Sundra Essien, Founder of Isangs Hair & Body in Copenhagen
In our series about Cool Copenhageners, we invite you to meet interesting people from Mermaid Stories' hometown who tell us their stories and let us take a glimpse on their work. We are very exited to introduce the amazing Sundra Essien to you!
Stepping into Isangs Hair and Body Shop in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, is like stepping into an old-fashioned laboratory – but without chemical odors all over the place. Instead, the smell is a mix of flowers, herbs and a lot of indefinable stuff. It is a welcoming atmosphere, with the customers being able to have a look at the production right at the store. Nothing is hidden from the customers. What you see is really what you get.
Among all the ingredients and products, we had a very interesting conversation with the founder and owner, Sundra Essien, about her passion for opening her own shop and the ethical, sustainable way that she creates her beauty and body products.
Can you tell us about what made you want to start your own business?
There's something incredibly romantic about running a business. The idea that you can do something you enjoy on your own terms while making some, hopefully, tangible difference in the world around you has always been attractive to me. Plus I have a high risk-tolerance combined with a lot of passion and tenacity... I think my personality is well suited for the unpredictable marathon that is running your own business.
Sundra shows us how she mixes a face mask from natural ingredients. Among the many ingredients on the table are pink clay, seaweed and licorice.
It’s not the first company that you have founded. Can you tell a bit about your personal background and your career to what has led you where you are today?
I use my instinct as my personal compass and I try to be open to changing direction whenever I start to feel restless. So my path to this point has been anything but a straight line. Here's the condensed version.
Isangs Hair & Body is where all my ideas, interests, and visions converge.
I studied business with a focus on social entrepreneurship for my bachelor's degree. In the final year of business school in my early twenties, I had the idea to re-invent maternity clothes and work with Nigerian tailors to create a line of wearable, sustainable, fair trade maternity clothes. Starting up this idea was a big lesson in all the things I needed to learn and all the ways I needed to grow before I was ready to start this type of cross-border production project. I don't know if I would officially call it a business, but it was a business idea that failed in the early stages. I still have an old maternity dress form mannequin that I used for the original designs. Shortly after this venture, I moved to NYC and went to law school.
As a lawyer, I started off in international mergers and acquisitions, but lasted about a year before I woke up with that “this is not the life I imagined for myself” feeling. So I quit that week, packed my things, and moved out of the country. Over the next year or so, I moved around a bit trying to get a sense of direction. I stayed in Paris and volunteered at an NGO for a few months, I went back to Nigeria to get some grounding with family. I got a room in Granada and worked on my Spanish and finally ended up working at a permaculture research farm in Belize. I was no stranger to farming as I'd worked on small farms in Costa Rica and Nigeria at other times, but permaculture and agroforestry revolutionized the way I understood sustainability models. Not just in agriculture, but how similar sustainable design ideas can have applications in almost any area.
I later moved to Copenhagen and worked in the legal department of an international NGO for a couple of years, before deciding to branch out and start Isangs. As an aside, I'd been making hair & body products for nearly ten years and have studied chemistry in formal and informal contexts.
So Isangs Hair & Body is where all my ideas, interests, and visions converge. It's a chemistry project and an experiment in sustainable business models. It's a way to practically support small farms and alternative agricultural projects. It's a collection of experiences and lessons that constantly evolves as I learn more about the world around me.
What was the most difficult part of starting off with Isangs?
It was easy to start, the difficult part was keeping the momentum and the passion going and trusting your vision during those fragile early years. My approach is to jump all in and try something and if it doesn't work, try something else. My dad, a lover of Nigerian proverbs, used to always tell me “You shouldn't check the depth of the river with both feet.” Well, that's exactly what I constantly do and luckily, I haven't drowned yet...
Have you always been interested in being an “alchemist”? We guess you must be pretty interested in chemistry to create your own cosmetics…
I like information and I'm naturally curious, so the chemistry is a big part of why hair and body care products are interesting to me. My mom taught integrated physics and chemistry and I remember getting increasingly more advanced chemistry sets as Christmas gifts when I was young. And I guess it sort of stuck. The first time I made soap was in a jungle in Central America. We leached the lye from ash, pressed the oils and after a month I had an, admittedly very crude, bar of soap. So, this just opened up a whole new world of saponification and the chemical reactions between oils and lye that exploded from there. How can you mix two things and create an entirely different third substance and not be completely curious about how that process occurred and want to investigate and experiment with that reaction? I can lose a whole night's sleep thinking about how to manipulate a reaction to achieve a specific result.
