Horst Rechelbacher, who was born in Austria, became a celebrity hairdresser in Italy and then founded Aveda cosmetics in Minnesota, is being remembered in obituaries as a visionary who tapped into the combined wisdom of his mother and an Indian swami to bring natural cosmetics into the mainstream. He died at his home in Osceola, Wis., of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 15.
“He started Aveda in 1978, when making fragrances and hair-care products from herbs and other plants was widely seen as an ephemeral pursuit, doomed to vanish with the receding tide of the counterculture,” writes Paul Vitello in the New York Times. “He made batches of his first product, a clove shampoo, in his kitchen sink in Minneapolis.”
Harvard Business School professor Geoffrey G. Jones tells Vitello that when Rechelbacher sold the company — which had expanded to include such products as lip gloss, hair conditioners, mascara, fragrances, herbal teas, coffee beans, nontoxic household cleaners, nutritional supplements, jewelry and books — to Estée Lauder in 1997 for a reported $300 million, he had “put natural cosmetics on the map in the United States.”
Rechelbacher was an admittedly poor student who started out as an apprentice barber at age 14 in his native country of Austria. He moved to Italy and, known as Horst, became the hairdresser to starlets such as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida.
He also “was teaching seminars and competing in styling circuits across Europe and the United States,” writes Jackie Crosby in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “While on a tour through the Midwest, he was in a car accident in Minneapolis. With hefty medical bills to pay, Rechelbacher stayed in the Twin Cities to work them off and never left.”
His mother, a herbalist “who for years had told him the synthetic products he was using would make him ill, nursed him back to health with her natural products,” according to an unsigned obituary in the U.K.’s Express. “For the first time he took her advice.”
“He recalled: ‘When I went back to work I started making things like apple-cider vinegar rinses for hair and she made herbal extracts and we made shampoo out of it. My clients listened to my enthusiasm. It was the 1960s, too, and people wanted a breath of fresh air.’”
But mom wasn’t the only inspiration.
“In the 1970s, Rechelbacher traveled to India to study yoga and meditation, immersing himself in rich cultural traditions,” write Alison Shipley Alhamed and Stacey Soble on SalonToday.com. “On the trip, he became inspired by the spiritual and medical teacher Swami Rama, and gained knowledge of the ancestral ayurvedic therapies, herbal remedies and a more comprehensive approach to health and well-being.”
Rechelbacher wasn’t finish making waves after the sale of Aveda.
“Rechelbacher was a strong personality who didn’t mind ruffling feathers, or taking gambles,” Crosby writes. “In 2006, he convinced Regis Corp. to become a partner and invest $10 million in Intelligent Nutrients. But in 2009, Regis ended up writing off $7.8 million in losses and gave the reins of the business back to Rechelbacher.”
“The planet has lost one of its most passionate friends. So have we,” says a tribute on the Intelligent Nutrient website. “To know Horst was to wake up to the world around you, to your own potential, to a new way of thinking. His impact truly does live on in salons, shop, fields and minds worldwide.”
“Rechelbacher normalised organic beauty for the rest of us,” writes Katy Young in the Telegraph. “‘Pesticides and insecticides make people sick and are destroying the planet,’ he once said. His solution was simple; ‘don't put anything on your skin that you can't eat.’ He was often seen drinking his Intelligent Nutrients hair sprays and serums which were all painstakingly formulated — I witnessed it first hand at one product launch in London.”
You can witness it virtually firsthand, too, in this 2009 video on ModernSalon.com that begins with Rechelbacher declaring: “Once you know something, and not to do the right thing which you know, is criminal. And I think our beauty industry is absolutely criminal. It’s toxic. It’s poisoning professional people. It’s poisoning clients. It’s poisoning babies …” By the end, Horst is toasting us with a Champagne flute filled with hairspray that he claims “actually could be sold, if I make a beverage, as a nutritional drink.”
In addition to a memorial section on the company website, Rechelbacher’s Facebook page is filled with tributes such as Rebecca D’Este’s, who calls him “a professional mentor, an industry pioneer, a holistic teacher, a spiritual guru, a believer in the human spirit, a pursuer of equality, a global environmentalist, a seeker of truth, a visionary of the unknown ... a man with a mission to change the consciousness of the world through peace, love and respect for the earth we all share.”