ORRIS on Trusting Traditions Over Trends
Artisanal soap brand ORRIS is rooted in holistic plant-based practices and artistic collaborations. Questioning their careers in fashion the founders, Lani Le Berre and Kenneth Koo, acted on an instinct and created a series of cold-pressed soaps that truly serve our skin. Starting with four foundational bars, Orris addresses tradition and purpose whilst diligently challenging the short-comings of the beauty industry.
We look at how independent brands can pave the way for sustainable business models, tackle issues of waste and resist the pressure to perpetually bring out new products.
Advance Copy: Your backgrounds are a combination of various creative fields including art, fashion and photography. Could you give us an introduction to the roots of your creativity?
Kenneth Koo: I’m originally from Canada and growing up I went to a high school that was focused on the arts. I was really inspired by one of my teachers who introduced me to history of art: 18th century, 19th century modernism and postmodernism. I came to Paris to study at the Beaux-Arts around eight years ago. I was practising photography, making small books and artists’ editions. I loved photography but I realised that it wasn’t feasible to pursue it as a career; trying to turn my passion into a commercial endeavour was killing my love for it. By sheer luck and serendipity, I fell into fashion. I worked as a creative producer for several years prior to launching Orris. All of these aspects are evident in Orris; we really pride ourselves on our imagery, the visual universe that we’ve created. We’re always collaborating with photographers and artists from all over the world, many of whom are friends, so we’re lucky in that regard.
Lani, how did you get into fashion?
Lani Le Berre: I’ve always been a creative person. Even in school I was a visual learner and would beg my mum to get me into outdoor education. I wanted to do photography and extra art classes. I went on to study visual arts and majored in photography. I was assisting different photographers but I couldn’t visualise myself as a photographer. Then I moved to Europe and ended up in Paris. I’ve always had a very keen interest in fashion and I happened to meet a stylist and started assisting them instead. That’s how Kenneth and I met. It was really serendipitous as we had reached a point where we were both thinking, ‘Are we creatively satisfied with what we’re doing?’
“We started with the product, and the brand had to grow around that product.”
How did the question, ‘Is this job creatively satisfying me?’ lead you to start Orris and go into the world of skincare and soap making?
Kenneth: For me it’s really personal because I have suffered from eczema and psoriasis my entire life. Whenever I shopped for products I had to delve deep into the ingredients list. A lot of the products in a pharmacy or a grocery store had ingredients that were very harsh or irritating for super sensitive skin. Since I couldn’t find anything that suited me, I started to make soap for myself. This was four to five years ago. I became interested in herbal remedies and holistic plant-based practices like Ayurveda. For years, I had been going to dermatologists who prescribed intense steroid and cortisone creams that were very powerful and had an immediate effect. They worked well but you are not supposed to use them longterm because it really wreaks havoc on your skin, making it super dry and damaged. I asked myself, “What alternatives exist?”. Fast forward two years, Lani and I decided to launch Orris with a line of four signature gentle cleansing bars inspired by the healing powers of botanicals and herbal ingredients.
I can only imagine how close to the heart this process was for you, having gone through the minefield of testing and trying out skincare products. How did you form this personal research project into a business?
Lani: We started with the product, and the brand had to grow around that product. For me it was a no-brainer: we have an amazing product and a fundamental interest in skincare. With our combined skills it made sense to take this further and turn it into something tangible. It was the beginning of the pandemic and we were not sure if it was a good time to start a brand. Neither of us have a formal education in business. We were two creatives with this product that we really believed in and we thought we needed to share this with the world. It actually turned out well because during lockdown everyone was online, focused on e-commerce. We had a unique opportunity to seize the moment and the market.
“You need to have the courage and believe enough in what you’re doing to get it started yourself.”
You mentioned that neither of you have any business training, so how did you go about learning the basics of business, things like distribution and marketing? What was your method to finding the correct business skills?
Kenneth: I firmly believe that when you’re put in the hot seat you will figure it out. We were put in a position where we had to learn all of these things in order to make this brand happen. You can learn almost everything from the internet. There are so many aspects of business that we were not familiar with like accounting, distribution and marketing. We felt these things out intuitively or asked the people around us. In this global network of founders, many have been in the same position where you are forced to learn as you go, and I believe that’s the best way. It’s knowledge that you will never forget because you’re not reading it from a textbook, you’re living it.
Lani: You need to have the courage and believe enough in what you’re doing to get it started yourself because people can’t push you off the ground.
I wanted to dig into a comment from one of your earlier interviews where you mentioned the importance of conversations to your decision making. What other values and beliefs are essential to how you’re developing Orris?
Kenneth: I remember going to Lani’s house and gifting her one of the soaps that I’d been making at the time. What happened after that was a series of conversations. We were asking ourselves how we could turn this product that we loved and believed in into a larger project. It began as a creative outlet and eventually turned into something bigger. We had very long discussions about every single aspect of the product: the ingredients, the way it looked, the way it felt in your hands, how it smelled, the placement of the stamp. Soap is something that has existed for thousands of years, but what made it unique was our voice and building a brand around values that stood for quality, luxury, artisanship and sustainability.
“It was important for us to create an experience through each of our four soaps.”
Speaking of sustainability, would you mind elaborating on the ingredients that you are using?
Kenneth: Traditionally in soap making the two ingredients that make the most luxurious creamy lather are palm oil and animal fats, such as lard. From the very beginning we made the conscious decision to not use either one for sustainability reasons. We all know the story around palm oil and we didn’t feel comfortable using animal fats either because we didn’t want to exclude vegans. One of our major challenges was finding the perfect blend of oils and butters that would replicate this creamy and bubbly feeling. It took a really long time, but in the end, we were able to achieve a very similar effect.
