Brands on the Verge: Villainess Gets the Girls

Brand: Villainess Soap
Headquarters: Waverly, Tenn.
Product: Body care (lotion, scrubs, soaps)
Launch date: August 2003
Sales: 2008 sales, which are in the low six digits, tripled thanks in part to a Victorian-style makeover to packaging, Web site, etc.
Competition: Arcana, another boutique brand with a Goth sensibility
Distribution: Posh Brats, Den of Antiquities, The Soap Box, Gorey Details (a shop that sells goth-y Edward Gorey ephemeral)
Claims: “Redefining bad”
Secret weapon: “Our sense of humor,” Stant said. “We’re not so gothic and pretentious that we’re unapproachable”
New products: Facial care, such as exfoliants for sensitive skin, moisturizing spritzers, a
signature cosmetics line

Barbie has held a lot of jobs in her 50 years: a stewardess, a vet, an astronaut, a McDonald’s cashier, a rocker. But a self-taught soapmaker who started a Fight Club-type business sans the fighting? That doll has yet to be molded, but we know the perfect model.

“Since 2003, Villainess has been doing everything wrong,” her company’s press release proudly proclaims in its first paragraph. Brooke Stant is the 27-year-old owner of Villainess. She’s a hip, Southern soapmaker who’s blending alchemy with anti-marketing to appeal to gals (and guys) who aren’t exactly Abercrombie. The concept of her line is built on “pretentious literary allusions paired with evocative fragrances and botanical elements.” She has two employees, one of whom is her mom.

The soaps have exotic names such as Paradise Misplaced (“Sweetly creamed coconut with touches of mango offset by crisp green tea”); Silk & Cyanide (“Almond. Crisp, barely sweet, pervasive and altogether sinister”); and Dulces en Fuego (“Musky bitter chocolate sweetened with vanilla and touches of citrus then positively inflamed with black pepper and nutmeg”). The fragrance-free product is aptly named Ennui.

Soaps sell for $5 a bar, and scrubs and lotions are $10. Mainly a body care and fragrance line, Villainess is expanding into facial care.

“I don’t have a business or a marketing background,” said Stant, “so I don’t know what the ‘rules’ are. I swim upstream sometimes.”

Still, this is hardly soap for dummies. The bath and beauty community says Stant is supposed to use buzzwords such as “natural” and “organic” to move units. While she’s a firm believer in environmentally conscious and animal-friendly practices, she has no interest in perpetuating false dichotomies as a marketing ploy. “I think people appreciate our candor,” said Stant, who notes in her marketing materials that the word “chemical” is loaded with connotations that aren’t necessarily warranted. She won’t exploit people’s fears of the unknown by using emotionally charged language.

Villainess is the top-selling brand at Web boutique The Soap Box Co. Owner Jen Lindsey says her clients are women 20-40 who are educated about soaps and scents, and prefer to shop at small stores and indie brands. Aside from Stant’s unique, memory-evoking fragrances, “They like her branding, her packaging, her style,” said Lindsey, who can’t keep Villainess products in stock and orders hundreds of soaps every week.

Stant started building the stepping stones to her brand at age 19 after her first semester of college at Tennessee-Martin, an experience she found less than fulfilling. As a kid, her family moved around and she was homeschooled, which was an opportunity to get her hands dirty. It was also a chance to find a formula suitable for her problem skin (she has eczema).

“People think when you’re homeschooled your parents teach you, but a lot of kids teach themselves,” she said. “I got to do a lot of experimenting.” She started dabbling in soapmaking when she discovered The Soapmaker’s Companion, a book by Susan Miller Cavitch. As the Internet reached critical mass, she met other soapmakers.