Welcome to ON BEAUTY, a monthly feature highlighting creative, like-minded people who inspire us.
When it comes beauty pioneers, Kristina Holey is up there at the top of our list. Her facial is an entirely personalized experience that leaves you not only physically radiant, but completely at ease (and convinced that you might have a new best friend). An appointment in her serene, intimate studio includes a holistic health consultation to help get to the root of your skin issues, followed by a deep and indulgent facial massage into which she layers a customized mix of masks and potions. She then sends you on your way with a list of recommendations that includes everything from products to supplements to lifestyle and diet changes. We go way back with Kristina and have been following her career for years—in fact, her studio is next door to our Post Street perfumery in San Francisco—so we are especially excited to share her charmed backstory as well as her refreshing thoughts on beauty.
A facial with you is a unique experience—what is the basis of your technique?
I feel like my purpose in working with my clients is to make sure that their skin is as healthy as possible. I’m not analyzing wrinkles and imperfections as much, unless they’re a symptom, but I’m trying to look for signs of unhealthy or depleted or deficient skin. So, my technique is largely based on functionality and biology and trying to be biomimetic in correcting any deficiency.
How and when did you become interested in skincare?
I did my bachelor’s in engineering because I was good at science but didn’t know what to do. I actually did not know what engineering was until day one…and after graduation I was like, bye-bye! Never worked as an engineer. Then I kind of floundered for a little while, took a couple of courses trying to understand aromatherapy and herbal medicine, contemplated becoming a naturopathic doctor, but I visited a school in Portland and it just didn’t seem like a good fit. It felt like, and I know I’m dumbing it down, but, this is pretty similar to Western medicine, just based on herbs. It was still protocol-driven, and I wanted something that would let me make up the rules a little bit. Then I got a job with this natural skincare line in Oakland, and it was really exciting because it was the first time I’d ever really thought about skincare and I could actually use all my interests and see how they related to skin. Aromatherapy and plants and herbal medicine and nutrition. It got the ball rolling and triggered my interest in skincare. You know, I found out about Julie at In Fiore and tried to get a job with her and she denied me! But my eyes were opened to the industry at this point.
You know, I’ve never really wanted to label myself 100% organic—that’s not what I’m after. What I wanted to do was create treatments that are healthy with no potential toxicity or risk and that also give the best results.
I’d never gotten a facial before, I didn’t really use products, I definitely didn’t wear sunscreen, but I was also very fortunate to not have super problematic skin. I did have regular cystic breakouts because I had a lot of hormonal issues growing up, but I was never someone who was like, shit, is this a new spot? Is this a new line? My interests related back to me: okay, why do I get this one big pimple every month? How can I stop that? How can I start to use skincare and how can I understand it? My training in engineering gave me these refined problem-solving skills and my brain is very linear and practical. I started trying to teach myself the basics of skincare and skincare science, trying to understand the tissues and layers of the skin and how it all works. I was going back to my biology books, and my father was a doctor so I was looking at his anatomy books, and there were all these questions I had and I remember going to the bookstore and the library trying to teach myself.
But you ended up with a very legit education—tell us about it.
I started looking for programs and I couldn’t find any schools where the curriculum really matched my interests. Then I found one in France—ISIPCA. They take, like, 14 people a year and you must have prerequisites in pharmacy or chemistry. I went back through my curriculum for engineering and got some letters from my professors and mailed them to this school and was like, “I know I’m not a pharmacist or chemist, but I’ve taken all these classes, let me in!” And they said yes! So, we moved to France.
It’s not about being good or bad or right or wrong. It’s about strategy and intelligence.
