Making It: Kim Downes's Cherry Blossom Soap Is a Hit

PETALING SOAP: Kim Downes smells success in her line of scented products.
PETALING SOAP: Kim Downes smells success in her line of scented products. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, April 5, 2009

After transplanting herself to the Washington region from New York, Kim Downes has built a business dedicated to what are perhaps Washington's most beloved transplants: its blossoming cherry trees.

Kim, who grew up in Philadelphia, majored in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and spent several years trying to make it in Manhattan. In 1989, when life there got too hectic, she gave Washington a try. "I thought: D.C.'s quieter; I'll just come down here and be here for a few months. And then I just ended up staying."

Kim, 45, became a legal assistant, a well-paying job that she enjoyed but that didn't feel right. "In my core, I'm really an artist," she says. On weekends, she started selling jewelry in the arts and crafts section of Eastern Market, including earrings made out of chili peppers: "Talk about a great profit margin." One day at her law job, "I looked at my clothing, and I was like, This doesn't look like me; this doesn't feel like me; this looks like another person." Shortly thereafter, she left legal work, and, "I never went back to an office, ever."

Around the same time, Kim started making and selling scented soaps, and in 1997 she had an inspiration: cherry blossom soap. At first, she just offered it as a spring scent, but her father suggested she offer it year-round because of the tourist traffic.

Sales of cherry blossom products alone reached $18,000 last year, Kim says, though there have been setbacks, such as the 2007 fire that gutted much of Eastern Market. In addition to her spot at the market, Kim sells her cherry blossom products, other bath items, jewelry and accessories on the Web and at local flower and craft shows. In January, for the inauguration, she had a kiosk at Union Station. (She also might have one there this spring.)

When selling her products, Kim often wears a pink kimono-like outfit. "It's very theatrical," she says. "I'm not your mild-mannered soap-seller; I like to think of myself as a soap and candle artist."

Kim buys her blossoms wholesale, along with larkspur petals, which are more pink. Because cherry blossoms don't have a scent of their own, Kim uses a mixture of fragrances that includes hyacinth, which to her represents spring. "It's kind of funny, because I get a lot of people going, 'It smells just like cherry blossoms,' and I'm like, 'Okay.' " She laughs.

Kim, who lives in Adams Morgan, makes the candles, which range from $10 to $15, by hand, while her retired parents help make the soaps, which cost $5, at their home in Pennsylvania. Last year, her company, Aurora Bath and Jewels, had $73,000 in sales, of which roughly one-third was from soaps and candles. Kim won't divulge her profit but says the business is her sole source of income.

While Kim usually has 10 to 20 scents available, she says the cherry blossom items are by far the biggest seller. She thinks that, along with allowing tourists to take a bit of Washington home, her products represent a part of the city that's free of politics and partisanship: "Cherry blossoms, they symbolize friendship and love; that's why the Japanese gave them to America."

Kim herself seems to have come to symbolize the cherry blossoms. Customers and fellow marketers call her the cherry blossom fairy or the cherry blossom queen, she says. "I never thought of myself as a pink person, but I've become that."

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