About ten minutes into our interview, I ask Raymond Cloosterman about a ritual he reportedly follows.
Is it true, I ask the CEO and founder of Ritual Cosmetics, a home-and-body-care brand, that he gets his shirt cuffs embroidered with inspirational quotes such as ‘He who is brave is free’ and ‘He who doesn’t believe in magic will never find it’? Or is it just another charming tale to add to his dynamic, Dutch-James Bond-style persona?
Fifty-two-year-old Raymond laughs, and throws a question back at me. ‘Every man is entitled to a few strange habits, isn’t he?’
I nod. First, because I sense that it’ll be difficult to argue with this tall, imposing man seated across me in a meeting room at Friday’s office. Second, because over the past few minutes that I’ve spent trying to find out more about the man behind Rituals, he’s somehow managed to link every answer back to his brand. So, at this point, any personal snippet would be quite welcome.
He doesn’t disappoint. Turns out every word of the quotes-on-cuffs story is true. ‘My favourite quote from Walt Disney – “If you can dream it, you can do it” – also finds space on my shirt,’ he says. ‘Because when I started my dream, I wasn’t sure if I would make it through Christmas.’
Does he set himself a daily goal based on which shirt he’s wearing that day, then?
‘No,’ he says, laughing again. ‘But I do glance down at my cuffs in a very subtle way so no one can see me do it. It serves as a nice reminder in the morning and it’s become a part of the way I wear my outfits. Believe me, you need such phrases at the beginning, when you’re full of doubt.’
From the basement of a canal house in Amsterdam, to 2,000 shop-in-shops at luxury departments and perfumeries, and 25,000 hotel rooms, Rituals is taking the world by storm.
The beginning he’s referring to started in the basement of an Amsterdam canal house back in 2000. That was when he started Rituals with a staff of three. It’s a unisex, uniage line – with a hint of luxury – meant to help you enjoy the little things in life, drawing its philosophy from ancient Eastern rituals. Products like whipped body creams, mousses that explode into foam, fragrance sticks, and ice gels that cool you down much after your shower feature prominently.
The brand might be all about encouraging everyone to slow down (‘It’s about enjoying everything, a slow shopping paradise; you won’t find an aggressive salesperson attacking you in any of my stores!’) but its expansion is anything but unhurried. Rituals now opens two to three stores every week somewhere in the world. It has more than 2,000 shop-in-shops at luxury departments and perfumeries; it sells on airlines such as Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic as well as cruise liners; and can be found in 25,000 hotel rooms. Raymond aims to open 500 stores in 25 countries by the end of the year.
So confident is Rituals in its philosophy that the company has been doing all this without any advertising budget, or celebrity endorsement. ‘No advertising, no big face, just a whole lot of patience,’ Raymond tells me with a shrug.
(Left to right) Nilesh Ved, Chairman of Apparel Group; Raymond Cloosterman; Robert JH Leeuw, Consul-General of The Netherlands in the UAE; and Sima Ved, Vice-Chairman of Apparel Group at the launch of Rituals in the country.
And while it might still be a European success story – everywhere from Sweden to Spain, Germany and Paris has its stores – Rituals has taken its first steps outside, starting with 10 stores in Manhattan, and two new ones in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, and Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi. They’ve opened in partnership with Dubai-based retail conglomerate, Apparel Group.
Why the Middle East? ‘The culture of gifting is so strong in the region,’ he says. ‘And there’s a huge focus on quality and fragrances here. Plus, there are so many different cultures here, so, as an eclectic brand, we fit in completely.’
I can almost see Raymond rub his hands in glee as he talks about opening 10 stores this year in every GCC country, and 20-30 stores next year.
Rituals might be affordable luxury, but Raymond started out on the opposite end of the spectrum, at Unilever. ‘Which means I was trained and raised with luxury brands such as Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Arden,’ he says. ‘After my MBA, I had a fast career at Unilever with all kinds of operational jobs, and then all kinds of visionary jobs, for 12 years. And one day, before I was due to start a new job there, I was given a break and asked to come back with new insights.
‘Going from 100 meetings and 200 emails, there I was sitting behind an empty desk, a bit insecure. So I decided to go on a journey of discovery. And I travelled a lot. I visited research centres, I did some power shopping in Tokyo, US, Stockholm, not in the usual suspects but in the small stores, and I even visited the Maharishi community in the Netherlands, as well as Unicef [centres].
‘I got so much inspiration; I saw people looking for things driven by passion, over money. So I resigned.’
Raymond launched Rituals with the insights he’d gained on his trips and describes it as a hobby that got out of control. ‘But I had a dream, and it was to build a brand whose products you could buy not just at Christmas, but also all year-round.’
