Organic skin care expert turns passion
into successful businesses
by Jennifer Powers
IN THE LATE 1980s, Kaelen Harwell Johnson heard about an opening at Canyon Ranch from a friend. She landed the job and worked at the world-renowned spa for four years as an herbal therapist before deciding to make a change to accommodate her young son. “Once he started school, I wanted to have more flexibility in the evenings,” she says. “I contemplated massage therapy, but even in the early ’90s I was very interested in natural products, so I decided to go to school for aesthetics where I could learn about skin care.”
After she graduated from cosmetology school, Kaelen’s passion for skin care continued to grow, ultimately inspiring her to fill a niche in the Tucson market. “I had been working in the industry for about 15 years when it dawned on me that Tucson needed a school that was less focused on cosmetology and geared more to aesthetics.” Kaelen embraced the idea of owning and operating a school, despite the fact she did not have a business background. Pure Aesthetics, dedicated to instructing students in basic skills and the latest methods in a spa-like setting, opened on East Fifth Street in 2006. “Accreditation is a lot of work but it was important for me to obtain it so my students would have the ability to be eligible for student loans,” she says. “It also holds you to high standards, which is important to me.”
The natural world has always been a source of inspiration and fascination for Kaelen. Her mother, an ardent birder and outdoorswoman, imbued her daughter with an appreciation for flora and fauna early in life. Johnson aspired to provide her students with natural, effective skin care products using organic, sustainable ingredients whenever possible. In 2016, she launched her own line, Kaelen Harwell Organic Skin Care Products.
“I started my own skin care line initially for the students to use at the school, but clients started asking if they could purchase them,” she says. “Such a large component of being an aesthetician is educating your clients and making product recommendations. When students get comfortable with selling products in school, they can make a tremendous difference in their bottom line once they’re out in the real world.”
The last three years have been particularly busy for this creative Tucson businesswoman. After her product launch, Kaelen moved Pure Aesthetics to a larger location at 2850 E. Speedway, near Country Club, then fulfilled her dream of opening her own spa, Kaelen Harwell Organic Day Spa, located at the lobby of the AC Hotel at 30 S. 5th Avenue in downtown Tucson.
Johnson used a lot of local talent when she opened her spa. The floor plan was designed by HK Associates, with whom she had previously worked on the Speedway location of Pure Aesthetics. “They do beautiful work,” she says. “I picked out the color scheme and design for the interior myself. The windows are tinted so I thought a copper color would be a nice contrast. Also, since we’re the copper state it seemed apropos. I bought a lot of my materials from Natasha at Originate, and Cipriana Salazar of Lone Ant Design created my pieces. In fact, she’s currently building a custom pedicure station for us. Johanna Martinez beautifully hand-painted my logo as well as a different botanical on the wall of each of the treatment rooms. I also have a collection of fine art by Carrie Seid hanging on our lobby walls.”
Her spa carries items for sale by several local makers. “Tucson is blessed to have so much wonderful talent,” she says. “We have handmade earrings by Tasha Bundy and Sofie Albertsen-Gelb from MAST, earrings by Lauren Valenzuela of Sigfus, and necklaces and bracelets by Alisa Lindberg. We also sell greeting cards in our gift shop all from local illustrators.”
Kaelen’s role models include the founder of Bliss Spa, Marcia Kilgore, with whom she did an apprenticeship in New York City in 2001, and green beauty expert Kristen Arnett. She is especially moved by environmental activist Greta Thunberg. “Her bravery and insight are remarkable for someone of her age,” she says.
Kaelen enjoys live music, local restaurants, and hiking in what little spare time she has. “It’s funny,” she says, “because once you have the entrepreneur bug, it’s hard to turn off.”