The Launch, Lessons and Legacy of International Orange
In celebration of International Orange’s 20-year anniversary, owner Melissa Ferst reflects on the tenacity it takes to start a business, the lessons learned in navigating its ups-and-downs, and the legacy she hopes to leave.
Fillmore Street, San Francisco, late aughts-2002.
In some ways, the famed street is exactly the same today as it was then: locals lounging at sidewalk cafes, popping in and out of neighborhood boutiques and coffee shops, the street bustling with busy people doing important things. There was a spirit of creativity, entrepreneurialism and opportunity that was quintessentially Pacific Heights.
But, as I reflect back, I realize how much has changed. Today, San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, is a Mecca for progressive health and wellness. You can’t walk a mile in any direction without stumbling into a yoga studio or spa or retreat center. But this wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the millennium, mainstream yoga was still relatively new in the US, and spas were mostly found in luxury resorts, not perched above neighborhood bars.
There was also an undercurrent of restlessness and change. The city was still recalibrating from the aftermath of the dot com bust. Some lost a fortune, many lost their homes and thousands lost their jobs. I was one of them. I had recently discovered yoga at one of the few studios in town, The Mindful Body. It was a warm, inviting, healing sanctuary that smelled faintly of patchouli and offered a balance of asana practice and bodywork, the perfect remedy to help with some physical pain I was having, as well as the stress I was feeling in the wake of the layoff. I decided to put my newfound freedom to good use and sign up for a yoga teacher training. I earned my certification from The Mindful Body in 1999.
Around the same time, I reconnected with my friends, Amy Darland and Kary Chendo. They had just returned to the west coast after a stint in New York City where they both worked in the William Morris mailroom by day, and staked out new wellness concepts on nights and weekends. There they discovered Bliss Spa, a fresh take on the clinical spa concept that made facials and massages feel modern, accessible and even a little edgy.
At the time, I didn’t have a strong connection to the day spa experience. But I had a deep appreciation for wellness sanctuaries in the middle of a city. So when Amy and Kary shared their inspirations for a cool day spa concept, and I folded in my own experience with yoga and healing, a spark ignited and a vision was born.
International Orange opened its doors on Fillmore and California Street in 2002. The 3200 square foot second floor space with sun-filled windows on one end and an intimate lounge and wood deck on the other, housed 7 treatment rooms, a small retail shop, and a long, narrow room that we devoted to our yoga program. We strove to make it simple but elevated, unadorned but inviting, minimalist but alive. International Orange was always meant to be a hybrid of sorts, bridging creativity and intuition, urban accessibility and mindful intentionality, to support personal transformation.
We kept the menu simple, offering facials and bodywork that could be customized based on clients’ needs. We kept the space stark, allowing the warm wood, white walls and low lighting to speak for themselves. We decorated with living things - lovely flower arrangements in the bathroom, imperfect pieces of wood in the retail area, bamboo and succulents on the deck. We kept our retail curated with beautiful brands we discovered and loved. They didn’t need to have mass appeal or marketing might. Our vetting process was more instinctual. I remember sitting on the wooden floor in our lounge with a local maker, Julie Elliott, testing her body balms and smelling the intoxicating aromas of her formulas. We all agreed to carry Julie’s unknown brand, In Fiore, marking her first wholesale order.
In those early days, our monastic, wabi-sabi vibe was as much out of fiscal prudence as it was an aesthetic choice. None of us had started, branded, or operated a business. We were three single 20-somethings who had tenacity, vision and a commitment to our mission. And we had what all first-time entrepreneurs are graced with: naïveté. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we became business owners by fire, dividing our duties and splitting our time between creating spreadsheets, ordering backbar and retail, doing massages, teaching yoga and folding laundry in our closet-turned-office.
We created, learned and trained every aspect of our business. It was out of necessity, but it was also our passion. Hiring our first employees, some of whom are still with us today, introducing them to the io philosophy, and witnessing the business grow roots in the community evoked a feeling of pride and responsibility that has only grown with time.
We were the first of our kind. And this novelty meant that we could grow organically, authentically, and without the constraints and expectations of institutional norms. And grow, we did. We grew as a team, hiring and expanding as business demanded. We grew in reputation, enjoying incredible press, celebrity visits and loyal clients who created the foundation of our community base. We grew our offering, launching io Essentials, our own line of daily must-haves, inspired by the aromatic experience of In Fiore that allowed out-of-towners and locals alike to bring the io experience home. And we grew apart, as naturally happens in business and life. My two co-founders took separate paths and I became the sole owner of International Orange in 2012, ten years after we opened our doors.
