Photography by Olivia Kirkpatrick
Styling by Claire Sullivan-Kraus
Makeup & hair by Alexandra Stanworth-Brown
Four years ago, Emma Lewisham stepped away from an impressive career in tech to start a beauty company that would grow to become one of the most groundbreaking and sought-after in its category. With no prior experience in beauty but armed with a proclivity for problem solving, an enviable work ethic and a desire to drive change in a space that desperately needed it, Lewisham launched her eponymous brand, a clean skincare line that harnessed the power of nature and was backed by rigorous scientific practice. From the outset, Emma Lewisham has been buoyed by its fans who swear by its unparalleled efficacy, as well as by those who praise its first-to-market circularity and sustainability practices. Here, we talk to Lewisham about her entrepreneurial journey and the ways in which she is changing the beauty game for good.
Beauty is big business. In fact, by 2027, the global beauty industry is expected to have grown roughly six percent per year to an eye-watering US$580 billion. That is not a sum to be taken lightly, and brands are increasingly becoming aware of it. Since the pandemic, beauty has been on a steady upward trajectory that has proved not only hugely profitable for established brands, but a potent breeding ground for new players who are using innovative science and cutting-edge practices to turn the classic beauty paradigm on its head. It is in this latter category, that Emma Lewisham is an undisputed leader. Her eponymous line, recently crowned the world’s first climate positive and circular designed beauty brand has, over the last four years, commanded attention on the world stage, establishing itself not only as a bona fide change maker but a brand driven by its moral and ethical tenets and by a commitment to rigorous scientific formulation that is unlike anything else that has come before. That said, for Lewisham, the idea for her line wasn’t born from a passion for skincare or a desire to be the next big thing in beauty, it was much, much simpler.
“It’s never been about the industry for me,” Lewisham explains. “I’ve always loved business and problem solving in particular, and when I was pregnant and discovered that there were ingredients I could no longer use on my skin, really with no alternatives, I saw a problem that needed a solution… it just happened to be in beauty.” For Lewisham, what started as a research mission into ingredients that would be safe in pregnancy, quickly became a wider exploration into the true power of natural ingredients, and how she could turn them into products that actually worked; products that would truly change the skin without requiring compromise. “Nature really is the world’s most powerful bio-engineer,” Lewisham tells me, quoting former Nobel Prize-winner in Physiology, Frances Arnold, “and because I was coming into the beauty realm with completely fresh eyes, I could see that it was ripe for change, I wanted to bring new thinking and I wanted to flip it on its head,” she continues. “I just had to trust my intuition.” (An intuition, it seems, that has never led Lewisham far astray.)
The foundations for Lewisham’s career as a beauty pioneer were firmly laid in her upbringing in rural Waikato. Raised by what she describes as an entrepreneurial family, including her grandmother, who was one of the first female CEOs in New Zealand (the generational apple clearly didn’t fall far there), Lewisham was taught from a young age the crucial importance of working hard and of pursuing ambitious goals with purpose. Growing up surrounded by land and animals, she also had a deep love and appreciation for the environment instilled in her, especially given her father’s approach to farming, in which he focused on regenerating and restoring the land (unique for the practices at the time). “My father really fostered in me this willingness to challenge the status quo, always,” Lewisham tells me, “and that women could be and do whatever we wanted in life.”
Equipped with a solid ethical compass and a belief that she could take on any challenge, Lewisham discovered her entrepreneurial spirit at university, where she started consulting with local businesses to help them solve a variety of internal problems. “I loved digging into an issue to try and understand how to fix it in a sustainable, long-term way,” Lewisham explains, going on to say that, when she eventually did embark on a career in tech, it was these early lessons that stood her in good stead for the challenges of being an executive at a multinational company. In fact, Lewisham was on the brink of becoming the first female CEO of a major tech corporation when, in a stunning U-turn, she decided to step away from the promotion to start her skincare line. “When I was working in tech I did a lot in the circularity and sustainability space,” she says, “and managed the strategy around how to get everyone in the company singing from the same song-sheet, which I loved.” She continues, “when I left that role, a lot of people couldn’t understand why, but for me, I found myself in a place where I had to decide whether I wanted to continue pushing against a glass ceiling or take a different path, and I chose to trust my instincts.”
Emma Lewisham was launched in 2019 with the bold mission statement of setting a new benchmark in beauty. Its products really were the first of their kind, marrying clean, natural ingredients with luxurious formulations, delicious scents and cutting-edge circularity. Most-importantly, they were backed by years of scientific research and development to ensure a level of efficacy that often outstripped some of the most significant, stalwart beauty players on the market — with the numbers to prove it. From the outset, Emma Lewisham presented itself as a brand of exceptional quality and integrity, unafraid to break the mould and push the boundaries of what had been done before (something it continues to do to this day). “We are always levelling up,” says Lewisham, flashing me some of that steely determination that has clearly been such a driver of her success, “even in our formulations, we stay up to date with the most current science so that we can keep offering the best of what nature can provide.” Last year, for example, instead of flooding the market with new products, Emma Lewisham updated five of its key formulations, to ensure that its customers were only using the best of the best on their skin. A unique approach in an industry where cut-through can be dependent on novelty.
