Paralyzed from the neck down at age 24, Clark's Botanicals founder Francesco Clark turned his tragedy into success with his breakthrough line of natural beauty products
Francesco Clark was 24 years old and celebrating Memorial Day weekend with friends when his whole world changed. On June 1, 2002, he dove head-first into a swimming pool and crashed into the bottom with his chin. The next thing he remembers, he was paralyzed from the neck down.
“The bone in my spine shattered into shards, cutting into my nerves,” says Clark, then a fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. “I remember the surgeon telling my dad, ‘He will never breathe, talk or move his arms [on his own]—and forget about his legs.’ They relegated me to a life of watching soap operas from a bed.”
But Clark had other ideas.
While learning to cope with the myriad of physical challenges he was suddenly facing, the Bronxville, N.Y., native came up with the idea of a homeopathic skincare line to treat some of the unexpected skin complications from his injury — the result was his Clark’s Botanicals skincare line, which launched in 2009. Now, the line is sold on QVC and in retail outlets nationwide and boasts celebrity fans like Julianne Moore, Olivia Munn and Kaley Cuoco.
“I never had any intention of it becoming a thing!” says Clark, who developed the jasmine-based formulas with his dad, Dr. Harold Clark, an internist specializing in homeopathic medicine, in the Clark family kitchen. “It was so much more to me than making a product.”
In fact, he credits developing the line with helping save his life after his devastating injury. Deeply depressed for the first three years after the accident, he says, “If I saw even a reflection of myself and the shadow of the wheelchair, I would burst into tears.”
“My injury was so high up on my spine that I lost the ability to sweat. It could be 100 degrees outside and I won’t sweat,” says Clark, now 40. “As a result, my body couldn’t release itself of toxins. Some parts of my skin had rosacea, other areas were gray and sullen.”
But when fellow quadriplegic Christopher Reeve passed away in October 2004, Clark decided it was time to take his recovery into his own hands, and passionately started working on his skincare line.
“Suddenly I felt like the biggest champion for a cure for spinal cord injury had been robbed from the world,” Clark, who is now an ambassador for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, says. “I realized I was relying on somebody else to be my champion and I needed to do something and take responsibility for what happened to me.”
Developing his products — which took four years and 78 iterations — gave him the new mission he needed. “I had to own up to what happened and move forward somehow,” says Clark.
The unique blend of jasmine, essential oils and botanical extracts in Clark’s earned loyal following and 98 percent customer retention rate. “Every ingredient has a reason for being in each of the products,” he says.
Clark describes the brand’s Smoothing Marine Cream — the top-selling item in the entire line — as a moisturizer that “makes your face look happy before you can say how your day was.” Featuring a mixture of sugar-derived glycolic acid that penetrates deep layers of the skin, this cream actually stimulates the skin to create its own hyaluronic acid to plump it.
Another innovative favorite from the brand is the Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream, which was formulated to work on even the most sensitive skin types that otherwise may experience harsh reactions from retinol, the anti-aging powerhouse ingredient.
“We use a time-release version of retinol with colloidal oatmeal and red clover extract so that it is delicate enough to use every day,” Clark tells us. “I can’t use regular retinol on my skin, but with this, you wouldn’t get an adverse reaction.”
Clark says the Deep Moisture Mask is also a popular formula among his celebrity clients and makeup artists fans, with many customers actually leaving it on as an overnight cream for maximum results. “It’s intensely hydrating and plumps up any fine lines and wrinkles. A lot of customers’ makeup artists tell them to put it on the night before their wedding day. Then they email them and are like, ‘Well why can’t I do that every day?’ You can!” he says.
With Clark’s Botanicals continuing to grow — he has two new products slated to launch later this year — Clark refuses to let his injury ever slow him down.
“I still do four to five hours of physical therapy every day. As the business grows I multitask. I have a machine in the garage that stands me, and while I am standing, I’m on conference calls for work. My family never looks at me as if I have a disability. There is never an excuse to not get something done.”
But Clark wouldn’t want to have it any other way. “It feels like I’ve connected the dots from my injury to my life in beauty to finding meaning again,” he says.
“People call skincare superfluous,” Clark adds. “But it helped me regain purpose in my life.”