ThalassotherapyNatural Skincare with Dom Bridges of Haeckels
"It’s about making an impact, proving that something is sustainable, and proving that it is a risk worth taking.”
On any given afternoon in 2012, were you to look out along Cliff Terrace in Margate, Kent, chances are you’d have seen Dom Bridges on a march down to the coastline, equipped for a mission. Ahead of the arrival of his first child with wife Jo, Bridges thought to himself: “Well, I’d better start cleaning up because my daughter needs to play on a clean beach.” With a growing appreciation for the sea came a lesson in the town’s history of thalassotherapy — the use of seawater in cosmetic and health treatments.
Learning from Margate’s town council about the region’s abundance in seaweed, Bridges cultivated a growing curiosity in its uses, and embracing the autodidactic nature of the internet age, he made his first batch of 12 bars of soap. In just a few years, from these small batches made on his kitchen counter and gifted to friends and neighbours, Bridges’s operation has swelled into a full range of creams, oils, cleansers, the unmistakable Bog Myrtle incense, and a striking retail space on Cliff Terrace. Humbly the first to admit that thalassotherapy is not a new idea – countries such as Japan and Jamaica have been working with the concept for centuries – Bridges notes that Haeckels is about connecting to the true heritage of English coastal towns and celebrating their natural bounty.
Among a vast sea of natural skincare companies that champion the land from which they derive their products, Haeckels is a particular standout – not simply because of the quality of their products, or their powerful brand identity, but because of the strength of their conviction. Using natural ingredients, wild-harvested from the local coast, while ensuring all production processes are entirely sustainable, Bridges has had to make some difficult compromises as an independent business owner. When offered the opportunity to provide several major airlines with their first and business class amenities, a contract that no doubt would have secured the foreseeable livelihood of the company, Bridges respectfully declined. With an estimated 5,000,000 barrels of oil being burned every day by airlines, the request weighed heavily on his conscience: “It was a great honour. However, the aviation industry has a devastating impact on our environment and that’s a compromise too far for us.”
Bridges’s approach to expansion is similarly rigorous. “We’re deeply embedded in the Margate community and we want to take that as the model to multiply across the globe,” he says. With the help of a Japanese anthropologist from outside Tokyo, and partnerships with local fishing communities in the Okayama Prefecture, a small range of Haeckels products will soon be available in Japan. Since learning of the area’s overabundance of Amamo Grass, a native Japanese seagrass, Bridges has acquired permission from the local government to harvest a small portion for the collection. Having received a manufacturing facility from the provincial council and secured a small shop in Osaka, Bridges has successfully scaled up the business without compromising its carbon footprint, cutting out any unnecessary air freighting of seaweed and existing inventory from the United Kingdom. “It’s going to be a long summer, but I think I’ve just about pulled it off,” Bridges says hopefully, and without vanity.
Haeckels is, in practice, so much more than the sum of its parts. Margate itself has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, as businesses such as Haeckels and the Turner Contemporary have breathed new life into old sea legs. And the positive effects are indisputable – as Bridges reflects: “What could be wrong with looking after the neighbourhood, providing opportunities for locals, and promoting the merits of the region’s natural ingredients?”
Having anchored Margate, and with Okayama’s opening on the horizon, Bridges is charting a course to other shores. “It’s not easy at all,” he admits. “In fact, on paper, it’s absolute business suicide.” He pauses as he looks down at his hands in a brief moment of contemplation. “But what does being a brand even mean anymore? It’s got to be real or else there’s no point in doing it.” With a quiet fervour in his voice, Bridges remarks: “It’s about making an impact, proving that something is sustainable, and proving that it is a risk worth taking.”