercise all year round, banya, infrared room lamps to improve immunity, cupping for when you had congested coughs, making face masks from strawberries and cooling the eyes with chilled cucumber pieces were part of my childhood. I was active and inquisitive.

My mother and grandmothers took pride in taking care of themselves and their appearance and I looked up to them. So I guess my love of beauty and holistic practises is rooted in my childhood. For which I am very grateful, as it gave me a great foundation, which I am now helping my own children build.

The term “Green Beauty” seems to be the new buzz word and so many large brands are now releasing products which seem to target that market. However, I remember my first experience of green beauty to be from the artisans in farmers market selling their potions, made purely by hand and most times with ingredients which was foraged or from their own gardens.

What is green beauty to you and how have you seen it evolve through your years as a beauty journalist?

That’s a complex term that unfortunately seems to become more & more complicated by the day. Like you, I initially experienced ‘green’ beauty that looked ‘ hippish'' at best in the early days. But I also remember being drawn to essential oils at Neal’s Yard, Dr. Haushka creams and Weleda products. I was lucky to meet amazing practitioners, as I was an early adopter of modalities like acupuncture and different types of massage and was riveted by the face and body oils that aromatherapist Michelle Roques-O’Neil mixed up for me and later for my children, when they were babies. I think once I became a mother, I truly started questioning what I was putting on my children’s skin and that really led me to what is now known as "green beauty".

I never liked the term ‘clean beauty’ and while I appreciated that ‘green’ can’t be certified, like say organic formulations, for me green means mindful sourcing of ingredients, sustainable foundations of business, including packaging and the logistics (even if it is a work in progress), formulations that don’t contain ingredients that are known to have the potential to cause harm to one’s health with long-term use or application. Ingredients need to meet toxiological and biodegradability requirements and the product needs to benefit the skin, where the synergy of the ingredients work together, rather than just a few of them, while the rest hardly play a role.

When green beauty emerged, it was about progress, innovation, open dialogue and support from brands of each others efforts to change the way things were done in the beauty industry, questionning ingredients, formulation, packaging.

However as the movement gained traction with more and more consumers, many brands started jumping in with slogans while lacking substance, just wanting to monetise on something that was popular, rather than a meaningful lifestyle choice.

Now it often ends up being a tug of war and judegement, something that takes away the positive energy and the good intention. For me it should be about evolution and helping consumers to make better choices for their skin, body and hopefully not eroding the planet in the proces, but rather contributing to its naturally balanced state and circularity.

Do you think true green beauty remains with the artisan makers?

A very good question, but again I think answering it is quite complex. What I would say is that niche and artisan brands are often founded and steered by passionate and knowledgable people who lead the way towards positive and meaningful change. Once consumers are won over by them, the message spreads and even large conglomerates start following the example set by such brands.

I have always been passionate about supporting those types of brands, rather than the ones hyped up by marketing and continue to do so as a beauty journalist, consumer and brand consultant. I would also say that many artisans aren’t about shouting or drawing attention to themselves, so I sometimes wish their voices were louder in order to be heard - but then we all are drawn to people for a good reason. I certainly feel priviliged to be part of this tribe and privy to many interesting conversations & developments. 

One of the many shifts and movements we saw last year was support of independent makers, why should a skincare consumer care about who they buy from? 

Well, I can’t tell others what to do, but I can tell you why I choose to support independent makers, artisans and small brands. They all have a multitude of gifts in common - passion, enthusiasm, integrity, knowledge and pride in crafting and creating something for others, be it a loaf of delicious bread or a face serum that is going to diminish your frown by calming the mind, while imparting the glow on lacklustre and tired skin.

Those businesses are the backbone of society, run by hard-working and dedicated people with real skill sets and depth and breadth of knowledge. Those people can tell you about ingredients and generously share recouped or practical lifestyle tips. They engage with you and give you personal advice, treating you as an individual.

Has the pandemic affected your lifestyle choices?