The first time I made soap was in a jungle in Central America. We leached the lye from ash, pressed the oils and after a month I had an, admittedly very crude, bar of soap.
Different soap and shampoo bars at Isangs. All the products are made from scratch and are produced in the shop. The soaps need to dry for about five weeks before they are hard enough to use.
All your products are organic, fair trade and vegan. Why is this important to you?
This goes back to building sustainable systems. For me, it's really about understanding the connections between all these areas and realizing that if you try to remove any part of the puzzle, then you compromise the entire system. You can't talk about sustainable, organic agriculture without addressing wage inequalities and the power dynamics of trade. You can't talk about animal cruelty without looking at water and soil quality and healthy eco-systems. So these are, for me, naturally interconnected ideas that are necessary to address if you want to move towards a more sustainable business model.
Talking about your products, they also come in a really beautiful packaging! Can you tell us about the process of how that was made?
I can take no credit for our packaging. All our visual design work is handled by Lasse, my life partner and business partner. We have similar design aesthetics, but I'm a fish out of water when it comes to executing anything involving graphic design. He's been with the business from the start, so he knows it as intimately as I do. We're constantly collecting inspiration and ideas and bouncing them back and forth, but he's the one who can start with a blank page and create beautiful graphic designs.
The interior of your shop is very unique. How long did it take you to decorate and develop the shop?
My “decorating process” is incredibly random. I see things I like in dumpsters or old scrap piles and I just collect them and figure out where to use them later. I had been collecting random things for months while we were looking for a space and we ended up just building furniture from whatever materials we had on hand. As an example, I built our curing racks from old slats from a mattress. Almost every piece has a little story behind it, which I think is pretty cool.
Was it difficult to find a location?
Yes. This is Copenhagen, after all! We looked for months. Initially we had no plans to open a physical shop, just a production location. I remember I was so desperate at one point, I put in an offer on a location with no windows. Zero windows. Luckily we didn't get that place. That would have been miserable. Finally we found this location and it was perfectly divided up for a shop on one side and open production on the other with large windows all around. The location has been a dairy shop, a brothel, a furniture shop, and has a lot of history before us. So we're excited to become a little part of its history.
The location has been a dairy shop, a brothel, a furniture shop, and has a lot of history before us. So we're excited to become a little part of its history.
On your website, you write that your store in Copenhagen is not like any typical hair and body product store. How do you make it more interactive and cooler than others?
I never really set out to make anything “cool”. I set out with an honest and authentic vision for an alternative hair and body care line. I think part of the reason that our shop is unique is that our inspiration is found outside the world of cosmetics.
What are the most important ingredients in your products?
All our ingredients are important. That's probably a pretty annoying answer, but I'm not saying it to avoid the question. I say that because we work with a relatively small amount of ingredients that have been specially selected and each serve a very specific purpose in our products. We try to design simply and if an ingredient is not needed, we don't work with it.
If you should choose one product yourself that you couldn’t live without, which one would that be?
I'm a bit of a self-centered product designer. I design products that I need and it's an added bonus that other people can use them as well. So, I keep a lot of our products in rotation in our house. But I'm religious about using the facial routine in the evenings. And when the dry winter weather kicks in, I keep a tin of body cream on me at all times.
Which products do your customers like and buy the most? And why do you think that is?
Well, we have a relatively small selection of products, so each of them has their fan base.
But we've been trialing a new deodorant over the past year and that's been a real standout hit. We'd officially launch it in November 2017, but word had gotten around in our family of customers and we were selling out of it even before we had officially announced that it's available. I think this product is particularly special because a lot of our customers have had trouble finding a natural deodorant that works.
What are some of the most exciting plans for Isangs that you have for the future?
We have a lot of new product launches coming up, a new website, and a million ideas I'm always trying to implement.
When you are not in your store: What are your favorite spots in Copenhagen to relax?
Relax? What's that? Just kidding. We have a two-year-old son and another one on the way, so my relaxing time these days is spent playing with this little person. I spend a lot of time in parks around Nordvest and Nørrebro. Everything is mysterious and new and exciting through the eyes of a two-year-old so I'm trying to be a little inspired by that and find a little something special about these otherwise pretty mundane spots. Other than that, I like to catch up on sleep when I can so my favorite spot to relax is my bed.
Thank you so much for letting us into your world of sustainable hair and body products, Sundra!
You liked reading this? You can find more in our interview series Cool Copenhageners. You might for example also like our interviews with the founder ofThe Mallows, Emma Bülow, for whom organic and natural ingredients are also very essential, or our interview with blogger Caroline Plummer.
Interview by Mermaid Stories
Photos by Mermaid Stories