It was good news and bad news. Notoriously picky tastemaker Martha Stewart had just called to book a massage at the newly opened Naturopathica spa in East Hampton, N.Y.—but she wanted it right away. "She was our first big celebrity," recalls Barbara Close, the spa's founder. Close and three staffers scurried around, frantically checking for dust and "spraying the rooms to make sure they smelled good."
The 39-year-old Close (who resembles actress cousin Glenn Close) need not have worried. After that 1996 visit, Stewart liked the healing-oriented Naturopathica and its proprietary line of skin-care products and herbal remedies so much that she made a deal to carry its $65 travel kit—including echinacea tincture, cedar bath oil and ginger chest balm—in her catalog.
Since then, Close's 114-product line, now sold at high-end stores around the country and through mail order, has captured fans such as Christie Brinkley and Katie Couric and brought in $1.37 million last year. Naturopathica's "smells are so strong and beautiful," raves designer Betsey Johnson, who uses the company's Chamomile Cleansing Cream ($22.50).
Close, a trained herbalist and aromatherapist who masterminds the cobalt-blue-bottled potions (top seller: the $40 Pumpkin Enzyme Peel, an alpha-hydroxy acid exfoliating mask), believes their appeal comes naturally. "Most products that claim to be all-natural aren't; they're filled with synthetic base materials," she explains. "We use only premium botanical ingredients—the herbs come from small farms that do not spray pesticides."
Naturopathica's success reflects a growing demand for "a more health-conscious approach" to skin care, says Manhattan dermatologist Patricia Wexler. The spa continues the theme, says Close, with its emphasis on "creating a healing environment." Glenn Close, who favors Naturopathica's Ylang Ylang Calming Bath Oil, puts it simply: "At the end of the day you want a peaceful place to regroup. The products help with that."
Helping people regroup has always been important to Barbara. The daughter of a Washington, D.C., estate lawyer and his home-maker wife, she labored as a social worker in Pittsfieid, Mass., after collecting a degree in political science at Williams College. But "in social work, it's hard not to feel depleted by the end of the day," she says. For relief, she started getting massages, and soon decided a career change was in order: "With massage, you feel the benefits right away."
The budding entrepreneur then studied meditation, herbal medicine, aromatherapy and massage at the New Mexico Academy of Healing Arts before setting up shop as a masseuse in Manhattan in 1991. The East Hampton spa followed four years later. The Naturopathica line, launched in 1996 with $75,000 in savings and contributions from two investors, pays homage to its founder's mother, who was raised on an Oregon farm. "She loved plants," says Close, who grows some of the herbs for her concoctions at her family's 550-acre farm in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
The company's herbs, chosen for their healing properties (naturopathic means "healing with natural therapies"), are blended at a former auto-body shop not far from the home the unmarried Close shares with her two cats in the rural town of Springs, N.Y.
"People still pull up to the warehouse asking for an oil change," Close says with a grin. And they don't mean Saint-John's-wort massage oil, though if Close has her way, they soon might. Her Well Being: Recipes for the Body and Soul hits bookstores in June, and she dreams of opening a national chain of "concept stores" that would educate customers about natural therapies. It would mean more work, of course, but that's fine with Close. "I love making my own remedies and traveling to discover other forms of healing," she says. "My business and my life are one that way."
Sharon Cotliar in East Hampton
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