A few years later, another spark ignited. The developer of Marin Country Mart, Jim Rosenfield, approached me about a second location. It was the furthest thing from mind.
I had no vision in expanding, and living in the South Bay, I had no interest in relocating. But, a few more inspiring conversations led me to think bigger about what io could be, who it could serve and how we could encourage more wellness in the Bay Area.
We opened io Marin in 2016. Double in size, with a little more gold and brass, but the same timeless minimalism, customized services and curated selection of skincare, body care and lifestyle brands. Opening a second location across the bridge made the Bay Area feel smaller, more connected, and more like home. Our loyal clients now had a choice, and we loved seeing their familiar faces at both locations. It also made our team stronger. We leaned on each other in new ways, together growing more creative, more supportive and more committed to our mission.
In 2020, life changed. In the wake of the pandemic and the lockdowns, we chose to close our doors on Fillmore Street. This too was growth, as we knew that in order to support the transformation of others, we had to allow ourselves to transform, as well.
Two years later, what I remember most from that difficult time is not the moments of fear or uncertainty, but the moments of resilience and unexpected grace that carried us through. When we partially opened in Marin after the lockdowns, I was utterly shocked at the number of eager clients who signed up to receive basic facials and massages in our makeshift outdoor treatment rooms. My team, masked up and ready to work, adapted to the new reality, learning new skills and protocols on the fly. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but we divided duties and split our time between learning the new and ever-changing post-Covid operating procedures and servicing our clients with customized treatments that they so desperately needed, now more than ever. We were fueled by tenacity, vision and our commitment to our mission: to support the journey of personal transformation. This is what got us started, and it's what has kept us going for 20 years.
I’ve never thought of myself as deeply sentimental, or even visionary. So much of the magic of International Orange has come from the talent, skill and heart that we bring to our work. And while that’s not the sexy headline that sells, I do believe it’s the practical approach that sustains a service-based business over two decades. My wish for io’s next 20 years is simply this: to touch as many lives near and far - locals, newcomers, transients and of course our employees - with the transformative power of wellness.
With twenty years behind us, there are a few things I’ve learned that will carry us through the next twenty, and beyond. Here are my lessons learned:
Novelty and naïveté can be a secret to success.
It can be scary for first time entrepreneurs who have a vision for something new; an idea that breaks the mold. The business world likes proof of concept. And we all like to have some sense of assurance - however false it may be - that our business will succeed. But it’s the new, mold-breaking ideas that excite people. Being the first of our kind meant we got to write some new rules. We could do things our own way, because there wasn’t a roadmap that we were expected to follow. Also, entrepreneurship is full of unexpected twists and turns and new things to learn. So, I don’t let not knowing stop me. I see novelty and naïveté as opportunities to learn and do something that hasn’t been done.
Get your hands dirty.
We were a scrappy startup, so we didn’t have the luxury of building our business any other way. But I wouldn’t do it any other way. There was real benefit in knowing every aspect of our business, at least well enough to know how it should be done. I didn’t earn an official MBA, but I learned how to run a multi-location, service-based business by digging into every aspect of my business and getting my hands dirty. Inspiration ignited the spark. But it’s the operational know-how that has kept the business going for 20 years.
Keep it simple.
From our aesthetic to our curatorial approach to products and services, we have been guided by the belief that simplicity is the ultimate luxury. It’s also timeless, adaptable and beautiful in its own way. We haven’t changed much in 20 years. We haven’t needed to. What we’ve done, we’ve done well. By keeping things simple, we keep things consistent. Trends fade. Simplicity and consistency endure.
Commit to a mission that’s bigger than you.
From the beginning, we were motivated by a vision to create an urban oasis for health and healing. We launched with a very clear mission: to support the journey of personal transformation. I credit our success to not simply having a clear mission, but to re-committing to it every day, especially when it felt impossible to do so. It was in the most difficult times of change and uncertainty that our mission became our north star. It refocused our energy and intention and realigned us with a purpose greater than ourselves.
Team is everything.
As a first-time entrepreneur, I dreamt of the business and the brand, the products, the services, and creating legions of happy, healthy clients. I didn’t think about the team I would have to build, the different personalities that I would have to manage, and the countless personal stories that I would invest myself in. Working with other human beings is hands-down the hardest part of running a business. But, it’s also the most rewarding. To be a part of someone’s life, to be a chapter in their story, to witness their growth, be there for their breakthroughs, celebrate their triumphs, and support their journey… somewhere along the way, I realized this was the most important work I could ever do. And it is this that makes celebrating 20 years so sweet.