In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Few experiences are more luxurious than being swathed in soft terry cloth while getting some real skin TLC in the form of an amazing facial, and that sense of luxury is something clients know to expect at Joanna Vargas's Manhattan salon. Vargas opened her Bryant Park location in 2006, and since then, it's become a destination for celebrities, editors and skin care fanatics alike. (West Coast readers, rejoice: She opened her second location in Los Angeles last fall.) In the 11 years that her salon has been open, Vargas has racked up an impressive list of clients that span everyone from actresses like Emma Roberts, Naomi Watts and Julianne Moore to people within the fashion and beauty industries, including Karlie Kloss, Pati Dubroff and Brad Goreski. She's also known for her eponymous line of natural products, which she sells both in her spa locations and online. In the midst of an already jam-packed awards season, Vargas sat down with Fashionista to share her career path, beauty philosophy and why everyone can have great skin.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up. What did you study in school?
I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey and I studied photography and women's studies at the University of Chicago. It was a program that I applied for where you can create your own major. My whole course of study was about a woman's image in the media, society and all of that.
Can you share your career path leading up to starting your own company?
I came to New York right after I graduated from college, and I thought that I wanted to be in fashion photography. I dabbled — I was a fabulous assistant's assistant — but I just realized that I wasn't really built for it and my passion had always been [beauty] products and focusing on how women create their image for themselves and make themselves more confident. So, I went to beauty school thinking that perhaps I'd be a makeup artist, but when I started school, I kind of fell in love with giving facials and I gave it a year to see if this was something I'd want to do.
Did you ever think you would pursue a career in beauty? Were you interested in beauty growing up?
It never occurred to me, honestly. If it had, if somebody had said, "There's a whole world out there…" I didn't know there was a "beauty world." I didn't even think about it. I mean, I went to a private school. Your parents don't send you to private school so that you can become a facialist. But [growing up] I always had an array of products, even when I was four or five years old. I had tons of different bubble baths, powders, perfumes, lip gloss and all of that stuff. It was really something I built my life around.
You're one of the most sought-after facialists in the industry. Can you share how you got to where you are today and how you built such a strong celebrity clientele?
I think first and foremost, when I started my salon, I was really just wanting to modernize what I thought what a very old-fashioned field. Doing facials in the earlier portion of my career wasn't really so much about technology; it was more about doing glycolic peels and sending people home with some retinol. Everybody was doing the same stuff and I had worked at different types of businesses — an organic face spa; I worked with a dermatologist for a little bit — there's all different kinds of philosophies, and what I really felt excited about was that right around the time that I started my company, there was a lot of technology coming out that was more advanced than what I had been exposed to. Bringing in a variety of technologies and presenting them in a way to clients that made sense to them — instead of making beauty a mystery — just worked for people. I was very focused on results. When people walk out of the salon, I want them to see that they were transformed.
As far as my celebrity clientele goes, it was really just word of mouth. They're also looking for non-invasive solutions to manage their skin. It's all about utilizing technologies that are non-invasive, and making [clients] feel like they can walk a red carpet or go into a project the best version of themselves. If you came in for a facial, I didn't stop until you felt that your skin looked amazing. And then you would leave the salon and tell everybody. Celebrities do the same thing: they tell their other friends in the business, or I would meet other hair and makeup people that would share what I was doing with other clients of theirs, and that's really how I built things, the old-fashioned way. Just happy people who went out into the world and told other people.
Tell us how you developed your spa treatments.
I am constantly vetting technologies — that's one of the things that's really important to me and one of the things that I think keeps me on the cutting edge. I'm always trying out new treatments and new machines, and I think clients know that they can come and ask me questions [about devices] and I'll have tried it already or know somebody who's tried it. In terms of building up my treatments, I didn't like the idea of anybody being upsold when having a facial. I just didn't want to say, "You need to be exfoliated with this machine, but it's going to cost you." It's not relaxing, and it doesn't feel like you're with a friend. I want people who come here to feel like they're visiting a girlfriend, getting something amazing done and walking out feeling fortified and better than ever.
What was it like to build your own skin-care range after opening the salon?
