[CHICAGO] You’d expect a shop filled with soaps to smell nice.
But Abbey Brown Soap Artisan, tucked into a historic storefront in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, engages all of the senses.
For one thing, there’s soap being made right there. You can see the colors and textures that swirl through an uncut block. You can watch it ripple off the wire as the bars are cut. You can touch the soft, silky texture of the shavings.
And in the kitchen where the olive oil infusions are mixed, you could realistically taste any of the beautiful and exotic ingredients that go into these luxurious natural soaps. (Not that you’d do that.)
If you want to, you can even listen in and learn how to make soap. Abbey Brown founder and soap-maker extraordinaire Deb Kraemer teaches a myriad of classes, where she encourages students to consider what ingredients they’re familiar with and love.
Teaching comes naturally for Deb, we discovered. She shared with us how she came to crafting healthy bath and body products from fresh herbs, fruits, spices and other items you might otherwise find in a gourmet grocery:
“I was an early childhood educator and ran my own child care center for 17 years.
I was always interested in natural health care and products that would help with my son’s skin sensitivities. I was teaching a felting class to the children when I realized that soap is a binder, and I wanted to learn the craft of soaping.
I attended the very first soap conference in the U.S. and met professional soap makers from around the country. This sparked a new interest for me that has led me to become an herbalist and aromatherapist. With some help from some mentors, I began and never looked back. It has grown me in many ways.
My first products were sold at local farmers’ markets, and I opened my first brick and mortar in 2006. I’ve had three locations for a number of years. We're celebrating 10 years in November!”
Deb’s success is surely due in no small part to the fact that her soaps smell incredible but not overpowering. And they’re wonderfully moisturizing, rather than stripping moisture from the skin, thanks to the olive oil with which they’re made.
I’d never really thought about how soap was made. (I probably don’t want to know how many soaps are made!) So I was surprised when Deb showed me into a kitchen. This isn’t a euphemism or a cute name. It’s a kitchen. And on the shelves are bins and bins of ingredients that aren’t cheap or easy to come by. Quite frankly, it’s a chef’s dream.
“The ingredients I use are simple and not complicated,” Deb says. “They’re pure and naturally sourced.”
But they’re all dressed up. This is not your bin of sticky bars at the craft fair. The whole product is an experience, from the colorful original art on all sides of the Chicago soap packaging to the tiny rivets on the men’s line. They make all of their packaging in-house, collaborating with local artists.
“The soap is much like a child—it needs all the love and ingredients to make it well-rounded,” Deb says. “It’s given a name and beautifully designed clothing before it steps out into the world.”
Abbey Brown is part of a larger company, the Chicago Soap Company, also owned by Deb. Through the Chicago Soap Company, she makes custom soaps for other companies, using ingredients specific to their needs.
Local Universe gives back: We donate a portion of the proceeds of sales from Abbey Brown products to The Remix Project, helping level the playing field for young people from disadvantaged, marginalized and under-served communities.
And in addition to teaching the craft and history of soap, Deb also mentors other entrepreneurs, helping them to achieve their own business success. “I’m always on the lookout for folks who are interested in making the world a better place,” she says.
Her passion extends into her free time; when she’s not running Abbey Brown or the Chicago Soap Company or teaching, she enjoys making aromatherapy blends. You can also find Deb foraging outdoors in any type of weather.
And that’s saying something, considering she lives in the Windy City. Speaking from experience, that wind can blow ice off the lake and punch you in the face when you come around a building.
But she’s undeterred. “I love Chicago and will always consider it my home,” Deb says. “It has wonderful culture, awesome food, great people and four seasons to play in.”
Of course, winter is far more manageable with a good soak in a hot bath.