Luxury soaps clean up when times get tough

October 27, 2002|By Janet Eastman | By Janet Eastman,Special to the Sun

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. Sephora offers Zirh with kelp for $14.50. Even best-seller 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.

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

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 United States.

Because these soaps have been promoted as affordable luxuries, they're 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.

"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."

Janet Eastman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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