That Francesco Clark—who was paralyzed from the neck down in 2002 after diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool—possesses an almost superhuman strength like his hero Christopher Reeve is well known. But it is his equally strong vision that has made his brand, Clark’s Botanicals, a key indie skin-care player.
The brand was created and formulated by Clark and his father, a physician, to address some of the skin issues that Clark suffered from as a result of his accident. It launched in 2007 and is now sold on QVC, Space NK, Amazon and a tightly curated selection of independent boutiques. Clark himself had no experience with the beauty business before he launched his line—he was a young fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar prior to his accident—but he has proved to be a quick study. Last year, sales increased an impressive 250 percent. Here, the entrepreneur talks tenacity, longevity and inspiration in an ever-changing marketplace.
This story first appeared in the February 16, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Francesco, out of adversity you have built an incredible life and an incredible company. What drives you?
I never started this as a company. It was never a business plan to make money. It was something I started because four years after my injury I felt like I had become one-dimensional. [My life] felt very robotic, like the butterfly in the bell jar. I didn’t like the complacency of the way my injury was treated in the medical field and I wanted people to want to talk to me, not to ask about my injury, but to have a genuine conversation.
On the day that Christopher Reeve died, it was such a shock to me. He was my hero. When I was doing physical therapy that day I kept thinking, I have to do more. It felt like I was riding on his hard work and hoping he would be the champion for the cure and advocacy, but I realized that I needed to do my part.
In order to do that, I had to leave the house. When I looked in the mirror, I literally looked at myself for the first time in three years and that’s when I saw all of my skin problems, so my father and I started formulating products for me to use. For the first time in my life fashion and beauty became something that was not frivolous and shallow—it became a source of power and inner strength.
What’s also interesting is that while your personal story is so compelling—it’s the strength of the brand that has led to its success.
That was important to me—it’s not just about how the line started. It has to work. That was my number-one focus. If you are paying $115 for our Smoothing Marine Cream, if you’re not seeing results, it doesn’t matter what the story is behind it—you’re not going to buy it again.
Before your accident, you knew very little about the beauty business. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
It felt daunting in the beginning. Reading about other company’s launches, you are reading about millions of dollars in projected sales and I was looking at our numbers, saying—I wish. We launched the company with $1,000 and no debt. It makes it feel as if there is something wrong in building slow and steady as opposed to quick and big bang, but a lot of companies that did it like that are no longer around. Looking back on it now, I’m more self-assured and confident and steadfast in the way we work, but at the time, it shakes you.
What do you like about the beauty industry?
I love how inclusive it is. Beauty gave me a sense of stability, inquisitiveness and creativity in my life—especially at a time when I was lacking a sense of stability. Metaphorically it gave me two legs to stand on when ironically I couldn’t stand.
As the brand grows, what are the key challenges you face?
The key challenge is to be able to balance all of the knowledge of how things are changing and shifting. Just because digital works doesn’t mean traditional media doesn’t work. Just because traditional outlets like Bigelow and QVC are growing doesn’t mean Ipsy doesn’t work. It’s about having the right mix of traditional and nontraditional and really knowing your customer base.
You were an early adopter of Amazon.com’s prestige beauty site. Are you pleased with the results?
Amazon was a risk, but you have to be wiling to bite the bullet. It’s not going away. There is a sense of ease to buying products in a portal that is so accessible.
Whether or not you want to be on Amazon, you are going to be on there through third-party sellers, so we made sure our contract said nothing can [be discounted] and everything has to be sold [through] us.
Amazon is our biggest online portal but we are strong in traditional retail, too. Because of my injury it is difficult for me to do a lot of in-store events, so for me to speak directly with consumers on QVC is also fantastic. Our number-one brick-and-mortar is Space NK in the U.K. From November 2014 to 2015, we grew 64 percent in sales. It’s a very different audience—they are willing to try skin care, even if it’s expensive, as long as they know it’s going to work. Our in-store facials and demonstrations work well because there is an emotional connection to the actual experience of trying the product.
You’ve also launched on Ipsy.
I like how savvy Michelle Phan is in understanding how big brands and small brands can work together. She knows how to marry the huge brands with the Indies to create a special bag.
Describe a typical day in your life—you’ve got the company, you’re undergoing various therapies to regenerate nerves and you’re a published author. How do you manage your time?
I’m very good at multitasking. I have to do physical therapy every day—about four hours a day. We converted our garage into a work space. I have this machine called a standing frame, where I go from sitting to standing for about an hour. I lift weights; I pedal on a bike. While I’m standing, I’m on conference calls. I’ll be looking over packaging options, formulations. It is about making it work. I’ve realized that as much as my situation might be different from what it used to be, everybody has their own story and circumstances—nobody really has a typical anything. That is what I like about doing in-store events and meeting customers. It’s cool to hear other people’s stories. We are all just people. I like that human connection.
You’re inspiring to so many people. Who inspires you?
My mother, Mariella. She has been so strong since the day I was born and when I was first injured nothing changed. There was never an excuse for me to not do what I wanted to do and the reason for that was because of my mother and father and sister and brother. My injury never got in the way of achieving what I was going to achieve. It was always about using what you’ve learned to take it one step further and because of that I never had a chance to dwell and feel sorry for myself. I was never told that but it was something I was shown. There is this passion and dedication and complete unbridled love within the entire family that makes you feel like you are stronger than you are when you would have no strength. When I was in the ICU, I felt like I was crumbling, but the strength of this group of dynamic people I was born into made it feel like it was impossible for me not to get better. Because of that—how could a business not grow and not thrive?