Told in the first person by Ivana K
I Can Do That
I was born in what was then Yugoslavia. My mother passed away at 39, shortly after my 15th birthday, but before she was gone, she managed to instill in me the fundamental message of my life – I was to grow up, finish school and become independent, because that was the only path that led to freedom of choice. In other words, if I were to do what I wanted, I’d have to earn that choice.
Before enrolling in University, riddled with uncertainty over what to choose, out of some obscure corner of my consciousness came out an idea – I was going to be a cosmetic chemist! This is equal parts strange and preposterous, since I have no recollection whatsoever why that choice over all others: it was not a profession that ran in my family, it wasn’t even a profession listed at the University but a choice of mostly pharmacists and biochemists, or chemical technologists, furthermore I knew nothing about the industry. However, the idea was there and it wouldn’t go away.
And so I enrolled into Faculty of Pharmacy at University of Belgrade, never for a moment wanting to become a pharmacist. By the time I graduated, my decision was only confirmed and interest piqued further. During those years I grew tremendously – I became a vegetarian and remain one to this day, I learnt about animal testing, studied about healing properties of plants, learnt technology of producing pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations, developed a true fascination with physiology of living beings and got completely hooked on my own ideas. For a short period after graduation I had to work in an actual pharmacy, something I disliked with all my heart - I was a formulating chemist, what was I doing dispensing pills! There was a redeeming factor in it, though – compounding tradition is still very strong in Europe and I had had a good fortune of working with an experienced and wise pharmacist, from whom I could learn. She had shown me old recipes and had supported my eagerness to experiment with everything I found in antique glass jars on tall shelves of the dispensary, watching me with benevolent amusement.
It was not long before I realized where was my path to lead: I didn’t want to remain on the level of simple compounding of time-tested formulas – everybody could do that. Nor did I want to join and promote the widely accepted practices of the mainstream cosmetic industry – every chemist could do that. Now, marrying traditional natural ingredients with modern scientific knowledge and creating something unorthodox and new – not everybody could do that. But I could. And I would. That this kind of attitude is an inherited trait confirmed my daughter years later, when she was not three yet: one afternoon we were watching a recording of ‘Cats’ with their fantastic costumes and acrobatic dancing, when she suddenly sprang to her little feet and shouted joyfully “I can do that!” and went on to show me that she meant it.
I also learnt very quickly that my chances of attempting to make my ideas a reality were very unlikely. I had a stable, well-paid job, what else was I expecting? My ideas were amusing to most people who heard them, and they considered them to be charming quirks of my character. And so, when I realized that my dream was having a greater chance of becoming a boring story of unfulfilment than a story of even a failure, one day passing by Canadian Embassy on Kneza Milosa Street in Belgrade, I went in and applied for an immigrant visa. Less than a year later, I landed in Toronto, on my own, with a couple of dictionaries, a notebook of traditional formulas copied from my boss’s book as a farewell gift, and $2,000 in my pocket.
If this sounds like a fairy tale so far, I should mention that everything changed from that point on. Finding myself on my own in a foreign world very far away from home, not having anybody to lean on, and having changed my life because of something that suddenly seemed like a reckless whim… - what was I thinking?! In the years that followed I didn’t even have a country to go back to if I wanted to give up. The civil wars in Yugoslavia have destroyed the only sense of home I’ve had, to which my childhood memories were attached, along with a lingering memory of security. Needless to say, what I expected to find here was not to be found either.
I had to start many a day by reminding myself first that my ideas were good and feel that place inside where they came from, and then approach other people, from suppliers to chance encounters. Most people didn’t understand either what I wanted or more importantly, why I wanted to do it. It was common to hear – “It can’t be done”, or: “It is a nice idea, but it won’t work”. Many times it really didn’t work, and it took me days to find a solution. But when I did – that attached wings to my arms!
