How Francesco Clark's Cult-Favorite Skincare Brand Started With a Tragic Accident
"In the blink of an eye, my life changed."
Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.
In 2002, Francesco Clark, a fashion assistant at Harper's Bazaar, was celebrating a promotion when his life life changed forever. A diving accident left him paralyzed below the neck, and as a result of his accident his skin became reactive to temperature, leaving Clark with dry and oily patches, plus sensitivities to both prescription and natural skincare ingredients on the market.
Tired of not not feeling confident with the face that he saw staring back at him the mirror, Clark turned to his father, a homeopathic-trained medical doctor to help him whip up DIY skincare products in their Bronxville, New York home. And thus Clark's Botanicals was born.
The origins of Clark's skincare brand is well-documented in his memoir, but no matter how many times it's retold, the story of resilience and strength is inspiring to anyone who's overcoming a momentous life tragedy, or simply the challenges that come with getting a business off the ground.
We caught up with Clark to talk about how his accident took him on an unexpected career path, what it was like turning his homemade skincare products into a bona fide business, his essential skincare products, and more.
Tell me how you got your start in the beauty industry.
I never intended to start Clark’s Botanicals as a brand! In 2002, I had been promoted from my editorial fashion assistant position at Harper’s Bazaar, living my planned professional trajectory. In the blink of an eye, my life changed. The weekend that I was celebrating my promotion, I mistakenly dove into the shallow end of the pool, shattering my spine, and I could no longer feel or move anything below my neck.
Even though the neurosurgeon told me I had a 90 percent chance of not surviving that night, the incredible support of my family and good friends helped me push forward. As a result of my injury, I cannot move or feel 99 percent of my body. Also, my skin started reacting to temperature, so anything and everything that could go wrong with my skin started to. It looked like I was developing rosacea; my skin looked 10 years older than my age; I was developing dry patches and oily patches; and had incredible sensitivities to all products on the market, including natural and prescription.
After three years of a deep depression from dealing with my traumatic injury, I had to take responsibility for my own life. Christopher Reeve had just passed away, and I realized that I had been relying on Superman to be my advocate. I had been asked to be a part of an advocacy group for New York State, and that day, I decided to join. But, in order to be part of it I had to leave the house, and I had to look at the mirror for the first time. Up until that point, I was shaving my head bald every day and wearing the same T-shirt and the same hospital pants. I never left the house, except for occasional physical therapy at the local hospital.
Looking in the mirror was difficult. It meant facing my own self, quite literally. I felt happy and energetic, but I did not look it. I turned to my father, a medical doctor also trained in homeopathy, and wrangled him to help me make something that would make me look like myself again. And so, Clark’s Botanicals began from our kitchen in Bronxville.
How did you finally land on your brand’s signature Jasmine Complex?
It took four years of research and 78 different iterations before we discovered our proprietary Jasmine Complex. We tried everything based on medical research that could be beneficial to rebalancing the skin. Lavender extracts were too basic and made my skin more sensitive, while chamomile with rosehip went from doing nothing to making my skin peel.
It wasn’t until we read an article in a nature magazine and subsequent studies on the positive effects of jasmine enzymes and extracts that we started to formulate our Jasmine Catalyst Complex. It’s a specific mix of oils and extracts from the plant, and it helps to bring your skin to its healthiest state.
I knew it was working when we were making little ugly glass vials of it in our kitchen. I noticed that some of the vials went missing. My sister was stealing them when she noticed my skin looked better! A couple of weeks later even more vials started to go missing because my mother started stealing them as well. So, I developed an intricate network of kleptomaniacs in the process.
What was the transition like from making products in your kitchen to turning the line into an actual business?
Scaling the business meant hiring people, and working with our factories meant they were also taking a risk on us. The fantastic thing to see is how dedicated the entire team is to Clark’s Botanicals. The passion we all have for each other and the products is palpable.
There is no guidebook on how to start in the business in the way that I did, because it was also right around the time that people started looking at the internet as a platform that's more than just a marketing tool to tell your story. Furthermore, I have to juggle daily physical therapy and not being able to go into an office as easily because I did not have wheelchair accessible transportation for a while. The good thing about our mentality and structure is that we learned to scale and pivot very quickly, constantly, and frequently.
What products are you most proud of creating?
Our Smoothing Marine Cream and Nourishing Youth Serum are the first two products that I formulated with my father and my sister, who is now a medical doctor as well. The Smoothing Marine Cream is our bestselling product. It acts like a treatment and moisturizer in one. While it is expensive, it gives you a luminous glow that revitalizes even the most stubborn complexions. It uses 5 percent sugar-derived glycolic acid to help clear the pores and revitalize the skin, while dehydrated algae microspheres help to give you long lasting moisturization benefits long after you have applied the product.
Our Nourishing Youth Serum is like a hybrid between a lotion and a serum. Two pumps is all you need. It contains Hexapeptide-11 and pre-complex, which help to relax the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamins A, C, E and Lecithin help to give you back that rosy glow.
What’s one skincare product you think everyone needs in their routine and why?
Our Deep Moisture Mask and our Smoothing Marine Cream are the two products that I would say everybody can use because they are customizable. If your skin is acting sensitive, the Japanese green tea extract in the Deep Moisture Mask helps to address sensitivity concerns. It goes on clear, so I even like to use it as a leave-on moisturizer during the day. You hardly need a lot of it, so one jar should last about three months. The Smoothing Marine Cream will help give your cheekbones that “can cut a sheet of ice” look because it perks up the skin so well. You won’t need many other products in addition to those two!
How has your injury effected the way you run your business? Do you have advice for people with disabilities who might feel discouraged to start their own ventures?
Being in a wheelchair does not define who I am, but it does mean that I learned how to use my time more efficiently and multitask. For example, when I do physical therapy every day, I am also on conference calls for work. It makes my doing therapy more manageable, fun, and consistent. Because of that, I’m seeing better results. In the beginning, I would only do one thing at a time and it made me feel one-dimensional as a person and robotic.
My advice for anybody who wants to re-enter the workforce after sustaining a life-changing event or disability, or really for any reason whatsoever, is that you should never feel limited by your goals. With a healthy dose of creativity and imagination, you can achieve them in your own unique way. I am not afraid to ask questions and reach out to people in the industry, and you would be surprised by how generous and supportive people are and want to be.
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What's next for Clark's Botanicals?
So much! We are small, but efficient. The new product development that we are constantly working on is never set in stone because when we make a discovery about the way that one ingredient combines with another, it changes the other formulations as well. One of the things that I really like, in addition to formulating products, is interacting with our customers. They are not shy about reaching out to us, which is such a fantastic feeling of support. I recently acquired the brand back [from AS Beauty] and to know that we have a steady and dedicated group of supporters is the only reason why we are a growing business.