Off a bustling London high street there exists an unexpected oasis of curated calm so artisanal you will wonder how it is you have existed so long without it. Upon arrival in the shop downstairs, I shrugged off my coats (arctic out) and was led towards a hessian-upholstered chair in the middle of the room, under which, and down some steps, snakes-and-laddered in a diagonal motion, was a beautifully aged Persian stair runner. I’m not saying this is normal practice for a shop, just that even these aesthetic anomalies could not prepare me for the conceptuality that lay ahead.
A smiling yet resigned blonde man named Jan who bore the clarity of his skin-tone with an apologetic shrug, ushered me up the hand-carved oak staircase to the attic rooms where my treatment would take place.
As part of my preliminary consultation Frans asked me a series of questions regarding the state of my skincare routine (“…or perhaps you don’t even have one…aha aha ha”) and the lengths to which I am prepared to go in the name of even complexion. I’m afraid he was soon to become considerably more downcast, as my description went on.
“What I tend to do,” I began brightly “is to smoke a lot of Bensons in the morning, alongside my customary tin of banana Nourishment. I don’t wash my face because I know not to strip out the natural oils but I do like to make my own Muller Corner facemasks at night because I’ve heard such good things about fruit enzymes.”
Pieter’s tone became quite clipped and as much as he tried to maintain his expression of quiet dignity, I could tell by the way he rearranged his linen scarves that he really was quite dismayed.
The treatment was now due to start. I took off my clothes, wrapped myself in a linen sarong as directed and climbed up onto an elevated platform dressed with towels and a sheepskin rug. Here I lay looking up at the shiplapped ceiling whilst an unassertive oboe lament piped in from next door. A piece of fringed tapestry depicting a noble hare beside a package of asparagus and an anonymous skull was nailed up in the window frame.
The thing with having a facial is that your eyes are shut in pursuit of being relaxed. Everything in the room is designed to ensure that for next 60 minutes you may think of nothing. Your head can be exuberantly, luxuriously clear. It is at this exact point that I generally start to imagine myself into the plot of a very millennial murder mystery, in which the masseuse dunnit.
Ominously, Lars had now changed into his apothecary cap and began mixing up liquorice root (anti-oxidant) and camellia nut (rejuvenative) in a pestle and mortar, to apply to my T-zone. This is bespoke after all. Presumably taking advantage of the fact that I could not see (very relaxing eyes shut mmm) he next began to stroke my forehead quite vigorously with something light and scratchy. I was reminded of a display of bottle washers and long-handled dish-scrubbers I’d seen at an exhibition of historical kitchens.
Sufficiently scrubbed, there began an series of elaborate gestures, reminiscent of the Victor Victoria fan dance in which a love affair is played out on stage between 2 halves of the same man. Sections of my face were manoeuvred alternately, pressed and plumped and oiled and scratched and then surprisingly painted with a paintbrush. It was really quite coy. Oh Dirck, you big tease! Making me think you are going to suffocate me in a garret by pushing down on my collarbones one minute, then tickling my nose with a roll of parchment the next. This facial is so artisanal!
A loud gasp of exasperation broke out from next door. Through a wide crack in the plasterwork that I supposed had been a conscious design decision, there now floated into view, a disconsolate lute player, who appeared to be suffering a moment of creative block. If anyone could do with having his cheeks scrubbed with a toothbrush made of juniper it was this starving troubadour. And the slumbering dog at his feet. With another thin wail, he threw himself backwards onto a narrow couch under the windowsill and disappeared from view.
By now a facemask of parsley seed and primrose has been applied to my skin and I was left alone with my thoughts under a cold compress while Frans went downstairs to paint a still life or compose a short libretto, or something. My time at Aesop was drawing to a close. I redressed, gingerly, but I’ll be honest, radiantly, and descended to pay my bill.
Upon exchanging goodbyes, Gertha behind the till, dressed in a doublet and cap, bade me a sincere farewell and recommended a nearby tearoom for lunch. “well, it’s that or Whole Foods.” It was such an artisanal facial.