I discovered kindness in unexpected places, and was taken advantage of by people I thought I could trust; I learnt that people talk and their words mean nothing, as much as that words become worth their weight in gold when actions speak for them. Coming up against technical problems was endless. If it wasn’t stability or testing the efficacy of the preservative, it would be a change in the ingredients, which would throw off my whole method and I had to re-learn everything. Packaging gave me nightmares... Repeated nightmares. Obstacles of every size and shape dropped by regularly. Finding solutions to problems was, and still is, my daily exercise.
Did I mention already that it was very hard?
But I did it.
I have achieved what I had set out to do, against many odds. My products stand for my belief that I was doing the right thing. When it was hardest I went back to my work to inspire me, as much as to people who understood what I was doing. And even when I reproached myself on the darkest days with “What was I thinking – it’s beauty business!” I still found joy in my work and confirmation that one’s abilities may not remove all obstacles or solve every problem, but they should and can transcend superficial and false values. Quality was what I was after all along. I seek that quality in every aspect of life and apply it to my work as well.
This has come dangerously close to pathos and so I should point out that there were many wonderful moments during those years, as well as comical ones. For instance, the days when I dropped everything. And I mean that literally – things were dropping from my hands from morning to evening. Spilled oil (a whole gallon one day), broken glass, the whole batch of cream dropped to the floor, the clean-up, my foul mood… - it usually took a day or two before I could laugh at it. Above all that - the excitement of the new product finalized to perfection, the long-standing relationships with my customers, both wholesale and individual, my daughter on the days she’d come along and experiment on her own, name her concoctions and label them proudly and then make “thank-you” cards to include with the products, or when she’d ask if it wouldn’t hurt my feelings is she took over when I got old. These precious moments are what makes everything in life worth while.
And here I am today, scarred in places, and still moving forward. I didn’t know that it was going to be quite that hard obviously. But it had to - otherwise everybody could do it.
My company’s name is Serenissima. Its meaning in Italian is ‘the most serene one’. It is also an affectionate name for Venice, a city which I consider one of the magical places on Earth.
Until recently Serenissima was also my brand name. I have changed it in order to reach customers outside of Canada to I2 by Ivana K. The I2 stands for my daughter’s and my initials – it is our little family nucleus, and thus unique, and inimitable, in every sense.
I began my experimentations on this side of the Atlantic about 14 years ago. It was a slow process as I already described, and the one of learning - every day, every hour of the day, and still.
I have already touched upon the concept behind my products: I was going to create sophisticated skin care products using only natural ingredients. Imagine a chemist in the lushest botanical garden on Earth – and that would be my dream come through in its most glorious form. What I mean by ‘sophisticated products’ is the key element – this is very difficult to achieve by using only natural ingredients, and I explained some of that in my article ‘Tempest in a Jar’. I believe that this kind of product is far superior to both commercial style products and simple preparations, which are limited in their scope. Basically, I took the term ‘active ingredients’ and applied it to the entire formulation. Everything in my creams is beneficial to the skin, and yet, they have a truly unique, luxurious feeling. To that end, I’ve spent years developing the formulas that I would be satisfied with.
My marketing concept is not new, but is rarely used in North America – I maintained the compounding traditions of Europe, where chemists were not anonymous and away, but real persons, who applied their knowledge and experience to what they did, and were also available to talk to, and explain things. People can reach my by phone or email, even in person, with questions or comments, I welcome them all.
Developing a customer base was also a slow process. It happened often by word of mouth. Today I have wholesale accounts (spas and estheticians mostly) in Toronto and Vancouver, also on the East Coast, and individual customers locally as well as across North America, who order via the Internet.
My goal has not changed much since the very beginning – I wanted to change attitudes. The superficiality is still a hallmark of this industry. There is nothing superficial about skin care, however - in reality, skin care is as fundamental as anything you do in order to maintain your health and live well, but it is being promoted as such.
And if you already chose to eat well, based on the highly stringent criteria, how could you not apply the same criteria to your skin care?
