• Sue Townsend of Ortigia


Q&A: Sue Townsend

The founder of Ortigia on Sicily, stray dogs and beautiful aromas

Interview: Mark Riddaway

How did you come to start Ortigia?
After I finished with Crabtree & Evelyn, I didn’t have much to do. I used to come to Sicily a lot—I was staying in San Giuliano, a big estate about 35km from here owned by some friends of mine called the Marchesi di San Giuliano.

It’s the most beautiful place you could ever go to. The gardens are very famous—they have amazing orange groves, and make wonderful marmalade. This part of Sicily is called the Sicilia Orientale—it’s very green, not arid like some of Sicily, and there’s no frost so absolutely everything grows here. For a while, I had been thinking hard about having another company, and I had the idea of making perfumes from the things that grow here.

So why call it Ortigia?
I used to try all sorts of names on my Italian friends and they’d say no to them all. I used to come and sit in the piazza here and have a little aperitivo in the evening, watching what’s going on, listening to the music. I really like it here, especially out of season.

I would park my car at the end of the Via Roma, illegally, as one always did—no one used to care in those days—then walk down to the piazza to have a drink. Some evenings I’d stay for supper, eat some fish. One day I was driving in on the back roads, following the sign for Ortigia, and it just struck me. Graphically and phonetically it’s very nice. The English can’t say it, of course, but that’s fine.

How did you take it from there?
First of all I had to find a really good perfumer, which was quite hard. In the end I went to Lorenzo Villoresi, a very famous Italian perfumer. His family come from the north of Florence and has big estates there. He was the man I wanted. I had found myself spending a lot more time in Florence—all the San Giulianos also live there. I live in Florence now, and the business is based there.

Why Florence and not Sicily?
It’s in the centre in an odd way, you can go anywhere from Florence—the airport’s near the centre, and the trains are good. It’s so hard to do that from Sicily—you have to get everything off the island by road, then drive it a long way. We have spent years of our lives driving back to Florence from here—mainly with lots of stray dogs in the car. There are lots of stray dogs in Sicily, it’s a very bad situation, and I can’t help but pick them up.

But the produce you use is Sicilian?
Everything we need grows here. We get our olive oil from just down the road in Lentini. The oranges from nearby. It’s all very natural, we have no nasty preservatives. Using such natural ingredients isn’t easy, because things don’t survive in the heat. Our lime candle is always changing colour because the essential oil is so strong. You’re always dealing with these things—trying to keep up the quality, trying to make it last.

The graphics on your packaging are very striking. Where did the leopard logo come from?
It’s a Byzantine mosaic from the big palace in Palermo—the Palazzo dei Normanni. I used to go there a lot. John Julius Norwich, a friend of mine and rather good travel writer, used the same mosaic in black and white for his book on Sicily, so it’s not as though no one’s ever used it before. I used it because it’s fun. To me, it is Sicily.

Do you consciously want Ortigia to remain a small company, rather than become huge like Crabtree & Evelyn?
You have to remember that when I had Crabtree & Evelyn, it was a very small company! We started it in a basement without a window. We couldn’t even have a meeting there—there was water running down the wall of the lavatory.

I ran the whole of Crabtree from Julie’s Bar in Holland Park. But no, you can’t do the same thing again. You have to change. I want Ortigia to be a small company, in the Italian way. Here, you see the shopkeepers sweeping their own streets. I don’t plan to roll it out all over the world. We will evolve—we opened in Palermo this year, we opened in Lucca, we were in Taormina yesterday looking there. But I’m not looking at locations in Washington, for example. That’s what I mean.

Do you enjoy being so hands on?
I really do. If you have a small company, you have to constantly think about the quality. Everybody loves the packaging, but I also make what’s inside the box, and I like to think that it’s the best thing I can make. It’s not all driven by profit. If I’m going to make body cream, I want to make the body cream that I want to use. I use all my own things.