The Founders of Fresh

Alina Roytberg and Lev Glazman, the founders of Fresh, on leaving the Soviet Union, finding each other, and ancient Roman skincare products

Words: Clare Finney

It’s always a tad disconcerting when the person you’re supposed to be interviewing kicks off by asking you questions. It’s also, generally speaking, the sign of someone who really, genuinely cares. Alina Roytberg and Lev Glazman from beauty company Fresh, which they founded in Boston 24 years ago, are a case in point.

As soon as the trans-Atlantic connection between us has been made, the couple start quizzing me about their recently refurbished Marylebone store. Does it work for me? Do I enjoy it? The answer to the pair’s questions is a resounding yes. Newly opened in April with a scent table, soap counter, and quiet consultation room at the back, the store is now somehow both more open and more intimate than it was before.

“People feel exposed talking about their skin,” Alina affirms, “so it’s good to have a private space. The rest of the shop is designed to be more accessible, to encourage you to sniff and explore.” Lotion laden shelves, stoneware sinks, mirrors and even magnifying glasses (a nod to Sherlock Holmes, I presume): the overall impression is of a shop as fresh by nature as it is by name.

Set up in 2004, Fresh Marylebone—the only Fresh store in Britain—opened at a time when favour for natural beauty, as opposed to more synthetic products, was still in its early days. On the hunt for a base in Blighty, Alina and Lev chose the village because “it just had all the characteristics for Fresh”. Driving along the high street back in the early 2000s, the pair were struck by how the qualities of Marylebone and their brand seemed to mesh.

Wrapping soaps
You know the story: Marylebone’s restaurant and retail offering is nigh-on unrecognisable from when Fresh first landed. If our stomping ground has grown up in the last decade or so, Lev and Alina’s little Boston soap shop has too. Gone are the days when Lev and Alina would spend their evening wrapping soaps after a long, hard day at their first joint business: a luxury dry cleaner.

Now a married powerhouse living in a home worthy of Town & Country magazine, they arrived as immigrants: Lev from Soviet Russia where food was thin on the ground, let alone beauty products; Alina from Ukraine, where she made paper dresses for her dolls. The leap seems improbable, but by the time their paths crossed in Boston in 1983, the stage was already half set.

A stopover in Budapest on the way from Leningrad to Israel, Lev’s second home before the States, proved formative: “I was like a kid in a candy shop in duty free. I was obsessed by how the fragrance made my heart pound.”

Needless to say, this memory stayed in Lev’s nose throughout his eclectic and increasingly entrepreneurial career. Dentistry, a stint in the army and a phenomenally successful window cleaning business provided the unlikely run up to the moment of realisation that struck upon meeting Alina. They shared a dream. Lev wanted a beauty business with a difference. Alina was delighted to channel her creative talent into a vision and concept that she could call her own. 

Sniffing roses
“Lev had the idea for the products. I came to them from a design point of view,” she says. “Aesthetic has always been a big part of Fresh—we still do all the packaging in-house.” In setting up their inaugural store, selling imported products, Lev and Alina had scoured Europe in pursuit of beauty: digging up clay in Italy, sniffing roses in Turkey and generally unearthing traditional remedies.

Their eureka moment—one of several, it seems—came in Provence, at the iconic Petit Marseilles factory. There the couple discovered what Lev can only describe as a whole other culture of soap. “In France they’ve been using Le Savon de Marseille, a soft, 100 per cent natural, vegetable oil based soap, for centuries.” Deferring to the French manufacturer’s knowledge and extensive contact book, they eventually persuaded him to create their own first batch of soaps.

They were cleaned out within weeks. Triple-milled, infused with shea butter, laced with Lev’s scents—patchouli, citrus, verbena, freesia and others—and wrapped with Alina’s stenciled paper, the winning ingredient is hard to pinpoint; the result less so. By the time two years was out, they were stocked in 200 stores around the States.

Their success enabled the couple to resume their travels and add new product lines. Black tea, seaberry, brown sugar and—sake? I do a double take, which translates as a squeak down the phone line. “In Japan we learnt how the geisha used to bathe in sake to purify and soften their skin,” Lev explains, laughing.

Sugar rubs
As excuses for bathing in alcohol go, it’s the best I’ve come across. Their brown sugar scrub sounds tame in comparison, but even this has a sweet story. Growing up in Eastern Europe, both Lev and Alina were accustomed to having sugar rubbed into their wounds.

“Both mine and Alina’s grandmothers used it,” says Lev. Being a natural humectant, it locks moisture into skin rather than rubbing it away, together with much of your epidermis, in the manner of most scrubs I’ve used.

It’s still a bestseller. The combination of sweet almond, apricot kernel and jojoba oils, together with the crystals, makes for an aromatic and sensual experience which Lev has recreated in lip balm and body lotion, as well as body scrub form.

Yet both the wine bath and the toasty brown sugar scrub pale into insignificance by the side of crème ancienne: based on a 2,000 year old formula and made by hand in a monastery. Developed in Rome around 160AD as a means of helping gladiatorial wounds, the recipe has been handed down through a few select monasteries ever since. 

Made by monks
It promises miracles: healing, reduced lines and protection against the elements. Fresh has refined it of course, but it’s still remarkably close to the original. And, thanks to some progressive souls in the Czech Republic, it is still monk-made.

These days, when Alina and Lev return to Boston or their second store in New York they are now greeted by the kids of the customers they once served. “When we first opened the store here it was just a local crowd,” recalls Lev. “People came just to hang out. Now it’s international.”

Indeed, were it not for their Marylebone outlet, Fresh would arguably not have garnered the sort of global renown it enjoys today. Still, the local feeling remains here as it does in Boston—a sense of a community built up around tasteful, effective beauty products, and the people who sell them.

“It’s not just about ‘Hi’-ing and smiling. It goes beyond that. It’s about having a conversation with our customers and educating them about our products. We really do feel our customers and staff are Fresh family.”

Lev and Alina


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