Horst Rechelbacher, an elfish man with a penchant for caps and canes, Japanese suits and turn-of-the-century American bric-a-brac, would never be considered ordinary. Especially in the beauty industry, where the 49-year-old former hairdresser got his start. “Ten years ago everyone laughed at him,” says Patty Rosado, vice president of sales at Caesar’s Beauty Products, Aveda, in Los Angeles, “because then at hair shows if you didn’t have 10-decibel music, smoke machines and blue lights, you weren’t happening. And there was Horst talking about rejuvenation and the environment and this thing called aromatherapy. People thought he was a joke.”
But today, nearly 15 years after he first cooked up a batch of herbal shampoo in his kitchen sink, the last laugh belongs to Horst. As chairman and founder of Aveda Corporation, a Minneapolis-based company whose hair, skin and home-care products come from pure plant and flower essences, the Austrian expatriate oversees a 300-employee empire that is expected to do nearly $200 million in retail sales this year and double that next year. Not bad for a company built on the somewhat offbeat theory that the natural aromas found in leaves, flowers, fruit, peels and the bark of plants can affect a person’s mood.
“Every single person I’ve worked with reacts to the smells,” says New York City-based makeup artist Bobbi Brown, whose clients have included Tina Turner, Jacqueline Bisset and Cybill Shepherd. “It’s not a pretty smell,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s herbal and clean, sometimes slightly pungent. But people are really into the idea that aromas can affect how you feel.” Indeed, from Princess Diana, reportedly tapping the calming effects of aromatherapy to keep her from biting her fingernails, to Elizabeth Taylor and Goldie Hawn—both partial to Aveda’s breath-freshening, basil-based lipsticks—the world’s hip and hoity are, to Horst’s delight, taking a walk on the weird side.
So, for that matter, is his competition. In August, for instance, Estée Lauder launched its own aromatherapy-based company, Origins Natural Resources, Inc., whose No. 1 seller is neither a miracle mascara nor a cellulite smasher, but a peppermint-laced potion called “Peace of Mind.” designed to be dabbed on the temples and earlobes to induce relaxation. Explains William Lauder, grandson of Estée and head of Origins, “Things that 15 years ago were considered way out are now becoming accepted. It’s just the mainstream catching up.”
Horst, picking at a plate of organic food in the airy, eclectically decorated loft in Minneapolis’s warehouse district that he shares with girlfriend Kiran Stordalen, 27, an associate creative director at the company, seems momentarily annoyed. “Twenty years ago those people said I was crazy,” he grumbles, “and now that the ideas are paying off…” But before the indictment is out, anger wanes. In the end, Horst cannot help but feel flattered. From childhood, he concedes, he wanted nothing more than to be admired. “I was very vain,” he admits. “I was obsessed with being No. 1.”
He had a ways to travel. The son of a shoemaker (his father, Rudolf, 90, still lives in Austria) and an herbalist (his mother, Maria, died in 1986 at 80), Horst was born to poverty. In a tiny apartment in his hometown, Klagenfurt, near the Italian and Yugoslav borders, he shared a single bedroom with his parents and two brothers, Rudolph, now 61, and Gerhard, 55. At 14, he quit school (“I hated it!” he says. “In one year alone I missed 144 days!”) to become an apprentice in a local hair salon. “I got there at 6 in the morning,” Horst recalls, “lit the fire, cleaned the shop and practiced, practiced, practiced.” And got good fast. By 17, he had moved to Italy and was working in one of Rome’s premier salons, massaging olive oil through the luxuriant tresses of Brigitte Bardot, on location in the city. In the next few years he roamed Europe, from one top salon to another, styling as many as 62 hairdos a day.
By 1963, when he came to the U.S. to lecture, he was an industry celebrity earning a then staggering $500 a day. And yet, it was not the allure of Yankee riches that persuaded Horst to stay. One winter night, on a stopover in Minneapolis, the Jaguar he was driving was hit by a drunk driver. He was incapacitated for months; by the time he got out of the hospital, he was also in debt. So he set up shop and before long became the Twin Cities’ unlikeliest society pet. “I was obnoxious,” admits Horst. “Here I was, this ‘world-famous” guy stuck in this small town, and I got cocky because I became so popular.” Fame and fawning clients led, he says, to a fast life: booze, pot and amphetamines—not to mention infidelity to Michele, the local woman he had married shortly after his accident. “That was my insane period,” he says. “Between the chemicals, the hard work and the guilt, I was ruining myself, and finally I just burned out.”
Salvation came at the hands of a friend who took Horst to a meditation class. Before long he had abandoned his worldly vices and was perched atop a rock on the bank of the Ganges river in India, seeking through contemplation to regain control over his ailing body—and marriage. “Basically,” he says, “I was searching for something. Because for all my money and success, I was unhappy.”
Though the trip failed to save his marriage (Horst and Michele, who have two children, Peter, 23, and Nicole, 21, divorced 10 years ago), it did provide professional inspiration: “While I was there I strategized my future. I was going to make out of herbs the best, purest products I could make.” (He was also, he decided, going to do his part to protect the planet. Aveda was the only beauty-cosmetic company asked to be a sponsor of Earth Day, and it is among the first signatories on the Valdez Principles, a recently drafted set of environmental guidelines aimed at companies worldwide.) He brought home with him a master herbalist, Shiv Nath Tandon (now Aveda’s senior vice president), and together, in Horst’s home, they tinkered. When they finally came up with a clove shampoo they liked, Horst rushed it to his salon. “I was so proud of that shampoo,” he says, “but my client, who was also a friend, had one look and said, ‘Yuck!’ ”
Accustomed to the artificial pastel colors used in most shampoos at the time, Horst’s clients were put off by his murky brown concoction. No one would buy it, he says, until it dawned on him: brown shampoo—brown hair. “Why make a shampoo for brown hair pink.” he demanded, “when herbs enhance the natural color of the hair?” And so began what was to be a long, often frustrating process of converting the American consumer. He stocked his three Twin Cities salons (they now number six) and his beauty school with Aveda products and hit the road to peddle his wares. Eventually orders trickled, then poured, in.
Ironically, with increasing success, Horst’s own need for aromatherapy has also escalated. “The truth is, he doesn’t like the business side,” says son Peter, a business student (daughter Nicole attends the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City). “It eats away at him, it makes him tense.” Indeed, with journeys to his research labs and organic farms throughout the world, from Brazil to India, speeches across the nation to promote environmentalism and the daily back-and-forth at home between his local offices and his recently opened $l,250-a-week spa in Osceola, Wis. (about 50 miles northeast of Minneapolis), Horst finds little time to practice the relaxation he so ardently preaches. “Running the business is exhausting,” he says. “My exhaustion turns to frustration and then anger, and I just lose it sometimes.”
And so next year, when he’s 50, he plans to cut ties to the company. “For years my work has been my worship,” Horst says, “but now my other life is calling me. I want to do something selfless-all nonprofit, just for the environment. I need peace, and the world needs volunteers. It’s time for me to do it.”