From Musician and Mobile Salon Owner, to Viviology Founder, Meet the Real James Vivian

Skincare founder and award winning salon owner James Vivian chats to Anita Quade on a whirlwind trip to Sydney about his passion for the industry and why giving back is so important.

On discovering beauty

You originally started out with an interest in music – how did you make the leap into the skincare world?

“Being a creative can be a very hard industry to handle as your career is often in the hands of other people, despite how committed or passionate you are. Music had the ability to make me feel like I was on top of the world one moment and then rock bottom the next. Enter my first shift at Aesop working part-time whilst I tried to ‘make it’ as a musician. I received a facial by their facialist, Maria Vovos, and I got off the bed, looked Maria in the eye and said ‘I want to make people feel how you just made me feel’. You can say it was a life-changing facial.”

How did this set you on your journey in the beauty world?

“Over the next few years, I entertained the idea of going to beauty school, whilst singing and falling deeper in love with Aesop and their commitment to creating both beautiful products and beautiful customer experiences. One NYE, I made my resolution to cease music and I enrolled at Elly Lukas as their first male student. I immediately felt in charge of my future and that the possibilities were endless.”

The Travelling Peelsman

You were known as The Travelling Peelsman – tell us about experience and how it inspired your business.

“After Elly Lukas, I quickly realised I knew very little about treating the skin so I continued my studies at Victoria University where I split my time between facials at Aesop and completing my Bachelor of Health Sciences. It was here that my eyes were opened to considering the skin as part of a wider ecosystem when caring for clients and their skins. During the chemistry component, I instantly fell in love with chemical peels – where they came from, their indications, their benefits – and I bought a few from a supplier and started peeling my mum, my friends, my entire body (not in one go, of course) and before long The Travelling Peelsman was born. I bought a mobile massage table, grew my chemical peel offering and drove around Melbourne and Sydney in the ‘peel mobile’.”

It was a genius idea to be working as a mobile therapist with low overheads – did you find it led to a loyal clientele?

“I wish I could have said it was an intentional business decision to keep the overheads low, but looking back, before The Travelling Peelsman officially launched and it was just my mum, and friends – I would literally do their treatments on their beds or couches so home visits just stemmed from there.

By visiting clients in their homes, or by going out of my way to visit and often returning with skincare, I was creating a service steeped in customer care, plus I was trying to grow a business and had the time to always go above and beyond for each client. I do believe that this led to loyal clientele who then followed me from when I set up my first clinic to even today 15 years on.”

What were some of the advantages of being a mobile skincare business boss?

“By being mobile, I was able to care for a different clientele that were finding it difficult to visit a client, such as stay-at-home parents, people who didn’t want to be seen leaving clinics or people without access to nearby clinics, plus I would often go into offices, set up in a room and do up to 10 – 15 people in one visit.”

What was the best part about that experience?

“Peeling the Prime Minister was pretty cool but the best part was slowly but surely building a clientele that inspired and encouraged me to open my first clinic and who were there on Day 1 when I opened and allowed me to operate without the stress and anxiety that I can only imagine opening a clinic without a clientele would bring.”

Opening James Vivian

You decided to open your flagship salon in Toorak and now have 11 staff – tell us the benefits of having a salon versus mobile.

“The state of our business is so different from The Travelling Peelsman days. Firsty, the amount of travel time that went into visiting clients across both Melbourne and Sydney often hindered being able to look after more people. Secondly, you cannot move a clinic full of equipment around with you everywhere you go so a permanent location allows you to grow your suite of services and devices.”

What have been the advantages of having your own stunning signature space?

“Having a location that clients visit, I believe, also creates a more sophisticated and professional environment, in addition to being a controlled environment in terms of safety e.g. lasers and infection control.

Interestingly, when I opened my first clinic, I did have a lot of new clients who had heard of The Travelling Peelsman but who had not felt comfortable having me in their home but they were the first to book in once they heard I had a space. Another benefit was being able to create a space that our clients can come to visit that is both a reflection of our clients needs as well as our unique style and aesthetic. Every business is different and we love standing out through our interiors and our entire experience.”

How do you juggle the business with such a large team?

“By having an extraordinary team. You don’t get to 11 staff by accident. It takes consideration, mistakes and hard work to find out what and who you need in your business to have it running smoothly and happily.

At James Vivian, we are a team of unique characters but we all work very hard and are all very good at what we do. Our team has one another to lean on when looking for support or guidance as there is a very genuine, respectful and caring yet professional culture that our team enjoys and this is especially helpful as we all have good days and bad days. I make myself available to them for anything they need but by creating a team of professional, intelligent and interesting characters, they actually make it easy and there is never a dull moment.”

