Markets a boon to artisans
market across the country nowadays that doesn’t have a soap vendor. And in Austin, our eco-friendly awareness coupled with a strong pride in buying local also has helped cultivate healthy soap sales.
But it hasn’t always been that way. South Austin People launched in 2004 and founder JohnPaul Fierro remembers that when he first started, there wasn’t much mass appeal for handmade soap which “seemed to be more associated with the granola crowd, people that like to eat health food.”
“Most of the time, back then, people just called it expensive soap,” Fierro says. “I was happy to sell a few hundred dollars when I first started, just enough to cover the rent.”
Fierro says handmade soaps in the early 2000s could be found mostly in gift shops, for people looking to buy “highdollar fancy things.” These customers would splurge for a special gift occasion, but not purchase regularly. And, of course, handmade soaps also could be found in stores that sold healthy food like Wheatsville Coop, Fierro says. But there seemed to be a stigma associated with buying organic that had nothing to do with health and everything to do with status.
As people began growing more interested in the chemicals and toxins they were eating and putting on their skin, consumers began asking more questions and giving natural soaps a try. The customer base has expanded in the last four years, Fierro says, to include middle-class folks also interested in healthy living.
When comparing handmade natural soaps to commercial soaps, local soapmakers say it’s much like drinking gas station coffee versus fair trade coffee or generic beer versus craft beers. Fleegal’s answer to customers who ask why they should pay $5.50 for her handmade soap is: “It’s about paying for your health now or later. Kind of like food.” She says that Fleegal Farms keeps packaging simple and formulates soap to last longer than common soaps for better value.
Fierro, who earned his degree in chemistry, says that some people find that their skin itches and then learn they can’t handle detergents in commercial soaps. “Most of the soap today is actually detergent,” he says. His company website explains that commercial soaps are “often a mix between animal byproducts and petroleum derived detergents and chemicals.”
Fleegal began making natural soap for her personal use after dealing with eczema issues on her face and arms. “I tell people I don’t really think it’s anything in the bar,” she says. “As much as what’s not.”
Fierro didn’t grow up thinking he’d be a soapmaker and businessman. His appreciation for natural handmade soap grew through chemistry.
As a student at the University of Texas, he began researching and studying vegetable oils as petroleum alternatives in different products. He began experimenting with var- ious vegetable oils and created his first soaps. Today, using vegetable oils is still a big part of his soap line.
For Austin Silly Soap Founder Nicole Sullivan, bar soap was actually a turnoff. She always found something gross about it and preferred body washes instead. But when searching for an affordable gift for a friend, she found soapmaking kits at Hobby Lobby and thought she’d give it a try.
She ended up personalizing the soap with an inside joke for her friend and discovered she had a knack for making fun soaps with a humorous twist. When more and more of her friends began asking for her silly soaps, Sullivan and her boyfriend and business partner Jess Johnson took a leap of faith and dove deep into soapmaking research, studying everything they could about the best soapmaking practices.
They now work with a soapmaker in Washington state who provides the base for their products, and they rework it to add exfoliants, essential oils, herbs or her famous silly twists such as feathers or toys.
Austin Silly Soap will soon celebrate it’s first anniversary. “It’s grown so quickly that it’s been a challenge for us to keep up,” Sullivan says. Sullivan hopes to eventually open a spa that will complement her body care product line. Whole Foods Market on North Lamar Boulevard will begin carrying Austin Silly Soap this month.
After six years in the soapmaking business, Fleegal says Austinities love lavender and minty soaps. “Different areas will crave or love particular scents,” she says. (Dallas loves cinnamon.) She’s noticed that in Austin, the first-time customer has more cautious buying habits, purchasing just one bar of soap at a time. “But they become loyal customers once they try it.”
Fleegal finds satisfaction in the artistry of the process. Her favorite part is unmolding and cutting the block of soap after it’s been setting overnight to see how it turned out. Although Fleegal Farms has grown each year, Fleegal says becoming a giant company is not her dream.
“I really want to be the maker of my soap,” she says. “I can’t see someone else doing my swirls. It’s very personal to me. It’s like my art, you know?
Austin Silly Soap uses natural ingredients.