You’re a trained medical doctor. Did you always have an interest in skincare and dermatology?
Absolutely. Since I was 13 years old I’ve been religiously applying sunscreen so I’m sort of ahead of the curve.
It started with a pregnancy oil, is that right?
I was doing the pregnancy oil for all my friends and more and more people wanted it. Then I had the CEO of the Six Senses group come to my house. I didn’t even have an office. They were very sweet and I presented my line of oil to him and my idea and they gave me carte blanche to devise a full menu for what was the Six Senses spa in Dubai Madinat Jumeirah. At that time it was the biggest spa in the Middle East with 24 treatment rooms. That was a huge undertaking. That’s why we began as a spa only brand. Six Senses were ahead of the curve with the ecological luxury resort concept. Why should you in any way give up your luxury, give up fine food and luxurious products because you want to do better or you want to be more holistic? It’s not a case of ne or the other. You can do both.
There must be a lot of research and development that goes into the products.
Definitely. I use gold standard dermatological ingredients like vitamin A derivative, vitamin C and anti-oxidants. It’s very important. We know as doctors that the skin requires A, B and C. Aestheticians look at skin in a very superficial manner. They don’t look into the skin as a cellular mechanism. So you want to make sure that the cells have adequate nutrition but also adequate food in the form of energy which is ATP. You want to make sure that the cell life is prolonged because what happens is that, as you age, the cells tend to have a lot of by products in them, making them less efficient. So it’s all of these things together. I’m looking at skin both from a macro perspective, I use my hyaluronic acid which a lot of people love and I also go into the cellular mechanisms for skin and what really boosts the cells to work in a better way.
What are your thoughts on organic certification?
Being organic now is a business for a lot of people. They see that the trend is organic now so they say ‘let’s switch and create certificates.’ But a lot of these smaller farmers, especially in communities that aren’t close to major cities or major labs have to pay for someone to come out and certify them. That’s about US $20 - 30,000 in fees that smaller farms who are biodynamic and wild crafted can’t afford. So while I’d like certification, I don’t require it as long as I know where the ingredients are coming from and it’s done with love. We are organic but a lot of people like to say ‘oh we’re totally certified’. I say ‘no’. I find wild crafted and organic ingredients from smaller farms which we know don’t have the certification. This is why I don’t do organic certification of my products. It’s enough that the customer trusts me. I actually say the amount that is natural and the amount that is organic and you get what I say is there. And it’s not about just being certified. It’s also about producing results. I get a lot of people asking ‘Dr. Lamees why aren’t you 100% organic?’ You have to look at what these other brands are using. They’re using whole grain alcohol as a preservative. It’s 100% natural and organic but it’s also cytotoxic. So it’s a marketing ploy just like clean beauty is more marketing hype.
Everyone is talking about clean beauty now.
We are more than ‘clean beauty’. What does that even mean? For me it goes beyond that. We’re actually organic beauty. Every single product in my line is at least 80% organic if not more. We’re natural and we’re efficacious. That’s the buzz word because with a lot of natural brands, they don’t necessarily deliver results. But mine does. So that’s the big differentiator.
So for you it’s not a trend. It’s always been a cornerstone of the Shiffa brand.
I think that was something I understood early on in my medical career. Whether it’s health with the body, health of the mind or health of the skin. All other areas of the body have to be in equilibrium. And the skin is the largest organ. If your body is not working properly, I can treat the skin from the outside but what’s on the inside is also important.
So you have a holistic approach to skin care?
Yes, to me helping to relieve stress was one of the cornerstones. In this day and age we have to talk about it and we have to help treat it because it is one of the major causes of aging. Yes, UV light exposure is, smoking is, alcohol is, sugar is, bad diet is and so is stress. Your skin care has to be able to really look at all these factors and that’s why it’s important. My medical background is important because we are taught and trained look at all these facets together.
How much time does it typically take to see results?
With some of my products like the Tri Acid Radiance Peel or the Healing Balm, you’ll see results in two weeks. Even just using the muslin cloth with your cleanser can give you amazing glowing skin in under two weeks. There are some things where you can see definite changes but it can take anywhere up to eight weeks because that is when your new skin cells come to the surface.
In terms of pricing, your products sit towards the luxury end of the scale. is that due to of ingredients, packaging or research?
It’s pure ingredients. It really is. I did a lot of research on our own dollar and that is purely reflective of the quality of the ingredients that go into the products. I use these products myself, I don’t cheat myself. I’m not a chemist sitting in a lab trying to give you something at a certain budget. That’s not how I formulate. I formulate without a budget. But what I think of is what I need it to do to my skin and what are the best ingredients out there that can achieve it.
So you’re creating products that you would use?
