Francisco Costa on using fermentation to synthetically produce natural ingredients
The founder of pioneering brand Costa Brazil tells Wallpaper* how he complements fair trade practices with cutting-edge biotechnology
Imagine if you could recreate almost any substance using fermented yeast and sugar cane. It seems impossible, right? According to Francisco Costa, former creative director of womenswear at Calvin Klein and now founder of beauty brand Costa Brazil, not only is it possible, it’s already happening.
When Costa says this to me over tea in London, I tend to think I must be misunderstanding. After all, Costa Brazil’s unique selling point is its use of natural Amazonian ingredients such as kaya, a skin-hydrating superfood extracted from the pods of the sapucaia tree; cacay, a vitamin E-filled nut that contains retinol; and, most importantly, breu, a resin extracted from the almaciga that is used to relieve anxiety and improve the appearance of the skin.
The future of sustainable beauty with Costa Brazil
Costa was born in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and lived there until his mother’s untimely death in the mid-1980s, prompting him to move to New York and study fashion. There he took language classes at Hunter College during the day and classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the evenings. After graduating, he quickly landed a job at Oscar de la Renta before becoming chief designer of womenswear at Gucci during the Tom Ford era, then creative director of womenswear at Calvin Klein, where he released collections that honored the brand’s “Calvin clean” minimalism. a way of his own.
Costa Brazil founder Francisco Costa in a 1930s Danish wing chair in his New York apartment. Photograph by Weston Wells.
When Costa left Calvin Klein in 2016, he knew he wanted his next project to be “less superficial, more intimate, next to skin.” Beauty seemed natural to him, but he had no idea what the identity of this mark could be. That changed when he took a trip to the Amazon, hoping that luck would throw something at him. Eventually he did, in the form of boulder-like pieces of breu resin, which Costa saw the indigenous peoples throwing into ritual fires. Intrigued by its heady, sweet smell, Costa soon learned that breu was a surprisingly versatile remedy for everything from anxiety and headaches to colic, respiratory problems and aggravated skin.
Breu would become a defining part of Costa Brazil’s identity, and the brand would launch in 2019 with skincare oils derived from the ingredient, as well as packaged pieces of unprocessed breu to burn at home. At first, Costa sourced the breu from a Brazilian manufacturer who specialized in working with Amazonian ingredients, as he did not have the access or means to source and distribute the ingredient on his own. . But in January this year, Costa returned to the Amazon to visit the villages that supplied his maker with brew. “When I say a village, I mean ten houses in the middle of the jungle. It’s more like a family,” Costa says.
The size of these villages came as a surprise, as did the circumstances in which the villagers obtained the ingredient. “I didn’t realize that for every 500kg I committed to, they had to go deep into the forest for three months,” Costa recalls. He adds that, although the villagers see themselves as guardians of the forest and have dedicated their lives to its preservation, they do not legally own the land: “It is psychologically very hard for them.
This aloe leaf juice cream is enriched with the brand’s signature Jungle Complex trio of ingredients. Photograph by Marius W Hansen.
With this in mind, Costa has started buying raw resin directly from farmers for its consumable brew, as it goes direct to the consumer as is. But the brew that goes into its skincare oils and lotions still needs to be processed by a manufacturer. Mindful of fair trade practices, Costa negotiated with its manufacturer to offer these villagers an increased royalty. Yet he is quick to note that he does not see himself as a model of sustainable business practices. Running a big, sustainable beauty brand requires an appetite to keep learning, a humility to recognize that you could always do more, and an occasional willingness to make tax sacrifices for ethical good.
Costa seemed to largely respect these principles during the three years of Costa Brazil’s existence. The brand has worked with the NGO Conservation International to identify agricultural land that harvests with the least possible impact on the environment, often providing new opportunities for communities previously forced to cultivate conflict crops which, due to their value, can encourage tensions between competing stakeholders and government agencies. Around the same time as his trip to the Amazon, Costa was looking for a collaborator to help him develop the brand.
That’s how he came to work with Amyris. The San Francisco-based synthetic biology company engineers strains of yeast and ferments them in sugarcane syrup so that plant sugars are converted into new forms that mimic the genetic makeup of other natural substances. Costa is now working with Amyris to recreate the breu through this process. In Costa’s eyes, the work he and brands such as L’Oréal, Shiseido and Estée Lauder are currently doing with Amyris is “the catalyst for what sustainable beauty is going to be.”
Breu resin. This resin has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of Brazil to relieve anxiety and improve mental clarity. As it burns, it releases a relaxing woody aroma of rich earth and crushed leaves. Photograph by Luis Alberto Rodríguez.
Costa Brazil will still source its brew from the Amazon, supporting local industry there, but, by jointly creating brew, it will be able to produce on a larger scale than ever before without increased environmental impact. “When we produce sustainable ingredients using alternative manufacturing methods, we don’t have to rely on petrochemicals or vulnerable plants and animals,” an Amyris spokesperson told Wallpaper*. “For our work looking at replacements for breu and other forest extracts, it’s about finding that balance between science and nature; we want to continue to source ingredients smartly in a way that helps the forest thrive.
Costa may call himself “the most organic, nature-oriented person in the world”, but he realizes that “we also have to recognize people, and you have to create a 360-degree cooperation system at the same time in the laboratory and in the forest. . We will continue to source from farmers. But at the same time, having this clean slate that makes these ingredients available on a larger scale is really exciting. §