Margo Marrone, founder of the Organic Pharmacy, isn’t your average green revolutionary. She adores ‘glamour and glitter and heels’, and wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without putting on her makeup first. In This feature for The Times, Alison Jane Reid talks to the green entrepeneur regarded as a modern alchemist.
For twenty years Marrone worked as a high street chemist – dispensing prescriptions until the day she woke up and decided she couldn’t do it a moment longer, thoroughly disillusioned with the drug-dependant culture of the modern pharmacy.
“I still remember my first job as a Saturday girl in my local chemist. It was lovely, because you got to know your customers, their ailments and their family ailments. It was a continuous history that you built on with each person and you could tailor and mix and customise prescriptions to their individual needs. After I graduated from pharmacy school it changed, and everything came pre-prepared and pre-packaged; there was no scope to help people individually. People would come in with a prescription for blood pressure and within six months, or a year, would be put on two more to deal with the side effects of the first drug.”
Gradually, the truth hit home.
“These people rarely improved; there was just a slow, awful deterioration. Ultimately, I found it a real struggle and lost my passion and that is when I realised I couldn’t do it anymore.”
By accident, Marrone came across Dr Edward Bach’s book ‘Heal Thyself’, and felt so inspired that she decided to train as a homeopath.
“It was the first time that I was made aware of the connection between the mind and the body and I knew this was the direction I wanted to go.”
Marrone grew up in Iran – a culture which still understands and embraces the potent healing and mood enhancing properties of plants and flowers – and where little vials of essential rose oil can be bought on every street corner. As a child, her mother would often treat common ailments with herbs and tinctures bought from the bazaar. This was the inspiration she returned to when she decided to do the unthinkable – open the world’s first organic pharmacy in 2002.
“I remember waking up one day and telling my husband, Franco, that I wanted to open my own pharmacy. I wanted a space where I could see patients, have a drop in homeopathic dispensing area, and room to sell a few carefully chosen health and beauty products; that was the dream. Did I think I could achieve it? Not in a million years!”
A free spirit by nature, Margo declares that she has always loved the concept of entrepreneurship, ever since she was little. It is just as well. In the beginning, she faced enormous obstacles, from open hostility to outright confusion.
“People didn’t understand the need for organic; but why would you? Who would ever have thought Marks and Spencer would remove hydrogenated fat from all their products? Now there is greater awareness.”
Today she is looked upon as a modern alchemist and has an A-list following that she never set out to seduce. Marrone was stuck in traffic on the school run when she heard Kylie Minogue confess on air to Johnny Vaughan that her best-kept beauty secret was Carrot Butter Cleanser from the Organic Pharmacy. “I had no idea she liked our products,” she says laughing and still sounding rather surprised.
Kylie is not alone. Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kirsten Dunst were early converts and happily turn up to do their own shopping in Chelsea, Covent Garden and the new outpost in LA.
But this isn’t a cult health and beauty brand created purely for the rich. Marrone is adamant that the brand isn’t aimed either at the rich or poor.
“My customers are more particular than that. They are people who choose to be health conscious. Of course, it helps tremendously if celebrities say they like what we do; but the important thing is that we have never asked anyone to do that for us.”
The Organic Pharmacy has a following that includes teenagers in Birmingham and farmer’s wives in Suffolk – ordinary people who save up for their favourite cult buys from rose rejuvenating moisturiser – to a lip plump to rival Lancôme’s Juicy Tubes.
“I can’t separate the business from my life – we do this because we believe in living an ethical life. It all comes back to what you do: Do you want to deliver an everyday, ordinary product; or do you want to create a special experience – that’s what I’m after, the ‘wow!’ factor.”
Bright, fizzing, warm and with a playful persona – Marrone is typical of the new breed of green entrepreneur. She doesn’t see herself as some kind of eco-evangelist; but she is passionate about the benefits of eating organic food and she is adamant that modern life is ‘too fast and too toxic’.
“As a chemist I love the idea of being an alchemist and using those skills to mix, customise and blend herbs and homeopathy to give people the chance to feel truly well. I love helping people to reach their potential; it’s such a buzz. That’s why I wanted to be a pharmacist in the first place.”
Now Marrone is using that passion to take organic to a wider audience.