Leaving behind traditional corporate employment to chase the start-up dream – it isn’t as wonderful, is it? Raymond is quick to agree. ‘I was one of the youngest directors at Unilever, but I threw it away, and suddenly my income was divided by six, my secretary and driver were gone.’ He pauses and grins. ‘But, in return, I got intellectual and creative freedom, and the opportunity to follow my dream, which is something most people don’t get. I had two careers, if you will.’
Raymond had two main aims in mind. ‘I wanted to keep the price fair, but also wanted the best from the best labs in world.’ But he’s quick to clarify that he doesn’t start anything in labs. ‘I always start by looking for stories instead,’ he says. ‘So I go on journeys to find rituals – Japan, India, Turkey, China... ancient stories, translated in a modern way.’
He quotes the grooming rituals of the Japanese samurai before they went to war. ‘I took that story, and natural ingredients from that era like bamboo and ginger, and created a line for the modern warrior, before he goes to ‘war’ every morning!’
All the dreams and hard work have paid off. Rituals make-up was used backstage at the Grammys and Oscars, and is the brand of choice for many royal families across Europe. And before I even ask, true to form, Raymond has a story behind this, and it involves Cleopatra. ‘She was the first woman to use pulverised rubies and amethyst, and gemstones for make-up, believing that the energy of the stones kept her skin young. So I developed that idea using pulverised gems with a doctor of Chinese medicine and a Hollywood make-up artist, and then they called us from Hollywood.’
Does he think affordable brands are the way ahead? ‘Luxe brands are a form of escapism,’ he says. ‘You work so hard, you need to pamper yourself and you buy this expensive bag, and then don’t eat for three weeks! It’s strange. But there’s a new wave coming, where people are more aware of what’s fair to pay as a premium. Millennials are built differently. They’re critical about quality, but love beautiful products and want the price to be fair. Not too cheap, mind you, but too expensive, and it’s a waste.’ Raymond cites Zara and Mac as inspiration. ‘In essence, people are looking more for their gold. Beauty is becoming more democratic.’
He’s also closely watching the changes in grooming rituals worldwide. ‘People are starting to take more time out for it, while looking for easy one-in-two solutions. In Europe, men use a lot of their wives’ products,’ he winks, ‘and then they start buying their own stuff!
‘People are now using more luxury products for the home and body. They want clever stuff. They like to be surprised. They want to be entertained, they’re looking for small adventures, small experiences. But they’re also looking for the best deal, the most beautiful at the best price, and this is across different industries.
‘Take Nespresso as an example – you pay more for a coffee but get more value too.’
But while Raymond’s all for embracing the new wave of millennials, he cracks a wry smile when I mention the new It beauty treatments incorporating everything from snake venom and snail slime to stem cells from people. ‘In Hong Kong two weeks ago, I bought some of these products,’ he tells me. ‘But I haven’t dared to try them yet, it’s a bit scary! I believe in natural, organic, no animal testing. For the millennials – who have started becoming more important than baby boomers – both what you put in your body and on your body is really important. In the long run, I think we’ll see beauty and food merge. For example, go to Japan today and not only does it combine a spa in a store, they go a step further and integrate it with restaurants. A bit strange, maybe, but food with beauty is a real trend.’
With new stores opening every day, his daily rituals are quite unlike the relaxation and slow pace his brand promotes. He doesn’t disagree. ‘My ritual these days is mostly a travel one,’ says Raymond. ‘I do take my running gear though, and while I can’t use it much in Dubai, I find it’s a great way to see a city wake up.
‘I have a map at home with pins on the places I’ve been to, and I must say it’s already pretty full.’
He doesn’t travel solo anymore; his wife and four children go along too. ‘As a family, we try to make sure our kids discover new cultures,’ he says. ‘We try to combine luxury days with real days, like take the train in Thailand, visit Mumbai’s slums, or visit the countryside somewhere.’
His wife has her own business too, but he says they’re ‘good jugglers. We try to be there for the important moments, make sure that all the kids get the attention they need. We’re not there for dinner every day, which is a pity and the price you pay, but the weekends are with the kids and we try and compensate by exploring the world together.’
As we wrap up the interview, I notice he’s wearing his watch on his right wrist. Another ritual? ‘That’s true’ he laughs. ‘A famous businessman once asked his team to wear watches on their right hands while during a transitional process to remind them of what their goals are. So I do it to remind myself of my goals and dreams, and also quit smoking!’
To the average person, it would seem Raymond has achieved most of his goals, and the watch can now move to the left hand. Not so. ‘I’m privileged to be where I am, but there’s still a lot of work to do and dreams to fulfil. In a way, I never grew up. There’s still so much to be discovered, so much to be shared.’