I don’t think it has affected my lifestyle choices, because eating well, being in fresh air, exercising, working hard, talking about problems out loud and supporting those I love or care about has always been important to me. Pandemic probably heightened my love for my family and friends, in some instances it has been truly painful to be separated from them by borders. Pandemic made me value and appreciate integrity and kindness more than ever.

I am also even more mindful about which brands I support as a customer - be it in beauty, fashion, lifestyle, interior or food. I do miss exercising at the gym with the instructors that motivate me much better than I do myself - that has been a big negative for me, as working out “online” also doesn’t give me the same results than say exercising under the watchful eye of the instructor on the pilates reformer.

It seems every day I hear of another celebrity led skincare or makeup brand. What are your thoughts on this trend?

Celebrities don’t sway my head or determine my lifestyle, fashion or skincare choices. If anything, the endless stream of celebrity-led brands leaves me increasingly ehasperated, because in most instances it’s about them monetising their status, rather than bringing something innovative or useful to consumer and building up a long-term successful business.

Sadly they have easier access to investment, unlike many small brands that are probably more worthy of it. In a nutshell there are genuinely very few celebrities whose knowledge and substance, when it comes to their own brands, that I truly admire. It’s a somewhat another story when it is the other way round - when a smart and driven individual launches the brand and builds it up to the world-wide recognition status. I would suggest to consumers to direct their gaze to those people, rather than celebrity “affectionadoes'.

Let’s talk a bit about Instagram influencers, who seem to have taken over as the ‘go to’ for beauty advice from traditional beauty journalist. Is the shift warranted?

Well, as the wonderful fertility specialist Emma Cannon has said to me in the past: “Choose a tribe, have quality in your life." I choose to learn and engage with professionals who have worked in skincare or in holistic therapy field for years, rather than influencers whose main talent is to monetising themselves.

Don’t get me wrong - that’s a talent in itself, but that certainly doesn’t mean that those people know what they are talking about, if you dig deeper. As a facialist or dermatologist you train for years and carry professional responsibility, if your treatment or advice has a negative effect on your client. What responsibility do influencers carry and who holds them accountable? Ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide who she or he places the trust in.

Having said that, many beauty journalists are affiliated or directly paid by the brands, yet often don’t disclose it - there is nothing wrong with being paid for your services, but consumer has the right to know about it. And one more thing - I know bloggers (some now call themselves influencers or content creators) who certainly have such depth of knowledge, they can make a beauty journalist blush.

Is their popularity though due to traditional journalist not evolving with the times?

That’s a very good question and point. I think partially ‘yes' and partially it's the effect of social media and consumers being constantly sold something, tempted with something, told they absolutely need something. We are flooded with products and when an opportunity arrises to get a foot in the door and create a role or career for yourself, people take advantage of those opportunities. Which is really not a bad thing, but an evolution. It’s also nearly impossible to now make a living as a journalist, so people look for opportunities elsewhere - going to work for brands, DTC companies or start-ups, internet giants.

What’s your take on the multi-step skincare routines we see daily on Influencer social channels?

First and foremost it helps to remember that one’s skin is as individual as one’s DNA. What works for me, will not necessarily work for you. As to multiple skincare steps, I believe that a simple skincare routine using products that address your skin’s needs in the moment in time is what truly matters.

Skincare shouldn’t be complicated - you need to cleanse, tone, moisturise. Using a mask and a face scrub once a week is a good habit to have. Daily sun protection is a must, because sun is only getting more ‘aggressive’ and skin cancer is a very real problem. Products like a face serum coupled with moisturiser or a serum coupled with face oil are a great combination, depending on your skin type.

More than that you really don’t need. Simplicity and consistency is what your skin truly needs. Coupled with good lifestyle habits. Use too many products and your skin will rebel and let you know about it in no uncertain terms. Simplify, don’t overcomplicate - whether you are 20 or 50!

