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In a day and age when looking after one’s mind and body is the ultimate in self care, is a brand of modern soaps inspired by the age old ritual of the Korean public bath. Like the spaces themselves, these soaps are based on the idea of daily ritual, intergenerational bonding, and the infamous Korean scrub treatment “Seshin,” an incredibly vigorous exfoliating treatment found at the baths. “Binu” means soap in Korean, and was chosen for its simplicity as well as the fact that it’s not an immediately recognizable word or associated with anything in the English language.
Binu Binu founder Karen Kim used when launching their website to help create a beautiful online presence right from the start. The clean lines of their templates were in line with the brand she was beginning to form, and the other services the all-in-one platform offers would help build her business as it grew. We talked to her about Squarespace, Korean bathhouse culture, and why you might want to pick up one of their Scrub Towels!
Up until starting Binu Binu, Kim had been working in New York’s fashion industry with a focus on product development, editorial, and buying. Doing so gave her the opportunity to come to know so many brands and designers with fascinating stories who had created their own creative worlds, and it got her thinking.
“I got to the point where I just felt that it was the right time to create my own products and put them out there, as a way to share my vision with others. I think I always had an obsession with soap. One of my earliest childhood memories is of being scrubbed to the bone by my grandmother, watching what I thought were bruises disappear with just a bar of soap and determination. I thought it was magic.” she said.
“Later on, on a trip to Korea with my mother and aunts, we would visit the public bathhouses every day and I loved how it was contrary to North American spa culture – which seems focused on the self and the idea of luxury. The Korean bathhouse (“jjimjilbang”) was more about a communal, everyday wellness ritual that was social, intergenerational, and seemed to lack vanity and self-consciousness. I found that to be so refreshing and wanted to bring some of that mood to Binu Binu. To me, a bar of soap represents something universal, ancient, with the simple aim of becoming clean. So Binu Binu was born from the idea of a simplified soap and water routine (the opposite of the complicated 10-step skincare routines popular in K-beauty brands) as well as a celebration of Korean bathhouse culture,” Kim explained.
Once she decided to follow her passion for soap and culture, Kim dove right into the process of figuring out just what she wanted Binu Binu’s soaps to represent.
“Each soap starts with a story, and the formulation and ingredients flow from there. A lot of the inspiration for the collection comes from strong female role models in Korean culture. For example, the Haenyeo Sea Women are sea divers on Jeju Island who dive tank-free for the catch of the day. Many are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and are still out there every day in the icy cold water. Because seafood is such a large part of the economy, Jeju is a matriarchal society led by these incredible women. Our Haenyeo Sea Woman Soap, an homage to these women, has sea salt, seaweed extract, refreshing peppermint essential oil and is a bluish grey color, like the water,” she shared.
“While doing a deep dive into the history of Korean cleansing and purification rituals, I learned about Shamans in Korea, women who perform purification rituals to cleanse the mind and body prior to conducting ceremonies to heal you of whatever ails you. It’s a practice that persists even today. So we developed a Shaman Black Charcoal Soap, inspired by the use of charcoal in these purification ceremonies. It’s our most popular soap,” Kim said.
Kim makes all of the various soaps by hand in their Toronto studio using the cold press method, which involves combining lye with oils and letting the mixture harden and cure for four to six weeks, to best retain natural oils known to benefit skin. The base of every batch contains “boricha,” the well-known Korean roasted barley tea. Every 100% natural bar is fragrance-free and does not contain palm oils, synthetic detergents, artificial colorants, parabens, sulfates, or animal products. So you know this is a product you can feel good about purchasing and using in a multitude of ways.
Of course Kim uses her own soaps, and has the other soap-related wares Binu Binu offers in her bathroom. Each product has been thoughtfully designed and put to the test to be both a functional and beautiful addition to your bathing space.
“I like to cycle through various soaps, whatever I’m in the mood for – lately it’s been our new Creamy Clay Complexion Soap. I absolutely love using clay in soap, as I find it adds a really nice richness to the lather as well as adding a beautiful color. The Hibiscus Clay Facial Soap is always a perennial favorite, since my skin can be somewhat dry the extra shea butter makes this really gentle and moisturizing,” she says of her favorites.
Of her other go-tos, Kim said, “My other must-have is our Seshin Korean Scrub Mitt and Towel. I love to exfoliate and this is just such a satisfying way to do it, where the results are immediate. A Korean scrub at the jjimjilbang is an amazing eye-opening experience. You leave feeling cleaner-than-clean and wondering how you could have ever walked around with so much extra baggage, so to speak. I became obsessed with the little cheap and cheerful neon-colored striped scrub mitts they use, so I designed an elevated, neutral-toned version for the line so you can scrub at home in the bath or shower. The towel version is to reach your back if you don’t always have a friend present to scrub it for you.”
When Binu Binu’s soaps are paired with their Marble Soap Dishes you can see just how well both complement one another. To create them Kim works closely with artisans who specialize in marble bath wares – everything from sinks to counters to full-on marble free-standing bath tubs. Together they design and develop the dishes, selecting the various stone varieties for each batch as they go.
“I love the combo of our Marble Soap Dishes with our soaps. Working with natural stones is endlessly fascinating, because each piece is truly unique and beautiful. The ones with swirl patterns that speak to me make their way into my own personal collection. I’m partial to the Blue Marble, a glossy teal with white and sepia tones that looks like the Earth from space, and the Green Onyx, which is translucent and almost ethereal – like it glows from within.”
You can’t help but be struck by each bar’s gorgeous angles and almost monumental aesthetic. It turns out that their sculptural qualities are just what drew Kim specifically to bar soaps in the first place.
She said, “I knew that I wanted to create a shape that was pared down, with clean edges and no extraneous details, but also something archetypal and iconic that wasn’t commonplace. Our bars can stand upright like a column, and can also fit perfectly in the hand. By shifting from a more ubiquitous flat rectangle to a monolithic shape, it turns an everyday object into a little sculptural object for the bathroom.”
We’re crazy about everything Binu Binu creates, so we asked Kim what’s on the horizon for the brand in the foreseeable future and what she’s most excited about.
She answered, “So many new things! One that we are most excited about is our biodegradable soap case for travel. It’s inspired by vintage designer soap cases, but modernized – definitely not something you would find in a drug store aisle. I think being able to simplify a toiletry bag is important. Instead of traveling with a million little bottles, you can pack a beautiful, discreet case (bonus: since the soap is solid, it’s TSA approved). It launches in October, just in time for the busy holiday travel season. Moving forward further into the future, our focus is on gradually building a world of modern bathhouse-inspired products that are also beautiful objects in and of themselves.”
Like many first-time business owners, Kim was less intimidated by Squarespace than other available options, which was a main factor in choosing them for website. Their abilities matched well with her burgeoning brand’s needs and left room to grow as a business, even offering tools that might help along the way.
“When I first started my business, I was drawn to Squarespace because it enabled me to effortlessly create an e-commerce site that was simple, yet considered design and functionality. I found that I could customize as I go, which is important to any new business as its needs change. At first we started with the Galapagos template, and now we use the Pedro template. I appreciate the flexibility, ease, and clean design principles that Squarespace keeps in mind.”
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