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Q&A WITH MAAK LAB

INTRO TO MAAK LAB
Stepping into the bright airy domain of Maak Lab in Portland’s West End immediately transports patrons to another time and place. Just feet from one of the busiest streets in town (Burnside); the hustle and bustle of the city fades away as you breathe in the deeply calming scent of The Lab. The proprietors behind Maak are Anoria Gilbert and Taylor Ahlmark. Creative, kind, and dynamic, this duo is the force behind each handmade offering. From humble beginnings to today, being stocked all over the globe, they are touting some killer collaborations. Gilbert and Ahlmark gave INDUSTRY the scoop on what it takes to build a modern brand out of some of the most ancient and commoditized crafts – soaps and candles.
WHAT IS YOUR ORIGIN STORY?
We both moved here from Arizona post college and came to Oregon, planning to apply for graduate school. Once here, we didn’t want to leave. After checking out other cities and schools we decided to stay in PDX and create our own version of schooling. Nori had some experience in soap making and Taylor had a background in design, so we started playing with these skills which eventually became Maak Lab. After participating in a couple of trade shows and events, we met the folks of Beam & Anchor, and moved into their last available studio space. This became the home of Maak for about 2 years as we grew into a proper business and got our feet on the ground.
 
WHERE DID THE NAME MAAK COME FROM?
Maak (pronounced “make”) is a nod to our Nordic heritage. In Dutch it means “to create” and the double A’s loosely signify Anoria (Nori’s full name) and Ahlmark (Taylor’s last name).
 
TELL US ABOUT OPENING YOUR LAB IN THE WEST END.
We ran out of space at Beam & Anchor and were on the lookout for a larger place to house our manufacturing. We loved the idea of combining our Lab with a small retail front. Taylor had stumbled on a space off Burnside and in the span of that first day, walked through it, and made a hand-shake deal with our landlord. We got lucky — it’s right across from Powell’s which is one of the most iconic Portland landmarks. A few cool new shops opened in our building around the same time we did – bringing more people down to the West End. Our space was previously a vintage shop which hadn’t been renovated in a while, so we spent a couple months doing some serious cleaning, demoing, and building out the place. We then focused on getting our manufacturing up and running in the new space, and a month later had the doors open to the public.
ANY EXCITING COLLABS IN THE WORKS?
Our larger goal in taking on private label projects is being able to make custom scents, experiment with packaging, and utilize ideas that maybe don’t fit into our house line. We’ve done handful of collaborations with Tanner Goods, Snow Peak, Bridge & Burn, and Madewell. It’s also been a great way to get our name out there without the intensive cost of major marketing efforts.
 

INTERNATIONAL VS. LOCAL?
When we were at Beam & Anchor there were a ton of visitors from Japan entering the shop. A distributor from Japan came in one day who had started a smaller high-end focused distribution company called Canvas. Canvas is a major distributor in Japan, and important to our international business there, since the Japanese retail market is very different from the US and requires that shops buy through a distributor. Fortunately, there are pretty relaxed laws for importing cosmetics into Japan and now Canvas is one of our biggest accounts with almost half of our wholesale business going to various shops all over Japan.

 

WHAT INSPIRES YOUR SCENTS?
Experience and experiments inspire a lot. Stuff grows really easily here, and we have access to fresh ingredients like cedar, fir, peppermint, sage, and lavender for example. Some of the best cedar in the world grows on the Oregon coast – Port Orford Cedar – which we use a ton of. We try to source from as many local vendors as possible. We’re in a region rich in such natural elements that we are able to most of the time. The local economy is very supportive of local businesses too – we have access to more uniquely Portland ingredients like honey harvested in Southeast Portland neighborhoods, locally roasted Stumptown coffee that we use in soap, and juniper berries from nearby distilleries. We enjoy finding these kinds of unique and strange ingredients and see where we can take them.

 

WHAT SHAPES YOUR BRAND?
In the beginning we were screen printing and hand cutting every tag that labeled each soap — we were very precious about it. As we began to grow we shifted the branding, packaging, and worked with some friends to rethink the design. While maintaining an ephemeral look, we modeled the soap boxes after reusable matchboxes with the idea they could be reused to put little knick-knacks in, and kept a really clean look that wasn’t too heavily branded throughout our product packaging.

 

WHAT ARE 2-3 SHIFTS YOU SEE IN MAAK’S WORLD?
1. There’s a giant wave of choosing to work with one thing and doing it very well i.e. Leather Maker, Salt Maker, Chocolate Maker. Brands want to be the expert and hone in on one thing.

2. There’s a shift away from heritage.

3. Brands are very focused on the story – there is a great deal of value in creating the feeling that you’d like your customer to have.

ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS?
Simply, put in the work. There’s a strange air of entitlement we see sometimes, but having your own business is a lot of work and requires a ton of effort and constant problem solving.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAAK?
It would be amazing to see Maak at The Pool in Japan. We also love Our Legacy and everything they do. We’d like to see our soaps in some boutique hotels and we’re currently working towards that goal. We’re also aiming to bring more products into the Maak collection. We’ve always considered ourselves a unisex brand and want to stay true to that. Lastly, we’re delving more heavily into liquid soaps and candles.

TO SEE MORE
Drop by the Lab on 9th and SW Burnside in Portland Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm and breath in the incredible aroma of Maak Lab soaps, candles, and goodies for yourself. Keep up with Nori, Taylor and the Maak crew on instagram @maaklab