Lani: It was important for us to create an experience through each of our four soaps. One of our most popular soaps, Le Botanist, is green with peppermint and patchouli essential oils. You can feel the fragments of the herbal tea that is distilled in oil prior to making the soap. We really had to think about what each soap would look like, its purpose and what name encompasses that persona for that soap.
I wanted to find out more about the visual universe of Orris. Would you mind explaining your approach to visualising the brand?
Lani: We knew we could turn this beautiful soap into a visually aesthetic brand that was really strong in storytelling. We’ve been lucky to connect with a lot of talented creatives and they’ve aligned with our vision and helped to significantly shape Orris into what it is. We’ve collaborated with a local Parisian artist who created limited-edition art prints for our e-com orders. We’ve also collaborated with some amazing photographers who have filtered our vision through their own interpretation of Orris, and it’s been really interesting to watch. In every collaboration you take a mutual chance on each other. We don’t know what to expect when we’re collaborating with somebody, but we’ve been lucky that each one has been really inspiring and everyone is understanding of our story.
“In every collaboration you take a mutual chance on each other.”
Something I love about your brand is the fact that you’ve chosen to name it Orris, the root and rhizome of an Iris flower that multiplies horizontally and can spread and grow from its edges unlike other plant roots that grow vertically. When I started Advance Copy, I picked up a wonderful book called Dissolving the Ego of Fashion. The book’s authors propose that creatives and entrepreneurs should function collaboratively and independently in a rhizome manner to help spread alternative messages. They argue that making small changes on the edges of large industries, like fashion or beauty, would help to diminish the power of unsustainable global industries and capitalist models. I wonder if this thinking resonates with you?
Kenneth: Thank you for asking this and for drawing the connection between the rhizome and our name, Orris. It’s such an insightful observation and something we really wanted to talk about. It was not easy for us to come up with a name that we both appreciated equally and it was important to find a word that signified something very concrete, yet poetic and symbolic. The orris root and rhizome has a very unique and rich history in perfumery to fix or anchor a scent. In [herbal] medicine it’s also used as a diuretic so it’s an ingredient that has a very interesting and long history and it became very significant for us. Its association to this beautiful blooming and ephemeral flower, and its healing properties, embodied what our vision was for the brand, which was looking back at tradition, at the past and drawing inspiration from nature and plants.
“We’ve been guided by our own instinct, which is rhizome-like, and our intuition which goes in many different directions at once.”
We were thinking about the rhizome’s relation to growth for us as a brand. Something that was important to consider was this idea of newness that exists in the wellness, beauty and even the fashion industries. There’s this very strong drive and pressure to constantly put out new products. It’s even more obvious in fashion with fashion weeks that happen globally all year round, and the pressure on designers to put out five to six collections a year. For small brands working within the wellness and beauty industries, there’s the same pressure to constantly put out a new release, not only to keep your customers’ interest and attention but also for the PR and social media cycles with journalists, influencers, creatives etc. It seems that the press is also built on this obsession of newness. When we were building the brand, we consciously knew that we wanted to resist that as much as possible and for as long as possible. It was really important to take the time to reflect and put out products that truly resonated with us and that were timeless. As to this idea of horizontality, we were not necessarily drawn to conventional business strategies of horizontal or vertical scaling; our brains are not really wired to think that way. We’ve been guided by our own instinct, which is rhizome-like, and our intuition which goes in many different directions at once. So far, I think it’s served us quite well.
“This idea of newness that exists in the wellness, beauty and even the fashion industries. There’s this very strong drive and pressure to constantly put out new products.”
Lani: From the beginning we’ve moved at such a steady pace and that’s working well for us. We don’t want to jump too far ahead and compare ourselves to other brands. We have to remind ourselves that we started with a really strong intention and so we can’t focus on competition or the rest of the beauty market and follow these trends just to keep up with everybody else. Another aspect is that we didn’t want sustainability to be a marketing tactic. We knew that we wanted to be sustainable, but how do you create a new brand without that being your main point? Moving forward you need to be sustainable, that’s your responsibility. Now we want to take that even further and it’s a real challenge. Beyond having this no waste product and recyclable packaging, we’re exploring other opportunities. How do we repurpose excess soap? At the moment we’re considering options to donate and repurpose the off cuts of our scraps of slabs, and we have bars that are imperfect visually but that are still perfectly usable. It’s very challenging but also really exciting.
Thank you for sharing this important detail about issues of waste. In fashion, the idea is that waste from production should not be donated or end up in someone else’s hands that didn’t pay a premium price. I love the fact that you are both open to the idea of possibly donating or reusing the waste soap.
Kenneth: As we’re growing, we really have to consider how we can grow responsibly: the partnerships that we take, the people that we work with. When we were looking at suppliers (artisans as well as huge cosmetic laboratories) we had to consider whether they would be able to respect our vision, processes and ingredients. We were lucky enough to find an artisan in France who has 15 years of soap-making experience and still does everything by hand but on a larger scale, and who also respects our vision and values. But it hasn’t been easy… It would have been easier to change all of the formulas and hand it over to an industrial lab, but this would have made us very uncomfortable.
It all ties back to what you were saying earlier, the real-life struggle to resist speed and newness. This commitment takes so much longer, to really persevere and find the perfect partners for every step of your growth. It takes a lot of courage to not jump on the bandwagon of acceleration, to not fret that this moment of success will evaporate if you don’t react as fast as possible. It’s a fear for many brands that is further amplified by social media and the illusion of ‘it’s now or never’.
Lani: We were not in a rush from the beginning. Even now every step is considered and it’s really important for us to take our time. We know our products, we know our brand and we know where we’re heading.
This interview was edited by Rosie Peraza-Bragg.