IN THE STUDIO WITH SENTEURS D’ORIENT
Inspired by an amalgamation of cultures, Hana and Sarah Akkari of Senteurs d’Orient have created a heritage product for a modern market.
The entrance to Senteurs d’Orient’s atelier is lined with jasmine trees, pomegranate shrubs, lavenders and rosemary, a stark contrast to the industrial factories in the area, and a reminder of the source of the brand’s inspiration. The atelier’s interiors in Dekwaneh are purposefully made of concrete, a symbol of the brand itself: raw, simple and sophisticated all at once.
The artisanal soap brand is run by mother-daughter duo Hana and Sarah Akkari, and stems from a deep fascination with the bathing rituals of both the Far and the Middle East.
“In Japan as in the Middle East you have the public bath tradition where they take their little Sentō box, their hammam box, and they go to a public bath and it’s supposed to be a social and cultural outing,” Hana, who is of Syrian origin and grew up in Tokyo, explains.
And that’s exactly what she was looking to emulate with the products. She founded the business in 1999 while living in France with her family, determined to change the world’s impression of the Middle East and using her upbringing as inspiration. She didn’t know anything about starting a business, and after discussing the idea with friends, came up with a name and design concept. The Akkaris moved to Lebanon shortly after, and that’s when Hana’s idea came to fruition, albeit under modest circumstances.
“We started off cooking our soap in my husband’s office with a soap maker from Tripoli, and we used to try different things to see how it all works,” she says. “I didn’t know anything. When you have a dream, you always have to keep on at it and one day, somewhere, you’ll get there.”
By 2014, her daughter Sarah had come in from New York to expand the brand and sell it in the United States.
“I saw the potential of niche brands. People are now interested in the story behind the product, so I really, genuinely saw the potential of this brand in the United States,” she says.
Senteurs d’Orient launched in the United States in August 2015, and one of Sarah’s first meetings was with online fashion store Net-a-Porter, which began exclusively distributing the soaps worldwide before the brand was introduced to niche stores in Brooklyn. Senteurs d’Orient is now starting a partnership with luxury goods department store Bergdorf Goodman, and there are two big projects coming up, one of which is the introduction of soap dishes, travel boxes and homeware, in addition to a line of body products.
Artisans handcraft all of the soaps, and what makes the process so different is the air-drying of the soap, which makes it last longer. Because each piece is handcrafted, it makes it entirely unique, flaws and all. The soap also has a high concentration of essential oils, an instant relaxer with great therapeutic benefits. Most of the company’s artisans and workers are women, except for soap maker Mohammad Younes, who has been around since the start.
The fragrances, influenced by Lebanese gardens and scents, are prepared by master perfumers in the town of Grasse in the South of France. The scents themselves are simple, born out of the desire to recreate fragrances that are as close to the real thing as possible.
“The Amber is inspired by the Middle East, the Jasmine of Arabia from the Arab Peninsula and the Orange Blossom from white tea,” Sarah explains. “All of our fragrances are inspired by the Orient, they’re definitely not vanilla.”
This is apparent even in the product’s design, like the Maamoul Soap, inspired by the Lebanese pastry. The soap comes in three shapes – square, round and oval – and is pure vegetal filigree. The Soap Leafs is also a big hit, thinly sliced and stacked like the After Eight chocolate, with the Amber Soap Leafs having just launched as a special request from Net-a-Porter. Senteurs d’Orient also manufactures bath salts carrying its signature scents, and hair and skin products.
As big as it has become, starting the business was never really planned by either Hana or Sarah, but here they are. “I think it was always somewhere there, not Senteurs in particular, but I always wanted to be in the industry, trying to produce something. I think it’s good to be an underdog somewhere because then you fight even more,” Hana says. “We women, we can do something, and I think that burning feeling was the motivation. People would say you don’t know anything about soap, but it doesn’t matter; we figure it out. I think the 21st century is going to be the women’s century. We’re going to be there.”
And by the looks of it, they already are.