Today, natural skin-care is very much a part of mainstream beauty conversation—and the aisles of major retailers like Nordstrom and Sephora. But it hasn't always been easy being green. Just ask Tata Harper, who pioneered the movement by way of her eponymous line, which has earned industry and consumer acclaim for its results-oriented formulations—that just happen to be 100% natural and non-toxic. So with Earth Day right around the corner, we rang Harper at her Vermont home/farm/business H.Q. to chat about her improbable path to becoming the unofficial ambassador of sustainable beauty.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Barranquilla, Columbia. It really is the epitome of Latin culture. Music was everywhere, and people just danced spontaneously at any time during the day. Obviously, it was hot—we were right at the Equator. There were also beautiful mountains, where we had farms growing up. I used to spend a lot of time riding horses.
What were your early career ambitions?
I thought that I was going to be a designer. I just loved fashion. Even on the weekends, I would go out to all the fabric stores with my Aunt Doris. We would pick out fabric and then I would design things that we’d take to the tailor, and he'd make for me. It was so much fun. Then, when I was in high school, a friend of mine and I started a fashion company—a brand that was called Censored. We used to go to New York and Miami and get all of our fabrics. We had a pattern maker and put out new collections every two to three months. We didn't make tons of money at it, but it was enough to travel and pay all of our expenses. I did that for sophomore, junior, and senior years. It was a great experience.
Did you then study fashion in college?
My mom didn’t really allow me to study fashion. She said that I already had good taste and should study something that would allow me to do the fashion business better, if I still wanted that—that was the only way she'd finance school. So, basically, she bribed me to study industrial engineering. I started my studies in Paris, and finished in Mexico. After, I went back to Columbia for a year and worked as the assistant to the C.E.O of a cell phone company—these were the early days of cell phones—and learned a lot about organization and working with different types of people.
That's what I was doing when I met my husband—he was Columbian, but living in Miami working on an Internet start-up. Eventually, I moved to Miami with him. I was desperate for a job there, and ended up helping out a friend-of-a-friend redesign and open a club. I was dealing with a lot of subcontractors and permits, and it made me interested in real estate, especially because Miami was just starting to really develop at the time. So my then-boyfriend—now-husband—and I decided to start a real estate and design group.
How did beauty enter the picture?
Well, the real estate bubble had collapsed in Miami, and we were planning to move up to New York—we'd already purchased our farm in Vermont as a weekend getaway for when we made the move to the city. So I was getting ready for all of that when my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. Because I was in transition, I ended up being the one to take him to a lot of his appointments. Hearing doctors ask him what chemicals he was in touch with, what he eats, what he puts on his skin, what shampoo he uses… it made me wonder what any of this stuff had to do with cancer. It really opened my eyes to the reality that there’s a huge lack of regulation when it comes to chemicals in everyday products. Looking at the products I owned, I recognized chemicals from my engineering studies. I noticed these chemicals that belonged in machines and cars and was like, What are these doing in my eye cream?!
So, then I started checking out products branded as natural but noticed they either weren’t truly natural—sure, they had algae but then had 50 other industrial chemicals—or were way too basic, like plain jojoba oil. I couldn’t believe a product that was total natural and actually worked didn’t exist.
How did you find the balance in your own line?
I didn't want to any one ingredient to be the star just because that’s what the labs offered me or it made for a good “ingredient story.” Instead, we source the best ingredients from around the world—none of which are synthetic. That way, you get multiple benefits, multiple ways of moisturizing and nurturing the skin.
The other thing is we make everything ourselves. It’s not only because I’m obsessed with quality, but because it allows the products to be fresh when they get to our clients. They haven’t been made eight months ago after going through a distribution warehouse and all of the supply chains. It was totally against conventional wisdom, against what the beauty consultants I'd hired had advised me to do—but it’s what made sense for our company.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew during those early days of the brand?
Well, there’s actually something I know now that I’m glad I did know then—and that’s how hard this business is. Any beauty business is tough, and naturals can be even harder. It’s intense to be an entrepreneur! I know that fully now, but I’m glad I didn’t then—I think that’s what allowed me to stay on track. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss!