Sometimes a single moment on a single day is enough to change us forever. That is what happened to Raffaella Grisa one warm autumn afternoon in Tokyo in 2018. It is Raffaella’s story, and it is the story of WA:IT.
Raffaella started WA:IT, a small, botanical beauty brand smack in the middle of a global pandemic. And despite all odds, and an ever-competitive beauty industry, it has flourished.
But she is not here to talk business as she opens up on a Zoom “conversation,” a word she prefers to the more formal, “interview.” “There is no business or marketing strategy” for the brand, says the woman who worked as a successful engineer and business planner for decades, before everything changed.
Which brings us to why we are writing. Raffaella’s personal story is key to understanding the purpose of her brand. She didn’t create WA:IT to simply make our skin glow (though it does). With WA:IT she hopes to share a philosophy, a way of appreciating the present moment, of caring for oneself, and of becoming more aware of that self, rather than letting the stream of pressing plans and mechanically executed tasks distract us from the life we are living. Raffaella would know, because that is very the spiral she fell into, before she managed to scoop herself out of it on that pivotal day in Tokyo, as she was nearing her 50th year.
As Raffaella learned firsthand, with that awareness all kinds of good, sometimes almost magically, can come of it. She speaks in matter-of-fact honesty, when she says that the point of WA:IT is “to help people — people and the environment.” Help them take a little time for themselves, that is — to breath, to notice what is around them, as well as in their hearts and minds.
Like Raffaella, “sometimes we think we know who we are,” she says, but if we don’t stop to check in on ourselves every now and then, we can lose sight of that person. In the course of career and the daily flow of things, that is what happened to Raffaella, who had begun drifting further away from the shy child she had once been, who felt more comfortable talking to animals than people, living surrounded by nature in northern Italy.
Raffaella began to sense something was amiss, when she started “living at two speeds.” She had built a career that involved crisscrossing the globe, working as a consultant with her engineering background for Italian companies that exported goods, mostly eastward. Once every month she’d be in China, Japan, Russia, the Caucuses. At first, she had actually wanted to travel more, not be tied to a desk, and had pursued this path for that reason. Her parents were great adventurers, and she thinks “traveling is probably in my DNA.” Her mother loved the East, which they visited at length in the 80’s when few westerners did, and her father loved the West. Combining the two, Raffaella had seen much of the world by the time she was a young adult, nourishing a deep curiosity for other cultures, that continues to drive her.
A Sustainable Shift
China was “my very first big love … I started appreciating rituals and traditional medicine in China,” she says. But things took a decisive turn on one of her trips there in 2012. “I remember very well that day. I was on a fast train in the south of China, and the countryside was covered by these black plastic bags everywhere. That night I had a terrible nightmare, and I imagined we were wrapped with this huge, black plastic bag. So I changed my normal life behavior. It was very difficult to be sustainable in Italy then. There was no possibility to recycle. So I tried to follow northern Europe’s model of sustainability,” she remembers.
Her personal, environmentally conscious lifestyle started to look less and less like her professional one, and the two clashed, foretelling what in hindsight appears inevitable. “In my everyday life I tried to be sustainable, slow living, and my business life was very, very fast, and was not sustainable at all. I was always on airplanes.” Sometimes it felt her only time to rest was while in the air, on flights to and from events around the world. She would then rush home to Italy, where she spent what time she could with her daughter. “I was in the middle. When I made my big change in my life in 2018 in Tokyo, I had a force to make this change. I knew for a long time I need to make this change, because I wanted to live at just one speed. To have a slow life.”
Today, she is still trying to better understand what exactly happened that hot September day in 2018, when, after wandering into the gardens of the Meiji Temple in Tokyo, a clearer-than-ever outline of who Raffaella was, and what she had to do, came to her – or upon her.
“I went through the door of this park, and I started to feel something different … I was sure I had ended that day, my previous life,” she says.
Surrounded by the canopy of greenery within the Shinto temple gardens, she felt a connection with all that was flourishing around her, and fell into a kind of deep mediative state, that sharpened and cleared her mind, leaving her with a feeling of new strength and sense of purpose. “I felt as I was in a perfect state of mind to make any kind of decision, and as if I knew the answer of my life,” she says.
And that she did. From then on, Raffaella went about transforming her old life, and nothing has been the same since.
There would be no more constant rushing across continents, she would start to care for the environment both in her work, as well as in her personal life (not just the latter). There wouldn’t even be any more make-up, or dark suits either. She would be herself, Raffaella. Free.
Raffaella still doesn’t like to wear make-up, and loves her wrinkles. (She does, however, like her nails painted an impeccable crimson.) “In my previous work, it seems I have to wear a mask,” she says. That’s why “one of the first things I left when I made this first big change in my life was the make-up. Make-up was part of my mask. Of course, I have lots of wrinkles. I don’t want to be something different. I’m 50 years old. I don’t want to pretend to be 20 or 30 years old ... I love to see my wrinkles. And I love to see my glowing skin – even if it isn’t 30-year-old skin,” she says.
After quitting her job, pulling the breaks on her previous life first came as a shock. But Raffaella had one particular advantage supporting her during this sensitive transition period, when it can be so easy to lose a grip on what might seem like a naïve, dime-a-dozen dream to others, and sometimes to ourselves as well. She had been trained to problem solve. She had worked as an operational engineer following her degree in the field, and in her later consulting work.