If a difference between junk food and a most elaborate meal by a renowned chef is in the ingredients and the art of preparation – do you think it would be any different in skin care?
If your concern is aging and you opt for Botox, plastic surgery, and so on – you still need skin care. The skin can’t live on Botox alone.
If you buy the product because of its packaging – you have dearly overpaid for a jar that you could have bought for a couple of dollars at the most. Remember that the jar won’t make the cream any better, nor will it make your skin feel better - it really is only a cheap jar. But what is in that jar will not remain on your bathroom shelf; it will eventually enter your body.
I will admit that I equally dislike the mainstream brainwashing and the alternative call-to-arms against everything that hasn’t been painted green. The former could do much better from its position of power, the latter often doesn’t live up to the standards it has imposed itself. And so I walk the thin line, from which I would like to see things change towards diversity based on quality, and nothing else. If my products are easily available to customers interested in my kind of quality, and my articles reach a wider audience, then I would feel that I have succeeded. That’s not all - I have a creative bug in my mind nagging every now and then for new challenges and I need to explore ideas. So I will need to keep on growing. Success is comprised of many layers and it may be just another case of The Stinging Onion – life is tastier with it, but you may shed many tears before you get there.
The first product that I made was a cream called Nurture. I made it for myself. At the time I’ve well run out of the supplies I brought from Europe and everything else I’ve tried in the meantime I found to be dreadful. I am quite serious about this last statement - I couldn’t stand the perfumed smell of most products, or their texture, and if the scent and texture were tolerable, after using them for about a week I’d notice that my skin didn’t take to them. I couldn’t wait to get my first batches of ingredients and start working.
Nurture is still my favourite cream. It is for dry and dehydrated skin and not greasy at all. To the contrary, it has a smooth texture and equal spreading properties, but still maintains that feeling of ease and comfort, which the dry skin lacks. My skin never feels tight or pulling, the cream is not heavy and its scent is a delicate blend of essential oils. I alternate between Nurture, Vitamin A Cream and Reaffirm, but for all these years, I’ve always gone back to Nurture, particularly in winter.
I also like adding to it A + B5 Vitamin Serum, or better, I apply the Serum on the skin first and then follow with the cream. The Serum is one of those quiet little marvels – it comes out of a small bottle and does a great job, but it seems too easy. It is anti-aging, as broad and general expression as that can be, but true.
And now I have to feature my absolutely irreplaceable item – Anti-rides eye cream. You may not be used to a phenomenon of a rich eye cream, but that would also mean that you wouldn’t know what you’ve been missing all these years. In Europe there is an old tradition of these creams, but Anti-rides is an original, like all my other formulations, and I can’t compare it to it anything. I use it both day and night since I don’t wear makeup, just a teeny bit patted in the circle around the eye. With a little practice, it works well with makeup as well; otherwise, it can be used at night and Eye Cream during the day. I could spend a great deal of space explaining why I love Anti-rides and why you will too, but hopefully it will suffice if I say that it works, gently, effortlessly, and in some inexplicable way, it gives me comfort. It truly is my irreplaceable item. I recommend starting with it in your twenties, as prevention, and continuing for the rest of time. It will be one of those friendships that you can always count on.
Anti-rides is also the most popular product in my skin care line. Out of the body products, Alchemia, an aromatherapy treatment for ingrown hairs, has been the best seller for years.
I have formulated over 50 products over the years and have found that most of my customers come to my products for two reasons: in search of a pure product, and if they have problems reacting to other products. The reasons why they stay are different – that is, they find that the products are different, and most importantly, they give them results. The products are highly concentrated in botanicals, thus very active, and with every skin being unique, everybody gets something uniquely theirs from them. I have a repository of diverse experiences in my clients, which is invaluable to me. For instance, one of my customers is convinced that she got a job because she started using Anti-rides a few days prior to an interview. Another gets compliments on her skin for the first time in her life (in her 40’s), and she will not be for a day without her Aqua Botanica toner. Yet another has soothed an irritation caused by other products in just couple of days by using Nordic balm (and she called to share that with me, ecstatic and grateful). When I was formulating A + B5 Serum I didn’t think that it might help with boils, as it did, and so on. I always give my best when formulating a new product, but all I do is bring them to life - stories like these confirm that there are as many lives for each product as there are hands that hold them. And that is the source of my gratitude.
