Level Naturals is a natural soap line founded in 2009 by Jonathan Dubuque and Sabrina Robertson from their organic farm in Hawaii. Now housed in the old PBR brewery in downtown Los Angeles, we talked with Jonathan and Sabrina about loving Los Angeles, drawing inspiration from Thai spice markets, and fueling a business on "elbow grease and coffee." Photos by Chantal Anderson
Why L.A.? What was it that drew you to the city and why have you stayed?
Jonathan: Why? Because Los Angeles is awesome. Yeah the traffic sucks, and there are no seasons, and every waiter is an actor trying desperately to get a walk-on role on some NBC show and we have the whole boulevard of broken dreams, etc. But, even with all of that going against us, L.A. has an incredible art scene that’s becoming more and more supportive of younger artists, we have the Dodgers and the Kings, you can ride your bike anywhere, and the city is pretty much a giant canvas. Dream it, print it, wheat paste it—you have a city-wide gallery show of your very own. Also, even with all the downside perspective of how many people move here with high hopes of becoming the next big thing and never making it, it’s still a city that has hope and is full of people dreaming. There is something pretty amazing about being in a place with so many people doing everything they can to get what they want. For all of these reasons, I stay here.
Above: Level's Coffee Almond Salt Soak, made from coffee, four varieties kinds of salt, coffee extract, coffee butter, and almond essential oil.
Can you catch me up to speed on the history of Level Naturals?
Jonathan: After a ton of wine in a hammock in Hawaii, waiting out what everyone was saying was going to be the storm of the century, we decided soap was how we would make our mark. A couple months later, I left my farm and moved to L.A. to start working with my bestie Sabrina in her garage and started studying plant chemistry. We had a blast doing it; it's a lot like being pastry chef and getting to play alchemy. Within a year we had our first store and six months after that we got to open a manufacturing plant in DTLA at the old Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery. What started out with just the two of us then quickly grew to the 12 people we have on staff now.
Above: The process of making a Level Naturals bath bomb. The brand scoops 10,000 a week!
How do you describe the brand?
Sabrina: Delicious. No, really: We want everything to be a sensual experience where you can have luxury without compromising your values, the environment, or your health. Everything we make is made with food-grade products because we discovered that you absorb more of what you put on your skin that what you put in your mouth. So we made everything food-safe (though the only really tasty thing is our body polish… mmmm sugar).
What’s your production process like?
Jonathan: Elbow grease and coffee. How it's evolved is definitely more hands, more elbow grease, and a ton more coffee. We still make everything by hand. We used to buy essential oils by the ounce and we would get these orders of 16 ounces of essential oils. We would just stare at these “GIANT” bottles and have no clue how we could ever possibly use that much. Now we are ordering 100 pounds of each essential oil and 55 gallon drums of all of our plant oils. We definitely still have our 'WTF' moments when we receive four pallets of ingredients and can’t believe how we are ever gonna get through all of that material. A week later we are laughing when we are doubling our order.
Above: stacks of soap ready for packaging.
It seems like you're well-traveled! Tell us more about travel as an inspiration source.
Jonathan: Travel has definitely been a huge part of it. We spent a ton of time in Costa Rica just taking deep breaths and smelling all these different rich aromas. Or the spice markets in Thailand and the farmers' markets in Germany selling fresh herbs. In Costa Rica the first thing you do is find a Ylang Ylang tree and pick some blossoms and throw them on your dashboard. The sun cooks them there and fills your car with the greatest scent.
What three products are in your Level Naturals starter kit?
The starter kit would definitely be the Shower Bombs, Active Charcoal Soap, and the Room and Body Mist—the essential set for any day!
Above: production scenes at Level Naturals HQ
Give us your quick-hits city guide: what are some of your favorite local spots?
Jonathan: The L.A. food scene is blowing up right now, always some new incredible place opening up. Amazing sushi like Sugarfish. Some of my favorite spots are The Gorbals in DTLA, Bacaro LA, and Bestia. [Editor's Note: check out The Gorbals' new NYC outpost at UO's Brooklyn concept store Space Ninety 8]
Sabrina: The complex we work in, The Brewery, is the the world's largest artist-in-residence community, [including] over 300 lofts and lots of creative and interesting people. We have our own bar and restaurant and now a climbing gym. I live on campus and love it. The whole downtown area is really becoming a great place to be. I've been here off and on since 2000 and have watched it develop into a really fun and vital neighborhood.
How did a professional surfer become the founder of a haircare company? Ask Quiksilver surfer Chase Wilson, the 23-year-old owner of BYRD, a line offering top-of-the line pomades and styling products with a surfer's lifestyle in mind. Chase talked to us about his style icons, "looking slick," and his five-year plan to abolish bad hair days. Photos provided by BYRD.
Hi Chase! So how did this all begin?