“Actually, I am still an engineer,” she says. “I have never stopped. Engineering is a state of mind.” She chose the field, because “I was in love with mathematics. I think everything is held by mathematics, and engineering is the application of mathematics to everything.”
Now when people like to point out the unlikely correlation – You don’t need to be an engineer to do what you are doing, they say, Raffaella’s response is both rational, and helpful advice. “Engineering allows me to divide a big problem into small problems, and you can use this method on everything, as a way of life,” she will say.
And that is how she turned an almost out-of-body, life-changing, metaphysical experience — that could have just as easily left her meditating for years in a cave somewhere in the Italian Alps — into real action. That, and a little bit of unexplainable magic, she might say, because she feels a lot of what unfolded following her fateful moment in Tokyo, seems to have simply come her way of its own will. “Since the moment I was connected with nature at the Meiji temple, everything went as a flow. I didn’t search for anything, but the occasions – even the people – I just met them, I found them. Things happen. Since that day at the Meiji Temple, things happen,” she says.
But that is a rather modest understatement. Her love and understanding of mathematics, combined with a sensitivity for eastern philosophy, native Italian warmth, and a search for meaning in all that she does, is a powerful recipe. One could even argue that creative, new ideas seem bound to come of it, if given the right spark. Raffaella says ideas are now “filtered here (points to the heart), and then they go there (points to the head). It’s a different procedure.” And though she did nothing but study figures and prepare business plans in her previous work, “when I started with the WA:IT project, I didn’t make a business plan. It was completely different.”
What this problem-solver did do, was get to work at developing, and sharing her concept for WA:IT. Call it magic if you like. By putting her ideas for WA:IT out into the world, eventually resonated with other, kindred spirits, such as Angela Laganà, WA:IT’s cosmetologist and formulator, with whom Raffaella felt an immediate connection. Others have simply come upon the brand’s website, which isn’t filled with your usual product descriptions, brand messages and catch-phrases. There, you’ll find poetic truths like: “The beauty of life is a dual paradox of stillness and motion. To feel it, you have to WA:IT and comprehend that eternal beauty is in the moment.” Those who feel touched by what they find, tend to reach out, or read more, about the impressive ingredient lists and quality of the products.
As she speaks, Raffaella does not preach, or take on a mothering role. She is along for the ride too, learning as she goes, as interested in how others respond to her project, as she is in her own response to it. “As soon as I can travel again, I want to go back to Japan. I want to go back to try to understand what I felt. … One question people ask is: How can you understand when it’s the moment, and how can you understand the signal you got from yourself? Actually, I don’t know. I just describe what happened to me,” she admits.
Asked about her own awakening toward self-discovery, she says, “I thought I was Raffaella even when I was perfectly made-up in my black suit. Then, when I started to live two different speeds, I discovered that maybe something is wrong … Sometimes, we build these walls in our mind,” she notes.
As those walls fell away in the early months following her Tokyo experience, “WA:IT was a sort of embryo in my mind,” remembers Raffaella. “And then I discovered I knew. I told myself: You knew something important in Japan.” That something had to do with the daily rituals engrained in Japanese culture. Inspired by that tradition, she developed her own interpretation, concluding that any act performed with awareness, constitutes a ritual, as it were. Cooking, tending to plants, or to oneself, can all become rituals of a non-religious kind, for instance. In turn, that awareness tends to bring us closer to tuning into-ourselves as well.
“So I said, I’ve got some knowledge from Japan, something that I transformed, and I felt very mine. I don’t know how exactly I started thinking about creating a beauty brand. But it was a very normal procedure.”
Normal to her, perhaps, but it didn’t always appear that way to others. “When I told my husband I wanted to make a fragrance first, and he knew that I couldn’t bear any perfume. I remember how he looked – maybe she’s becoming a little bit mad? …But I told him: I want to make a different perfume … A perfume not just for here (points to the nose) but a perfume for here (points to the whole head). And that’s it.”
Today she never sounds afraid or worried about how things will work out in this new life she’s carved out, or for her new brand, between which “there are no boundaries,” she says. She is open to what comes, answering, “let’s try,” for all kinds of unconventional, new proposals and ideas for how to run, and build-up her company. This journal is one of them, as well as hiring employees that, like her, don’t come from the beauty industry.
Is her fearlessness the natural result of what comes with a true sense of inner freedom? She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but her life’s work may offer some.
“My current customers, they feel — not just the product in itself, but the philosophy and this connection, the authenticity of the project. They don’t feel it’s a commercial project. It isn’t. And I’m very happy about this, because when you decide to change your life at almost 50 years old, you have a very deep reason, and very strong reason to do that. And when other people can understand this, and appreciate, and catch the meaning of the brand – I’m very happy,” says Raffaella. “I would like to create a very strong community of people who share the same attitude toward life, the same philosophy… Not just beauty in itself,” she adds.
“If you strongly believe in something, and you put a lot of energy in what you believe in, you can pass this energy to other people. It’s a flow. And you spread energy, and this energy comes back, because other people come to you. Other situations. It’s a chain, a positive chain. As I said, things have been happening.” – Raffaella Grisa
Written By Devorah Lauter