Meet the man who turns seaweed into luxury cosmetics

[UK] The first beauty product Dom Bridges made was a bar of soap from Margate seaweed. After gifting it to friends he waited for their feedback, only to visit their homes and see the bars hadn’t even been used.

“I explained it was a good vegan bar of soap and they said the reason they weren’t using it was because it looked so nice and they just wanted to put it on display! Which got me thinking…” says Dom, seated behind his shop store counter.

From that tiny first batch Dom has built natural fragrance and skin care company Haeckels (named after the 19th-century German botanist and artist Ernst Haeckel). Born out of a DIY YouTube sensibility, it has grown into a luxury brand stocked in the likes of Harvey Nichols, Colette in Paris and Saks in New York. When you are a new owner of a luxury brand, marketing your business can be rather difficult, luckily there are luxury brands digital marketing agencies that can help your brand to reach its audience.

The need for seaweed: Dom Bridges insists on natural products in the Haeckels range CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER PLEDGER

Made of Margate, as well as in Margate, all the ingredients are sourced from a 20-mile radius of his laboratory – that goes for the etched glass bottles, bottle caps and wooden boxes. Dom, who holds one of only two licences in England to harvest seaweed from the coast, can be seen at low tide out on the chalk reef collecting seaweed to be dried for his products, all of which, he stresses, are 100 per cent natural: “We’re not fully registered chemists, but we’re dealing with natural ingredients. If we were playing around with peptides I wouldn’t go near the stuff.”

I realised I was putting all my creativity into things the planet didn’t need. I told my wife I couldn’t do it any more.

Distilling and extracting fragrances is a long way away from Dom’s previous career as a director of television adverts, a role in which he could make as much as £12,000 a day. “I make around £15,000 a year now,” he says matter-of-factly, but by his own admission, he’s far happier. It was while working on a shower gel commercial in Shanghai for a well known European brand that Dom hit the point of no return. “They siphoned out the product and put in something that would foam better for the camera. I freaked out and went for a walk only to see a McDonald’s full of people eating hamburgers.

“I realised I was putting all my creativity into things I didn’t use and didn’t think the planet needed. I called my wife and asked her to come and get me. I couldn’t do it any more.”

Returning to the UK with no job, in 2012 he and wife Jo moved to Margate. And when Jo became pregnant, Dom, wanting to “get out from under her feet” found himself cleaning up Margate’s beach. While this hardly sounds like the foundations of a success story, it connected Dom to the sea and Margate’s history of thalassotherapy. In Asia he had often eaten seaweed and had come to appreciate what he feels we, in this country, see as a nuisance. It was a desire to change his friends’ notions of stinking seaweed that led to those first bars of soap. “Seaweed will cure a multitude of skin complaints and we’d all benefit from its effects if we swam more in the sea.”

Soon Dom had taken over a room in the family home and was cooking up beauty products. Citing pioneers like Anita Roddick, along with natural beauty boosters in California, Dom was soon turning out soaps, beard oil (“I had a beard at the time, but I never fell for the lumberjack shirt thing”), incense sticks and then, fragrances. “I knew I had to make it work, so I became quite obsessive,” he says.

Mash it up now: Boudicca Fox-Leonard puts Dom Bridges’s methods to the test CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER PLEDGER

An early candle was called “My Garden” and employed fennel, basil and the freshly mown grass from his lawn. The perfumes – called things like “Picked on 23rd July 2014/Sunny Day” – similarly started in a rudimentary way, with Dom going to a certain spot and picking everything that he thought had aromatic potential. “Some you crushed to a pulp, others you distilled, some were CO2-extracted,” says Dom.

Moving into premises on Margate’s promenade gave him a shop window, along with the benefits of the town’s hipster influx; Monocle magazine and the boss of Ace Hotels stopped by.

Three things to do with seaweed | “Bear in mind,” says Dom, “that you need a licence to harvest and sell seaweed.” But for personal use you can try:

Seaweed facemask

“Put dried seaweed in a coffee grinder to make a fine powder. Add 70 per cent ground seaweed to 30 per cent zeolite – a clay compound you can buy online. Then all you need do is mix with water for a really fine paste. It’s so effective to the point where your skin will feel very dry, but it’s taken all the rubbish out of your skin.”

Seaweed soap

“Our base is vegan and we use local oils, like rapeseed, but you could also use goat’s milk. Use a double-heated suspended saucepan to warm the base and a ground seaweed. You can add other essential oils with skin benefits; rose hip, broccoli seed, tomato seed, pumpkin seed. The more ingredients you put in, the larger the particles and the more likely the soap will fragment. We use wooden moulds for the shape and cut it with cheesewire.”

Seaweed bath

“Our very simplest product is the seaweed bath. Seaweed is washed and dried, put in a biodegradable tea bag, and then you can put it in your bath. Great for the skin.”

By 2014 his products were stocked in Selfridges and today Haeckels employs nine staff in the lab 200 yards along the road. All the products are formulated then sent to a registered lab in Oxford for stability tests. And although the perfume is formulated from foraged ?local products within a 20-mile radius, they are rematched with more sustainable oils. “It is, in essence, the smell of a real place… but we’re not taking all of Margate’s natural spoils. It’s hard to find a citrus base around here, though. Ours is crab apple, because you don’t find exotic fruits in Kent.”

While Haeckels products are sold alongside those of major manufacturers like Le Labo and Frederic Malle, Dom is careful to establish how far from the mass market they remain. “We’re still tiny, so we have to concentrate on one product at a time.”

The need for seaweed: Dom Bridges insists on natural products in the Haeckels range CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER PLEDGER

Despite my curiosity to see inside the inner sanctum, the door remains firmly shut, with Dom explaining sadly that recently he has had to develop a sense of industrial secrecy.

“When you start getting emails from people like Unilever, who are watching what you’re doing, and they order one of everything you sell, you start to think you don’t want to be so open. It’s something I never wanted to do but none of this is copyrighted and there’s no way of safeguarding some of the more complicated things, like the serums, moisturisers and cleansers.”

In demand: products from the popular Haeckels range

Looking ahead, Dom is considering buying farmland to grow some of their core ingredients, a store in Covent Garden is in the pipeline, as is a treatment room in Liberty. Yet Dom wants to stay true to his sustainable-growth principles.

“I don’t think you can do something like the Body Shop again. I’ve been talking about opening a similar shop in Japan but substituting the local seaweed for our base ingredient.

I would like to carry on the philosophy of what we’ve been doing, but we’d need to deconstruct the brand if we were to move it around the planet. I don’t want there to be Haeckels stores all over the world.”


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