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Next of Skin

In conversation with Nina Zilka and David Krause of Alder New York

When Nina Zilka and David Krause first met as fashion design students at Pratt Institute, they became fast friends and collaborators. “We immediately were kindred spirits in the design world and felt like we understood each other and started working together,” Nina shares. “We did our senior thesis together, started a clothing line, and then were little baby entrepreneurs for many years in the fashion world.”

The duo had always focused on the quality, ethics, and sustainability of their clothes, so it was only natural for Nina to develop an interest in the lack of FDA regulation in the skincare industry. This concern led to her making her own products with science-backed, plant-forward ingredients that she couldn’t find at the drugstore. At first, David simply suggested bottling and selling small batches of Nina’s products alongside their clothes, but the pair’s passion for skincare eventually eclipsed their fashion ambitions. 

In 2016, Nina and David made their career switch official with the launch of Alder New York, a line of clean, vegan skincare and haircare essentials that meets their own high standards. With sleek black packaging and minimalist graphics, the brand is designed for all genders and ages. Here, the duo shares how they built the company, why they continue to update their formulas, and more.

Mast Journal: How does your fashion background influence your brand?

David Krause: Our fashion line was all about local manufacturing, natural materials, ethically made clothes. So when Nina read this one book that revealed how unsafe most of the products we're using are and how little regulation there is, we became one of the first brands of that clean skincare journey that happened. We spent a lot of time just deep diving into research and learning about cosmetic chemistry and really went nuts into that.

We realized that we're designers who have this ethical compass that guides us, more than we are fashion designers. So when we went into skincare, we approached it with our design sensibility of being effective, of being safe, of being inclusive, of being made ethically. So it made a lot of sense for us. From outside, making clothing and fashion shows doesn't feel like it aligns necessarily with formulating cosmetic chemistry formulas, but for us it was a real, natural progression.

MJ: Totally. It sounds like the ethos behind both of those ventures is the same. Do you still do any work in fashion?

DK: We’re all skincare now. In our personal lives, we've started to move into different fashion hobbies and creative pursuits more than we have in the past. I think we started missing that a little bit, but Alder New York is a skincare brand completely.

MJ: Can you share a little bit about your products and how you develop them?

Nina Zilka: David and I have a very similar outlook on personal care, which is we want products that are really efficient and work, but neither of us want to be thinking about our skincare all the time and neither do our customers. We always say we're skincare for people who aren't obsessed with skincare. So our formulations are designed to work for a wide range of skin types. We use percentages of actives that work and really work well together.

We have our core line, which is our moisturizer, our cleanser, our nourishing cream, and our oil. Our moisturizer is vitamin C and vitamin E and tripeptide five, which is incredible for collagen boosting. That pairs really well with our cleanser, which is a glycolic acid cleanser that uses things like sea kelp to also help boost collagen. We have a face mist, which really makes a difference in terms of refreshing your skin, so it has hyaluronic acid, pomegranate seed oil, and then a mineral complex. Everything is just about working really cohesively so that you, as the customer, can count on us that we've designed everything for you and you don't have to think too much about it.

MJ: That sounds ideal and very approachable.

NZ: My dream is that, as a household, you can have one set of products and not have to overthink it and they look really beautiful on your shelf.

MJ: Yes! The packaging! How did you design that?

DK: The goal was to be minimal, so that you can look at each piece and you can understand what it's going to do for you, what the ingredients are, and then have a visual icon or a distinction between all of them. So we created this visual language to represent each product. And the goal is to keep it neutral so it fits into anybody's space and is gender inclusive.

We also really focused on the sustainability elements. In fact, we tried to get as much recycled plastic material in the bottles as possible. The cartons are FSC-certified paper and many of the cartons are a hundred percent recycled paper. So it's a mix of our morals and our clean design aesthetic and trying to be inclusive and making it easy for anybody to understand.

MJ: Definitely. Did you create all the icons yourself?

DK: Yes. Nina and I work on all the visuals, graphic design, and photography. We are designers, so it comes really naturally. We might not have gone to school for graphic design, but we can figure it out. We might not have studied photography for years, but we are going to do photography. We really are the creative and operational force behind Alder New York.

MJ: That’s amazing. And on that note, do you have a team to support you?

DK: Full-time, it’s just the two of us. We work with several factories and every once in a while we have our PR team and different people outside, but we are the only two people that work at Alder New York all the time.

