How Francesco Clark made beauty from tragedy

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    Two innovators transformed by tragedy

Two innovators transformed by tragedy 00:50

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 1, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of Francesco Clark.

Madonna and Michelle Obama are self-proclaimed fans. Jane Larkworthy at W Magazine calls it simply “divine.” And Harper’s Bazaar’s Alexandra Parnass says it’s the most innovative skin-care line she’s ever seen.

It's Clark’s Botanicals, which has quickly developed a cult following, particularly among the fashion elite, since its launch in 2005. The secret, according to founder Francesco Clark, is Jasmine Absolute, a blend of essential oils found in all his products. But for some, Clark's unique entry into the world of beauty is at least part of the draw.

This Saturday, June 1, marks the 11th anniversary of the accident that would forever change Clark’s life. He was just 24, enjoying the first night of a summer rental on Long Island, when he decided to take a late-night dip.

“The second I dove in,” he says, “I realized I dove into the shallow end of the pool.”

    Francesco was paralyzed from the shoulders down. “You’ll never move your arms,” doctors told him. “Don’t even think about your legs. Don’t even bother.”

    Clark never accepted his diagnosis. Not truly. But it wasn’t until his hero, actor-turned-disabled activist Christopher Reeve, passed away that he decided to take full responsibility for his recovery. And for the first time since his accident, Clark looked in a mirror. “I didn’t look like myself.”

    One of the side effects of his spinal-cord injury was he could no longer sweat. “I had acne everywhere, but it was unreactive to any $500 cream, $3 cream, prescriptions, over-the-counter," he said. "Nothing worked.”

    Eager to reclaim the friends and colleagues he’d neglected since his injury, he turned to his father, a doctor trained in both homeopathy and Western medicine.

    After setting up a lab in the kitchen, Clark and his father investigated 78 botanical ingredients before landing on Jasmine Absolute, the unique blend of essential oils that solved Francesco’s skin problems. Today it’s used throughout the Clark’s Botanicals skincare line, sold in stores from New York to Hong Kong.

    But far more important than the line’s success is the role it’s played in Clark’s recovery.

    "It was the first time I saw the power of the beauty industry," he said. "A lot of people think it's just about the way you look. For me, it's about the way I felt."

    Bolstered by the renewed sense of purpose his company has given him -- and his aggressive pursuit of spinal-cord injury treatments -- Clark has defied his doctors’ diagnosis. He now has partial use of his arms, wrists and hands. And as his company continues to grow, so do his dreams.

    “You know, I’m very impatient and I want to do more," he said. "I want to be more independent, using my hands. And I plan to walk again in the next three to five years.”