meet the maker: gressa

In 2009, Svetlana Sanchez launched GRESSA. A combination of the time-honored beauty traditions of her native eastern Russia and an education in natural sciences, the resulting range of elegant skincare essentials and high-performance color proves there is no need to choose between natural and luxury. Every product in the collection is a fusion of science, love, and art—all bottled by hand in Seattle.

I met with Svetlana at the legendary Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills to catch up and learn about Gressa’s journey from the farmer’s market to The Detox Market. In the cozy wood paneled bar, boisterous jazz music played while we nestled into a booth and shared a pot of tea. My face hurt from laughing because this woman does not hold anything back.

 

Tell me where and how you grew up?

I was born in eastern, far east Russia. And do I have to tell my date of birth?

[laughs] No! No, you tell whatever you want!

I was born into very humble beginnings—this ties in to who I am today and how I live my life.

So it was very rural?

Yes, a province actually. A very, very small town—a tiny town actually. Very different from the west—the grand Russian stereotype that we know of with very over the top type of stuff—this was a very different small town. You know, I was a good student, I was a dancer, I was a pianist—all of the good girl stuff, I did! I left Russia when I was 13, almost 14.

Your whole family?

Yes, my immediate family—grandparents, parents, my brother. We moved to Seattle. We lived in Seattle since then.  I had a little break in between in Portland for a handful of years. Elise, my daughter, was born in Portland. I loved Portland. It’s also very quaint and small. Now we’re back to Seattle! Wait… I’m on a tangent…

Back it up, back it up! Back it up to Russia…

Tell me about the town that you grew up in there and the beauty traditions you observed when you were little.

In Russia, women, obviously, are really ritualistic when it comes to beauty, for the simple reason that women outnumber men. [laughing] So you know, you gotta look the part! Even if you’re in a provincial, small town, or maybe even more so. I remember growing up we always did saunas, dry saunas, and steam, as part of a weekly, or bi-weekly ritual. We would go in and slather honey all over us, and strawberries. So all of the ingredients that you see in the natural beauty world now—you know honey is a humectant. We didn’t know what we were doing, this was just a traditional way of treating your skin. I also remember lots of sour cream, just sour cream all over your face, in the sauna!

Oh, on your face!

Mmhmm.

That’s amazing!

We would do a lot of contrast bathing, so you know, going from a hot sauna to a really ice cold pool, or going outside in the snow. All of that aids your circulation and it’s good for your immune system. So those were beauty rituals that I remember growing up.

When you moved to the states did you feel like you lost some of those rituals? Or was it important to maintain those when you got to Seattle?

No, by then it was part of me and part of being a woman.

At what point did you think that some of your own formulas could be something that could help other people? When did the lightbulb moment happen to do your own brand?

That came later. I was in college.

What did you study?

Natural sciences, health and wellness precisely. So biology and chemistry, and I was getting my pre-med. So that’s what I got, a pre-med to go forward to medical school, but I decided not to go to medical school… for a few reasons. One of them being that Gressa had been sort of conceived.

So while you were going to school, Gressa became a thing? How did it happen? When did your wheels start turning and when did you think ‘I have a brand!’?

For about a year or two, I formulated and reformulated, formulated and reformulated, and then eventually, right across the street where I lived in Portland, we had a farmer’s market. And I was like ‘Eh, why not?’, so I got a table. Back then I was making soaps from scratch, and eye creams, and body creams, so very body orientated, and then I had some of the skin care that I have now. We would just sell out every single weekend. We would sell out. People would come back and bring their daughters or whoever and say, “I just wanted to come by and tell you that soap was amazing!” or “The eye cream was great!” So of course I was scratching my head and thinking, ok maybe this is good. You know, it takes a while for you to start believing in yourself, even though people tell you that it’s good, it takes a while for you to really believe that it’s really good and that it’s worth going forward and actually charging for it!

Well you were considering medical school. So it was either go to medical school or start a cosmetic brand?

Yes, basically.

