Bay Area Beauty

San Francisco has long been a cultural beacon for alternative ideas and innovation. That “free spirit” approach is still evident in some of its beauty establishments. Virginia Muzik visited a few of them during one sweltering summer.

Flights of fancy
Nona Daron, of Flying Beauticians salon, is a gorgeous, vivacious, yet down-to-earth woman. The daughter of a Russian aesthetician, Polina, who opened the original city location of the salon in 1981, she is brimming with passion and humour when we meet. 

Polina and Nona (pictured left to right) are co-owners and managers of the business, with two generations of European skincare expertise and over 40 years of combined experience.

Flying Beauticians get their name from the notorious house-call-beauty parties Nona and her team had created for their special clients years ago, as well as their modern-celestial-themed atmosphere and the quick head-to-toe makeover transformations they offer. The business has two venues – one in San Francisco city, and another to the north in Mill Valley.

The boutique-style downtown San Francisco salon boasts lots of natural light and modern décor. Nona describes it as “a bit retro, with a very celestial look and feel”. The colours are calm and serene with blues, periwinkle, lilacs and white, space-age-type accents with funky mirrors and chandeliers. The rooms have murals of moons and clouds and everything oval and round to fit a planetary feel. The wax rooms are sunny with yellow accents.

“We were trying to create an intimate atmosphere with comfort and a sense of trust. We wanted our clients to feel taken care of from the moment they entered our front door,” Nona said.

Nona’s business mission is simple: “We all want to be beautiful. If we can provide you with even an ounce of that feeling, our job is done. We love making clients feel beautiful and watching the transformations take place, especially with acne. I have actually cried on quite a few occasions when my acne clients achieved a certain result they and I were hoping for,” she said.

“I also love working with my mother. She is not only beautiful physically, but she inspires and motivates me every day. She is such a hard worker, still giving her clients every ounce of her energy. She is truly a skincare veteran of 40-plus years and a very well-known aesthetician in town. We make an amazing team – she’s the skincare guru and I am the wax and brow guru. [Being] a small family business gives our clients a very personal feel. It’s truly unique.”

Nona’s staff has been with her from between five to 15 years and comprise two electrologists, one manicurist, one cosmetic tattoo artist, a deep tissue masseuse, one injectables nurse, four aestheticians and two receptionists.”

Finding – and keeping – the right staff is the hardest thing for Nona about owning her own business. “It’s hard to find someone who will work as hard as you will, so there has to be something motivating, such as bonuses, increased commission, leadership roles and general appreciation for their hard work,” she said. “I am adamant about employees staying with the company for at least two years, otherwise it’s a lot of training for nothing and clients don’t like a steady turnover. I always encourage my employees to continue learning whenever they can.”

The salon believes in being versatile, and carries a wide range of products, from organic French brand, L’Uvalla, to medical-grade lines such as Obagi, SkinCeuticals, and Jan Marini Skin Research. They also carry Yon-Ka Paris, YG Labs, ColoreScience makeup and – appropriately – Betty Color for the Hair Down There, plus their own label skincare. They also offer Botox, Restylane and Juvederm injections.

The salon’s clientele ranges between ages 14 and 90, depending on the location. The San Francisco clientele are between ages 25 to 45 and Mill Valley attracts mums in their 30s and 40s who also bring their teenage kids. Older ladies stroll in from time to time for a makeover or a facial, Nona said. Around five per cent of clients are male.

Flying Beauticians’ signature, and popular, treatments are their DDU – Designs Down Under waxing services, the 90-minute Lunar Smoother Facial, the Rebirth of Venus Facial and their brow design.

Designs Down Under boast quirky names like Mars Bar (a Brazilian leaving a narrow strip on top), Close Encounter of the Male Kind (men’s Brazilian) Welcome Mat (initials), Twinkle Twinkle (star shape) and To Uranus and Back (full Brazilian).

Nona is known as the “waxing guru” of the Bay Area, and I was lucky enough to experience her expertise, with a Brazilian treatment. It remains the quickest, least painful one I have experienced – with the regrowth taking much longer than with previous treatments!