That said, what makes Lewisham so powerful as an entrepreneur in this space is her willingness to defy conventional practice in order to be impactful in a totally different way. One of the hallmarks of the Emma Lewisham brand, for instance, is its refillable packaging system, offering a major break from the linear, throwaway culture of the beauty industry at large. It’s a system that has huge implications for the environment, with refills bought (instead of a new product) proven to cut carbon emissions by up to 70 percent. Despite now being recognised as a major drawcard for Emma Lewisham and responsible for much of the brand’s commercial success, its founder tells me that she had to fight for her circular vision, having recognised its incredible, untapped potential where many others hadn’t yet. “At the start of our journey, there were a lot of people who insisted that customers wouldn’t buy into our refillable model,” Lewisham tells me, “that it wasn’t the future of beauty.” She continues, “and while it’s true that people don’t necessarily want to buy sustainable products, what they do want, are products that work, so I saw it as our job to create incredibly effective, high quality products,” she pauses, “and our responsibility to make them sustainable.”
Balancing efficacy, luxury and sustainability is no mean feat, particularly if you’re wrangling 24-ingredient formulations to ensure that they not only work, but that they’re shelf-stable and user friendly. It’s an eye-watering number of variables to juggle, and is the reason why, Lewisham explains, some of her skincare creations take two to three years to come to market, so meticulous is the process.
“I’ve given it my all… And I think that’s what life is all about, right? Learning what you’re capable of, being proud of what you’ve achieved and having a daring adventure.”
One such product, an utterly groundbreaking new blemish serum that was unveiled earlier this year, is something that encapsulates the Emma Lewisham ethos perfectly. It started with a problem — acne — which led Lewisham and her team to undertake a deep dive into the skin’s physiology, seeking to understand everything about blemish causation and effective treatment. What they came across was the work of New Zealand professor John Tagg (known as the Godfather of the microbiome) who, in 2004, had discovered a bacterial strand called micrococcus luteus Q24, and had spent the last 20 years studying its effect on the microbiome of the skin. The results showcased the astounding ability of this particular bacteria to banish blemish-causing pathogens, as well as improve a number of other markers, leaving the skin clear, hydrated and more youthful-looking. It was a watershed moment for Lewisham, who saw Q24 as the answer to blemish woes that had really never been addressed effectively, or at least, not in a way that didn’t require compromise to the user’s health. “I genuinely believe that this is the biggest breakthrough in skincare this year,” Lewisham tells me, “and for us, it sums up what our brand is about.” Innovation, tick. Efficacy, tick. Safe and derived from nature, tick. Good for the planet, tick. As predicted, Emma Lewisham’s Blemish Serum is breaking records, with users reporting life-changing results, clearly benefiting from the unique way in which the product’s key ingredient delivers 230 million doses of live probiotic, acne-fighting bacteria to the skin with every use. As Lewisham herself said, a breakthrough.
Recently, after her brand was picked up by Mecca stores across New Zealand and Australia, Lewisham set her sights on the United Kingdom, undergoing an expansion that saw her brand secure some of the most premium retail partners in the world, including Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges and Net-A-Porter. It was also the first New Zealand beauty brand to be stocked by SpaceNK. For context, retailers of this calibre receive thousands of submissions every year by brands who would love to be placed on their glossy shelves. To get one is a triumph. To get them all virtually on the first go, is unheard of. In what I am coming to understand as Lewisham’s signature modus operandi, the entrepreneur tells me that the expansion was carefully planned and executed, explaining how she now has an Emma Lewisham team in London, as well as a warehouse and distribution centre. “We identified the UK as one of the fastest-growing conscious consumer markets in the world and there really wasn’t anything offering the kinds of products that we were,” she tells me. “Our success over there has given us this edge,” she continues, “we feel really dialled up and clear and focused at the moment, and are looking forward to building on what we have started in our key markets over the next couple of years.”
For Lewisham, her ability to operate at a consistently high level and achieve such lofty goals both stem from the love she harbours for her work. “It’s my fun,” she tells me, with a laugh, “I’m obsessive about this work.” Ultimately, she is driven because she is passionate and her dedication to her vision makes her more forward-thinking than anyone else in her space. She runs her business and manages her people with careful consideration, remaining true to herself and her message even in the face of difficulties. Above all else, she cares deeply about her impact and about what she will leave behind on this Earth. And just like everyone, she sometimes struggles with balance. “One of the biggest challenges is managing my business and motherhood at the same time,” she tells me, echoing a sentiment that has been shared by womanhood collectively since our inclusion in the workforce became the norm. She goes on, “I’m incredibly driven, I have very high standards and I want to do exceptional work,” she says, “but I find that I carry those standards over into motherhood too, and that can be challenging.”
Looking to the future, I ask the beauty entrepreneur what’s in store. “I feel like we’ve climbed so many mountains,” she says, “and if it was all over tomorrow I would be incredibly proud… but we are looking to enter some new, more lifestyle-focused categories that we feel haven’t been cracked yet,” she hints, refusing to give too much away, although twinkling with the promise of much more to come. What I do know, is that whatever challenge Lewisham decides to take on next, the core values of her brand will remain constant. It will solve problems, it will care for people and the planet, it will work (better, probably, than many others of its kind), and it will stand against any status quo that needs a shake up. Beyond its implications for the future of beauty, Emma Lewisham has proven that sustainable models can be commercially viable in a very real way. If other brands (in any category) adopted a similarly progressive outlook, the change across buying habits, consumption, waste, the environment and so much more would be paradigm-shifting. More than that, it would finally showcase how sustainability can evolve from greenwashed slogans and high ideals, to something tangible, practical and yes, profitable too. What Lewisham has achieved in her industry is astounding, but the potential implications of her work could be far, far greater.
“I can look back in life knowing that I really tested myself to my limits and that I’ve given it my all,” Lewisham tells me towards the end of our conversation. “And I think that’s what life is all about, right? Learning what you’re capable of, being proud of what you’ve achieved and having a daring adventure.”
Shop Emma’s Product Edit