Recently i visited Ach. Brito factory to do an article for Essential Lisboa. It was a great experience seeing up close how this classic portuguese soaps are made and confirm that the brand's heritage continues to be their main asset: Soap of Substance Founded in 1918, Ach. Brito is still conquering new markets with the luxury Claus Porto line, which combines the best soaps and vintage-inspired packaging
When the office door opened and we walked down the stairs to the slippery-floored factory, even the most absentminded of people would find it difficult to ignore the intense yet pleasant aroma that filled the air. A mixture of various notes, floral and citric, aroused our sense of smell somewhat unexpectedly, whilst the sound of the old machines in operation shows that Ach. Brito remains faithful to more of a century's worth of tradition. It also remains the leading name in Portuguese fine soaps, which are incredibly sought after for their quality and the originality of their packaging.
In an industrial area between Oporto and Vila do Conde in Portugal, the discreet Ach. Brito factory has witnessed only the recent history of the brand founded in 1918.
“A few years ago, our factory was in Varziela, in the China Town of the north. There was rubbish in the street and it wasn't the best place to receive people, but we always opened our doors to everyone, just as we do today,”
recalls José Fernandes, general director of Ach. Brito. It's this same authenticity and the understanding that “you can make the most of your weaknesses” that are the secret behind the success of the Portuguese brand, but when the family's fourth generation, brother and sister Aquiles and Sónia Brito, alongside José Fernandes, decided to change the direction of the company 10 years ago, the picture wasn't so pretty.
“When I arrived at Ach. Brito we had just six clients. Our current partner in the US, Lafco, another in the UK, a Spanish partner in the hotel industry, two small stores in Portugal and a big distributor for large national retailers, which represented 85% of our income at the time, so if it 'caught a cold', we would die,” says the director. The vulnerability of the company led them to overcome this dependency and move on to a new market, the luxury market.
“When we started this new phase, they said we were mad, that the solution was in large-scale production, that nostalgia was the wrong way to go. But we forged our path, fought against globalisation, committed ourselves to solid soaps and to quality, believed it was possible to do it the old-fashioned way, added value to our products and restored the dignity they always had.”
With more than a century of history in Portugal's perfume industry, the brand's roots date back to 1887, the year in which two Germans living in Oporto opened the first soap factory in Portugal. Under the name Claus & Schweder, and at a time when these products were reserved to the wealthier classes, the founders' entrepreneurship gained them great prestige in and outside Portugal.
The company garnered various prizes in exhibitions and fairs through its romantic-inspired packaging and quality products, as seen by king D. Manuel II himself, who visited the factory in 1908. The dawn of World War I and the involvement of Germany forced Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder to flee the country, leading to the factory's closure in 1914. This twist in the tale led Achilles de Brito, former manager of the factory, and his brother Affonso to found Ach. Brito & Cª Lda, which, some years later, would acquire everything, including the graphic portfolio and the machines, from the original company. Founded on the Claus & Schweder principle, Ach. Brito forged its own path, expanding its product line and winning over the national public for good, which culminated in it taking part in the First Portuguese Colonial Exhibition in 1934, as well as taking control of the whole production process by creating a lithography service in the factory in 1953.
The all-encompassing vision of the business is a quality that remains in Ach. Brito's DNA, and which today continues to dominate all aspects of the operation. The acquisition of its main rival at the end of 2008, Confiança – founded in 1894 and which currently produces the colognes, shaving foams, glycerin bars and talc – allowed Ach. Brito to continue competing in various segments, from the basic blue and white soap, still made in traditional moulds, and the continuation of the classics produced in large numbers like the Lavanda line, launched in the 1920s, through to the luxurious Claus Porto collection, the jewel in the company's crown.
With French fragrances conceived exclusively for Ach. Brito, the Claus Porto soaps stand out for their magnificent texture, irresistible smells and attention to detail, especially the Clássico and Fantasia lines. Made using a semi-artisanal system, in which four machines from the mid-20th century undertake the difficult process of mixing, rolling, extrusion, cutting and stamping, it's under the watchful eye of experienced workers, who examine every detail, that the quality of the final product is ensured. With an 100% vegetable soap base, enriched with mango and pistachio butter, and containing elegant natural fragrances of almond, linden or vetiver, the Clássico and Fantasia soaps feature centenarian labels selected from the brand's old archives – there are more than eight books with hundreds of different types of vintage packaging –, carefully wrapped by hand and closed with sealing wax. Representing all of Ach. Brito's history and quality to perfection, the Claus Porto collection embodies its growing desire to invest in the more exclusive segment, as José Fernandes notes:
“I would rather sell a pallet of Claus Porto to the United Arab Emirates than a container of cheaper soaps to Angola. I don't get any kicks out of producing just to make up numbers.”
Although when they started this new cycle they “took the steps without knowing if they were the right ones”, it seems that the strategy couldn't have been better. Present in more than 50 countries, Ach. Brito boasts a strong presence in the US (through Lafco) and in the main international markets, represented in the best stores such as Lane Crawford (Hong Kong), Bergdorf Goodman (New York), Conran Shop (Paris), Liberty (London), Isolée (Madrid), A Vida Portuguesa (Lisbon and Oporto, where they joined Catarina Portas to open the store) and “Christian Lacroix himself, who requested our products at the recent reopening of his store in Paris”, reveals a smiling José Fernandes, convinced that the path they have gone down was the right one and that Ach. Brito will continue to showcase the best of Portugal across the four corners of the globe.