Nuria Val is on the frontline of the plant-based beauty movement
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In Spain’s southern Cataluña, Nuria Val is tending to her garden, a wiry patch of rock rose, subshrubs and grey-green deergrass. The shoots are young, almost imperceptible, but soon their leaves will create a “small forest” amid the olive groves. Val won’t need to water it – the rain can take care of that – and in time the patch will be joined by fruit, vegetables and wandering livestock. “It’s going to be experimental,” says Barcelona-born Val, who is as sunny as the leafy plot beside her.
The fledgling garden is a mirror to Val’s own life. In 2018, she co-founded natural skincare brand Rowse (pronounced “rose”) with Gabriela Salord, who had worked in business and finance, and for the past few years they have focused on researching formulas, giving back to nature and furthering the plant-based beauty movement. Today, as the vegan cosmetics industry speeds towards its 2025 projected valuation of $20.8bn, it seems her efforts are to be rewarded. Rowse will be in profit in 2023.
Val had started out working as a model in the early 2010s, although she quickly pivoted to photography. Today she shoots for Vogue, Condé Nast Traveller, Gucci and Chloé, and lives in Barcelona with her partner, fellow photographer Coke Bartrina. But four years ago, the couple found an abandoned casita near Tarragona, an hour south of the city. They had been scoping out the area for several years before that, holidaying on the coast and exploring its wild hills. “It’s a sacred place,” says Val of the pine-flecked landscape, much of which – rosemary, aloe vera and neroli – can now be found in the Rowse product line.
Around the same time as finding the property, Val met Salord. Both were uninspired by the beauty industry; both had a shared love of plants. “We had the same vision of what beauty should be,” says Salord, whose “journey to plant-based and holistic alternatives” started after her sister’s eczema was cured by osteopathy, cold-pressed plant oils and a vegan diet. The pair launched Rowse – now stocked at eco-minded stores including Paris’s Oh My Cream, US-based The Frankie Shop and Barcelona’s Hoxton Hotel – with the best-selling Winter Body Oil (€44), a rhodiola-infused tonic for dry, sensitive skin. “We studied what kind of plants grow in extreme winter conditions and looked for benefits they have because of that,” says Val.
The launch came at an interesting time. For while people bathed in castor oil and washed their faces with rosemary water as far back as 5,000 years ago, more recently the popularity of science-led products, such as those by Augustinus Bader and Dr Barbara Sturm, has grown. “Plant-based products are often perceived as not being as effective as lab-based ingredients,” says Fiona Harkin, foresight editor at The Future Laboratory.
The revival of “clean” beauty – the vegan cosmetics market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.57 per cent until 2028 – is a sign that there’s pushback. But as Harkin points out, the model isn’t wholly sustainable. “If one of the larger global players shifted entirely to plant-based sourcing, it’s likely that there wouldn’t be enough resources for it,” she says. “Note the recent move from brands such as Lancôme and Chanel buying up flower fields around Grasse to secure organic production.”
For Val, who releases her products on an almost on-demand basis, plant-based beauty is as much about the planet as it is the product line. Serums (€48) come in recyclable glass bottles, the solid shampoos and cleansers (€19) are made with up to 95 per cent less water than liquid alternatives, and partnerships with independent labs in Spain ensure a traceable, human-scale production line. Although new technology points towards a future of lab-made ingredients, Val believes she has everything at her fingertips. “Nature has given us all the resources we need to take care of ourselves,” affirms Lamia El Kadiri, Rowse’s product developer. “Why should we invent new, synthetic versions of it?” Adds Val: “It’s inspiring to have a place where I can find ingredients for our collection.”
Work on the casita finished last July, and Val, Bartrina and their one-year-old daughter, Olivia, visit whenever they can. Like its garden, the house has become an extension of the Rowse philosophy, with solar panels and rainwater tanks helping to make it self-sufficient. Much of the furniture was made from local materials by Bartrina, and its tiles are the work of Catalan artists. “Everything slows down,” says Val of the family’s trips there. “In the city, we lead an active life and don’t have time to cook – when we come [here], Coke makes bread and we go for long walks. It’s an exercise in understanding the resources [we have available to us] and adapting our lifestyle.”
The house is also the site of Val and Bartrina’s side hustle, Oli de L’Oliveta, an organic olive oil made from trees – 140 of them – restored by the couple. Cataluña once had a flourishing oil trade, but production is at risk, and could fall by more than 50 per cent this season – a combination of frosts, heatwaves and drought. Oli de L’Oliveta is working to change that. Olives are harvested by friends and family, who crowd into the casita for a four-day picking spree. The third release (€14 for 1 litre) will be on sale in autumn.
“Everything I do is related to oils,” says Val. “Everything is part of the same lifestyle, and everything is connected.” The business isn’t just about beauty; it’s a lesson in living sustainably, working with what’s available and responding to nature.
Now she has succeeded in extracting a product line from her lifestyle, Val is keen to explore other areas. Rowse already sells a small collection of handmade ceramics and publishes travel guides, but the next step might be as ambitious as a small hotel. “It could be a nice adventure,” says Val, “a space in nature… but not going to the places that everyone goes to.” As escapes go, it sounds dreamy; but for now we’ll have to settle for the dream, bottled.