On a warm, windless Wellington morning, I walked down Courtenay Place on the search for Margaret Hema’s salon. A search is required. Fortunately, I was forewarned. I’d met Margaret for a facial previously, and I found myself, again, up two flights of stairs, through a door, then another, before finding her in the classic heritage building she moved her business to in 2012. A lack of signage is intentional: hers is not the kind of salon you stumble upon — Margaret is available only by appointment.
While she isn’t usually one for interviews, Margaret kindly agreed to talk to me. “I like to stay back — I don’t want to be a loud-mouth!” she says.
Her comment reflects much of what the HEMA brand stands for. With a dislike for marketing, Margaret says the only HEMA advertising is that which appears in people’s faces: her clients’ skin.
What sets HEMA apart from other skincare approaches is its minimalist style and strictly organic ingredients. After an extensive career in the beauty industry, here and internationally, Margaret recognised that she had long been dissatisfied with typical skincare approaches. So she sought to create an “intellectualised” formula that focused on the fabric of the skin, keeping the six topical layers and pore structure unaltered with nourishing ingredients.
“My background in aromatherapy and beauty therapy meant I saw clients with sensitive skin, and I found that the commercial products that I was using then would make them come up pink and itchy.”
After some deliberation, Margaret stopped working with commercial products: “I thought, ‘I’m not going to sell any products, just do facials.’” That is what led her to start hand-blending oils, and then to create her new unbranded formula, for use only in her salon. In the early 1990s, Margaret’s new, stripped-back concept gained increasing popularity, and in 1994, with burgeoning client demand, her formula became “HEMA”.
Margaret says that her work is often a case of “fixing back up”, including her own skin. “I was in the industry for so long that it was necessary to try products on my own sensitive skin — some of the products that I now call Jiff and Janola!”
She is an advocate for minimalist skincare, devoid of exfoliants. “The beauty profession is often overcooked and overloaded, and I’m not going to use products that overcook or overload the skin. I don’t want to deprive people, but I’m not going to do facials with anything I don’t believe works.”
Since its creation, HEMA has reigned as the original oil-based skincare range. Early on, its local reputation boosted the brand’s profile with an international crowd. When the Lord of the Rings movie cast was in town, Margaret treated Miranda Otto, Elijah Wood and Liv Tyler with HEMA facials, and the word has since spread to other celebrity clients.
After leasing a space on Lambton Quay for nearly 24 years, Margaret has recently relocated. In keeping with her signature salon look, her new space has been styled with the same pink walls, chandelier and eclectic furniture, all positioned in exactly the same way as in the previous salon. “I believe if you’ve got a formula that works, stay with it,” she affirms.
Margaret’s attitude to her salon’s enduring aesthetic echoes her own confident and inimitable style, which sees her wearing her hair long and dressing as she did in the 1960s. Most fittingly, her timeless nature and personality are reflected in her tried and true HEMA formula.