I started the salon in 2006, and launched the products in 2011. Pretty much from the time I opened the salon, I was very frustrated that there wasn't this category of natural beauty that there is now. There really wasn't anything I could find that was cutting-edge and results-oriented, but also had mostly natural ingredients in it. My product line was really born out of not finding what I was looking for. I launched with five SKUs, thinking, "What does it take to get glowing skin on a regular basis? What does it take to maintain that, no matter what skin type you are?" That was another thing I wanted to modernize; I didn't want it to be "this is your oily skin collection" or "this is your collection for old skin, dry skin or young skin." I think that's so old-fashioned. If your skin isn't healthy, it's going to break out. Or if your lymphatic system isn't healthy, you're going to break out or feel dry. It was just breaking down what those elements were. At that point, I'd been an aesthetician for quite a long time, so I had worked with different product lines and knew what ingredients were universal. The first product I ever created was the Daily Serum; I was recommending green juices to everyone and eating more veggies, so why not put that that into a bottle? Because it was my first product, it was the hardest one to create in many ways, just because I needed to understand the balance of ingredients and ratios. But after that one, the others came very easily, and I have an organic cosmetic chemist who I have a great relationship with. Creating products is a lot of fun for me, and while it's very different from being in a room with a client, I enjoy it a great deal.
I love that your philosophy is all about being healthy and how that's the key to amazing skin. Why do you think that resonates with so many people?My message to my clients is that everybody can have great skin. Even when I'm talking about celebrity skin care and what they do for the red carpet, the truth is you don't need to have a million dollars to have good skin. One thing I've noticed is that someone will walk in and say, "I just have never felt that I had great skin. I just wasn't born with it." I honestly think that that's an awful lie that we've all heard: that you've got to be born with something to have it. It's not exclusive. Anybody can have great skin. It's all about balance, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. One thing that I stress from my years of working with celebrities is part of the reason they look good on the red carpet is because they are very healthy. They have very good habits that translate into that glow. Yes, I'm giving them a great facial, but they also eat well. They go to the gym. They don't have a lot of sugar or processed food.
The skin-care market is so competitive right now. What would you say sets your products apart from other brands?
At the end of the day, I don't consider other people as my competition. I'm in competition with myself to try to be better, and I think what sets me apart is that I never stop learning, and I always keep my eyes on the industry. When you come to the salon, you're not going to get a facial that's 20 years old. You're going to get the best of what's out there right now. I'm a results-oriented facialist, so what I always teach my staff to do is to focus on the result of the client. I came up in the industry at a time where it was really normal for a facialist to boss you around and tell you that your skin was horrible and that they were going to fix it [for you]. I just wanted to get away from all that and nurture somebody into having the skin that they want to have.
What is your favorite aspect about what you get to do?
It's been so much fun to work on people from all walks of life from all over the world; I get to hear different stories and see how we're all alike. But at this stage in my career, one thing that I really love is just the whole idea of mentoring my staff and the women who work for me, and really being there for them in a way I didn't feel I had coming up in the industry. I really want to teach them about the industry in a way that's different. I have a few women [at the salon] who have been with me since the beginning, and the reason why I think they stay is that I've made it a really dynamic place to work, and a place where a young person can grow their own knowledge and grow their own career.
What can you share about what you have planned next for your product range or new treatments?
I'm currently expanding the salon in Los Angeles, which we just opened in September. I own the patent for the LED light that we use for the salon in New York, but we're modernizing the design and function of that particular technology, which I'm very excited about because it'll be a totally new and improved tool. Product-wise, I have some exciting new launches for this year — I just launched two new sheet masks, which I think are really cutting-edge.
What's your advice for anyone aspiring to a career like yours?
My advice for people in beauty school is do as many facials for as many people as you can — try different types of skin and really study different techniques. You can go on YouTube and study different massage techniques; you can see any kind of machine being featured, anything you've ever wanted to learn about. Educate yourself. I assign readings to the team that works here and I think that's really important to stay relevant. If you're very customer service-oriented, people will remember that and come back. Especially with young people today, it's really important as a general piece of advice to know that [your career] is not always a straight line. Life is a winding road, and sometimes you learn the most by letting it happen and not being so rigid in what you think you should be doing. I've allowed myself to try out different things before finding my own voice. And if you're passionate about something, you should be willing to work night and day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.