Asia Spa profiles Katharine L’Heureux in a two-page feature.
By Kate O’Brien
With a background in publishing and public relations, Katharine L’Heureux was living in New York with her husband and three children when a chance visit to Morocco in 2007 ignited a passion that burns on. “I was approaching 50 and trying to live a healthier lifestyle,” she explains, “but the earthy organic smell of the more natural skincare products available at the time didn’t appeal to me as a luxury skincare buyer. I didn’t trust that these products would work for me. First and foremost, skincare needs to work. I was in the Moroccan desert and my skin became so dry that the local Berber women gave me some argan oil. It really worked, I loved it and I loved Morocco so much.”
These Berber women have used the pressed juice of the argan kernel for centuries to combat the dry desert air and reduce the signs of ageing. The oil is sourced from the argan tree or ‘Tree of Life’ as it is called locally, that grows exclusively in the Souss valley of southwestern Morocco, an area that is now a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Overflowing in vitamin E, essential fatty acids and antioxidants, it helps soften, repair and rejuvenate every skin type.
Back in New York, L’Heureux began to import small quantities of the oil for personal use, when something on her radar enticed her to develop this organic, sustainable product a little further. So began the pure, natural and sustainable brand Kahina Giving Beauty. It marks a timely move too, as she believes that the movement for pure ethical skincare is only just beginning. “As more people realise what is in conventional beauty products, and the health problems that these toxic ingredients can cause, as well as their effects on the environment and on animals, it is understandable that people will look for alternatives. Once they see the results they are achieving with natural skincare, the choice soon becomes clear.”
She is adamant that choosing nutrient and fatty acid-rich natural products, both topically and internally, helps stabilise and strengthen skin function and outweighs the more medically endorsed cosmeceutical brands. “These ingredients are essential for cell growth, repair and inhibiting inflammation in the skin and are best found in sources closest to nature. Skin that has proper moisture levels, pH and antioxidant support is able to function optimally – acting as a barrier to resist irritants and free radical damage, while looking vibrant, even-toned and smooth. There are so many factors at play in skin ageing but my philosophy has always been to do your best to improve what you can and accept what you can’t change. Eat plenty of fats (avocado, nuts and fish in particular), drink lots of water, exercise, avoid the sun and eliminate toxins that create inflammation in the body and potential allergies from your home and skincare. Stress plays a role too, so worrying too much about any of the above is counterproductive.”
Her mantra is: do your best, and don’t judge yourself when you slip. This said, she isn’t averse to the odd cosmetic fix if it helps a woman feel better in and about herself. “My face is very expressive normally, and I’ve had crow’s feet around my eyes since my 20s. I tried botox a few years ago but disliked the results. My eyes looked tired and I hated not being able to show genuine warmth in my expression. I’ve come to appreciate my crow’s feet; they’re a sign that I’ve smiled a lot. My husband calls them sunbursts.”
Giving back is at the core of Kahina and a fair wage is paid to the women who harvest and crack the nuts for the oil. The company donates an additional percentage of profits to support programmes that directly benefit these women, such as replacing traditional wood-burning stoves with solar powered stoves that reduce the health risks associated with smoke inhalation, while also helping to preserve the argan trees themselves, which were previously cut down for the fires. Kahina’s latest initiative with their charitable partner, the High Atlas Foundation, is to provide a badly needed bathroom to a one-room school outside of Marrakech. “With no bathroom, the girls’ attendance was dropping off dramatically,” she adds. “Now with something so simple, we are giving these girls some hope for the future. We hope that our philosophy and ethics resonate with our customers and build trust and brand loyalty. Kahina is a small company and we have reinvested most profits back into the company for new product development that is necessary to grow the company and keep it relevant. I put what I can aside for our charities before I pay myself. In fact, I have yet to make a salary. It’s challenging, but I am committed to helping these women, while trying to sustain a small business.“
Just as giving back is Kahina’s underlying ethos, living a healthy vibrant life – and some time at the hammam – is at the heart of its dynamic founder. “I try to eat foods that have been as minimally processed as possible. Living in New York means that I walk a lot, about three miles a day, and I try to get to the gym three to four times a week. I love Morocco’s community hammam. It’s so immersive with all the ladies and children together and so very Moroccan. I always bring something home and hope to incorporate more hammam-related products into Kahina. The savon noir or black soap (a paste made from olive resin) is amazing. When scrubbed into the skin with the kessa glove (or scrubby mitt) in the hot room, it leaves the skin super soft
L’Heureux is prudent about getting older and seems stronger and more passionate than ever, with no signs of slowing. “I’ve had a wonderful life and getting older is a part of it. My 20s were spent trying to please others – my parents, my friends, my boss. I tended to be very shy, thinking everyone was somehow superior to me – prettier, fitter, smarter or more accomplished. Looking back and knowing how my life has turned out, I wish I hadn’t wasted a minute worrying about how I looked.”
A believer in destiny, her advice to the younger generation is to be open to anything and to trust their instincts. “Take risks and see where they lead you,” she counsels. “Kahina was such a risk for me but the doors kept opening. As a society we focus so much on the negative – always needing to look better, be thinner, be better. It’s time to take the focus off the wrinkles and the scales and give it all some meaning by working with women like the Berber, who don’t have much, yet who are far more accepting [than us]. This is what inspires me – and Kahina.
“I want to make sure I can continue to be as active as possible for as long as I can. I love the energy of New York City, but my time with my family is what recharges me, especially when spent outdoors, close to nature at our home in the Hudson Valley. I have changed so much too. For me, it used to be about being thin – now it’s about being strong – a real shift, and this stage of my life isn’t at all bad.”