A passion for reinvention

Fran

Francesco Clark’s life is all about channeling his passion.

The Bronxville man cares deeply about what he does, which makes any recognition all the sweeter.

So when Clark was named a 2014 Martha Stewart American Made Winner, it was a moment to savor.

Clark’s Botanicals was one of 10 companies selected from a field of more than 3,200 nominees in the program that “spotlights the maker, supports the local and celebrates the handmade.”

Presented with the award during an early-November summit in Manhattan, Clark was honored in the Style category for the skincare line. The products, sold around the world, are noted for their use of Jasmine Absolute, an essential oil that naturally rebalances the skin.

This is not the first award for the company, also recognized by The Fashion Group International with a Rising Star Award and by Allure and Self magazines, among others.

While certainly grateful for the attention, Clark doesn’t let the recognition go to his head. Its biggest bonus is the way it raises the company’s profile  – and allows it to continue its mission.

“You can’t ever assume that just because you win an award, it’s going to be a walk in the park,” he says. “I still have to do five hours of physical therapy every day.”

And that statement is a key to not only Clark’s persona but the company’s genesis.

EARLY DAYS

Raised in Bronxville, Clark would go on to double major in international relations and Romance languages at Johns Hopkins University.

“After college I made a promise to myself I’d live in a city I’d never lived in and work in a job where I’d learn a new skill.”

That led to Chicago and working on a website for law companies. He did what he set out to do, though Chicago winters soon found him heading back in New York where he embarked on a career in the publishing industry.

Clark was an assistant special projects director at Mademoiselle magazine and then fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar.

It was, he says, the “dream job” for someone in his mid-20s, attending award presentations, working with celebrities and fashion models and really “seeing the industry inside and out.”

“What I learned from that experience, working with these people who are so passionate and creative, there’s this drive and ambition and creativity I saw and it translated to an ambition that I wanted,” Clark says.

Soon enough, though, Clark would find he had to draw on his own inner strength and creativity to fashion a second act. It was on a Memorial Day weekend trip in 2002 when Clark jumped into a pool, unaware he was at the shallow end.

“The second that I dove in, the bottom of my chin hit the bottom of the pool,” he says of a move that would result in being on life support for a week and a crippling spinal-cord injury.

“While all this happened, the thought of me dying never crossed my mind.”

He would, instead, go through a process that saw him rebound after much effort and persistence, as shared in his memoir, “Walking Papers.”

MOVING FORWARD

A few years after the accident, Clark read about how Christopher Reeve, the Bedford-based actor injured in a horse-riding accident, was “pushing so much to find a cure.”

Inspired by Reeve, Clark would travel to China for experimental stem-cell surgery that proved a game-changer.

“Obviously my voice came back, because I don’t shut up now,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s really captivating and it’s breathtaking to see how a lot of little changes can lead to a revolution,” Clark says of the improvements he would experience.

One, though, remained – his inability to sweat. As a result, he says, his body was unable to balance itself. He said he looked like he was “hyper-aging” with a combination of dry, flaky skin and oily skin with terrible acne.

Nothing worked, from inexpensive to the most expensive commercially made creams and treatments. It was a hindrance when Clark was ready to do more.

“It was a point in my life where I wanted to not do just physical therapy every day. I wanted to become a voice. I wanted to become an advocate. I wanted to do more than try and move my pinkie.”

Clark and his father, Harold Chandler Clark, a longtime New Rochelle doctor who had background in homeopathy, began to collaborate on creating a cream. They hit on the key ingredient, Jasmine Absolute.

“It is the core of all our products,” Francesco Clark says, which at that time were very much home-based. “We were making it in the kitchen in Bronxville.”

At first, it was just to help Clark’s own condition.

“I wasn’t doing it to sell it. I was just doing it as part of my rehabilitation, to gain my independence.”

After dozens of formulations, they found a winner. Soon Clark’s sister, then mother, then father’s patients were trying it out. In time, Clark would be visiting with Glenda Bailey, his former boss at Harper’s Bazaar, who noticed how good Clark looked.

“I gave her a bottle,” he says. “That eventually made its way to their beauty director.”

He was told it would be shot for the September issue – a big deal.

Clark’s reaction? “Thank you very much but we’re not a company. We’re not a brand sold in stores. … The answer that we got back was ‘You have five months.’”

As Clark says, “That was the tipping point from when this went from an idea of something to an actual, tangible product.”

He secured a handful of stores, including early supporter Maison Rouge in Bronxville as well as C.O. Bigelow Chemists in Manhattan and Fred Segal in California.

Right from the start, Clark knew sales would help the Christopher Reeve Foundation, as the late actor’s example “was the reason I went to Beijing.”

Throughout, Clark adds, “It was about connecting the dots with my former life and industry, my former life working in fashion and having the injury and the skincare line.”

And the company that resulted, which today features moisturizers, cleansers, lip balms, masks, serums and more, has been Clark’s focus since its 2005 launch.

“It happened in a very organic way, and I think that’s why it resonates with our customers,” he says of the independent, family-owned business that has no outside investors. Formulations are still done in Bronxville, with production in Florida.

“We’re always introducing new products,” hinting at a few that will be launched in spring. “We’re always working on three or four different formulations at any time.”

The market has been welcoming, Clark says.

“We just launched in Hong Kong and just launched in Russia. We’re sold in the UK. … It’s about a slow and steady growth.”

The product and its backstory seem to have captivated the Martha Stewart American Made program.

Melissa Goldstein of Chappaqua, the beauty director of Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Living Weddings, was one of the judges for this year’s American Made program.

“American Made is all about the makers, those entrepreneurs who see a gap in the market so they go out and fill that need themselves – and Francesco’s story is no exception,” she says. “What started with a tragedy quickly blossomed into something grander than he could have imagined. That one acne-clearing product he developed with the help of his father soon became a line of skin-loving products that have garnered cult status. They’re that good! His products have purpose and soul.”

Recognition, Clark stresses, benefits more than just sales.

“My goal is to, I mean my ultimate goal, is to help find a cure for spinal-cord injuries,” he says, with the company donating a portion of its profits to the Christopher Reeve Foundation (of which Clark is a national ambassador).

As the market changes and products are developed, Clark seems ready to take the business where it needs to go.

“You can’t rely on a certain set of rules, because there’s constant evolution. You have to be on your toes. You have to maintain this energy.”

And it seems like Clark is more than poised to do just that.

Clark’s Botanicals are available at Maison Rouge in Bronxville. For more, visit clarksbotanicals.com.

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