As Adrian and I were driving home from That Dapper Market a few weeks ago, I told him that I preferred ‘new vintage’ to the type of clothes that were on offer from many of the stall holders. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but after rummaging through countless polyester sacks dangling from rows upon rows of coat hangers, I was left despondent. There is something much nicer about clothes that are a re-imagining of times gone by. The cut is more flattering, the fabrics are breathable, and the colours are vibrant, plus there aren’t the sights and smells left from sixty years of wear and storage. When I had the pleasure of meeting with Mark McCarthy from vegan soap company, Shanghai Lil and The Scarlet Fez, he used different words to describe his brand, but essentially meant the same thing.
“I wanted that feel of the past, but still contemporary,” Mark says, when I ask him about the inspiration behind the unique name. “I liked the idea that it had both male and female elements, and that it could take on a personality of its own.” The nostalgic, almost film noir feel of the brand is also the perfect vehicle to showcase some of the vintage photographs that Mark collects, which feature on his website and accompanying blog. Having been warmly welcomed into his home in Adelaide’s north-western suburbs, I can say with complete certainly that Shanghai Lil and the Scarlet Fez is simply an extension of Mark’s passion for beautiful things from yesteryear.
Mark had kindly set up his kitchen table with a display of the products he sells at various markets around Adelaide. Currently only his handmade soaps are available via his website, but with the introduction of skincare packs in the next few weeks he is hoping to add more items to his online store. I just love the simple, colourful soap boxes, and sleek white bottles of face mist and serum which is what prompted me to invite myself over for a chat. I had wandered past the Shanghai Lil and the Scarlet Fez stall at That Dapper Market and picked up a business card after I’d realised I’d run out of cash and couldn’t purchase anything there and then. The next day I contacted Mark and asked if he’d be interested in being interviewed for the blog, and of course I wanted to stock up on soap, face serum and bath salts. Thankfully, he said yes.
I always have a great time when I go out and meet people who are making a splash on Adelaide’s market scene, and Mark and his partner Steve are no exception. I didn’t even need to start asking any questions, soap is obviously Mark’s passion and as Adrian and I are inspecting the display he begins to tell us about his signature product, the cold processed, handmade vegan soap. All of the soaps have an olive oil base with a selection of other oils and butters (such as mango butter) added depending on the different varieties. Olive oil creates a fairly firm bar and Mark spent a long time perfecting the recipes to ensure that the final results were not hard like castile soap (pure olive oil) but rich and creamy. His soaps are not drying or stripping, they clean well without removing all of the naturally occurring oils that protect skin from the elements.
Each soap variety has a slightly different list of ingredients and scent, ranging from the citrusy Lemon Meringue to the heady masculine Smokey Joe. Once the soap is poured and a day later cut into bars, it is left to cure for 4 weeks to ensure that it is hardened and ready for use. It’s been a lot of trial error for both the base soap recipes and also the fragrances. Mark uses essential oils to scent the soaps but finds that some oils, like lemon, just don’t hold up against the heating, and curing process. “I use May Chang which is a floral but has a distinctly lemony scent, and kaffir lime leaf oil. There is an art to selecting essential oils that will last the process,” he says. “The citrus oils can be used in perfumes and bath salts as I only make small batches, but they just don’t work well for soap.”
Along with the Lemon Meringue and Odalisque soaps, I also purchase Pink Moon which has been developed as an unscented facial cleanser. Along with rosehip and evening primrose oils, Pink Moon also contains pink clay which gives it a silky feel on the skin. It was the creation of this soap which prompted Mark to develop his Cucumber and Rose Face Mist and Face Serum, which is more of a dry oil type product. “The face mist contains hydrolysed oats which is incredibly soothing to the skin, and the serum contains 50% rosehip oil, along with other beneficial oils, such as pomegranate which has anti-aging properties and vitamin E. It’s got quite a dry texture so it perfect for wearing under makeup.”
I was also intrigued by the perfumes and room sprays but obviously I couldn’t test them. The gorgeous earthy tones of the fragrances are created by the different essential oils in a clear alcohol base and I can only assume the scents of the three perfumes and two room sprays are just as divine as the soaps. “I’ve always loved scents,” Mark tells me, “and I’m very interested in natural products. I decided to start with making soap and giving them out to family and friends. People started requesting more and more and that’s how the business was born.” He confesses that he did look online for soap recipes originally and also read up on the process the old fashioned way, in books, but ultimately he created his own secret recipes. Close friend, Karena Colquhoun from Magic Jelly – Art, Illustration and Design, helped with the logo and packaging. The next thing Mark knew, he and Steve were attending markets and relishing in their success.
“There is a lot of me in these products,” Mark says, “right down to the fact that I’m notorious for never sticking to a recipe when cooking. It’s the same with my soap recipe. I’ve had some doozies, but I learned what not to do.” Although Mark tries to source as locally as possible when it comes to ingredients and packaging, he understands that it’s sometimes an impossible task. “I’ve come to realise that often it’s not economical to source locally and it’s actually nice to think that my oils come from all around the world.” With both the products and the brand, Mark has a desire to remain flexible and open to improving things all the time. “At first I wanted brown packaging, but when I experimented with colours I was drawn to them,” he remembers. “I think that everyone has a creative side and in a way this business has given me a new lease on life in my full time job as well. Now I have something else to occupy my mind when I’m not working Monday to Friday.” Mark’s partner Steve tells me that Mark has been given a new lease on life since starting his soap empire, and he doesn’t mind helping out with the packing, manning the market stalls and being the guinea pig who gets to test all the new inventions.
Mark makes and packages all his products from home and regularly attends markets such as the Wattle Street Market and the Goodwood Arthouse Marketplace, both coming up in November. As his soaps are perishable in the wet, he tends to play it safe and avoid too many outdoor events in the winter, but come spring and summer he and Steve will be out in force with their wares. “The community has really grown over the last three years,” he says, “and everyone is so welcoming. We’ve made some great friends since we started selling at the markets.” Shanghai Lil and the Scarlet Fez products are also currently available at Small World, Peas & Beans, Have you Met Charlie and The Furniture Studio.
With a lip balm in production and new skincare bundles being released soon, if you are interested in Mark’s vegan skincare products you can sign up for his newsletter from his blog and follow him on Facebook. I’ll be enjoying my soap, violet and vanilla bath salts, and face serum, so keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates. Also, look out for a facial oils post, featuring the serum, in the next few weeks. Check out Mark’s gorgeous soap range and let me know what’s on your wishlist!