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Georgia Straight ~ Angela Murrils

Blending Lotions Leads to Pure Radiant Energy

So you come to the final predictable page of the mega-selling bodice-ripper with the usual studmuffin ‘n’ wench on the cover and you think: “Holy smoke! I could do better than that.” Or you escape from an especially witless movie wondering how long it would take to bang out a screenplay. Few people go further than just thinking and wondering; Maury and Caroline actually did something.

The catalyst was two years ago when Maury watched Caroline, who’s now his fiancée, reluctantly drop $300 on Lancome skin-care products. At the time, Caroline, 28, was working at BCTV (she is still seen weekly on-air), and Maury, 30, who had recently sold his Richmond billiards club, was casting around for a new business venture. Three hundred dollars? Get real. Surely lotions and creams didn’t have to be that expensive. What consumers would go for, they figured, was a product line comparable to Lancome or Chanel’s in quality – but at Body Shop prices.

They sat down and, on paper, listed what they thought would make up the ideal product. Environmentally friendly, natural ingredients were a must, as was small-batch manufacturing, for freshness; animal testing was verboten; but the overriding requirement, says Maury, was “serious, serious quality”. The theory was easy, putting it into practice took a little more effort. Unsure where to being, they called up the UBC chemistry department, which connected them with the federally run Technology Assistance Program, which, in turn, provided a grant. With that, plus Maury’s savings, they began to hunt for chemists who could formulate their products, swerving away, says Maury, from the people who promised” “Bring me anything from London Drugs and I can knock it off.”

The resulting line of body and hair-care products and their shop, all called Pure Radiant Energy (P.R.E.) debuted six weeks ago, in an atmosphere that is part spa, part country store. Paintings of Mediterranean scenes hang on the apricot-coloured walls. Products are lined up on pine fixtures, side by side with clusters of peppermints, vanilla pods, and the occasional apple. An old claw-foot tub takes pride of place at the back of the store-and actually works.

Maury and Caroline are out to defuse the mystique associated with skin care. At the cash desk is a handwritten sign: “Some ingredients,” it states, “sound scarier than they are.” It goes on to explain that hydroxyethylcellulose is simply a fancy word for “vegetable starch”, and that “polysorbate 80 is an emulsifier derived from corn.”

Although neither Maury nor Caroline has a scientific background, both are now fluent in chemspeak. “A lot of companies use sodium lauryl sulphate as a foaming agent on bath products,” Maury explains, “It’s cheap, but it can cause skin irritation and yeast infections.” Instead, they went for substance that does the same job but is derived from fresh coconuts. Their minimalist packaging - plain, straight-sided bottles; simple jars - lists all ingredients: Maury and Caroline make a point of it. To be fair, Body Shop has a master book containing equivalent information, says Maury, but customers have to ask to see it.

Smells are equally up-front: an apple soap’s aroma is like that of a Granny Smith pie; a bath lotion, accurately named Vigor, has an energizing pepperminty aroma that will have you opening the bottle for just one more whiff. The almond soap smells like marzipan. “It’s beautiful in the shower with the steam going,” says Maury, who gives me a chunk. And he’s right; it is.

So far, the P.R.E. line covers all the skin- and hair-care basics - an oil-free cleansing gel, masques, hydrating creams and lotions (but not a dedicated night cream, which they view as superfluous), shampoos, conditioners, and Dream Cream for styling hair. 

Apart from those, everything is deliberately gender-neutral, says Caroline, adding that both she and Maury try to be in the store most of the time. Right now, women make up 80 percent of their customers. If men come in, she says, “they may feel more comfortable talking to Maury.” Even on a weekday morning, business is brisk. “I try to remember everyone by name,” says Caroline. (Observation proves that she does.) They’re eager to be part of the neighbourhood, and Maury says they chose their store location chiefly because “4th Avenue is more destination, ours is more a lifestyle street.” They also want to give back to the community: during May, a dollar from each sale of their Tidal Wave bath bomb is being donated to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Requests have already come in to open other stores; the word franchise has been mentioned. But they’re not sure. “We’re in business. Everyone has to make money,” says Maury, doubtless recalling that $300 moment of truth, “but the profit margins don’t have to be that high.”

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