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Pricier and More Exotic Soaps Have Buyers in a Lather

July 04, 2002|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one should be shocked by the price tag because, after all, it's Barneys New York, but really, $15 for a bar of soap?

Get ready to adjust your shopping budget, because specialty soap is heading your way--assuming it hasn't already made its way into your shower, tub or soap dish.

Barneys sells Caudalie Co.'s vine flower for what 30 cakes of Dial would cost you at Costco. Sephora offers Zirh with kelp for $14.50. Even bestseller Dove, priced closer to a buck, has upgraded its Beauty Bar: for 35 cents more, you can lather up with a pretty pink-and-white Nutrium Skin Nourishing Bar.

Artisanal makers are squeezing vitamins, West African shea butter (a richer replacement for moisturizing cocoa butter) and additives for special skin types into round, square and oblong bars that can be stacked, bundled or showcased in a complementary dish. Some "bars" are shaped like animals, flowers and sports icons. Geologist Todd Pink creates "semiprecious" SoapRocks ($15), nuggets of dense glycerin splintered with golden veins that look more weathered and realistic with use. Even former Lava users can now chat about pricey mail orders received from small family-run companies and Old-World savonneries.

Early true believers of soap's importance continue on their quests: Home crafters hunt down vintage press stamps to emboss spheres, moons or logos, and insert toys and jewelry into loaves.

Luxury hotels see soap cakes--wrapped neatly in pleated paper or banana tree leaves, or tucked into Victorian tins or drawstring cotton bags--as customer keepsakes. And model-home designers rely on new marbleized colors and potent fragrances to bring a feeling of comfort and security to tracts.

Interior designer Rebecca Pelletier was accessorizing so many baths with bubbles and linens that she opened a store in Tustin last year, gave it her name and stocked it with $10,000 in French soaps. One of her most popular is a lavender Rance ($20).

Sales of higher-priced bars have increased, says Tom Branna, editorial director of Household & Personal Products Industry magazine, "because when the economy dips, people won't spend thousands of dollars to buy a new car to feel good, but they will spend a few more dollars on personal products."

It all adds up: Soap bars, from 30 cents on up, are a $1.3-billion-a-year business in the U.S.

Because these gourmet soaps have been promoted as affordable luxuries, they're also getting their day in print. Home design magazines sharpen their camera lenses on them, and making soap is the focus of several magazines, newsletters and Web sites.

An 80-page book, "Soap for Body and Soul," by Lisl and Landt Dennis (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002, $17.95), celebrates--in words and color photographs--its artistry.

A few decades ago, say experts, most people's view of exotic soap was Irish Spring and Yardley of London. Then the Body Shop and other bath-and-beauty companies elevated the industry and the race for distinction was on.

"Soap has been around for a long time," says June Stahl of Stahl Soap, a New Jersey manufacturer, "but now everyone wants a bar that looks different, feels better, smells better and stands apart."

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