Denise Leicester's Ila is a beauty brand that loves you back

Annabelle Williams
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Beauty products all claim to be the most age-defying, youth-providing, beautifying, and so on. And there’s a bamboozling list of chemical names which claim to do just that. But a growing awareness that what you put on your skin is as important for your health as what you put in your mouth, is leading more women to choose cosmetics with ingredients which heal, rather than hinder your body.
This is why the natural beauty sector is now worth a massive $33bn globally and still growing, according to a report from Kline & Company.
One brand carving out a name for itself is ila, a health-positive, organic, luxury beauty firm which has grown from inception in an Oxfordshire barn 10 years ago to a global business with £2m in turnover – and counts Gwyneth Paltrow among its celebrity fans.
Founded by former nurse Denise Leicester and her husband, Ila has ranges of face creams, oils and cleansers, alongside a network of spas around the world. The products are known for their good results, using only plant and mineral-based ingredients.


The rising demand for additive-free beauty reflects people’s increasing awareness that preventative health encompasses more than watching what you eat and how you exercise, Leicester says.
Her interest in non-toxic products started when she nursed cancer patients. “Often the first thing people diagnosed with cancer are told to do is stop using beauty products with synthetic ingredients,” she says
Scanning the ranges of shampoos, shower gels and creams in her hospital shop, she noticed they were are all free from petrochemicals, parabens, phthalates and synthetic dyes ­­– all ingredients which are commonplace in personal care products but thought to be implicated in all manner of maladies. “I thought, ‘we need to be telling people this before they get cancer,’” she recalls. “It is research based, not airy-fairy.”
She later discovered essential oils while working abroad with Dubai’s royal family, some of whom didn’t believe in conventional medicine. It inspired her to start studying the chemistry behind cosmetics – and this later became one of the foundations of her business. Leicester wanted to set up a range which would only use ingredients known to benefit health, to “get results and not just look pretty”.
She draws on the growing body of science in this area. Rosehip oil, for example, is known to heal scars, argan oil is rich in vitamin E, and Himalayan salt is full of trace minerals. “There is so much more to the healing process for humans than just using medicine,” she says.


Making mistakes early was one of the factors that helped the business go from startup to well-established.
She cites the first error as not starting ila sooner. Like many entrepreneurs, Leicester had the seed of an idea long before she had the gumption to do it, and gave in to the naysayers who told her it wouldn’t work out. “I wanted to start in 1991 but everyone thought I was bonkers, saying no-one would buy it,” she says. “I didn’t do it and it is one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t.”
The next hurdle was appropriate branding. Positioning is crucial in any market, but especially so in beauty, where a purchase is often emotive as well as practical. Initially the venture was called Himalayan Goddess, but Leicester soon found this lofty name turned people off.
“I had people calling and saying they loved the product but the ‘goddess’ word was intimidating,” she recalls. “I realised what I considered the brand to be was not how it was being perceived.” She took advice from a brander who suggested she come up with a single word which illustrated the message she was trying to get across. “Ila” is the Sanskrit word for “earth” and it’s intended to reflect the power of nature as the source of healing.
Business began in a barn attached to the family home and the Leicesters invested an initial £200,000 in the company.
From the start, Leicester was clear she wanted control over the supply chain, cutting out the middleman and going direct to communities where raw materials are found to source them herself. “I wanted to know, hand on heart, that child labour was not involved,” she says.


Company name: Ila
Founded: 2005
Turnover: £2m
Number of staff: 23
Job title: Founder and chairman
Age: 59
Born: Essex
Lives: Cotswolds
Studied: Nursing at The Middlesex Hospital, Practitioner at the Institute of Complementary Medicine
Drinking: Chai tea, but only in India
Eating: Food cooked with love
Currently reading: Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh
Favourite Business Book: Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands by Kevin Roberts
Talents: Creativity, an ability to envision in my mind what I cannot see and then create it
Heroes: Sri Mata Amritanandamayi
First ambition: To become a yoga teacher!
Motto: Be happy
Most likely to say: Lovely...
Least likely to say: No!
Awards: Ila has been given many but the Gala Spa Awards 2014 meant a lot. It was a new award that was created because of ila’s unique offering