Ayla is SF's personalized luxury beauty haven. Sourcing equally local products and those she has clocked serious mileage around the globe to find, Dara Kennedy is an industry vet who lives on the cutting edge of natural beauty. Meet Dara:
How did you come to open your luxe natural beauty shop Ayla?
I grew up in Hannover, New Hampshire, which is on the border of Vermont. It’s a beautiful, idyllic college town where I was surrounded by nature. The Appalachian Trail literally ran behind my house. When I was in college, I visited my brother who was in the Bay Area for grad school and I fell in love with the area. I love that the city is surrounded by nature preserves, beaches, forests and mountains nearby.
I lived here first from 1999-2003 working as a buyer for Macy’s which was really how I discovered beauty retail. That said, I also learned that being a buyer wasn’t what I wanted to do yet. So I went to work for a dot com when they were first becoming a thing at the end of ‘99. It was really interesting to be a part of that world when people first started buying online. The company I was working for was a personalized gifting site, which gave me some inspiration for what would become Ayla. I then worked in advertising and ended up being hired by a beauty client and moving to NY to manage their global skincare business before going to business school. I was back east for seven years, but always knew that I would come back. My husband and I decided it was the right time to return to San Francisco when we were about to have a kid and couldn’t picture having one in New York. Everything really just came together at that time with his work and my work and the pregnancy.
Is there anything special or unique about how SF locals approach skincare/beauty?
It’s different in SF. What I love about the mindset here is that it’s very balanced. People take a broad range of approaches to beauty. Growing up in Hanover, if you were to go out in town wearing lipstick people would be like ‘what are you doing’? I've found that here it's so accepting and diverse when it comes to beauty.
It's less trendy here than in New York, which suits me more. I also see in New York that there is a great movement toward using more natural products across the board, which is fantastic, but people can be a bit extreme about it. Here, women are interested in using more natural products but they are not driving themselves crazy with that effort.
Who are the skincare experts in town you swear by?
I’ve been a client of Lori Anderson's since I first moved to San Francisco. I totally trust her with my skin and I’m really picky about facials. Kristina Holey is another expert I swear by and she opened less than a year ago. She has a really holistic, unique approach. Most facialists talk about what you’re putting on your skin and life stresses, but Kristina takes it to another level, inspiring people to really take better care of themselves. And she does these wonderful facial massages that are part of her philosophy.
What are your favorite local-made beauty lines/products?
Vintner’s Daughter is one of my all-time favorite products. April Gargiulo their founder lives between San Francisco and Napa. She only has one product, an all-in-one anti-aging serum called Active Botanical Serum. This type of product is great because it packs a lot of great ingredients into one step, and you can use it regardless of skin type.
The only really tough thing about moving back here was what the moisture and fog do to my hair. So I’ve discovered local hair care lines like EVOLVh. I specifically love their Ultra Shine shampoo and conditioner. It performs and feels like a conventional shampoo and conditioner. Reverie is another local one that I like. It’s made in Sausalito, although the company is LA-based. I especially love their MILK, a leave-in conditioner. It’s been formulated by a skincare specialist, so it isn’t sticky, and you can apply to wet or dry hair. It’s so versatile.
Are you into detoxing at all via treatments, juices, etc? Who/which brands do you rely on for this?
Lately I’ve been into detoxing my brain. I’m running a business and have two small kids, so things are crazy. The way we live our lives now, with email and texts coming at us from the moment we wake up, puts a lot of pressure on our brain. I love how our Ayla neighbor Juniper Meditation Center teaches meditation. I’ve had a keen interest in it since discovering meditation in a yoga teacher training I took in New York. But for a long time, I thought that I wasn’t doing it right or well. At Juniper, there is something so approachable and accepting about the way they teach. Sometimes I only do it for 5-10 minutes a day, but it’s made such a difference in my stress levels and my responses to people in tough situations. When I don’t do it, my mind feels much more crowded.
I haven’t done a full-fledged detox in the classic sense in a long time. It’s tough to do with small kids, at least if you want to eat the same things they do. But once a year I’ll use the Organic Pharmacy Detox Kit. First I’ll clean up my diet a little bit, then I'll start the system which includes detox capsules that help get digestion running smoothly, drops that support the kidneys and liver and this wonderful detox cellulite body oil that I think is really helpful in detoxing from the outside in. It’s a relatively easy system and pretty much anyone can fit it into their life.
Do you have a favorite local workout?
I love Sarah Pascual’s one-hour vinyasa class at YogaWorks. It’s hard to fit anything longer than that into my day at the moment! She heats the room so it’s easy to get warmed up. She uses these peppermint essential oils, which is such a simple thing but make such a difference. And the way she sequences the class is really good. I also do a lot of walking in the Presidio, because I find that walking in nature really helps ground me. I read an article in WSJ a few years ago about how walking aids problem solving. I think it’s called involuntary attention. I love doing it and that it's a double benefit of body and mind fitness.
