Our Founder Mai Vi Explains The Journey and Values of Opera Zero

Since launching in July 2020, we have also received many questions from our supporters about Opera Zero’s ethos, values and background: from sustainability, to our claim of decolonising the beauty industry. If you’ve been following us on Instagram, you may have noticed that we use the hashtag #morethanbeauty in our bio. We also define Opera Zero as a brand that offers “beauty for every-body.”

Why? What do we mean by that exactly? 

Our founder Mai Vi, wanted to explain this to our community and answer the questions we have received. She opens up on her personal journey, how it led her to develop Opera Zero, and why the two are closely intertwined. You can catch the full video (in English) on Opera Zero’s IGTV.  

We have also put together a transcript in English below. Read on.

Introducing myself and the brand

Hello everyone, how are you? Thank you for being here and for all of the support and feedback that you’ve been sharing with us. They are welcome and appreciated. 

I thought it might be the time for me to introduce myself. My name is Mai Vi, my pronouns are she/her and I’m the artisan behind Opera Zero. The core principles of Opera Zero are honesty, transparency and care, i.e, care for the self, care for people, and care for the environment. Based on these, I have decided to share my story and the origins of Opera zero as transparent as possible. 

Since Opera Zero is so closely tailored to the prints of my conviction, my voice, and truth, I had doubts about sharing my story - as specifically, what aspect of my journey is interesting? How do I talk about it? Why am I doing this “Opera Zero” the way I am doing it? What does it matter? Is it ok for me to do this, to share my story? Yes, it is...therefore here it is.

Personal History

I’m a mixed-race cisgender woman with a decade of committed residency in the UK, the conceptual birthplace of Opera Zero. While living in London, I learnt the skills which have allowed me to create the products shared with you from formula to bottle. Just like most every other young Italian expat in London, I worked in retail and as a production manager for a variety of stores and brands and then decided to teach myself soap making and cosmetic formulation.

On Identity: Blending social-cultural norms and values with ethical growth

Bringing Opera Zero into fruition has meant taking into account the socio-cultural nuances that have shaped my identity, and unbeknownst to myself, the moment I committed to turn my dream into a reality, I also started to deconstruct the elements that shaped my identity thus far. 

Who I thought I was and what I thought I knew, became a recurring theme in the journey of self-discovery, that featured a lot of unpacking and unlearning of the certainties in my life, as well as those which I hadn’t valued as important, which of course now are. None of these happened out of choice, I just found myself there and went with it. It’s been quite a process and I’m still figuring it out, my identity is a work in progress.

Moving Back to Italy

Moving back to Italy was definitely a decision I’m owning, who doesn’t want to go back home? Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t the dreamy ‘Bella Vita’ experience of coming home one would hope for: it felt like being crushed to the ground, it was a shock. This shocking reaction triggered an involuntary unearthing of memories, feelings and unresolved issues from prior experience as a child and young adult in Italy. This resurgence challenged me to the point of deep panic and self-consciousness, as all of a sudden I was unable to confront and communicate the feeling of being seen and treated as “the Other” while I was also dealing with past trauma. 

Caution now: to think that in London was ‘easier’ because it’s a more ‘open-minded city’ would be a naive conception, as well as underestimating the brutal and harmful process of “integration”, as in the UK I almost became white. The half of me that was Italian, was held in higher regard: I was just Italian. My Vietnamese half became almost invisible to society - it's still not free from many facets of racial fuckery. 

The point is that my proximity to whiteness as a mixed race person of asian descent allowed me to enter spaces which I could not have in Italy, and that in itself is privilege. Back in Italy, I was reminded very quickly that I couldn’t be Italian, with my face and name. So what am I? Upon realising this, BOOM! I crumbled. How do I navigate this?

The seed of resurgence against racism 

Back in London, in the last few months before moving back to Italy, a friend had planted a precious seed in me, which luckily found fertile soil and as someone said: “It’s been growing in divine proportion”. In order to see myself, I had to first open my eyes to the matrix of systemic racism, and approach life from an anti racism point of view. Doing this has allowed me to identify and give name to all that compressed experience harboured from growing up in Italy.

Conceptualising my experience as a racialised woman through this lens helped me understand the many ways in which I had been conditioned within this white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist system. Racism is everywhere, is in everything, it’s pervasive, it’s ingrained in us, and I have been actively seeking it out. I am conditioning myself to become aware of it and recognise its many forms, especially the most subtle. This choice of constant awareness is made with the promise of action.

How does this personal journey intersect with Opera Zero?

As I evolve, so does Opera Zero, whose entire business framework is centred around the core principles of Anti-racism and Decolonisation model. As a team, our decision making process launches with an acknowledgement of this basic fact, which helps to structure our ideas into action from this perspective. This is a collective process of unlearning and re-education that the team engages in, where accountability and social responsibility are called at the forefront. 