The other people in this master’s were there to either work for L’Oréal or Estée Lauder, like Head of Marketing, Head of Research and Development, Head Perfumer. I was totally uninterested in that but I wanted to understand the fundamentals of mass market cosmetic chemistry, like, what is in a Chanel cream? What’s the concept behind all this? We had all these different classes that were taught by big people in the industry. My favorites were about skincare anatomy and skincare science, taught by scientists from Dior and Chanel. I loved it but thought, it’s so funny how Western it is—they’re not trying to think out of the box, and the way that they define acne seems so boring. I was the rebel in the class—we’d go around and smell each other’s perfumes at the end of the day and they’d be like, “Kristina, you were supposed to make Coco by Chanel and you made a boy’s sandalwood fragrance.” And I’d be like, “So what?!” I was definitely the one sitting by myself at lunch.
We were supposed to do a six-month stage at the end, and I found this niche woman, Joëlle Ciocco, who had a skincare center in downtown Paris and a small natural organic skincare line. I thought she seemed amazing. She’d gone to the same school I was at. I kind of stalked her and she ignored my emails and I showed up at her clinic and asked if I could apprentice with her and, finally, she said yes. I would bring home my notes at the end of the day and see how I could relate it to what I wanted to do.
How did you launch your own career as a facialist?
I started looking at my friends’ skincare products on the weekends and being like, “Oh, no, no, no. You should do this instead of this.” So I kind of naturally started a consulting business helping girls create skincare regimens, and I was also a perfume consultant. It was so fun, then it started trickling out and I was, like, showing up to random people’s houses in Paris, and then all the sudden I was doing treatments. It was all totally random, and I was doing whatever the hell I wanted. Completely making it up as I went. Anyway, it was working and I was so excited, and then we decided to leave Paris and move to New York.
I feel like my purpose in working with my clients is to make sure that their skin is as healthy as possible. I’m not analyzing wrinkles and imperfections as much, unless they’re a symptom.
One of my clients in Paris asked if she could tell her friends in New York that I was coming, so she did some intros online, and one of the girls was like, “Can you give me a treatment tomorrow? I have this event.” I was like, “I literally land from Paris tomorrow,” but I landed, went over to her house and gave her a treatment, and afterwards she was like, “So, I’m the beauty editor at Vogue. Can I write about you?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah!” And the next week she wrote something on Vogue.com. The week I landed! Instantly I had like a thousand clients, and I’m like, hmm, I’m not licensed. (Laughs.) So I was doing underground at-home treatments, and it was rad, super fun, I met all these crazy people, and I finally got a studio and found a loophole and got licensed real fast. It was just this full situation.
Then we left New York and Julie was like, “There’s this beautiful place next door, remodel it and come work next to me,” which was the best thing ever because I hadn’t spent time looking for a space and it was perfect, so I set up my little business here. And I met Marie Veronique because I stalked her at her space in Berkley, and she became my best friend and we started brainstorming sessions and then decided to make products together.
So, everything has just been really, really natural. I’m completely unorganized in this business, I’ve never written a business plan, I’ve never had anybody help me, it’s just me listening to my intuition and desires and what genuinely feels right and trying to follow that.
Tell us about your preference for naturals over more chemically-derived products or invasive procedures.
You know, I’ve never really wanted to label myself 100% organic—that’s not what I’m after. What I wanted to do was create treatments that are healthy with no potential toxicity or risk and that also give the best results. For my purposes, I’ve not found that I need to use high technology-based treatments and I can get really good results by using mostly naturally derived, organic-sourced products and ingredients.
I also do not want to be a machine technician. I have no interest in operating machines and holding them on someone’s face for an hour. I’d be bored and then my clients would feel that I was bored. I’d rather use my hands and my muscles and do a crazy deep massage, or make weird masks. That’s why I work with those sorts of products. I don’t box myself in; I want to use whatever I want, but I also really think about the safety of my clients and I want to set them up for success. I don’t want to do something that is going to lead to hyperpigmentation later. I want them to have healthy skin.
How does the concept of beauty and beautiful skin vary between France and the US?