MJ: Wow! Based on the reach of your brand, it seems like you would have a much larger team.

NZ: We're really tired. But no, I love to hear that. From the beginning, we have had a very scrappy ethos. And I agree, it is a large reach for the two of us.

DK: At times, we have had a lot more people working with us. But over time, we've learned that we enjoy our business more when it feels like a family business. Nina is like my family, so it felt natural to shrink after expanding. We became so disconnected from our products because we were managing a lot of other people. Our passion is making beautiful things and doing it together. The more people you get involved, the less you're actually part of your own business.

MJ: That makes sense! Mast Market is also a really lean team. Where are you based now?

DK: I’m upstate and Nina’s in Brooklyn.

MJ: Why did you decide to put New York in the name of the brand?

NZ: David and I met in New York. David's from New Jersey. I'm from New York. We are very much East Coast New Yorkers. We are so inherently New York, aesthetically and even our mentality in a way that I take for granted. We just are drawn to a more sleek, sophisticated aesthetic. And we are this mix of practicality and a high-end luxury combined, which to me feels very New York.

DK: Yeah. We used to think about our brand as being for people who are always on the go and there's nothing more New York than always rushing somewhere or needing to be somewhere. That definitely has changed a little bit post-pandemic. New Yorkers have slowed down and the constantly moving around has calmed down. But the New York energy is very much a part of our brand and trying to make New Yorkers’ lives easier has been very important to us.

MJ: Love that. Also, the naming convention of XYZ New York is often used in fashion.

DK: So true. It is definitely a holdover from our fashion days.

MJ: And where does the name Alder come from?

DK: Alder is a tree. We really liked that this tree is super symbiotic with its environment. It works with the microbes in the soil to enhance the root structure and in the end, the soil's really healthy, plants can grow really healthily, and so can the tree. We really love that tree because of how it cares for the environment around it. And we always try to think about the people that we are working with and the end user of our product and how we're going to be making their lives better. So we found a tree that represented that.

MJ: That’s such an interesting explanation. And how do you decide which ingredients to use in your formulas?

NZ: From the beginning, we have used the Environmental Working Group as our gold standard. David and I are such makers and designers that we were always really interested in what ingredients were even before we were formulating products. Now, we will routinely change the formula slightly when there is an update. So our cleanser, serum, and moisturizer, when we launched them in 2018, had phenoxyethanol in them, which was a preservative that actually isn't linked to any health risks. It's considered a safe preservative, but it causes some skin irritation, which was found later in the universe of clean. So when we launched our reformulation in 2021, we used a different preservative that's even better for sensitive skin. We're always updating and improving the formulas as more science comes in. 

MJ: That’s incredible that you improve the products, even when nothing is unsafe.

NZ: That’s really our goal. I'm very proud that we've made these products that make people feel and look so good.

MJ: And you’ve gotten the products certified, as well?

NZ: David and I have put a lot of time into getting certifications. Our products are Environmental Working Group verified and Vegan Action certified. Both of those we’re really proud about. Both companies are incredible about requiring evidence and proof. The Environmental Working Group, for any ingredient that you use, you have to show lab testing. They wanted heavy metal testing that you can't even get done in the United States, so I ended up having to find a lab in Canada, which I respect. The Environmental Working Group is my gold standard even for my personal care that isn't Alder. Right now, with greenwashing and everybody saying they're clean, the certifications really can give customers a sense of security that it actually is safe and good for the planet and good for you. 

MJ: Definitely. Where, outside of the Alder New York website, can people find your products?

NZ: We're in about 300 stores across the country. If there's a cool store in your city, I bet we're there. And if we're not, we should be there. Mast Market is a very good example of that, obviously. We love our little boutiques. There's a shared ethos that we really vibe with. And then we're also at Shopbop and we're in Canada at Maison Simons, so we're at some larger places, too.

MJ: Awesome. What do you envision for the future of the brand?

DK: We are always thinking about what products our customers need and what products they don't. We're really focused on continuing to offer the essentials. We recently brought in lip balms because that is something that we are always needing.

NZ: Mast Market carries those! I never don't want a lip balm in my bag, so that's the logic. We wanted to create a really great vegan lip balm that had the same nourishing and melting effects as the beeswax ones. And we hadn't found anything that was really meeting that criteria for us. So that was the real big goal. We also wanted to have a really gorgeous fragrance, but we wanted it to be with essential oils. We don't do synthetic fragrance. So those were the big things that were a challenge and I think we did it.

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