“I didn’t choose to be a waxing guru; it chose me,” she explained. “I challenged myself to get good at it because when I first started it was frightening. I had to sit across from the client and watch my mother do her thing. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be the wax guru and that I would enjoy it as much as I do.”

For Nona, retail sales are crucial to a successful business. “The services mainly just cover all your expenses and the product sales are where you start to make a profit. Plus it builds a much stronger relationship with your client when they come to you for expert opinion on how to take care of their skin at home, which is equally important in retaining your clientele,” she said.

The economic downturn hasn’t hit too hard for Flying Beauticians and Nona feels the beauty industry in general is somewhat recession-proof. “People still want to look good though during economic hardships especially with brows and skin. Being an established business with a good reputation and a long-standing relationship with our clients helps keeps things moving,” she said.

Medi-spas are starting to interfere with her business, however. Clients are choosing laser hair removal over waxing, IPLs over microdermabrasions or bleaching creams, and dermatologists are carrying the same kinds of products. For Nona, the key to surviving amidst this competition is education and knowing how to work together with the nurses and doctors in order to meet the very individual needs of all her clients.

“We have to diversify ourselves as much as possible with fun and creative services that are not only clinical but also ‘feel-good’ ones which the doctors and nurses cannot provide,” she said.

“I am very excited about the future of Flying Beauticians. We have been working on a product line, have been expanding our medi-spa services, and have been talking about other locations throughout California. I think our concept is somewhat unique and even though the competition is growing by leaps and bounds, I think if we stick to what we know best and stay true to our field we’ll be okay.”

Flying Beauticians, 166 Geary Street, Suite 900 San Francisco, 94108. Phone: 0011 1 (415) 391 8929. Flying Beauticians Satellite Lounge, 18 E Blithedale, Suite 11 Mill Valley, 94941. Phone: 0011 1 (415) 381 8134. Visit  

Eco epicentre 
Epi Center Med Spa celebrated ten years in 2008, having launched as the USA’s original medical spa in 1998. In April 2008, it achieved another first; re-vamping its offices to incorporate “eco-architecture” fittings and using natural and organic skincare products.

Located in a landmark Art Deco medical building at 450 Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, Epi Center boasts the highest level Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification attainable in an existing building. The medical spa’s interior features eco paints, recycled fabrics, marble and cork flooring, marble counter-tops and recycled and Forest Stewardship Council certified wood. Energy efficient, it conserves resources through water filters that eliminate the need for bottled water, electronic medical charting and digital photography to reduce paper, ink and toner usage. All plumbing is low flow and the lighting reduces energy usage by 70 per cent of the amount that would typically be required by the space.

The spa’s name is a fortuitous play on words, as Epi Center President and Co-founder, Margaret Mitchell explained: “We were looking for a name that was unique to San Francisco and something that indicated what we do. We took Epi from epidermis; the skin, so Epi Center was another way of say Skin Center. Ironically, epicentre, earthquakes and San Francisco certainly relate to one another so it was a cute play on words.”

Back in 1998, Mitchell worked with renowned cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Patrick Bitter, Sr. to create a spa setting where patients could receive the skin rejuvenation services they had previously been receiving in doctor’s offices. They wanted to create a luxurious environment where patients would feel comfortable, relaxed and enjoy being there.

With a background in practice management and marketing, Mitchell is joined by the spa’s medical director, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon Dr. Scott Mosser, M.D., clinical director, Jennifer Fick, RN, and Cosmetic Dermatologist and Founder, Dr. Patrick H. Bitter, Sr., M.D. The medi-spa provides state-of-the-art skin rejuvenation services in a uniquely luxurious and healthy environment that promotes a more beautiful appearance – and planet.

It seems, you can have high tech and down-to-earth in the once facility. Epi Center is elegant while also being warm and welcoming. Mitchell said they sought to create an atmosphere that reflects the natural environment in the San Francisco Bay Area, using the colour scheme of the area: warm creams, blues, browns and greys. “Our treatment rooms are named after natural landmarks and animal species here. We built water fountains into the hallway walls that use recycled water to create soothing sounds for patients who are waiting for their services, and an eco fireplace in the waiting room to create warmth and foster a feeling of relaxation,” she explained. “We provide filtered water, tea and healthy snacks such as dried fruit and nuts. The entire facility was built to promote the health and beauty of our patients by achieving the highest level of environmental health through use of natural and renewable materials in its construction. I think that is something patients feel during their visit.”

