Not many former nurses have set up a multimillion-pound global skincare company, let alone one that has 100 per cent chemical-free oils and balms, which are some of the purest on the planet. Nor have many developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the extraordinary healing uses of plants; run private yoga, massage and meditation retreats for Hollywood actresses and New York fashion queens; helped revive frankincense production in Oman; and, in the process, employed some of the poorest people in the world, from Berber tribeswomen in Morocco to villagers in Rajasthan, to wild-harvest the raw ingredients.
Former nurse and founder of Ila, Denise Leicester, small, quietly spoken and humble about her achievements, has done all this and more. However, none of it would have happened, she says, if it weren’t for the four-and-a-half years, between 1983 and 1987, that she spent nursing one of the UAE’s rulers, after he fell ill. “Ila certainly wouldn’t have existed without the sheikh. He was an amazing man, and those years nursing him opened my eyes to alternative medicine,” she says when I meet her in London, over tea at Claridge’s.
“I went from being a nurse used to strict, traditional protocols, a drug for this, a drug for that, to realising what incredible natural sources of help and healing the Earth gives us.”
Leicester was given almost unlimited resources to buy anything she thought might improve the sheikh’s well-being. “And that, together with the sheikh’s unbelievable generosity, set me on my path,” she says.
When she took the job, Leicester had no idea whom she would be looking after. She was 27, keen to work abroad and, after responding to an advertisement for a three-month contract to work in the UAE in the Nursing Times, was interviewed at the UAE embassy in London.
She was one of eight nurses hired and promptly moved to Dubai, where she took up residence at the Hilton. “Utterly nerve-racking, it was, though, at first,” she recalls.
Leicester wondered whether aromatherapy might be helpful in treating her new patient’s symptoms and began to explore the subject in depth. She realised that the use of pure oils could be beneficial, for the effect of their aromas on the mind and of their ingredients on the nervous system.
Initially, the only oils she had to hand were by Clarins, but she expanded this collection with some essential oils from the famous French aromatherapist Micheline Arcier: rose Damascene, jasmine, sandalwood. She began incorporating them into the sheikh’s treatment plan, with immediate results. “The effect was incredible. I was thrilled.”
She felt very privileged, she says, to work at the palace. “The sheikh was so endearing. So cultured, so gracious, so sensitive, respectful of women, deeply generous. I felt honoured to be part of that world, behind the scenes.
“They were a lovely family, very honourable. The daughters were so friendly; always sending over chocolates. But you can get too used to the luxury of life [in the UAE]. I thought, I’d better go home before I lose my sense of my own culture.”
Back in England, funded by her former patient’s generosity, Leicester enrolled at the Institute for Complementary Medicine in London. She also travelled to India, staying at ashrams, studying the country’s 5,000-year-old Ayurvedic tradition of medicine, and qualified as a yoga teacher.
In the 1990s, when the sheikh passed away, leaving Leicester a bequest, she was able to set up her own, complementary-medicine clinic in London. And what you’d think would have been a devastating setback – developing chronic fatigue syndrome and having to spend much of the following seven years, 1994 to 2001, bed-bound – was actually a blessing, she says. Exhausted and immobilised, she was able to go deeply, meditatively, within herself, “stripping away all the layers”, and increasing her understanding of and empathy towards other people’s suffering.
When she eventually recovered, thanks to a deep Ayurvedic panchakarma cleanse at a clinic in Pune, India, run by Dr Balaji Tambe, and having met and married her husband, John, an accountant, she set up a yoga studio near their new home in the Cotswolds in the United Kingdom. She also started to make her own skincare products.
“The ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis] left me so sensitive, I couldn’t put a single chemical on my skin. If I used a mainstream cleanser or moisturiser, I literally got ulcers or blisters. So I turned our spare room into a little apothecary,” says Leicester. “I used to mix up different blends of oils and give samples to my yoga students. They loved them.”
The 2004 tsunami led her to realise that she could turn those experiments into a business. “John and I were at a yoga retreat in Austria. We were aghast. But the yoga teacher said: ‘This is a signal. Now we each have the power to do something good for the world. If we each make a drop of change, together we can create an ocean of change.’ I said to John: ‘With your accountancy skills and my skincare, I think we can do something useful.’
“Women smother themselves with these terrible mainstream creams and don’t realise how much it can harm them. I wanted to create something absolutely pure; skincare that will help women nourish themselves; a business that is ethical and will help improve the lives of everyone involved.”
Beginning with an 18-month trip to remote areas of the world to source the purest ingredients, and working first from her kitchen table in the Cotswolds, Leicester produced the first Ila range in 2007.
Soon, fans such as Natalie Portman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Donna Karan were flying her to Los Angeles or New York to run private yoga, massage and meditation weekends. Spas worldwide began to use Ila products, packaged in their distinct deep cerise, emerald, sunflower and cornflower boxes, and containing only natural ingredients such as pink rock crystal salts from Kashmir, Damask rose petals from the Himalayas, argan oil from the Atlas Mountains, and honey and royal jelly from the Cotswolds.
In October, Leicester presided over the opening of the first all-Ila spa, at the Raas Devigarh hotel, in a ravishingly restored 18th-century fort outside Udaipur. It’s a fitting destination for the first all-Ila spa. Every cream, oil, scrub, mask, candle and fragrance at Ila, a Sanskrit word that means Mother Earth, is created using minimal processing and is hand-blended in the British countryside, but Indian influences are evident in the products, treatments and ethos. The three-fold spa menu follows traditional practices from the region, from the Ayurvedic marma massage found in the treatments menu, and the energy-rousing kundalini session in the yoga menu, to the therapeutic Devi package in the blessings menu. Bhutanese and Tibetan therapists carry out two-hour chakra-blessing treatments involving the use of massage and feathers to waft smoke around the client.
Ila treatments and products are also available at The Chedi and Shangri-La hotels in Muscat, and Leicester is currently working with a third, as-yet-undisclosed spa in Oman. It is worth noting that her use of the frankincense produced in the country has revived a faltering industry.
In January, she will launch a monthly apothecary box. A subscription-based delivery available every month across the world, the box will contain an enticing mix of items.
This could be a CD of the sublime Indian ragas to which the staff at her factory-barn in the Cotswolds work; a crystal; something handmade by one of the women’s cooperatives she’s helped set up to wild-harvest plants; or samples of formulations she has devised but not yet marketed. Leicester has more than 300 blends, all a mix of essential oils and other natural ingredients, many sourced from the Amazon.
“To be able to open people’s eyes to all the nourishing richness and beauty and effectiveness of these incredible natural products the Earth gives us, I feel so blessed,” she says.
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, December 8.