Truly proving that passion can be transformed into business success, Michelle Chen has channeled her lifelong love of skincare into the wildly popular RARE SkinFuel brand and spa…
Do you think the skincare business was always in the stars for you?
Yes, it was something I always knew I wanted to do. In fact, my love affair with skincare started when I was 13. At the time, I didn’t have the money to buy skincare products, so I used to sneak samples from my mother’s cabinets. I’ve always loved beautiful things and it just made sense to me at the time.
Ultimately, what was your route into the skincare sector?
Well, it wasn’t something I entered directly. I was very young when I first started working – just 16. Where I grew up in the United States, all the kids tended to be very independent. They all needed cars to get around and, in order to cover their running costs, they all got jobs while still teenagers. In university, I was studying for a Multimedia Design degree, while also working for a Silicon Valley start-up as a graphic designer. It was hard work but I was really lucky – I was earning a full salary, including stock options, while still a student.
Once I got my Bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to do something different, so I went back to study for a Master’s in Retail Merchandising. I then joined a buying office, which is where I learnt about retailing and merchandising. After that, I became Director of Product Development for the Velocity Source Group, where I learned how to turn an idea into a successful product. These experiences proved really enlightening and useful, and helped me launch RARE SkinFuel in just 15 months.
You mentioned RARE SkinFuel – how did that all come about?
As I said, I’ve been in love with beauty and skincare practically forever, always being a loyal customer of many of the major brands. I did, however, come to realise that I kept switching between them, never finding exactly the right products for me. In 2018, though, something just clicked. My daughter had turned four and I felt I needed to start working again. In particular, I decided I needed to create a business of my own.
I knew it had to be something I was passionate about. I thought I should focus on something I would personally use everyday, like spa or skincare products. This was what drove me initially when I set about establishing RARE SkinFuel, even before I had a business plan. While, at the time, a lot people were sceptical, I managed to turn my passion and energy into something that has really connected with a lot of people.
Essentially, what is the brand all about?
The thinking behind RARE SkinFuel is to reveal and not conceal. I realise, though, that many women are afraid to show their own skin because they feel they have lots of flaws and use a wide range of products to cover them up – largely because I had the same problem.
After I gave birth to my daughter, at first, my skin was terrible. At the time, I was also scared that any products I might use could harm my daughter, something that really undermined my confidence. As a result, I wanted to create a line that focused more on skincare and less on any cosmetic concerns. Basically, I was interested in items that women could use to reveal their beauty, rather than to conceal any perceived blemishes.
What do you think sets it apart from other skincare brands?
I honestly feel there aren’t any brands that are truly our competitors. Not only is our skincare line unique in utilising its particular array of all-natural ingredients, but all the processing and manufacturing is done through cold-pressing, which preserves the ingredients while optimising their active components via cellular extraction.
Throughout, we monitor the temperature with precise tracking. We then air-freight our products in climate-controlled environments, storing them in temperature-controlled facilities to ensure they yield the maximum benefit. We really baby them at every stage.
At present, we have 10 products, which I call the ‘beauty kitchen’. I own all the formulas and played a huge part in their creation. They are all made in an Australian lab, which is run by a German scientist. Every item featuring only all-natural ingredients, allowing them to be mixed and matched with no adverse effect. While very few brands recommended mixing eye serums with mask powders, for example, it’s something we are confident in promoting.
What does an average day look like for you?
Oh, it’s very hectic. I have a four-year-old girl and, though I’m really fortunate in having a lot of help, I still consider myself a full-time mum. So, I wake up early in order to spend time with her, before heading off for any meetings and the office during the day. Even in pre-Covid times, I did my best to be at home when she finished school, often working from my home office so I could physically be there for her. After eating dinner and putting her to bed, I then get back to work, typically not finishing until 2-3am.
What new projects are currently preoccupying you?
Well, we just opened a new RARE SkinFuel spa at The Landmark a month ago, which was very exciting. In 2021, we want to maintain this location as a concept boutique spa, while focusing on opening a new luxury spa with even more expansive services. We’re also looking to open in several other locations, such as residential complexes, allowing us to expand our footprint in the city, while we also hope to distribute our products via more local retailers.
Can you dispel some common skincare myths?
One misconception I used to have was that organic products aren’t as potent as their manufactured counterparts. Indeed, it wasn’t until I went to Australia to identify suitable laboratories for RARE SkinFuel that I found out I was wrong. The scientists I spoke to proved to me that, in fact, natural ingredients, when concentrated, are actually every bit as effective as synthetic substances, with the added benefit that they don’t cause irritation. Another common misconception is that oil is the best way to combat dry skin. In fact, it’s the active ingredients that preserve moisture, not the oily base.
If you weren’t in skincare, what else do you think you might be doing?
Well, as a lover of beautiful things, I guess I’d be in fashion. I actually studied for a Master’s at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in LA for my Master’s…
Aside from work, what else stirs your passions?
Well, I’m a longtime supporter of Hong Kong Dog Rescue and also Change A Young Life, a Chinese organisation that fundraises for underprivileged children, encouraging them to learn more. Normally, there’s a lot of charity events, but Covid’s changed all that, but we still donate products to help with fundraising for such organisations as the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital Foundation.
What lessons have you taken away from the past 12 months, a year that has been particularly difficult for many.
At the beginning, I was really scared. Now, a year later, I realise we can’t live in fear. While we need to protect ourselves, life has to go on. I’ve always believed that it’s the obstacles we overcome that make us stronger, so I’ve come to embrace challenges as learning experiences.
How do you unwind?
My work is, honestly, my hobby. Although many say the same thing, for me there’s nothing more relaxing than sampling my products and using my spa for a full pampering session…
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I’d want to be able to clone myself. I have so many responsibilities, all of which pull me in different directions, it’d be great to have a separate version of me for each – particularly one for my daughter and another for work.
If you were marooned on an island, which three things would you most want to have with you?
My daughter and my dog, definitely. They’re my rocks and I wouldn’t go anywhere without them. After that, I would say my bed and bedsheets, because that’s my sanctuary.
Finally, tell us something that many people may not know about you…
I’m actually a great cook. I don’t really cook now, so few are aware of my culinary talents. My signature dish is a Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
Interview by: Tenzing Thondup
Photos: Neville Lee
Art Direction & Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma
Make-up & Hair: Anthony Sum
Venue: RARE SkinFuel Spa