That’s a big decision.

Yeah! Once I started getting that feedback, confidence built. I’m so glad I did the farmers market. It literally was a stepping stone and a confidence builder. The next step that happened was that, I practically lived at Whole Foods. I would go in, do my grocery shopping, and because I was a beauty junkie, I would look at ingredients and get inspiration. I would stand at the wall of beauty products and stare and read. Eventually I became friends with the buyer, and I said, “Hey, you know, I have a little something.” And she said, “Bring it in!” and I said, “Are you sure?”  And she was like, “For sure!” So you know, I brought my whole skincare line and she said “I’ve never seen anything like this before… let’s try to get you in!” And the next thing you know, we were at like, 20+ stores. So we went from mom and pop, grandma recommended, farmer’s market to Whole Foods. Holy crap! I actually had to get all of my stuff together. It was a rigorous process. So it became official. Before, people said, “Oh that’s cute, Svetlana’s making soaps, good luck to you.” Then all of a sudden we were at Whole Foods. People started taking what I was doing seriously.

Just the skincare?

Yes, just the skincare. The color didn’t even exist yet. With color, I didn’t want to compromise, and I wanted to create luxury. I didn’t want a grocery store brand. I wanted a luxury brand, so it was kind of a wake-up call that this was a stepping stone.

So it was time to move on?

Yes! I am forever grateful to Whole Foods, forever grateful because it kind of legitimized it for me, you know. And in those 2-3 years, the foundation was beginning to be born.

And the foundation is arguably your most cult-status product?

It is. Absolutely. Hands down.

I don’t even remember how it got on my radar, but I remember trying it, and being like, “Holy Cow, this is special!” Literally when I tried the foundation, I started emailing people. Like I emailed The Detox Market, and I emailed Katey Denno. I was like, “Have you guys seen this?” You know, it was a really big deal.

I guess what I want to highlight is that in cosmetics it’s unusual to have someone that formulates themselves. Do you work with anyone else when you formulate?

No, every single formula is Gressa original. Proprietary. I made it. Most likely in my kitchen, because it’s usually late nights—though now I have a lab.

For when you’re in mad scientist mode? [laughing]

Yeah! Mad scientist. You know most of the formulas are a few years old, so back then it was just me with a newborn—but even before she was born, I was in my kitchen at midnight. Or I’d be asleep and definitely not in mad scientist mode—I would be asleep and be like, “Ahhh! [big gasp] Oh my god, I can add this!” I’d literally run downstairs to my kitchen. My house was a mess—a big mess. For probably a year my house was a warehouse, a shipping facility, and a lab. It was insane.

We got a facility in Portland, and then of course moved to Seattle. So everything’s proprietary, everything is made in house, and I promise it’ll always stay that way. I can give my word. It gives us the edge that most cosmetic brands don’t have. It also allows me to have better control, and make sure that products are consistent. There’s no middle man. It eliminates a lot of emails. [laughing] I’m really big on innovation, so I also get the creative edge because it’s right here at our labs.

Speaking of innovation, your color range has textures that I think don’t exist in the conventional world, or in the green world.

They’re very different.

What do you think makes you different that allowed you to come up with these textures?

You know, I’ll be honest with you. I won’t say that me having a scientific background helped. I mean, it helped in terms of understanding what goes well with what, and I understand microbiological testing and things like that—you know, the technicalities. But, I just really desired. I think it was my desire for something different. I wanted to push the envelope. I wanted to give women the opportunity to have so much fun when they’re revealing their face, as they’re putting their Gressa products on. I didn’t want to change anybody’s looks. I wanted them to still look like themselves, so I love the creaminess of all of my formulations. I think everything creamy is good. It sits well on the skin with a natural finish. So I think it was really my own personal aesthetics.

You created the line that you wanted.

Exactly.

Because you’re not a makeup artist?

No, I’m not a makeup artist.

And you have a scientific background, but you’re not a scientist.

Right.

So, you’re really a woman who wanted this.