Perhaps giving new meaning to the term “wholistic”, Epi Center offers a wide variety of skin rejuvenation services; from microdermabrasion to injectables, laser hair removal, body contouring treatments and organic skin treatments. Mitchell does not see their offering treatments such as Botox as well as organic products as a conflict of interests.

“We are a medical spa, and provide the services our patients expect in that setting. However, we do provide all of our medical grade treatments in the most effective and organic ways possible. The majority of services we provide are light-based, which are naturally non-toxic. We use Derma Sweep, a form of microdermabrasion that eschews aluminum oxide crystals. Because we were one of the first medical spas in the nation, we have led the field; training physicians [in PhotoFacialSM Elite, laser hair removal, laser resurfacing, Botox and fillers], participating in clinical trials – and our founding medical director Dr. Patrick Bitter, Sr., invented the PhotoFacial. We hope through our example we can encourage the medical spa field to create practices and standards that are environmentally and ethically sound,” she said.

Epi Center uses and stocks a wide range of skincare products, including Obagi, ilike organic, Glytone, Clarisonic, Elastiderm, Colorescience mineral makeup, and their own range of products.

Their primary cosmeceutical is French brand, La Roche Posay. Mitchell said they chose the brand because they like its story and philosophy: their spa in France was founded by a dermatologist and they incorporate natural healing with medicine to help those with skin disorders. Their primary organic brand is San Francisco-based Juice Beauty, with whom they collaborated to create the first line of organic medical-grade skincare that is exclusive to the medi-spa.

The majority of Epi Center’s clients are women between the ages of 25 and 60. They also see visitors to San Francisco and have a significant number of male patients. The business also benefits from word-of-mouth referrals.

Not surprisingly, their signature – and most popular – treatment is the PhotoFacial Elite. Mitchell said the medi-spa also performs a lot of laser hair removal. They are “platinum level” injectors for Botox Cosmetic and Restylane, and now, they are becoming well known for their customised organic facials.

While the medi-spa’s services are the core of its business, retailing is also important – and something the staff incorporates into each consultation. “Our products are unique, and several of them are not commonly found in the city so our patients seek them out here,” Mitchell said. “We use organic products during services, so many patients are interested in what we are using. But our clinicians recommend skincare for our clients to help them to achieve the maximum benefits in their day-to-day skincare regime.”

Epi Center boasts a dedicated staff and invests greatly in training and educating them, believing it is very important to maintaining both the high quality of services the medi-spa offers and its reputation as an industry leader.

On an industry level, Mitchell is seeing a shift in the USA, with more spas and salons “greening” their business and medi-spas greatly impacting traditional day spas. She believes that the trend towards incorporating natural elements and antioxidants in skincare products will only continue.

“I believe that soon all companies will be looking to offer a healthier, natural product that can provide the necessary correction needed for the skin,” she said. “We are really ahead of the curve in the US, both as a business and in the skin rejuvenation industry. We hope by our example and success we will lead our industry and the business community as whole. We will work to continue to lead the medical spa industry in the both our cutting edge services and green practices and products.”

Epi Center Med Spa, 450 Sutter Street, Suite #800, San Francisco, California, 94108. Phone: 0011 1 (415) 362 4754. Visit  

Natural haven
Another spa that draws its name from “the city by the bay” is International Orange (IO), located in the vibrant Fillmore district. The yoga studio and spa is named after the paint colour of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge – International Orange.

The spa opened in May 2002, with Co-founder Amy Darland (pictured) and her partners seeking to “bring sophisticated and transformative spa treatments together with body and mind-balancing yoga in a simple, beautiful environment in San Francisco where we felt there was a market void”. Darland adds that IO was the first business in the US to successfully marry yoga and spa with equal focus and quality.

The spa’s philosophy is to help clients and staff, “find a bridge to their better side and to make the world well – one person at a time”.