“People forget that we are a health brand. The beauty side evolved out of my clients needs. It all started with our first product, Carrot Butter Cleanser. I had been treating a lady for eczema and she came in one day and asked me if I could make her a cleansing balm without any chemical additives.”
But what gives the Organic Pharmacy the edge in a sector increasingly buzzing with new brands? For a start this is an authentic, British brand and Marrone is a very hands-on alchemist. She uses her chemist’s training to study the latest scientific papers into the therapeutic effects of plants and herbs. Only then does she decide what to make and what the formula will be. She is also critical of the numerous, self-styled organic brands coming on the market with no certification and tiny percentages of active ingredients.
“Firstly, our products are truly organic; all the ingredients are certified; but you will find plenty of brands that claim to be organic and are not. Secondly, the products work because I bring herbs, plants, vitamins and essential oils together and everything is there for a purpose, they are not there just to look or smell nice. I also use high percentages of the active ingredients, because that’s the level at which they become therapeutic.”
Despite her zealous approach, Marrone still can’t quite believe that she has gone from one small shop in Chelsea to the glamorous epicentre of popular culture; but then it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
“People just laughed when my husband Franco and I tried to find funding for the first organic pharmacy. They thought we were mad. I still thank my bank manager who finally gave us the loan. When I asked why when everyone else had turned us down, she said it was very simple, ‘every year the bank lends to one high risk charity case that we like and this year it was you’.”
While Marrone looks after the alchemy, it is her husband Franco who is responsible for taking green consumerism into the modern age and making it alluring and sexy. As a former accessories designer in Italy, he has a flair for creating sleek, enticing environments.
“Franco is responsible for the whole ethos of the shops and the moment you talk to him, you can see how passionate he is about design. I remember him saying he wouldn’t give houseroom to anything earthy or rustic. He injects the glamour and visual beauty into brand. That’s the Italian in him, they do it better than anyone.”
Marrone didn’t set out to be the pied piper of organic glam, but she is certainly enjoying her cult status and has no intention of resting on her very green laurels. In the past two years she has launched The Organic Pharmacy’s Health and Beauty Bible – a book every household should keep on the kitchen shelf to refer to for authoritative, practical advice on everything from IBS to fertility. Then there is Marine Collagen Serum – Marrone’s whiz, bang, super, anti-ageing complex. It has taken years to perfect and she set some tough goals.
“I wanted to formulate an organic alternative to all the synthetic, cult serums on the market. It had to give instant and long term benefits, and I wanted it to be totally plant based. She is adamant too that “a careful synergy of super, natural plant extracts can have a near miraculous effect on damaged skin.”
In 2010, and after three years of intensive research, Margo took the organic beauty revolution one exciting leap further with the launch of her perfume collection, inspired by her love of essential oils.
“Most fragrances on the market now are a mere shadow of the original scents. They are made from cheap, low quality ingredients and supported by a huge marketing budget. Some consumers do not even care how a perfume smells; they are seduced by the packaging and hype behind the brand.”
“With Organic Glam, my aim was to create scents that returned to the original fine art of fragrance creation; where precious raw materials, picked by hand are still used; where quality comes before profit. I wanted to create a perfume that is so beautiful, it leaves you with a happy, warm glow, and a good dose of glamour.”
The burning question is does the perfume have the elusive wow factor? Could this be the green and organic Chanel No 5? What I can tell you, is that two or three hours after trying a spritz of Oriental Blossom with top notes of Bergamot, lemon and mandarin; and rose and neroli at its core (my favourite), I can still smell it’s warm, complex heart on my skin; and the best bit? The perfume evokes the intense memory of walking through the Elizabethan rose gardens at Hatfield and being seduced by the aroma of a real rose after the rain. There isn’t anything remotely synthetic or cloying about this perfume; it smells like pure, unadulterated pleasure. I’m hooked. The only snag? At £112.50, the organic ideal doesn’t come cheap.
So, I have to ask, is the future really green and organic?
“Absolutely,” says Margo very firmly. “We have come too far, there is no turning back.”
Given that she has just launched twenty-nine shades of delectable organic nail polish that don’t chip as fast as the chemical competition, or smell awful; I think even Mademoiselle Chanel would be green with envy. And I am rather looking forward to this green and organic beauty revolution – coming to a High Street near you very soon.