What the soap in your downstairs loo says about you
“Where there’s muck, there’s brass,” goes the old Yorkshire saying, referring to the notion that a lot of money can be made from business activities that are dirty or unpleasant.
It’s unlikely that whoever coined the expression was thinking specifically about dirty hands. And yet, as the luxury beauty brand, Aesop, has proved, if you make the right soap, you can rake in more brass than you ever dreamed possible.
Founded by Melbourne hairdresser Dennis Paphitis in 1987, Aesop is currently at the centre of a $2bn (£1.6bn) bidding war between French multinationals LVMH and L’Oreal, each determined to own the highly profitable brand.
While Aesop sells 100 products in 320 shops across 25 countries, it’s a £31 “Aromatique” liquid soap for which it’s most famous. If you have ever washed your hands at an expensive hairdresser, cocktail bar, aesthetic surgery or smart hotel, you’ll likely be familiar with its distinctive brown bottle, black and white branding and name (it’s pronounced “ee-sop”) in a minimalist Optima font.
For its legion of fans, it’s the ablutionary equivalent of a Phoebe Philo-era Celine bag: understated, yes, but leaving the user in no doubt as to the success and style credentials of the person who bought it.
Few would disagree that, as the cost of living crisis deepens, only the very affluent - or very foolish - would pay £31 for a bottle of soap.
Still, there are many who would opine that what your soap says about you is as important as what is conveyed by your handbag, car or watch. In fact, for those who can’t afford those items of their dreams, the provenance of their soap takes on profound importance. Expensive as it may be, an Aesop bottle can be a spark of bergamot-scented joy in an otherwise dreary, Dettol-drenched existence.
Besides, hard as it might be to believe if you’re not wired that way, there are those for whom the downstairs bathroom is not simply a place to wee, but a sea of messaging that semaphores the owner’s good taste and good fortune. For these people, what their soap says about them is paramount. This room - likely the smallest in your house - is the one that guests will inevitably visit. And judge.
Post-pandemic, it matters less that the soap is antibacterial, and more that it aligns you with a cult beauty brand and a desirable signature scent. If you bought it for £1 at Morrisons, your guests will know. Ditto if you paid £50 for just 250ml from the ‘profumo farmaceutica’ Santa Maria Novella.
There are, of course, those who will always be committed to Carex. This camp is of the firm conviction that the need to smell of cedarwood is less important than the need to kill bacteria - which Carex does, nuking 99.9%. They try not to worry about the remaining 0.1…
If this is a soap bar-ometer, then Baylis & Harding is next up the ladder. Oft found in hotels, it’s for those who balk at paying £22 for Molton Brown (B&H is just £2.50 for 500ml), yet have noted that the branding is not dissimilar. They do an Aesop tribute now too.
Pears and Imperial Leather are national icons - arguably classier than the previous two options, even if they are cheaper. If you spot them sinkside at a friend or relative’s house you can feel assured of their no-nonsense taste in classics. If it’s in bar form, you can assume they’re over 70. If said bar is in fact from Dove, then they are over 70 and a Grazia reader.
Molton Brown is the middle class stalwart in Britain - some may say ‘dated’, others ‘storied’. The brand manufactures all of its products in Hertfordshire and carries a royal warrant - enough to make many loyal for life. Its scents are timeless - rhubarb and rose, lime and patchouli - which is just as well if your son buys you a bottle every Christmas.
The upper market in soapland is a busy place with Cowshed, L’Occitane and Wildsmith, all averaging at £30 for 500ml. Like Aesop, these are the bathroom status signallers - the equivalent of displaying awards, or celebrity signed memorabilia in the loo. Why not bemuse visitors with a posh-sounding import they’re not sure how to pronounce and can Google whilst they use the facilities? Haeckels (from Margate) or Malin + Goetz (faux Scandi, actually American) are great for this.
For those on a budget, decanting is an option - buy a fabulous glass dispenser from Zara Home. I also know plenty of frugal fashion editors who will tip the cheaper stuff into a washed out branded bottle.
That said, there are limits to this recycling process. If you’re looking at a limescale-crusted Aesop bottle from 2011, filled with whatever smells most like mandarin from M&S it’s probably time to get help.
The germ-zapping budget option. Often on offer at Tesco. Macadamia hand wash, £1.80, tesco.com
Baylis & Harding
A cheap soap masquerading as a posh soap Sweet Mandarin & Grapefruit, £2.25, sainsburys.co.uk
A national treasure. If you know, you know. Lemon Flower hand wash, £1.55, waitrose.com
The staple in middle class British bathrooms. Heavenly Gingerlily hand wash, £22, moltonbrown.co.uk
Our nation’s favourite Posh French Soap. Shea Verbena hand and body soap, £25, loccitane.com
Trendy, natural, delicious, satisfyingly expensive. Resurrection Aromatique hand wash, £31, aesop.com
Santa Maria Novella
Liquid gold. Well, as expensive as. Rosa Novella liquid soap, £50, smnovella.com