Beauty can be found in unusual places. For residents of downtown H’burg, one should look no further than an airstream van.
Story by Ingrid Basheda
Photos by Jillian Wright
She poured the sea salt mixture into a glass bowl. She stirred into the mix dried lavender for relaxation; orange peel powder for a healthy skin tone; hibiscus powder for a pink color; green tea powder full of antioxidants; frankincense oil for hydrating skin; and rose petals for decoration. Irina Dovganetskiy, the 32-year-old owner of withSimplicity, scooped the make-your-own body scrub back into its container and finalized it with a dried butterfly pea flower on top.
Irina hatched the idea for withSimplicity in 2014 and opened the downtown Harrisonburg store in August of 2016. The business makes non-toxic, natural products such as lotions, makeup and candles. Irina learned to love homegrown, natural products at a young age due to the farmland and limited supermarkets in Krymsk, Russia. Her family had a plentiful garden of plants from cucumbers and cherries to herbs and garlic. “Our mom used a lot of home remedies and that’s where a lot of herb knowledge comes from,” Alesya, Irina’s sister, said in an email.
In Russia, Irina and her three younger siblings spent their days playing outside, gardening and canning tomatoes and potatoes. Alesya remembers going to use the bathroom outside one night as a child. On her way back inside, she decided to snack on some peas from the garden. “It was definitely a different lifestyle,” Irina said. When her parents told her at 12 years old that they were moving to America, she imagined that life would be like the soap opera “Santa Barbara,” found on channel two out of 10 on her TV. The dazzling Christmas lights in the “Home Alone” movies amazed her. Although Irina has since gone back to the basics with creating organic, handmade products, she was originally amazed by the many convenient stores with pre-packaged foods.
Before they moved, Irina heard from her relatives in America about potatoes that were already peeled and sliced in the freezer section at supermarkets: french fries. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t wait for ‘til day I never have to peel another potato,’” Irina said. Irina met her husband, Andrey, in 2001 while visiting her relatives in Harrisonburg and married him in 2002, at age 18. She was always health conscious, but when she started having kids, she became concerned about what products to give them. “When you become a mom, you kind of go through the phase of detoxifying your body,” Irina said. She was paranoid about what kinds of toxins her kids would ingest, including her makeup when her kids would try to bite her chin while teething. “So, do I want kisses from my kids, or do I want to be worried about what’s getting on them?” Irina said. One of the first products she tested was lip balm. After that, she experimented with bath products like body creams and scrubs then skin care and makeup.
Irina finds the creative, experimental process to be exciting, like researching the benefits of several oils and butters. She gradually developed formulas that she now follows to make the products consistent every time. Originally, though, this process was trial and error. Figuring out the right consistency for her eyeliner was tough; some tests were too waxy, too temporary or not smooth enough. After discovering that the ingredients needed were Indian wood charcoal and a drop of water before being applied, she says that she “can’t imagine using any other form of eyeliner.” She also learned from research that frankincense and myrrh are used for discoloration under the eye, rosemary is for tightening the skin and red raspberry seed is for sun protection. “I’ve seen a lot of change in natural living in Irina when she had her kids and trying to be extremely careful about products that she used on them,” Alesya said.
Out of her 35 products, one of the most popular is the liquid foundation; it’s Aloe based and comes in five different shades. When Irina realized that she could turn this hobby into a career, her friend encouraged her to start selling products on Etsy. From there, she devised the idea of making it a full business. “I was nervous about that idea because usually when she has an idea, she usually goes for it,” Andrey said. The couple’s plan A was to open the store on South Main Street, but because there was nothing available at the moment they decided to create their own space. Irina believes that downtown Harrisonburg suits the company well because of its young culture of health-aware students. With their ingenuity of creating their own space, though, the couple faced a bit of a challenge: the Airstream trailer. It was built in 1975 and Andrey had never worked on this kind of project before. They were unsure of what the outcome would be, but he successfully refurbished the inside and out, including building the displays and 40 hours of polishing.
Today, the quaint, metal trailer is parked in a downtown Harrisonburg parking lot. While crouching through the doorway, the fresh smell of lavender, potted succulent plants and Irina’s Russian accent envelop the space. Andrey and their kids support Irina and fully embrace the family-owned aspect, like shrink wrapping mascaras and labeling products together. “My wife’s happy; it’s her thing,” Andrey said. “That’s my favorite thing about it.” Having experienced two different ways of life, Irina reminds her children not to take things for granted, like the convenience of having supermarkets and pre-packaged foods. “I tell them that they need to appreciate stuff, you know, because we really do forget that this is just a privilege, everything that we have,” Irina said.