Rahua’s Fabian Lliguin Won’t Quit Until The Amazon Rainforest Is Saved, And Everyone Uses Natural Ingredients On Their Noggins

A decade into his prestige haircare brand Rahua, co-founder Fabian Lliguin isn’t any less passionate than he was at its start about his mission to protect the rainforest while transforming tresses. If anything, he’s more fired up about environmentalism – and using natural ingredients to support it – than he’s ever been. Those who doubt the performance of Rahua’s clean beauty products or Lliguin’s commitment to the Amazon be warned. He doesn’t back down from a debate. “I see it as an opportunity to educate and gain more fans. When it happens, I become stronger, and I make that person a convert. Even if she doesn’t buy the products, she needs to help me preserve the Amazon,” says Lliguin, adding, “My goal is to make products better and better so people will prefer plants over petroleum.” Beauty Independent caught up with Lliguin to discuss the origins of Rahua’s signature oil produced by the Quechua-Shuar tribe in the Amazon rainforest, his rejection of investors, involvement with the other Amazon, the problem with net terms and using palo santo as a part of a preservative system.

What were you doing before your brand?

I grew up in a family of hairdressers in Ecuador, and I’m a hairdresser. At some point, I was going through something many of us go through. I started thinking hairdressing was superficial. It’s not that deep, and there are a lot of problems in the world. I have an Incan background. When you read the history of my people, they were wiped out and injustices were done to them. I started traveling to the Amazon and, when I went to the Amazon, I found someone with my last name for the first time. Most people had changed their last names to Spanish names, but my ancestors didn’t want to change their name. Environmentalism and protection of the Amazon became my passion and my hobby, and [I formed non-profit] Ecoagents.

I went deep into the rainforest where oil companies haven’t gone. I had to land on a small runway that tribes built. I went there to teach about ancestral land rights and human rights. During one of my trips, I met a group of women with beautiful, long hair past their knees. It was very humid, but their hair was totally in place. These particular women loved their hair, and they loved makeup, but they didn’t do their makeup in a way familiar to us. They wore anacondas and butterflies on their faces. I asked them, “Why is your hair so beautiful?” They told me it was because of the rahua oil. I had heard legends about an oil in the rainforest that was great for hair, but you always think they’re just legends.

I bought the oil from them and brought it back to my salons in New York. I started seeing a real difference from it. If someone came into my salon with damaged ends, I used to tell them to cut their hair short, but, with this, I didn’t have to tell them that anymore. It was making hair really healthy. I did research and found out that the oil was rich in omega-9. The molecules are really small and penetrate into the hair. At the same time, I was pursuing environmentalism, and my wife [Anna Ayers] said, “Why don’t we do this as a company to support your passion for environmentalism? You won’t have to lecture people about the environment as much.” So, we went for it and created the company.

Rahua founders Anna Ayers and Fabian Lliguin

How much money did it take to start the company?

I discovered the oil in the 90s, and we started the company in 2008. I saved money for a long time, and I also refinanced my apartment. It was around $80,000 to $100,000 to start. I wanted to do natural products, and people at labs told me it was impossible. They said, “You can’t do make products that are 100% natural.” Luckily for me, I was naïve, and I didn’t want to acknowledge what they were saying, so I pushed and pushed. Then, I discovered palo santo. We were the first company to put palo santo in products. We were able to achieve a preservation system with palo santo.

What was your distribution strategy?

One of the things that happened by accident was that, when I purchased the oil for the first time from this group of women, I ended up paying a lot of money for it. Without even knowing the quality, I established a high price, and it became a really expensive ingredient. It was hard in the beginning because people didn’t think natural products performed, but I wanted to bring out natural products with performance. I also wanted people to respect the oil.

My distribution plan was to put the products in the best salons in New York City. I closed the big salon that I had, and I opened a small salon. I was the only hairdresser there, and I booked appointments for a couple of hours and, during the other hours, I targeted salons in New York City. Some of them took the products right away, and some of them were in bed with L’Oréal and didn’t. It worked well, though, and I opened top accounts.