Exactly. You have to love it and everyone does. One of my biggest resellers came to me and said you should do sheet masks. I said ‘Why? Everyone else is doing a good sheet mask. There’s nothing I can add to it.’ I’m not interested. I don’t like them. I used one once and it didn’t make a difference. In two hours you’re back to normal. That’s not what I want. I mean before a party, by all means do it. I’m not coming out with one because I want something more substantial for your skin.
How would you describe your personal skin care regime?
It’s very niche. I don’t have 100 products but the products I do have work very well. People say that my products are expensive but they’re using 10 products that are US $50 each. Mine is US $150. That’s three of your 10 products.
Was it a challenge for you to be taken seriously when you first launched Shiffa?
I was two things. I was a woman and I was in charge of a beauty brand. Now everyone is all over beauty brands but before it was unheard of. Nobody has come out after Estée Lauder and Helena Rubinstein. Fifteen years ago it was just me and it was really difficult to go and get a loan because I’d go to the bank but they didn’t understand the business and they didn’t understand beauty. I didn’t get a loan and I had done everything right. Had I gone to them with a real estate project they would have said yes. That’s what they understand. To this day banks do not give loans to beauty companies, it’s the venture capitalists and private equity firms that are investing.
How did you manage to finance your business?
I actually got a loan from the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Young Business Leaders. It was HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and his forward thinking 15 years ago. He saw that there were small businesses that needed funding. What he’s doing is funding entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial spirit. So I am grateful to Dubai for a lot of things. A lot of people think Dubai is all show but it isn’t, there’s substance here. I was saved by that and I’m forever grateful.
What sets your Middle East clients apart from customers in the west?
I think that the American customer has similar spending habits to a Middle Eastern customer where they are very willing to spend on their face and to spend on products. They do see that there is a correlation between the price and the efficacy of the product. Middle Eastern clients are also beginning to really appreciate skin care.
Are you a role model for entrepreneurs in this region?
Oh my gosh I have so many role models myself. Some of them are younger than me. I love the way they fearlessly manage social media. I mean it’s very sweet to call me a role model but you never stop learning. I hope that something they can learn from me is integrity. Don’t sell yourself short. It’s not only about the sale. It’s also about your integrity as a person. Believe in your idea, believe in what you’re doing and respect yourself. Because if you can’t respect and love yourself nobody else is going to.
Who do you admire in the regional beauty industry?
So many of the younger people, like Huda and Mona (Kattan), their work ethic is just amazing. They really work hard and I love them for that. I’m so happy for their success. I love seeing more Middle Eastern women and men in the industry. I know it’s a women’s movement but I’ve always thought myself equal to a man. In this day, whenever a man makes it in this industry whether it’s beauty, whether it’s makeup, whether it’s cosmetics, I think, good for you.
You distribute your line through Sephora. Why was that the right partnership for you?
Jacques Levy the CEO of Sephora worldwide at the time, came in from Paris and saw me. He was very smart and astute and after I tried presenting the brand he said ‘I don’t care about the product, I care that it’s you behind it.’ So he saw it coming and he put me in touch with Sephora Middle East and we launched together. When they opened I was there and they were extremely supportive and still are to this day. It’s important because smaller niche companies need support. They need Sephora to put them next to bigger brands. You’re not an afterthought. Sephora understands and nurtures which is important for a small company, especially holistic brands. Sephora also has a very wide reach and a varied customer. They have the millennial customers who come in wanting a US $15 something and they also have the customer who will buy a US $450 body cream like my Rose Bliss Balm.
Are you hopeful about the future of traditional retail spaces?
Some brands want to be online only, they want to be direct to the market and good for them. I don’t think that retail giants are over just yet. I think they have a very significant role to play. Especially retailers like Sephora.
What’s next for Shiffa?
I decided to create my own FaSha which is a gua sha tool and is used to basically foam roll the face but I had it specially designed. If you look around there’s no FaSha tool that has the same edges that I do. Because I’m a doctor, I take it a step further. It’s also known as natural Botox because it really softens the lines. We’ve also got a new facial oil, the Emerald Clarifying Face Oil. It’s specifically made for oily and combination skin and it’s made with real emeralds. Oily skin has a lack of linoleic acid so I found oils that are high in linoleic acid and added them to the base of the oil. It shouldn’t make you break out, it should actually make you produce less oil. We’ve actually already sold out of that at Sephora in the Mall of the Emirates.
How do you decide what to launch?
I know what the client wants. You have to have a gut instinct and a knowledge of what people want. Then you have to really listen to them. A tip for budding entrepreneurs is to listen to your client, listen to what they they’re saying. It’s the client that dictates how successful you’re going to be, not the retailers.
Was there a moment when you realised that Shiffa was going to be a success?
Right from the beginning. I would not have launched it if I didn’t think it was something that people needed. I believed in it wholeheartedly. I could have continued being a doctor, I had other choices but this is something I believed in.