Yes, I’m a woman who wanted this. [laughing]

I think that’s great.

I wanted hands-on, easy, sophisticated fundamentals…I didn’t want anybody to miss any of the products. I wanted them to have four products from Gressa and be completely, utterly satisfied with their beauty ritual.

People can’t see you, but you’re very stylish, and I think you could just have easily been a consumer that had turned to big department store brands. Why is natural so important to you?

Because of my scientific background. Because I’ve studied nutrition so much. Actually, that was the original reason why I decided not go to medical school, because of nutrition. Unless you really specialize, and you go into that specialty, nutrition is very lightly touched upon through medical school. And the way that I grew up, your food is everything. Your gut is number one. You know, it’s like I call my grandma, and she’s asking me, “How are you doing?” and I say, “I’m ok, I’m a little tired, I have a headache.” She’ll say, “Well have you eaten soup today?” [Laughing] Like totally, you know, you think it’s not related, and it’s hilarious, and it’s totally old school, but it’s so true. Because, you know, “Did you poop?” That’s the most caring question anybody can ask. “Did you poop today?” [Laughing] You know? Because if you didn’t, I mean, a few things are going to go wrong—you’re going to breakout, you’re going to have gas…

Real talk. [Laughing]

Real talk. [Laughing] You’re going to breakout! Your skin’s going to show it!

Sluggish internally, sluggish skin.

Everything, you know! So that is why ingredients are so important to me. You know, what am I consuming? And of course we all know that skin consumes about 60% of any ingredient that you slather on. This is where the search started—the cosmetic ingredients. I believe in it wholeheartedly.  I think green should be the only way. Not that you want to be too ‘namaste’, right? [Laughing]

I see you shopping for shoes.

Giiiirlll! Ok so, yeah, let’s not go too black and white on this. [Laughing]

How many pairs of shoes do you own, Svetlana?

Is this going on record?

Yes! It’s going on record!

You know what, it’s not that many! I’m very good at rotation. It’s all about that! So you know, probably…40 or 50?

Just a few pairs!

60? [Laughing]

Is there anything else that someone would be surprised to know about you?

I’m very low maintenance with really nice shoes. I’m the most low maintenance person you’ll ever meet. I’m not even kidding you.

I mean I do like the style, I do like the shoes, and some finer things I guess—but if you take them away from me, I’ll still be very happy. I’ll be the same person. Just don’t take away the shoes! [Laughing] No, but yeah, super low maintenance. My hair is most of the time just insane, I’m wearing my glasses 90% of the time, don’t have any makeup on – even right now, I just have some foundation and mascara—that’s all I have! I think that’s one of the misconceptions that people may have about me. You know, that I’m high-maintenance bougie, when actually that’s the opposite of what I am.

This is true.

How do you find a good work-life balance and stay grounded? I find that a lot of moms that I’ve talked to find it impossible.

It’s impossible!

Like even the pursuit of it might even be defeatist.

Yeah, yeah.

But what do you find helps you?

Umm, therapy? [Laughing]

It’s honest!

Yeah. Or even, just reading, therapy-based literature.

How do I stay grounded? I have days off. I take time off. Like total. I unplug, and I take time. And I eat good food. And I really enjoy it. Eating good food.

Yes you do.

What’s next for Gressa?

A mascara.

[Gasp] Do you have a launch date in mind?

No, no, whenever it’s ready. I learned that the hard way, when you’re doing it yourself and there’s a thousand other things. And we’re hitting growth spurts like nobody’s business. There’s another thing that’s really exciting – what we’re lacking, what Gressa is lacking, and what the green beauty world is lacking, is a little thing click concealer stick.

Oh! Like a concealer wand?

A little click click click. We’re going to have a Gressa click corrective serum concealer.

Yes!

Yes, ma’am.

I use your foundation as a concealer anyway!

You can, and it’ll be a little more opaque and a little bit creamier.

It’s going to be so good.

Yeah!

Thanks for chatting.

Thank you!

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