What about stores?

In 2008, they wanted to see your product in a magazine before they bought it. If you were in a magazine, you had made it. Because I was selling in top salons, a lot of beauty editors saw my products at the salons. They saw our logo, which is an Amazon warrior woman, and asked, “What is that?” Some would call asking for product because they wanted to write about it. The brand was written about in the Tatler in Europe, and European stores called me. With articles in hand, I went to stores. We launched in Barneys in 2009, and we launched at Urban Retreat, the big salon at Harrods at the time. Then, we launched in Le Bon Marche in Paris.

Rahua’s signature oil is produced deep in the Amazon rainforest by the Quechua-Shuar tribe.

Pretend we’re a salon or store. Give us a quick pitch on your brand.

First of all, I have to see if you are a fit for my brand. I have to see if you are aligned with environmental [protection], have talent and your prices are a fit for my product. If a client pays $20 for a haircut, they aren’t going to pay $34 for a shampoo. I have to admire the quality of your salon. If I do, I tell them we have natural products, and we use ingredients from the Amazon rainforest processed using traditional methods. They have been researched and work very well on hair. Some of the omega-9 molecules are so small that they penetrate deep into the hair, and make dry, damaged hair strong. We don’t use any synthetics, so we protect the waterways as well as not putting anything bad on clients.

How many products does Rahua have now?

We have about 24 SKUs, not including travel size. At the beginning, I thought I was going to make shampoo and conditioner and, with money from them, I was going to travel in the rainforest. But, my clients, whose hair became really healthy and shiny, wanted volume in their hair. So, we came out with Voluminous Shampoo. We used natural ingredients – lemon grass, vetiver and eucalyptus – and a bit of palo santo for the preservation system.

After we created that, people wanted treatment. The first treatment I had was the pure oil. It was a great product and seller, but not everyone could pay $175 for an ounce. Then, I created the dry shampoo, a mask for the hair and hair spray. During my honeymoon, we went to the Galapagos, and they have an area there where they collect pink salt. I put the salt in my wife’s hair, and it became nice and full. I always had that in the back of my mind. So, for one of our latest products, we created a salt spray inspired by the Galapagos. It’s called Enchanted Island Salt Spray, and it supports The Pink Flamingos Project to preserve flamingo habitat.

What’s your best-performing retail account?

Maybe Space NK. They have a lot of doors, and they have people on the floor who we train on the products often. The people on the floor really know about natural ingredients. We do really well at The Detox Market, too, and we have salons that do really well like Butterfly Studio in New York City. In Europe, things are going really well with Oh My Cream.

Rahua’s products are available at Barneys New York, Aillea, The Detox Market, Space NK, Oh My Cream, CAP Beauty and Follain, among other retailers.

Rahua has been in business for 10 years. How has the distribution and product landscape changed in the last decade?

Today, there is a lot more demand for natural products, and there are a lot more ingredients available for natural products. We have new products, Hydration Shampoo and Conditioner, and I’m so excited about them because they behave like any other high-end products. They give you immediate gratification. If you want shine, most products will use silicones to give you it, but I don’t want to do that, and we’ve found a way to do it with natural oils. We don’t depend on essential oils for the scent. The scent is a mango and passion fruit scent. If you use the product, you don’t even think about it being a natural product.

When did the brand reach profitability?

There are two ways to see profitability. When I was able to talk to more people about the rainforest, to me, that was profit. In terms of financial profit, to get back the $100,000 we put in, that took a couple of years, but I was already excited about the results because I could put money toward environmentalism.

Let’s talk about a different Amazon than the one we’ve talked about until now, the e-commerce giant Amazon. What’s your take on it?

