text: Nikolas Bernáth
Jana Fazekaš majored in architecture and decided to pursue a career in urbanism. She spent four years in London, working for a major architecture firm, which specialised in large international projects. One day, she realised she no longer enjoyed her corporate lifestyle and promising career. Jana moved back to Slovakia and started one of the first local natural cosmetics brands, known today as Vonai.
Tell us more about your career in urbanism.
My thesis focused on a harbour in Hobart, Australia, which is probably why the London firm that ended up hiring me decided to interview me in the first place. We were working on tourist resorts and urban development projects in the Middle East. I worked on the fifth floor, which is where the initial study was done. The project was then taken up by specialists in infrastructure, environmental issues and so on.
Those seem like major global projects.
It was a very interesting job and telling people what I used to do, I can hardly believe it myself now. We deigned entire neighbourhoods, either in the Arabic style or the so-called Canadian houses that were very popular at the time. We followed the wishes of our clients, some of whom were countries, such as Jordan, Libya, Mauritius or India. I’ve always been more interested in international competitions and architecture in general.
Still, coming to London must have been a shock.
Prior to that, I’d worked in fashion design. I enjoy trying new things and working in new fields, whether it was sewing or working at a chocolate factory. I’ve done internships in France, Zagreb and Budapest and I’ve also been to the United States. Seeing new things makes you interested in the world around you.
Those are all everyday, tangible things. Urbanism, on the other hand, operates on a much larger scale and works with the landscape. At what point did you realise that making matchbox-sized soaps was the next step for you?
It is a huge contrast. The projects we worked on were planned for 20 years and we knew that it would take two decades for us to see a finished project. Working on something hard for half a year and then hoping to see it completed 20 years later strange. I was looking for a more immediate feedback, which is exactly what I get with my soap when I make one, give it to someone who likes it, uses it and then calls me to say how much they’ve enjoyed it. Getting such a prompt feedback is a major change for me.
How did you start the Vonai brand?
I’ve always been interested in cosmetics and saw many products with great graphic design in London. That inspired me to try making my own soap. I started with one and then it just kept growing. At the beginning I had no marketing at all.
Was it natural soap right from the beginning?
Yes, it was. As I started reading about various types of cosmetic, I realised that this was to be my way.
Did you start in London or after you moved back to Slovakia?
London is where it all started but it was here that my soap making really took off with so many testers I could rely on to help me develop my product. Back in London, I had been much more hesitant to do that.
I assume that the market in London was much more saturated.
I felt more confident in Košice and Slovakia in general and my products sold well. Natural soaps were relatively new here while they had already been popular abroad for a while. Whatever happened to be trendy in England could take up to five years to reach our market. Today, it might not take quite that long but that’s how I felt. And now, my ambition is to introduce my brand abroad.
Have you already figured out the strategy?
The strategy is almost ready, it just need to be tweaked a bit, which will take a while. These days, I’m in business full time, making the soap and taking all the decisions myself.
How is your soap made?
The process is called saponification. Oils are mixed with lye and sodium hydroxide, poured into a form and then cut to pieces. There is the cold and the hot process. Our grandmothers would use the hot process to make soap by cooking bones, which produces lye and fat.
If I were a chemist, I might be more daring in combining essences. In my experience, the simpler the recipe is, the better. It contains fewer allergens and people in general prefer simpler fragrances, which is why I use no more than 3 essences.
Is commercial distribution you goal?
I’d love to see natural soap become a common thing, not the alternative product it is today, even though I no longer have to explain what it is.
That’s how my first cooperation with a wholesale company started. A lady was staying at the hotel, liked my soap so much she looked up my contact details and called me.
It’s great that The Invisible Hotel has been introducing Košice-based handmade brands to new places. I was sceptical at first, simply because I couldn’t believe that this type of product could do well in wholesale. But now, I’ve been selling my soaps in a number of shops for over a year.
What are your plans for Vonai?
We’ve launched our liquid soap, which will soon become a part of The Invisible Hotel as well. And than there’s a new brand, this time a commercial one, even though it’s still natural cosmetics. More on that next time!