MOTHER AND SON

How Homemade Soap Built the Jabonería Marianella Empire

Marianella Febres-Cordero and her son, David Foote, have done so well with their luxury soap business that it’s hard to believe it all started just a few years ago in her kitchen.

10.07.16 4:59 PM ET

Like many successful brands, the luxury soap business Jabonería Marianella has a compelling origin story. Or perhaps that should be “stories,” because Marianella Febres-Cordero did not merely escape the fraught political landscape of her native Venezuela. She then emigrated to the U.S., where against all odds she started what is now a thriving—and highly respected—business in the confines of her own kitchen.    

Together with her son, David Foote, Febres-Cordero created and launched the beauty soap business in 2007, with signature scents like Moroccan Fig & Bergamot, and Wisteria & Jasmine—which she created to duplicate the smell of the Dama de la Noche flower that she once placed next to her young son David’s bed in Venezuela while he slept at night. Each of the company’s four scents are inspired by Marianella’s childhood, her children’s childhoods, and the favorite places she has lived. “It’s like a piece of me always goes into the making,” she says. 

Over the years, the beauty bars have been sold in over 200 luxury boutiques worldwide, J. Crew being among their first notable retail partners.  They have become a fixture in the bath and beauty business for a discerning “who’s who” of taste makers, including everyone from celebrity trainer/boxer Noah Neiman of Barry’s Bootcamp fame to Broadway dancer/choreographer Charlie Williams—just two of the 20 well-known fans of the brand recently featured in a viral campaign created by Marianella’s son, David. 

The brand is touted as being a “natural luxury” soap because of its frothy lather, but Marianella herself, is quick to say that she takes great pride in creating a lather that is all natural due to her “special” mix of ingredients.  In fact, she never intended on creating a natural soap product line, but the more she mixed and tested ingredients over the past 12 years, her natural combinations not only smelled better, but also delivered better results. 

Jaboneria Marianella family

As David explains, “If you can see it, it’s me. If you can feel it, it’s my mom.” Marianella, a celebrated author and graphic designer in Venezuela, creates the fragrances, formulas, hand picks the ingredients, and supervises the warehouse and store orders. And David, an accomplished fine artist and filmmaker in NYC, oversees the brand’s look, marketing, campaigns, and website. Let’s face it, partnerships are hard work, even on their best days. But a mother and son working relationship can prove to be tough, no matter how much love is involved.  Lessons learned from each?  David cites “patience is a virtue,” and Marianella quickly replies of working with her artist son, “never contradict him … ha ha,” conveying the importance of knowing what each person brings to the table. “We may have a difference in opinion,” she says, “but we always agree on what’s best for the business.”

Marianella has always focused on living her life with a creative slant, especially when nurturing her son’s natural artistic talent from the time he was a baby. “I never taught David to draw, but I did give him the tools and allowed him to be creative,” she says, telling the story of painting her living room wall with blackboard paint for her 1½-year-old son. “He was constantly drawing and used every piece of chalk before he opened a new box.” It was no surprise to her when David at the age of 18, left Venezuela and moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design in 1998. 

Jaboneria Marianella soap

Courtesy Jaboneria Marianella

Over the next few years, after Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela, the socio-political climate became too dangerous for Marianella and David’s sister to live there alone. So David decided to move them to the U.S. in 2006.  But in Plano, Texas, where the family wound up, turned out to be less than hospitable to a woman recognized in her own country as an experienced author and designer. Although she quickly began applying for work and visited employment agencies, she found that no one took her seriously as an experienced artist and professional. As a female immigrant, she was only offered menial tasks or labor jobs. Marianella reflects, “it was doubly hard for me because I was always self-employed, always had my own business.” Frustrated and looking for a creative outlet, she started making soap in her kitchen, something she learned to do as a little girl in Venezuela and had continued to do as an adult.

Ever since David moved to New York City, Marianella would send him customized soaps with the familiar scents of home. After many years and countless boxes of soap, David started handing out samples to his downtown NYC friends. When they couldn’t stop raving about the soap, David began to take his mother’s passion project seriously. One day, he called her and said, “Hell, why aren’t we selling this stuff?”and like that, Jabonería Marianella was born.

Since launching the company, Marianella and David have worked out logistics and worked through growing pains, following an organic “learn as you go” approach. As David tells it, “This was a soap we loved, which my mom made in her kitchen.” They made a lot of mistakes, but collaborated on every decision. Reflecting on the early days of building the business, Marianella says, “I have to love what I do. The passion we put into this company, never wavering, no matter what, is what leads us to success.” 

Shirt by Steven Alan, ribbed tank by Hanes and Jeans by Levis

Thomas Northcut

Photo by Thomas Northcut, shirt by Steven Allen, Jeans by Levis, tank top by Hanes.

Then, in 2012, David called her one day with some exciting news: O Magazine was going to feature the soap as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. “When David told me, I burst out crying!” Marianella laughs now as she tells the story. “I was only making 45 bars of soap per week, and I instantly became overwhelmed, thinking about how many I’d have to make because of Oprah!” 

Marianella was correct: the company quickly began producing more than 1,500 bars of soap a week and has never stopped growing since. It now mass-produces the recipes with Marianella closely supervising every detail, right down to how each bar of soap is wrapped. 

Now the company is about to navigate its biggest holiday season yet, with the introduction of its first product extension of hand washes, body washes, and body creams. Marianella says, “This soap was created with love—based on the soap that I made for my son, with all things that he loved in his childhood—that is what started the company.”