KITCHEN TABLE TALENT
Celebrating home-grown skills, we meet people making the most of their hobby. This month: the perfumer
In this series celebrating home-grown skills, we meet people making the most of their hobby, whether they’re earning from their kitchen table or launching a fully fledged business. Discover, too, different ways to follow in their footsteps
ON A BLUSTERY AUTUMN MORNING, Dom Bridges walks the two streets from his home in Cliftonville, Margate, in Kent, to his shop overlooking the seafront on Walpole Bay. The surf bubbles on the shore and clumps of glistening brown seaweed cluster on the beach. “Six years ago, I was earning £12,000 a day; now it’s £1,000 a month, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” says Dom, as he raises the blinds at the windows of Haeckels, the perfumery and skincare emporium he opened in 2013, which is named after the 19th-century German naturalist Ernst Haeckel.
As the strong coastal light floods in, it illuminates what looks like an apothecary’s shop of old. Stoppered amber glass bottles containing beard oil and body lotion are displayed in antique oak cabinets. More bottles and small pots filled with creams and salves sit on wall shelves, while clear glass cloches cover scented candles and perfume bottles to help concentrate the fragrances. Towards the back of the small store, a Heath Robinson-style construction of glass flasks, test tubes and beakers is part of the infusing and distilling paraphernalia Dom uses to transform the magic ingredient in most of his handmade Haeckels products – locally harvested brown seaweed. Some 25 kilos dry weight of serrated wrack (Fucus serratus) a year to be precise, collected two to three times a week from the beaches around Walpole Bay, under licence from Natural England and Thanet District Council.
The scene is one of pure theatre and perhaps not a million miles from 40-year-old Dom’s previous life as an advertising film director, based in London and flying all over the world to shoot commercials for prestigious clients such as Coca-cola, O2 and Playstation. He and his wife Jo, a photographer, first discovered Margate on their honeymoon in 2006. “We got married at The Old Lighthouse in Dungeness and on the way back to London stayed at the Nayland Rock Hotel in Margate. The town seemed half deserted but looked beautiful to us and we ran around taking photos.”
First they bought a beach hut in the town. Then, in early 2011 and on the brink of buying a house in London, they decided instead to move lock, stock and barrel to the Kent coast. Dom had become disillusioned with the corporate nature of the advertising industry, and he and Jo wanted to start a family. They liked Margate’s creative atmosphere: “We knew we wanted to do something here, but not what. We even thought about opening a cinema.” The couple immersed themselves in the town, going for walks on the beach to mull things over (Dom became a volunteer beach warden, too). Slowly an idea began to formulate, focusing on seaweed. A few years earlier, Dom had shot a shower gel commercial in Shanghai and learned that in China seaweed was traditionally used to wash with, in a practice not dissimilar to European thalassotherapy or sea water therapies. He’d spent time in California, too, where
plenty of small companies make naturally derived beauty products. “They are much more in tune with a healthier way of living,” he adds.
His lightbulb moment came in 2012 when he was sitting in a pub in Margate, listening to friends complain about the prolific seaweed that thrives on Kent’s chalk reef coast. “Most seaside towns get around 700 tonnes of seaweed a year, but Margate gets up to 7,000 tonnes,” Dom explains. “They were moaning about it, but I’ve always liked the underdog – Rocky is my favourite film. Everyone has potential as long as they are given a chance. And that’s how I felt about seaweed. Dreamland [Margate’s retro-inspired amusement park] was being restored, the Turner Contemporary Gallery was about to open, but no one was celebrating the beach.”
Inspired by the likes of self-taught perfumers Jo Malone and Diptyque, Dom decided to get creative in the kitchen and make some seaweed soap for Christmas gifts that year. Using household pots and pans, he cooked up 12 bars of soap for friends, placed them inside army kit tins with printed labels and gave them out. “Everyone liked the packaging so much, they ended up displaying it rather than using it,” he says, and the seed was sown. Realising that interest in the soaps was strong, Dom started researching the vitamin-packed, skin-soothing seaweed on Margate’s beaches – on the internet, in books and by going to talks given by local experts.
When Jo became pregnant in 2013 with their daughter Dulcie, now nearly three, Dom started to focus in earnest on the evolution of Haeckels. As well as the soaps, he developed a beard oil using seaweed extract, naming it Sailor’s Beard Oil, and a range of scented
clean-burn soy wax candles – all created through a process of trial and error. As the kitchen got messier, Jo suggested that he relocate his ‘lab’ into proper premises and he rented a former café on Cliff Terrace, investing in a seaweed grinder and drier, and distillation equipment. “I had £28,000 in savings to get my project off the ground – I didn’t want to ask for any bank loans,” he recalls.
At this point local Margate man Alex Verier joined Dom in the enterprise and, using Dom’s recipes, they made enough stock to open Haeckels as a shop in December 2013, and everything sold out. Fired by that early success, Dom developed a range of eau de parfums using distilled extracts of foraged plants found in and around Margate – elderflower, blackcurrant leaf, sea buckthorn, dog rose, crab apple, fennel and various herbs. Their names are another clever touch, with each perfume identified not by a name but by the GPS co-ordinates that pinpoint where the original plant materials were gathered. The most recent addition to the Haeckels collection is a seaweed-extract skincare range – face creams and body lotions – that took two years to come to fruition, going through the official testing and certifying procedure.
Dom’s latest project is as inventive as ever – a Victorian-style sauna and bathing machine on Margate beach that offers thalassotherapy treatments such as seaweed wraps – and he has accepted local funds that have enabled him to move the lab into bigger premises with a larger seaweed grinder, distillers, ovens and hotplates needed to create the range. With Haeckels products now sold in upmarket department stores such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, the business is a real success. “Why can’t a high-end brand come from a beach that people have a low opinion of ?” Dom says. “The bigger story is celebrating the seaside and this shop is where it starts.”