In France, something that I really loved was the way that people appreciated one’s nuances and imperfections. Women I’d treat there were confident. They would walk in and use clothing and shoes and perfume and lipstick and hair as a real way to express themselves, so it wasn’t just like, “Oh, I can’t have any wrinkles.” They’d have wrinkles and they weren’t wearing any mascara, but they looked amazing and you felt it.
That’s the way I am. When I look at my friends—the other day we were swimming in the river and no one was wearing makeup and no one has done any Botox or fillers or anything and we’re all in our mid to late 30s. I was looking at them and I was just like, everyone is so gorgeous. There are stretch marks and scars, you know, and I think that stuff is beautiful. If you’re healthy and glowing and radiating and you’re confident, it doesn’t matter if you have crow’s feet. That’s my perspective and I felt like it was like that in France.
Here, there is a lot of pressure and focus on Botox and wrinkles and I definitely have clients who are like, “I need to freeze my face!” But, I magnetize a certain type of client, so for the most part, my clients want to be natural which is why they come to me. I also think there is a natural trend happening in certain underground subcultures—and I tend to get a lot of these people—where it’s not about tons of Botox and plastic surgery. You notice that a lot of these women and models aren’t wearing makeup, they’re not wearing mascara. And there’s still a lot to work with! You can dress amazingly and be healthy and fit and eat well.
What is your take on essential oils and how to use them?
The thing with essential oils…it’s so complicated. I fucking love essential oils, I love fragrance. I want to wear perfume all day, every day. I go into In Fiore every day because it makes me feel good. But the natural skincare industry has gotten out of control. There are a lot of people making products who don’t have the credentials to be making products. There’s a lot of essential oil blending happening where it’s not someone like Julie, it’s someone who really has no reason to be in the skincare industry. So that’s one problem.
Two: people are doing a lot of invasive procedures, using retinoids, peels, lasers, glycolics, acids, things like that. What that means is there’s a lot of stripped down skin and barrier dysfunction. We need our oils to help balance our skin and the immune function and bacteria and pH and keeping everything in harmony. If we don’t have a strong barrier in place, there’s a lot of risk that in about 6 months of regular usage of essential oils, you could have sensitization and develop something like dermatitis.
It’s not about being good or bad or right or wrong. It’s about strategy and intelligence. It’s the same thing with supplements—like, what’s right for you and what is your starting ground? And with essential oils, it’s become this free for all in the world of formulation and claims are unregulated. So, someone who has vulnerable skin is buying an oil blend because they think it’s going to solve their acne, and it could just make it worse. If you’re going to use a product made with essential oils, make sure it’s made by someone who is intelligent and knows what they’re doing.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from working with women?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for anything. Everyone is unique and everyone has a lot of different things going on. My job is always most successful when I spend more time with them and get a more comprehensive understanding of their entire life. We’re all complex, and we’re always going to be trying to streamline things and come up with mass answers to problems. It’s not that simple. I’m always being proven wrong.
There are stretch marks and scars, you know, and I think that stuff is beautiful. If you’re healthy and glowing and radiating and you’re confident, it doesn’t matter if you have crow’s feet.
What is your favorite ritual?
Do you have a favorite beauty era?
Right now. I think it’s really interesting right now. There’s a lot of room for pioneering and to be revolutionary and change things, and that’s exciting.
What’s your favorite scent?
Right now, I love Cowboy by Mondo Mondo.
Do you have a beauty vice?
Sunshine. No—I mean, is that a vice? It’s good, too. Let’s say…too much wine and no sleep.
I cannot live without my Barrier Restore Serum. I use it, like, four times per day. What are your must-have beauty items for long-haul flights? I have this new thing but I’m not allowed to talk about it! Something that’s launching in October. It’s the bomb. I just always have the Barrier Restore Serum and some oil complex that I’m constantly slathering on myself. I’m pretty low-maintenance, but I always have a lot of product.
Do you have a special charm or talisman?
I always have a fragrance with me.
Favorite In Fiore fragrance:
Vetiver Sambac, always and forever.