Where do you go to recharge?
My favorite place to recharge is the Presidio. The woods there remind me of home in New Hampshire, and I love that it’s so accessible.
Outside of the city, I love Paris. On my last trip, I found these really cute little places to eat that were fantastic. I was traveling solo and they were so easy to visit alone: Cafe Pinson and, on a recommendation from Kristina Holey, Au Passage, where I sat at the bar and had a glass of cold red wine and a bowl of sweet potato with feta, salsa verde, and these delicious crispy black rice things on top. The food was amazing and especially at Cafe Pinson it was so healthy. I would go there every day if it were in SF.
Closer to home, I love Big Sur. You can’t go wrong with any of the places there. Post Ranch Inn is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
What does an ideal weekend look like?
Since my husband and I have a two year old and a four year old, weekends are centered around them, and one of our favorite places has become the Bay Area Discovery Museum right across the bridge. It’s on the water and is a good combination of indoor and outdoor activities. They also have a great little healthy cafe.
I love going to the beach because my kids love it and there is something really calming about the water. That’s another thing about SF, there are so many great beaches and easy access to the water. The beach at Crissy Field is such an easy one to get to. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is also great and has some really interesting wildlife. As a family, we also love going on little hikes in the Presidio together, too. It’s amazing that it’s right here in the middle of the city.
For food, whenever I can get away with taking everyone there together, I love the food at Seed + Salt. Their flatbreads are amazing and I’m kind of addicted to them. An ideal weekend would also include a yoga class - this hasn’t happened in a long time, but it would be ideal!
The kitchen is my happy place in our house, and I love the fact that my kids are getting into cooking as well. On the weekends, I love to cook with them. They stand together on a "learning tower" that we pull up to the kitchen island, and I can offload annoying kitchen tasks like pulling the leaves off parsley stems that, to them, seem fun and exciting. Sometimes we'll bake brownies or oatmeal shortbread, but usually it's just daily dinner prep.
When you're traveling, which products do you take in your carry-on?
I find that what my skin needs changes a lot. I don’t have a go-to set of skincare products that I have ready in a travel kit because what I need changes so much. On my most recent trip I had Vintner’s Daughter which works for a wide range of climates and always makes your skin look glowy and bright. We carry a great English all-purpose balm called Pommade Divine that I usually make myself a little pot of and bring. I nearly always have Luzern Lab’s Firming Collagen Booster. It layers really nicely, and it helps give your skin this plump and rested look. I always have my EVOLVh shampoo and conditioner and my MILK for my hair. Oh and another thing I always bring is my Ellis Brooklyn Fable scent. Those Ellis Brooklyn scents are great because they're phthalate-free and smell like fine fragrances, not like your typical essential oil blend. When I went to Italy for work the other week I packed a huge pack of detox bath called Voya Lazy Days. Everyone in my family had been fighting a cold, so on my first night in Florence I took a bath with this seaweed detox soak. Voya is headquartered on the north west coast of Ireland which is really pure and unpolluted. They have about 150 miles of coastline where they hand-harvest and process the seaweed really fast, within two hours, to preserve the minerals and activity within. The soak itself is just a bag of this seaweed with some salt. It makes me sweat more than I do at the gym. If you know you need to detox on the road, it’s not the most outlandish thing to bring.
Do you have an in-flight beauty routine when traveling longer distances?
I keep it pretty simple; I don’t wear any makeup. I try to use a good barrier-protecting cream, like M Picaut’s Calming Cocoon Cream, on top of a hyaluronic acid serum, like BioRecept’s Total Lift Eclat. That keeps my face really plump and hydrated. Ursa Major makes these wipes that we’re going to carry at Ayla soon; you can just run it across your face to refresh and I used it at the end of a flight to Frankfurt recently. It’s really refreshing and just takes that gross airplane film off of your skin.
What are your favorite wellness rituals while traveling?
I take these crazy three-day trips to Europe to scope out products, so I swear by a Bach Flower remedy I found in Paris for jet lag. I love it so much that we’re starting to carry it this summer. It’s called Voyages Elixir by Les Fleurs de Bach, and I will not do one of those crazy trips without it anymore. I didn’t take it on my most recent one, and I was a jet-lagged disaster! They also make one for stress and one for sleep. And they make one that is their version of Rescue Remedy, but it’s actually better. They're such a crazily passionate little company that makes Bach Flower, according to the original recipes using only organic extracts. A lot of other companies have started cutting corners, but this one really go to great lengths.
Aside from products, I also try to walk as much as possible, and I meditate every night for 5 minutes. While traveling, actually, I can also meditate in the morning, which is a treat. At home, I’m usually woken up by a toddler and morning meditation just isn’t an option. But I can't wait to travel with them when they are a little older!