I’m not 100% happy about Amazon. In the past, I didn’t want to sell on Amazon because they use the name Amazon, and they don’t do anything for the Amazon rainforest. I had retailers that weren’t authorized to sell on Amazon, but they did. They reduced prices, and that’s not fair because they should keep the prices at what we suggest. Amazon contacted me and invited me to participate in Amazon Luxury Beauty. I didn’t want to accept the invitation at first, but they said they would maintain our prices, and they would get those who were selling the products at cheap prices not to sell them. So, now the price is in the right place on Amazon. We are still very new on Amazon, and it’s growing. Every to two three days, the sales double. It will take some time, but there are great prospects there.

Rahua has registered sales growth of at least 50% every year since it started.

What was the worst day in your business?

At the beginning of my business, I had product that was my leave-in treatment, but it was called finishing treatment at the time. I got a phone call from a chain of stores that had luxury products and mid-range products. The person there wanted my products and said, “I will buy everything from you at net 60.” I went for it and sold all of my inventory of the special treatment to the chain. After 60 days, there was no payment. I read in the news that it went out of business, and it almost caused my business to go belly up. My father-in-law and my wife went to a local bank in Georgia, where she’s from, and we took out some money to continue. That was maybe in 2010, and I think we took out about $100,000 from the bank. It was tough, but we recovered. From that, I realized net terms don’t work. If somebody wants to buy our product, they have to pre-pay and, then, we ship it to them.

What’s been the biggest product fail?

We did a press event at the Andaz in New York for our cream wax. We had samples for beauty editors to try on their hair. We did that three months before launch because magazines need the product three months in advance. Within a month, I started hearing from the editors that the wax was becoming a little green. The production was scheduled for the next couple of days, and I stopped it. I told the editors, “I’m sorry that happened, but it shows you the products are really natural.” We worked on the preservation system, so the product didn’t become green. The launch had to be postponed for six months.

Beyond the bank loan you secured, have you done any fundraising?

No. I have companies reaching out to me that want to invest or buy the company, but I’m stubborn. I don’t want to do that because, if I have investors, I have to answer to them. The financial world is not connected to the natural world, so I’m going to do my own thing. Eventually, when the financial world recognizes the value of nature, perhaps I could do it. For now, nature has no value to them. It’s not in the equation. Unilever has come to me and wanted to do business with me, but we didn’t align on the natural or financial part. We have to step up to the plate to keep the sales going. If you keep having good sales, there are always going to be companies and investors that want you.

Rahua recently launched with Amazon Luxury Beauty to maintain pricing integrity on Amazon.

What sort of growth has your company experienced?

We have had years in which we’ve grown 50% and years where we’ve had 100% growth, and years somewhere in between. Every year, we have grown at least 50%.

How many people are working for Rahua now? How do you lead your team?

We have about six people in my office and, in the Amazon rainforest, we have 500 families who work doing oils for us. We also have warehouses in Europe. I want to inspire them and make them feel they are appreciated. One day, they might get an offer from another company, and I want them to be prepared for that and to be free to do the best that they can do for themselves. I see them almost as family members. I want the best for them.

What is your environmental goal?

My goal is to preserve the parts of the Amazon that are virgin and pure. The only people who can protect those areas are the people who have lived there for thousands of years. So, I go there, educate them and buy oils from them at top dollar. I pay them more than fair trade. My goal is not just to buy from them, but for them to have a stronger economy, so they will stay there and protect the rainforest. I also have created computer labs, so they learn things like spreadsheets and, when they have to do things out of the forest, they can do their own documents. We bring people from the tribes to the U.N. and help them defend themselves at the U.N.

Fabian Lliguin has rebuffed investors and strategic acquirers because he doesn’t believe they will retain Rahua’s commitment to the environment and natural ingredients.

What are some short-term and long-term goals for the company?

My short-term goal is to educate more people about my styling products. When you go into a salon, within seconds, you see tons of spray, and there’s a lot of chemicals and poison in the air. When you use my products, you still have the spray, but it’s from natural, food-grade ingredients. I have had many friends leave the industry because they become allergic to hair color and other products used in the industry. I want to give people hope that they can stay in the industry by changing to my products. My long-term goal is to save the Amazon rainforest. I might not live to see that, but my daughter is 4 and, when she grows up, she wants to save the Amazon and maybe she will.