Being from Newport, the hub of surf culture, I grew up surfing as an amateur and then professionally. You could presume that a surfer starting a men’s hair care line with nothing to do in the cosmetics industry is obscure, [but] having your own look and style and paying attention to your appearance were traits bred in me. I look up to style icon Steve McQueen a lot; even surf legends Robert August and Mike Hynson of The Endless Summer era. There was a greater appreciation for grooming back then that I feel is coming around full circle. Guys are starting to give a shit about how they look and making a first impression.
In the early stages of high school my friend introduced me to my first "fade" and I was hooked ever since. I feel like things just fell into place after that. There was never a styling pomade I loved that catered to my everyday surfing lifestyle being in and out of the ocean—I wanted a great all-around pomade that I could throw in, go surf, and come out with the same salty slick. I started making home batches of pomade with melted-down beeswax and essential oils in crock pot. After all those failed, I researched a team of chemists to work with on the first BYRD pomade samples. After some months of testing, the idea realized and BYRD Products was born.
Are you still surfing professionally? How do you find balance there between these two responsibilities?
Yes, I'm still surfing professionally with Quicksilver. I travel around the world doing the World Qualifying Series (WQS), which is a series of professional surf competitions. Between my surfing career and business, I keep myself busy. It’s a pretty rad thing when work doesn’t really feel like work.
Tell us something we do not know about surfing.
All it takes is one session and you're hooked for life.
Tell us something we do not know about haircare.
We've commissioned "scientific studies" that showed looking slick = getting babes.
Tell us more about the BYRD headquarters.
Our space, The Byrd's Nest is in Culver City. I don't know how to articulate it other than being our office, home, barbershop and event venue all in one creative space. It's one of those things you just have to see for yourself. Within the property's existing building, we installed recycled shipping containers that make up the living quarters and Byrd's Barber Shop.
Can you share some of your favorite things that are happening in L.A. right now?
One of my favorite happenings going on in the L.A. social scene is this bar, The Bungalow. It's right on Ocean in Santa Monica and it has the setting of a '60s beach house party. If you haven't already, I would suggest checking it out.
Right now the focus is launching our new collection of styling pomades that we've done an exclusive run of with Urban Outfitters. These will be released within the next month and we're really excited about how the final product has manifested. Talking long term, you can bet to see the brand conquering hair care then expanding into other markets and categories while always tying back to our roots. It's all a huge learning curve for me so I'm just doing my best to steer it in the right direction. Say in five years, I want people to know me as the kid who abolished bad hair days!
Poppy And Someday is a natural apothecary line started by Kari Jansen, an Ayurvedic practitioner and herbalist with a background in nutrition. The brand combines, as she explains, "a passion for plants with a love of gardening, wildcrafting, and herbal medicine." We spoke with Kari about the process of creating products by hand, natural stress remedies, and what L.A. musicians she's into right now. Photos by Magda Wosinska
Hi Kari! How would you describe Poppy and Someday?
Poppy and Someday was inspired by plants and their remarkable ability to heal and teach. This product line features an evolving collection of organic body care products, each of which is comprised of a unique blend of constitutional ingredients. The product design process is rooted in the study of Ayurveda and Western Herbalism and focuses on native plant ingredients.
Tell me about the ingredients you use.
The ingredients that are used in all of my products are organic and plant-based with no fillers or synthetic additives. Any ingredient not homegrown is sourced from a highly reputable farm in Eugene, Oregon called Mountain Rose Herbs.
Tell us something we do not know about Ayurveda as it relates to apothecary products.
With an extensive study of Ayurvedic medicine, I can rely on my dosha knowledge to help bring balance to everyone who tries my products—the doshas are Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water).
You can bring balance within yourself by healing with the opposite qualities or attributes. For example: If you are dry and ungrounded, the salves would be beneficial to your everyday routine. Dry is a characteristic of Vata and the salve represents the earth element of Kapha. So, if you are feeling anxiety or insomnia then try a self massage with salve and oils on your body to help calm your mind and soothe your nerves.
On my first visit, I was drawn and captivated by the overall magic of Laurel Canyon. This canyon is well-renowned as a bohemian neighborhood noted for its music and artisan history and culture. Laurel Canyon provides me with creative inspiration within its breathtaking canyons and serene surroundings.
Can you share some of your favorite things that are happening in L.A. right now?
Some of my favorite Los Angeles pastimes are hiking in Topanga Canyon, where I can enjoy amazing ocean views. On my way to the hike I love to stop at Heyoka Hideout, where some amazing women who hand make beautiful leather bags manage one of my favorite vintage shops. The Filth Mart in West Hollywood is also a regular stopover of mine.
For dining, Pace serves up delicious pizza and outstanding wine in the heart of Laurel Canyon. However, nothing beats a great margarita at El Condor in Silverlake then on to the Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd for some live music. I love to see Allah-Las, Tift Merritt, Jonathan Wilson, and Dawes there.
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