In conclusion: it wasn’t only that I wanted to formulate in a way most chemists didn’t – it was equally as important to me that I became a chemist people could trust. I suddenly remember the words of my friend from Sweden, a bohemian scholar of philosophy who gets his year’s supply of Bathing Nymph Oil every summer (his beauty secret for years, which he also buys for every important woman in his life), and who is my oldest friend in North America: “Ivana, yours is a success story.”
Please make sure to visit:
Other Spotlights for this company:
- Simplicity All Natural Cleanser (March 2007)
Creamy light cleanser that works
- Cosmetic Ingredient Glossary (Tuesday, June 05, 2007)
From Natural to Synthetic and In-between
- DMAE - What does it do, and is it safe? (Tuesday, July 03, 2007)
- What are the best ingredients for preventative skin care? (Monday, July 09, 2007)
- Anti-aging Peptides: Argireline and Matrixyl (Wednesday, July 11, 2007)
What do they do and are they safe?
- What are the ingredients Pullulan and DPHP? (Wednesday, July 18, 2007)
- Vitamin E and Erythema (Thursday, August 09, 2007)
Vit. E can cause an erythema multiforme-like eruption...which can be potentially life-threatening - True or Not True?
- Clearing up 'Vitamin C' (Friday, September 07, 2007)
With all of the misinformation out there about it, what is the truth?
- Why would decyl glucose and coco polyglucose be considered harmful? (Friday, September 07, 2007)
They seem fairly harmless, but are they?
- What are 'Microalgae'... and what about those extreme claims? (Monday, October 01, 2007)
How can something be 110% effective?
- What is vegetable stearic acid? (Tuesday, October 23, 2007)
Is it natural, and is it necessary in the making of soap?
- Anti-Rides Eye Cream (November 2007)
The little black dress of skin care
- What can you tell us about Telomerase enzyme? (Monday, November 05, 2007)
We've heard about it in the news lately, sounds a little scary.
- What are the most suitable skin-friendly ingredients we should look for in our makeup? (Wednesday, November 21, 2007)
So many choices!
- Is Sodium cocoyl glutamate a good substitute for Sodium lauryl sulfate, and is it natural? (Friday, December 28, 2007)
- What is 'Sulfated Shale Oil'? (Monday, March 02, 2009)
- Vital Collagen Serum (June 2009)
Help at the cellular level
- Is Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate a form of MSG? (Wednesday, October 07, 2009)
- How long will my Homemade Pumpkin Scrub last? (Thursday, September 15, 2011)
- Could I be sensitive to the Orange Oil in my Cleanser? (Thursday, January 05, 2012)
- Is Mineral Sunscreen better for you than Other Types of Sunscreens? (Thursday, January 05, 2012)
- Would Rosemary be a good Preservative for my Homemade Acne Facial Wash? (Thursday, February 16, 2012)
- What are the Benefits of Urea, as well as the Safety Concerns? (Thursday, March 08, 2012)
- Is Retinyl Palmitate Safe? (Sunday, June 17, 2012)
- What exactly is Propylene Glycol? (Monday, June 18, 2012)
- Can Colloidal Silver be used as a Safe and Effective Preservative in Homemade Lotions and Salves? (Monday, July 30, 2012)
- What Can I Use in Place of Retinols? (Sunday, March 31, 2013)
- Is there a Natural Alternative for Polysorbate 80 in Cleansers? (Friday, August 15, 2014)