The Washington Post
Is your persimmon soap infused with geisha wisdom? The precious world of artisanal beauty.
There are so many next-big-things in beauty right now, it’s hard to predict what’ll truly be next. But Koko Hayashi is hoping it will be persimmon extract, which she describes as having astonishing powers over body odor in her Mirai Clinical Deodorizing Soap with Persimmon.
Hayashi’s tiny skin-care company is just one of countless indie beauty brands trying to break into the American market, but her body bar comes with an epic saga of pre-industrial soap-making techniques and the wisdom of long-ago geishas. These days, the artisanal process is as much the selling point as the product itself — and Hayashi is accustomed to spending a lot of time explaining why her soap costs $19 a bar.
Here it goes: It’s crafted at an old family-owned soap mill, spearheaded by a man known as “Mr. Soap,” who, Hayashi says, knows by “some special formula in his brain” how to adjust his recipes to account for fluctuations of wind and temperature. The liquid ingredients are mixed in a gentle, time-consuming fashion to avoid damaging the delicate ingredients, and if some young whippersnapper agitates the soap too vigorously, Mr. Soap yells.
“Persimmon is very sensitive,” Hayashi says over Skype from her hometown of Sapporo, Japan.
After the soap cools, it is cut and dried and soaked and hand-polished, then dried and soaked and hand-polished again, without the benefit of an industrial process. With machines, it would take a few days, but “we put it outside and, considering humidity, temperature, wind, usually it takes three months for drying.”
This is the labor-intensive, heavily pedigreed, exotica-spiked world of artisanal beauty. The artisan movement long ago blew through the world of food on a wind of old-timey brand names and wordy labeling. (Recall the Mast Brothers, makers of $10 craft chocolate bars, who paid such obeisance to Victorian-era methods that they were said to ship their beans from the Dominican Republic to Brooklyn via a wind-powered schooner.) The explosion of farmers markets, backyard beekeeping and crocheted Etsy baby collars attests to a hunger — largely among a privileged set — for handcrafted authenticity, simple supply chains and the glory of the way things used to be, or might still be, in some far-off corner of the world.
Now, the beauty market, too, has been inundated by companies that talk of their beginnings in kitchens handcrafting small-batch face serums out of things such as carrot seed oil.
The brands may be small-scale and homespun, but artisanal beauty is fast becoming a big business, with more and more dedicated websites and retail outlets cropping up — such as San Francisco-based Credo Beauty, which features brands like Graydon Clinical Luxury, started by a yoga teacher/macrobiotic chef who makes skin-care products out of “cold-pressed broccoli seed oil,” or Follain, which has a location in the District’s Union Market and a founder who once apprenticed on an organic lavender farm in France.
Last year, New York City hosted its first Indie Beauty Expo, which one marketing agency described as a “sold-out media and buyer frenzy.” Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Goop skin-care products boast ingredients with highly specific names — “poet’s daffodil” and “sweet iris,” for instance, in her $90 Luminous Melting Cleanser — to emphasize their individuality (like yours, dear consumer).
“People are looking for an increased identity with the products, a personal relationship,” says Eleanor Dwyer, a beauty researcher for the market analysis firm Euromonitor. “There’s an idea that the products you use symbolize yourself.”
Hair and skin products have always thrived on what one might call “magic elixir” ingredients, and Mirai’s persimmon seems to be a perfect one for this moment. The taut, dainty, orange fruit is still sufficiently exotic to American consumers; plus, Asian beauty trends and the ancient-geisha-wisdom meme are big right now. (A few years back there was buzz about the $180 Geisha Facial, at New York’s Shizuka spa, combining fine-milled nightingale poop with Japanese rice bran to lighten the complexion). This year, Hayashi managed to get her soap, body wash, serum and spritzer into some of those Oscars celebrity gift bags. So far, Mirai Clinical is sold almost entirely online, but Hayashi hopes to place it in retail locations soon.
“I feel like I have a mission to introduce this Japanese greatness to the world,” she says.
The artisanal beauty trend has been fueled by a growing interest in natural ingredients, as Whole Foods shoppers who buy grass-fed beef consider what they’re putting on their T-zones, and environmentalists warn about the dangers of parabens and phthalates. Within skin care, “natural organic ingredients are among the fastest-growing [segments] in the marketplace,” says Karen Grant, NPD Group’s beauty analyst. A growing number of consumers care deeply about transparency, sustainability and fair trade, so companies that source carefully and recycle and give back to communities where they harvest are often rewarded for it.
Most brands don’t have Paltrow, though, so they must rely on compelling brand stories to distinguish themselves. The result is a bevy of origin tales as familiar as Greek mythology. These stories all seem to start with protagonists seeking to craft greatness from nature; they’re described as “plant-whisperers” or are said to be devoted to “wild-crafted” ingredients or a “farm-to-face” mission. The founder might be a professional apiarist who discovered the secret to good skin in the honey she was harvesting, or perhaps a globe-trotting pharmacognosist who has studied the curative powers of extracts taken from South Africa’s kigelia and baobab plants. So goes the story behind the British brand Dr Jackson’s, which launched a few years ago but packages products in amber apothecary bottles that look straight out of a Victorian lithograph.
Artisanal beauty products are often built around at least one obscure ingredient, the procurement of which (it’s implied) is really difficult. There’s no distance these brands won’t travel, whether for a body scrub with “white sand particles from the shores of Bora Bora,” or a “gel treatment serum” made from “the stem cells of Australian kakadu plums.” They might need to go back in time to craft skin products made with “donkey milk . . . known as a beauty elixir since the ancient ages.” There’s an emphasis on the rare find from nature, almost but not quite lost to mankind — “the stem cells of a rare Swiss apple,” or the fruit from a tree previously known only to peoples of the Amazon, drawing on what Dwyer calls “that trope of the insightful magical native.”
That rare ingredient must be gathered with care, ideally by local villagers, processed in a lab under the most stringent standards, and then placed into a product whose label declares its transparency of its process, its freedom from potentially dangerous chemicals, its fair trade and cruelty-free status, its philanthropic efforts, and the all-around goodness of its intentions.