Remember those days when a gift pack of soap from Boots made for a lovely present for everyone, from your teacher at the end of term to your grandma at Christmas? Ah, yes, those days when people actually ate their breakfast, rather than photographing it, and the thought of taking a picture of one’s own bathroom shelf hadn’t occurred to anyone. But here we are, in the age of the selfie, the shelfie and, indeed, of soap that costs more than, well, soap. Just when you thought that the height of sophisticated innovation in the soap market was Foamburst, along comes the Fancy Soap – a product that does exactly the same thing as a bar of Imperial Leather, but for four times the price. What’s not to love?
A host of think pieces and explanatory articles have surfaced recently, all examining the fact that soap has become a modern-day status symbol, with prices climbing higher and higher (up to £38, to be precise), along with increased demand. In fact, soap has even become a signifier (or bar-ometer, if you will) for the status of various establishments, from boutique gyms to hotels. The Soho House group, for example, offers numerous bottles of Cowshed body wash, soap and shampoo in its hotel rooms, while brands such as Le Labo and Molton Brown are namechecked by certain hotels in descriptions of the rooms. But it’s also everyday soap, too, that’s morphed from a rather boring necessity to something altogether more glamorous.
Brands like Aesop (arguably the pinnacle of Fancy Soap) have transformed the very mundane task of washing one’s hands into that oh-so-millennial concept of an “experience”. On recently entering a shop, I was greeted like Jesus as the assistant led me over to the sink as soon as I walked through the door. Nobody speaks above a light whisper as they wash your hands for you as if you’re the Second Coming, with liquid soap boasting names such as “resurrection”. Very biblical. And also very expensive, with one 500ml bottle priced at £27. Similarly, Malin & Goetz’s bars of soap are £14 and include lime, peppermint, rum and cannabis (beauty’s latest “It” ingredient). As Mr Goetz himself told The New York Times, “The thing about fragrance is that it’s more evocative and emotional. It’s what I call our Proustian narrative – it tells a story.” It’s not just the scent that’s making expensive soap seem more appealing, however. We have all become much more concerned with “natural” ingredients in all aspects of our lives, particularly when it comes to skincare and the other beauty products we use, like shampoo. Many of the brands peddling these luxury soaps have capitalised on this, placing great emphasis on their use of organic or natural ingredients, rather than the more synthetic versions of yore.
Given that most millennials can’t afford to buy a house, why not spruce up your rented bathroom with some great soap? YOLO, after all
A report by the market research firm Mintel revealed that, in the US, more than 60% of consumers suggested they would buy more “premium” varieties of soap, with Mintel’s beauty analyst Margie Nanninga stating: “Strong sales of bath products are the result of increased spending for premium benefits, with consumers seeking aromatherapy in bath products and natural ingredients across all segments.” Well, given that most millennials can’t afford to buy a house, why not spruce up your rented bathroom with some great soap? YOLO, after all. But given that one family-run business in Lebanon is producing soap infused with gold and diamond powder, priced at £1,700 per bar, perhaps the world’s obsession with expensive soap has gone too far?
In the pursuit of the truth (and a Pulitzer, obviously), I surveyed my ever-insightful colleagues at The Pool, who were only too happy to provide their own take on soap-gate, as absolutely nobody is calling it. “Right, so, I am bang into soap,” said Melanie Hearn, without a hint of irony. “I think it’s the future, especially as we’re all trying to be plastic-free. I would pay up to £10 I reckon for a nice bar of soap, although you can’t beat a bit of Dove. I LOVE SOAP.”
Buoyed by this enthusiastic reaction, I assumed that the entire office would share in Mel’s obsession. I was right. Hannah Varrall told me that her own moment of soap enlightenment came when she was cat-sitting for a friend: “Before I went there, if you had asked me how much I would spend on a bar of soap I would have said, ‘NO MONEY – YOU WOULD HAVE TO PAY ME TO USE BAR SOAP.’ But then I used my friend’s incredible exfoliating bar soap and I was converted. I would still spend less than a fiver on it, though.” Similarly, millennial spokesperson Emily Baker said that she would spend exactly 80p on a bar of soap, which she thinks is the best one on the market. Deb Castle, however, bought the aforementioned Aesop soap for £27 just last Thursday.
Perhaps my favourite response came from the star of Frankie Finds – Frankie Graddon herself. While she sent me a not entirely short email proclaiming her love for all things soap (“I used to live next to the Aesop store! I loved it! The restaurant near my flat has it in the bathroom and I always wash my hands when I go there!”), Frankie also shared her ingenious way to survive the soap competition in this Instagram world. “I bought a lovely soap dispenser from Muji and I decant whatever soap is on offer in Tesco into it. No one will ever know it isn't the latest ‘It’ soap from Hackney.” Shelfie-ready, all the damn time.
Is there an element of the ridiculous to this soapy trend? Absolutely. But delicious smells can be, as Mr Goetz suggested, an incredibly powerful thing. Case in point is the poor woman who rubbed a urinal cake all over herself, so obsessed was she with the citrus smell being emitted from what she assumed was a mysterious new bar of soap that appeared in her bathroom. Nobody should have to go through such an ordeal, which is probably why Aesop exists in the first place. As Mr Goetz also said: “If you think back to your grandmother, she probably had those round soaps in paper that sat out and nobody ever used. It’s an easy way to accessorise your bathroom and also express your personality, whatever the brand may be that you like. You have to wash your hands, so why not have it look beautiful?” Why not indeed.