You mentioned you are in the salon most days – what is it that you love most about the beauty business?

“There is no such thing as typical day for me but I do commit to seeing new clients two-days per week. I had been out of the treatment room for nearly three years and I was beginning to get imposter syndrome when talking about the skin on social media, podcasts etc., plus I missed discussing client cases with my colleagues. Being back in the treatment room allows me to continue to stay connected to my true love of customer service whilst also allowing me to innovate in the treatment room with protocols and products.”

How would you describe your business model?

“I call James Vivian first and foremost a customer service business, and we deliver our customer service through a skincare experience that goes far beyond skincare. I love giving 100% to a client, addressing their needs, going above and beyond, following up and hearing them tell me how happy they are on the other side. Our industry comes from years and years of caring for clients – inside and out – and we cannot forget where we’ve come from or underestimate the impact that we can have on our clients – positive or otherwise.”

“I received a facial by their facialist, Maria Vovos, and I got off the bed, looked Maria in the eye and said ‘I want to make people feel how you just made me feel’. You can say it was a life-changing facial.”

Hello Viviology!

You also launched your own signature skin care line – what inspired this?

“I have been extremely lucky to partner with Adore Beauty to create their first in-house cosmeceutical line, Viviology. Kate Morris had been our client and after many discussions around what was missing from our industry, Viviology was born. Viviology was not about redefining skincare or how people should or shouldn’t do skincare, it was about creating a range of easy to use, cosmeceutical skincare that was accessible, gender neutral and fun. Viviology launched in 2022 and has been a huge hit in our clinic and online. Clients love being able to find their favourite ingredients in doses that work at a lower price and combine them with other products from other ranges that might be more premium.”

Favourite hero product in the range?

“It’s the least sexy but I, as well as most Viviologists, cannot get enough of the Gentle Foaming Cleanser. It’s no secret that I love a lengthy cleanse (up to 2-minutes) so cleansing with a foaming cleanser that softens and smooths my skin without drying me out is super important for my skin and skincare routine. We get such wonderful feedback and we have already updated our packaging to be more practical when on-the-go. And for those who do not like a foaming cleanser, stand by for another release shortly.”

Being a mentor

You are also known in the industry for giving back to young up and coming students in the business – how important is this to you?

“Without the support, time and encouragement of some very important people in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though I have always been very proactive in seeking out mentoring, I believe it’s imperative that I throw my support to those who need it and, more importantly, put themselves out there.

At James Vivian, we offer mentoring opportunities to therapists who are working or studying in the industry and who wish to see the style of work we do and what goes into making the magic happen. I have also been privileged to offer my support as mentor and patron of The Pinnacle Foundation.”

Do you have students reaching out to you for advice?

“We are often contacted by people who apply for positions who, whilst not suitable for a role at James Vivian, may like to meet for a coffee to discuss their career, where they may be best suited to work and what, if suitable, they need to do to work in an environment like our clinic. I am always so grateful when anyone reaches out for employment and although I may not be able to help them with a job, there are always other ways to help a fellow therapist.”

A career in sum

What is the stand out moment of your career?

“I recently had the honour of speaking at ABIC’s second annual conference on the topic of inclusivity, as well as leading a panel discussion with fellow members of our community who shared their experiences in incorporating inclusivity into their businesses and lives.

At James Vivian, inclusivity is very dear to us so much so that we have printed on our shop front ‘James Vivian loves skins of all colours, ages, genders, cultures and religions’. I didn’t take the opportunity to lead this conversation lightly and I shared with the audience how my personal experiences growing up and being bullied relentlessly has afforded me the superpower of empathy and to ensure I never make anyone feel like I felt when I was young.

I encouraged people to tap into their own personal experiences of feeling or witnessing adversity and to lead with empathy and kindness. The response has been overwhelming and I got off the stage and, whilst I was exhausted, I said to myself this is a career highlight for me. I hope this is the beginning of a very special conversation that we should all be having in not just our clinics but also our lives.”

Biggest wish for the future of your brand?

“It would have to be that our team, whilst I understand that nothing is forever, continues to show up James Vivian-style, kick ass in the treatment room, whilst looking after their individual health, happiness and ensuring that they are also doing what’s best for them at home and in their personal lives. All this whilst also making space and opportunities for us to meet new wonderful therapists. Our business, or brand, are our people. Beyond this, a cure for acne, melasma and sagging skin please-thank-you skincare gods?!”

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2024 print issue of Professional Beauty.

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