Management comprises Co-Founder/Managing Partners Amy Darland (a certified massage therapist) and certified yoga instructor Melissa Ferst, Spa Operations Manager Brandie Baker and Business Manager Alice O’Rourke. The IO therapist team is made up of around 60 women and “a few special men”.

IO is lucky with its close-knit team and Darland said she is not a fan of incentives, saying they cause trouble for team dynamic. “Picking all star team members that want to work at IO and training and educating them is the best recipe for success,” she said. “Training and further education and up-skilling for staff is of the utmost importance. Knowledge is power and it’s also loyalty building. Nobody wants to get bored in their work – or life for that matter.”

The IO premises is a veritable haven for health, with seven spa treatment rooms, relaxation lounge with light refreshments such as herbal and fruit waters, dark chocolate, high-antioxidant dried fruit, redwood sundeck with bamboo garden, aromatherapy steam rooms in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, one yoga studio and boutique retail area. Décor features clean, modern lines with an organic touch using dark, sustainable woods and white walls, as well as the use of circles to mimic the natural world and the concept of holistic healing. There are also seasonal art installations, called IO SHOW. When I visit, Darland has photos from her recent trip to India artfully displayed along one wall.

Darland said that IO combines yoga and spa because they are a natural complement: “Yoga asks the practitioner to take an active role in his or her own healing and it has a powerful effect on the body and mind from the inside out. Yoga is like giving yourself a massage. With massage and facials, we get an expert to take care of us and educate us. The two work like magic and are an empowering, honestly life-changing combo.”

IO stocks a variety of skin and body care, candles, fragrance and yoga and spa lifestyle clothing. Skincare ranges include SkinCeuticals, Dr Hauschka, Arcona, Astara, and the Reiki-energised Simply Divine Botanicals.

“We handpick products for results and quality,” Darland explained. “With some lines were only carry a few of their total selection.”

IO also manufactures its own body care range – which is used in the majority of the spa’s body treatments. The IO brand is the result of Darland and her partners not being able to find the right combination of organic product that was also healing, effective and a beautiful experience to use. “When all we found were limited options in the market, we decided we owed it to ourselves, and our clients, to create our own line. What we offer is a high-integrity organic product line where each ingredient has a purpose, with sophisticated scent blending in the old world perfuming tradition,” Darland explained.

Retail sales are important for Darland since it ensures clients will have a homecare regimen in between visits to the spa. “Happy clients are the best form of marketing around,” she said. “We are all about providing amazing products we can stand behind and believe improve the lives of our clients. Using our products in treatments and educating clients is key.”

Darland believes that IO’s combination of yoga and healing services coupled with their selection of wellness products and their simple, beautiful environment sets them apart. “We are sophisticated and authentic at the same time. We care for our team members and that translates to service that is full of care and love.”

The spa attracts mostly women aged 30 to 40 who are local to the Bay Area, although travellers from New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tokyo also visit.

According to Darland, IO is respected as a leader in luxury wellness and has won best spa and yoga accolades from San Francisco Magazine, Citysearch, Yelp, SF Weekly, Allure Magazine, In Style, as well as reader’s polls. Last year, the spa completed an 800-person comprehensive survey that also revealed positive feedback as well as some of the areas in which they could grow their operation.

IO’s three core treatments are the Vinyasa Yoga, 60-minute IO Massage and Enzyme Facial, with the 60-minute IO Massage the most popular.

With their organic, holistic bent, IO also does what it can to be wise with resources, as Darland explained: “We consider ourselves a light-green spa. We use all-natural cleaning products, recycled paper and eco-friendly yoga mats. We also focus on efficiencies around water use and light bulbs although we’re still working on those items. It’s a process, but we’re on board for it.

“Sustainability is one thing that we will continue to focus on: dealing with healthy ageing and slowing down and working on stress reduction in a world that keeps getting faster and faster. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and find new ways to support transformation. We believe we are already the shape of things to come.”

For now, the future for IO includes further expansion of their web retail business and product company, with another spa location a possibility.

International Orange, 2044 Fillmore Street, 2 Floor, San Francisco, California, 94115.
Phone: 0011 1 (415) 563 5000. Visit  

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