Dom Bridges has the ability see things a little differently. Giving up a globetrotting career in advertising in 2012, Dom moved to Kent’s coastal town of Margate, where his eye fell on a prominent but much-maligned inhabitant: the seaweed. Other residents often grumbled about the algae, regarding it as little more than an unsightly impostor on an otherwise scenic stretch of beach. Irrepressibly curious, (and feeling that the seaweed was rather hard done by), he walked down to the shore one day, cut a few samples, and took them home for a closer look. His first products were bars of seaweed soap, cooked up in his kitchen and given to friends. Before long, Haeckels had grown into a fully-fledged skincare brand with an army of loyal followers, and Dom had recruited a team of fellow seaweed enthusiasts to help him keep up with demand.
In spite of this success, Dom and his team still insist on making every product by hand in their clifftop lab, proving that Haeckels is born out of real love for Margate and its coast. When he’s not cutting seaweed or distilling local botanicals for perfumes, Dom can often be found cleaning up beaches or waging war on plastic waste. In short, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty so that Britain’s coast stays clean. Who better to weigh in on what makes for a superlative spa in the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards?
What was it that made you turn your back on a high-flying role in advertising and start making soap in your kitchen?
The catalyst was mainly that I was applying all my creativity to help sell things I didn’t use and didn’t think the world needed. I worked as a director, so I would take a script and try and turn it into something I thought credible enough to put in front of people. I took the levels of money being spent very seriously and felt great artistic responsibility. Inevitably, the wastefulness of the industry ground me down, leading me to seek a better way of living and a different foundation from which to teach my daughter a better way of life.
People in the UK have a touchy relationship with seaweed, often seeing it as a bit of a slimy menace. What made you want to start showing it a little appreciation?
It upsets me, this whole consumerist world of flying things from here, there and everywhere, creating products with no grounding. What if we all strove to focus on what we have available to us, striking up unique businesses that can only come from that location because the ingredients can only be found there? That way, you immediately have an identity, a reason to visit, a voice. Seaweed means that much to me. It’s in abundance where we live, so it makes perfect sense to me to cultivate it, make products from it and employ local people, spreading the word from the town outwards rather than simply bringing things in or creating carbon copies of things that can be found elsewhere.
So why Margate?
It always felt like it asked us. I know that makes no sense, but we moved here almost eight years ago and had no idea what we were doing at the time; we just wanted change. It always felt like it was offering us a home, whispering ‘you’re gonna like it here, and even if it doesn’t work out you can spend your time building a boat and sail somewhere else’.
Has living there changed you?
A hundred per cent. It took me a long time to remember that the sea makes me truly happy. Margate has provided my family and I with a new direction; it’s also the perfect example of London’s multiculturalism mixed with the burning embers of England’s seaside culture. It’s a unique place, unlike any other. It’s changing rapidly, too, so I hope it always maintains its beautiful mix.
You’re untiring when it comes to protecting the coastline. Do you hope Haeckels will inspire others to take a second look at the world around them?
I think they already do, at least on a small scale. But we do many things that we hope will inspire. For example, if you bring us a bag of rubbish from the beach with a photo to prove you collected it there, we’ll give you a free product. If you return with the bottle, you’ll get a discounted refill too. Everything we do focuses on sustainability. We re-use all the packaging that comes through our workshop, which might not seem elegant, but it communicates a message. It’s something I’ve always done: I can remember my mother thinking me odd as a child for wrapping my presents in newspaper. This year, I watched my daughter do the same thing – and it’s only her third Christmas! We all need to do our bit and communicate with pride about how we feel. From there, change is made.
As your slogan says, your products are, quite literally, ‘made of Margate’. Do you worry that you’ll lose those local ties as the brand grows?
No, not at all. Margate will forever be the school, the instigator and the root from which to grow. We will continue to open shops where there aren’t any, then employ local people and educate everyone else about the beauty and natural heritage of the location. Haeckels is about the ocean, and there’s a lot of it. There’s so much work to be done before we all regain our respect for it.
Has the ocean always held a certain power over you?
Always – I just forgot that sometimes. I moved to London when I was young as I felt I needed more somehow, but I always remember (and my parents will verify this!) that as soon as I came out of the train station, I would say ‘let’s go look at the sea’. I’m no diver or surfer, but if I’m not near the sea, I’m lost. I always wanted to be an astronaut, which was never going to happen coming from Devon, but to me the sea is the next best thing. Standing on the shore with nothing but a horizon line is the closest thing you can get to space on earth. There’s a whole other universe beneath those waves, and that as a contemplation fuels my creativity.
On that note, where else in the world really fires your senses?
I love travel and the outdoors, but I can build a home anywhere and instantly be at peace in that environment. I’ve never really been tied to anywhere and firmly believe in treating others as you yourself expect to be treated. Living that way has led me into many unusual and enlightening situations. Having recently given a talk at the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo, I find myself drawn to Japan, with its rich heritage and natural medicines. There’s a connection to the environment that seems to have been lost in recent years; its reconnection is something I’m keen to explore.
I realise we haven’t spoken about spas yet… Haeckels have their own spas, including a custom-built Victorian bathing machine that sits on the beach. How did that come about?
Based on the local heritage of Victorian bathing machines, we decided to crowdfund a project and build one, putting a sauna in the front section. To date, it’s the only sauna in the whole of Europe that uses the ocean as a plunge pool. There’s also a small treatment room in the back where we wrap you in seaweed before you go into the sauna itself. It’s a unique, natural and mobile ocean spa.
So what is it that makes for a truly spoiling spa?
It’s about every detail, heightening every sense. It’s also about the experience – but having visited a Russian spa just the other day, I was reminded that that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be about luxury. It should have a purpose and an end result, which should be an honest result. It should also be embedded in a culture.