“The bees are out! Yes! Oh, but they shouldn’t be out.” Nicole Rechelbacher beamed and fretted all at once. Even in late April, the morning’s bite in Osceola, Wis., foretold a chance of snow. The arcing sun had power enough to coax a few bees from their hive, yet she worried. A legacy was at stake.
Now, in glorious June, those bees are nosing into roses and hyssop, monarda and mint, species planted just for them in the fantastical landscape of a farm where Rechelbacher’s father changed the world.
It’s also where she intends to help save it.
Rechelbacher leads an ambitious research venture to aid bee populations harmed by pesticides, diseases and parasites. But she also wants people to learn how daily decisions have real environmental impact. It’s an ethic she inherited from her father, Horst, a charismatic hairdresser who in the 1960s took Minneapolis by storm — and by accident — and ended up raising the city’s cool quotient around the world.
Horst — simply Horst — was an Austrian immigrant who would go on to create the Aveda Corporation and so became known as the father of safe cosmetics. How safe? In a surefire bit, he’d toast the beauty industry by drinking a champagne flute of his hair spray.
On a 500-acre farm north of Osceola, he’d create products from organic ingredients. One barn still holds a mad scientist’s heap of distilling equipment where his young daughter would help glean essential oils from a harvest of mint.
In 2012, Horst offered the farm to the University of Minnesota’s Bee Squad to use as a rural lab. The squad leapt at the opportunity and established four colonies, only to watch as the bees inexplicably failed to thrive.
“We thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” says Rebecca Masterman, the squad’s associate program director. “It turned out that the bees actually were short of food, that they lacked the right habitat.”
Experimental plantings began in 2014, but then Horst died of pancreatic cancer. He was 72. Given his death and the bees’ struggles, the project might have ended right there. But Rechelbacher, along with Horst’s widow, Kiran Stordalen, didn’t want to see that happen.
“We decided, ‘Let’s do something amazing.’ ”
Channeling a father’s vision
At first glance, Rechelbacher embodies how we regard the impossibly chic. She’s an heiress, for starters; Horst sold Aveda in 1997 to Estée Lauder for a reported $300 million.
Her cheekbones go up to there. At 50, she looks 35. She exudes an effortless style, swanning into a beauty expo wearing raggedy jeans and a pale peach satin robe. Small-boned, she calls to mind an exotic bird.
Then she opens her mouth, and we’re back in Minnesota. In a familiar flat inflection, she talks about being a kid in 4-H, about graduating from Chanhassen High School, about being a Western barrel racer until a horse stepped on her and broke her femur.
“That’s when Dad said, “That’s it — you’re going to beauty school!’ ”
She laughs telling the story. Rechelbacher actually seems pretty down to earth. She can’t bear watching her teenage son’s high-flying snowboard competitions. She calls her diet “sustainable,” with organic produce, grass-fed proteins and lots of eggs. She adores the miniature donkeys in the farm’s pasture “because they look so goofy, like Donkey in the ‘Shrek’ movies.”
She was 9 when her life changed.
Let’s back up a bit: Horst was in his 20s when in 1965 he came here for a hairstyling gig. He was earning $500 a day; now, that’d be $4,000. Then a drunken driver crashed into his Jaguar. Injured, Horst had to remain here to recover, but also to pay off medical bills. He fell in love with Minnesota, and with a woman with whom he’d have two children, Nicole and Peter.
The marriage eventually ended, and Horst, in a seeking mode, followed his guru Swami Rama to India for six months. He returned inspired to create a natural hair and skin care line based on plants — an idea that in 1978 would become Aveda.
Between her parents’ divorce, her dad’s embrace of the New Age ethos, and his grand plan, Rechelbacher’s life was transformed.
“There was no more snack food in his house, no more synthetics — and this was in the ’70s,” she says, wide-eyed. Horst wanted everyone to join him in yoga and to meditate. He used aromatherapy. “An Indian herbalist came to live with us — they’d be in the kitchen, making clove shampoo.”
The Aveda empire slowly grew, spurning the usual chemicals and instead using flowers, herbs, seeds, essential oils. The message was clear: Don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.
Rechelbacher earned a beauty school degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and dabbled in clothing, but returned here to work with her father and Stordalen, whom Horst married in 1985.
“I was raised with having passion,” she says. “As a family, we’d always be talking at dinner about the next launch instead of where we’re going on our next vacation.”
Taking a break from beauty
In 1997, the year Horst sold the company to Estée Lauder, Rechelbacher married Peter Thomas, a Minnesota man she’d met in New York City. With that, and the sale, her priorities shifted. “I didn’t want to work for Estée after working with my father,” she says. She had one, two, three children — and a new career away from Aveda’s allure.
“Becoming a mother, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done,” she says. “I wore a T-shirt and khakis for years.” That has been her identity in Wayzata, where she says people rarely connect her with Horst. “I’m Nicole Thomas most of the time, except where the industry is involved.”
As the kids grew up — they’re now 13, 15 and 17 — she felt as if she was losing that identity as well. “Finally, I said, ‘OK, Nicole, you need to find ‘you’ in order to still be a good mom.’ ”
Motherhood informed her return to Intelligent Nutrients, or IN, an even more environmentally focused line of beauty products that Horst founded in 1992. She’d gained a fresh awareness of kids’ vulnerabilities in a chemical soup of fabric protectors, detergents, preservatives and so on.
“We want to educate youth to find their own beauty in products that give off a vibrational energy,” she says, revving up. She can talk about this all day — how factors from air pollution to fried foods produce free radicals that damage cells. Antioxidants in plants help neutralize this action, spawning products such as IN’s cleansing lotion with apple extract.
“We’re fighting free radicals every day,” she says. “As a conservationist, as a parent, as a person of the Earth, it’s my responsibility to think of these things.” (Hearing her speak at a recent beauty expo, one salon veteran told the crowd: “I feel like I’m listening to your father right now.”)
Today she’s co-president with Stordalen of IN, working with scientists delving into ingredients like sea daffodil and carrot seed oil to make cleansers, shampoos, creams and serums.
“But we’re so much more than that,” she says. “My whole thing is that beauty is ‘me time,’ whether that’s working out, or reading a book, or taking a botanical class, or studying bees. That’s what beauty is.”
This is where the bees come in.
Good for bees — and people
The HMR Pollinator Project — for Horst Martin Rechelbacher — was established at Osceola a year after his death as a research and training site for scientists and students.
It’s also a place where the public can come and learn about raising bees and sustainability practices, as at an event earlier this month that included kite-flying and beer-tasting.
“I just know that Dad would be very happy with the education focus here,” she says. “When we talked about this, he said, ‘I don’t want to burden you,’ and I told him, ‘I don’t have a choice in losing you, but I have a choice to develop this.’ ”
One field holds a “pollinator tea garden,” where the flowers are for bees while the leaves are harvested for tea. Another is platted into huge hexagons, like a honeycomb, each sowed with different crops to study bees’ preferences. A Hive to Bottle program urges homeowners to raise bees, with squad members providing setup assistance and helping harvest the honey.
“The change that’s happened out here already is so dramatic,” says the Bee Squad’s Masterman. “The project is a great way to show that what’s good for bees is also good for people. And we’re just getting started.”
Why should we care about bees? More than a third of the world’s food supply relies on pollination by animals, mostly bees. Fewer bees means less food. And, flower by flower, less beauty. Rechelbacher says the bee project is true to an ethic that began with her father’s kitchen sink shampoo.
“He was all about trying to do some good for the future,” she says. “Not just try to address symptoms here and there, but really look at the preventative piece.”
She grins. “It’s good for kids to be inspired by what their parents do.”