It’s 2020, we’re experiencing a global pandemic, we’ve been witnessing social uprisings and we’re literally burning up: what are we waiting for? Socio-environmental injustices are right in front of our faces. Businesses must share the responsibility of finding solutions to the problems we’re facing as a community. With that knowledge at the helm of our practice, Opera Zero decided to go beyond beauty, and possess a moral duty. #MoreThanBeauty, why?

What is beauty?

Oxford dictionary defines beauty as -“A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight”. Is our understanding of beauty innate or is it moulded and conditioned by other factors such as society? 

I believe it is a mix of both, according to our perspective, like Shakespeare said - “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, some friends in the past said that “Beauty is in the eye of the Beerholder” and somewhere else I read that “Beauty was in the eye of the Coloniser” – and this one resonates way more with me. We must deconstruct our understanding of beauty with regards to the beauty industry. As an industry, we offer products and services designed to cater to the wellbeing of our biggest organ: the skin. Look, I am not here to sell you the same tagline of the green beauty industry that suggests that “what we put on your skin is then absorbed into our bloodstream.” I would rather address my focus and that of Opera Zero towards the stigma and racialisation surrounding skin colours.  

In fact, the beauty industry has and still continues to play a role in this process and if we try to look at this at a macro level, we may discover that our apparently innocent beauty rituals have an impact that is way bigger than we thought. I would like to share with you some of the points that arose in me as I started questioning and analyzing this subject matter - we will expand on each individual topic either through this channel or on our blog. Just a brief disclaimer, I use these points as cardinal references to navigate the beauty industry and to align my choices with my ethical values and artisan creation. 

Sustainability, intersectional environmentalism

Let’s be honest and reason together over this: if I truly wanted to be sustainable, maybe I should have not opened another company, put another skincare line on the market, sell you stuff and ask you to consume. The fact is that, no matter how ‘green’ our practices will be, we are yet another business and our carbon footprint also contributes to CO2 emissions. We create waste and move raw materials from one site to another as we process them into finished products. Our responsibility in regards to this is to hold each other and ourselves accountable, question our efforts, ethics and practice throughout the whole supply chain. 

Throughout the whole conception process of Opera Zero, I questioned myself and wondered: how can we become truly sustainable in a capitalist economy that has been greenwashing us since the inception of the "green living” lifestyle? And what I learned was that sustainability needs to become intersectional, too. We should approach sustainability with care and pay attention to all the factors at play:  environmental justice, social justice, gender parity and representation should be front and centre, every step of the way.  We must also engage in cultural debates, in order to engage further with a wider audience of consumers on questions that matter to them, because their choices and demands have the potential to shape the world and the society we live in. 

Decolonising cosmetic formulations

Is this possible at all? 

This is hardcore and fairly complex question to answer. I would like to use this opportunity to launch a debate to my fellow artisans and beauty brand owners to address this issue and deepen conversation around this with fellow cosmetic formulators – please don’t be shy! I appeal to you to advance and challenge this notion, I know you’re watching me, I see you. 

This discussion stems from a history and experience of retail client relations within the beauty industry. I noticed a pattern: on a regular rotation the market would proclaim a new ‘power house’ ingredient. These ingredients tend to be defined as “exotic” (and can we address the history behind the use of this word in defining products? Because I believe it houses a colonial bias within it. Especially when it's used to address people and ingredients) - when in their raw form, these materials are considered sacred, traditional or medicinal to the indigenous populations and cultures whose land and livelihoods are being exploited. 

I also view the use of such raw materials as a form of cultural appropriation and oppression in some ways. Who is responsible for harvesting and selling such ingredients in the global market space? Big corporations or the local populations? However, this thought process has created another kind of questioning: what about those cooperatives and fair trade projects whose livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the western market demands? What about those ingredients which have a unique chemical composition that can’t be recreated synthetically in a lab and that don’t have a substitute (eg. jojoba oil, coconut oil, etc.)? 

Decolonising euro-centric beauty standards

From media representation to skin bleaching products (which aren’t called like this anymore but are still sold on the market) - fair skin, straight blonde hair, blue eyed, skinny, able and young bodies have been dominating our imagery of what conforming to beauty should be like. This is not just the patriarchy, this is racism, because white aesthetics have been imposed as the ultimate beauty standard and it hasn’t gone unchallenged. The process of decolonising beauty standards has been initiated by black women, who have always been at the forefront of women liberation rights.

To conclude - 

I hope that this video has answered some of your questions, brought clarity to some of our content and made you question yourself and the beauty industry.

We will continue having these conversations here, but also on other platforms and in real life especially. I hope that you will also engage with anti-racism and GOOD WORK.

Any questions, please do feel free to ask [via i social o su opera@operazero.it].

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