Skincare seems to have shifted from just being functional to more selfcare. Do you think it’s just trend or a genuine practice which is here to stay?

I think functionality and self care aren’t mutually exclusive. I tend to use products that work for my skin, change or add them depending on the season, time of the month and by actually looking at my skin daily. For me whatever I use on my skin has to smell good - be it to uplift the senses in the morning or calm the mind in the evening. Do I call it selfcare? Not necessarily, but my skincare routine tends to address both my skin’s needs and state of mind.

Pandemic or not, life is both busy and stressful, so five or ten minutes or half an hour a day all to yourself is something that is essential and is not a whim or something to feel guilty about. Particularly when you have a family - in order to care for others you need to fill your glass first! 

Traditional brick and mortar retail has taken a hit in the last 12 months, but even then it was already suffering, yet I see a boom in concept stores. What’s your take on these?

It really depends on the concept store - does it serve customer’s needs? Is customer service good? Do brands at the concept store compliment the ethos/model of that particular concept? Can you buy brands in-store that you can’t necessarily get elsewhere? I think that was a big problem before the pandemic - sales assistants just bombarding you with words in order to sell you just about anything and earn a comission for themselves, rather than helping you choose what you want or need and making a living in the process.

Retail needed to change a long time ago and that’s a big wake-up call. How and if retailers respond appropriately still remains to be seen. Ultimately there are still plenty of generations that prefer shopping in actual store, rather than online. Be it for fashion, make-up, books or food. The store just needs to evolve and allow us to be curious, shopping to be a fast and pleasurable experience and a place where we can buy a variety of things - say books, unusual gifts and plants, under one rood, in a pleasant atmosphere.

We humans are tactile, we need physical interaction more than virtual one, so I would like to see retailers use their imagination and address their customers needs, so its a win-win for both sides.

What is your favourite UnCommon:

Beauty ritual

a facial massage using techniques taught to me by facialist Anastasia Achilleos is my special kind of bliss. It’s the magic of touch to shift tension, get circulation going, improve the luminosity of skin and clear the mind as well. Works every time and leaves me with a contented smile on my face.

Restaurant

Too many to name, as I am a foodie. I can say that at this stage I am dreaming of a romantic date night at L’Ami Louis in Paris.

Book

I am a voracious reader, so if I start listing my favourite books we could be here for a VERY long time. But the books that made the lockdown more bearable were: Dawn French “Because of you" (will break your heart and then mend it), Victoria James “Wine Girl” (perfect if you love wine, it’s a devastating story of one woman’s childhood, adversity and abuse while building a career in hospitality, yet uplifting because Victoria puts the wrongs right and becomes an amazing sommelier and meets her soulmate & reliable business partner too), Sanae Lemoine “The Margot Affair”, Adam Grant “Think Again” - we so needed this book, as it is written by a guy who a few years ago suggested to a few CEOs an experiment of allowing the staff to work one day from home and was told ‘no’ - I bet those CEOs were kicking themselves when the pandemic hit; when you are in dire emotional state, Rebecca Dennis’s “And Breath” is the one to have by the bedside or at hand. And I am currently reading Charlotte Philby’s third book, which doesn’t get published till July and is called “The Second Woman” - Charlotte has an extraordinary talent for words and plots.

Holiday destination

Right now I dream of visiting my family in Moscow, swimming and paddle-boarding for hours in the sea in Spain, driving through country-lanes in France, my face exposed to sun & wind and the nose to the smell of wild herbs & fruit trees perfuming the air, exploring artisan shops in Venice and hiking in Bhutan. If all that fails, our family trip to Cornwall last summer was truly epic for a multitude of reasons and has sustained our spirits in the latest lockdown. I would go back in the heartbeat for the surf lessons and Moomaid of Zennor ice-cream, which was recommended by our surfing instructor and is epic.

 Thank you Galina! 

Galina's Blog - The Curiosity Gap is a must read for me ( https://thecuriositygap.co.uk ) and on Instagram @galinaap