Bolivian Story: Vanessa Vargas

I met Vanessa when she was heavily pregnant with her baby, Rafaela. She was working at her partner’s restaurant, Red Monkey, as well as producing natural products for her business, Moi. Moi makes handmade cosmetics and personal care products based on natural and organic ingredients, without the use of preservatives, artificial colours or synthetic fragrances, being careful not to degrade our bodies or the environment. Vanessa never stops. I was surprised to see how busy she was whilst heavily pregnant and even since having her little girl it is not uncommon to find her in her workshop making products with her baby strapped to her or sleeping nearby. She’s a strong woman with diverse skills who I have admired greatly for her energy and constant creativity. I’ve been grateful for our time together, discussing all things from motherhood to design to business. She supports those around her with endless positivity and drive that makes you feel you can truly achieve anything. Her strong character is full of heart and love which I’m lucky enough to have been a recipient of during the time I’ve known her. I have not been unable to find natural toothpaste or soap anywhere during my time in La Paz, so I absolutely love what she’s doing here and I’m secretly hoping she’ll allow me to steal some of her recipes to try making myself once I’m in Australia! I hope you enjoy this interview with a friend who inspires me…

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What got you interested in natural care products and how did you learn to make these products?

For one thing I’ve always been a very DIY person and natural care products aren’t far away from things I wanted to explore and do. As a designer, at some point in my design career, I was asked to design soap for a specific project and I thought that was a great opportunity to dive into this realm. It seemed really silly to me to design soap – as in the shape of it and the wrapping – and not actually have input into what was inside it, what it smelt like and what it was for. So, I became really curious and started looking for information on how to make soap from scratch – what materials were needed and the differences between fragrances and essential oils. I paid more attention to the labels of the products I was putting on my hair and skin too. Even though I have never used many products or makeup I was surprised to see that even on a shampoo bottle there are loads of chemicals listed, ingredients that I don’t know how to pronounce nor understand what they are. From there I decided to start studying how to make my own products and eventually I stopped working as a designer and spent all my time learning and experimenting with these products.

The internet is a great place to learn basically anything. So, I read all the information I could on each ingredient, to know which is better for what use. I also researched what ingredients Bolivia had to offer and what they are good for.  I bought many books about aromatherapy, oils, using herbs as medicine and recipes for making different products. Then I just started experimenting. Friends and family, and of course myself too, would try the products I made and tell me their results. I also enlisted in classes and workshops on natural cosmetology and how to prepare natural personal care products. Of course, you can never learn enough so I’m always reading and looking for workshops and courses on the subject.

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Can you tell me a bit about your business? Lately you have received a lot of media attention… why do you think this is?

Moi is… I have a hard time thinking of it as a business… because I don’t know, it makes it such a serious word and really it’s just something I started doing because I feel like it is needed for me in my life. There are lots of people who are in search of and interested in using personal care products that are as natural as they can be. I guess it is a growing business since there has been a really good response from the public which is something that I didn’t really think about when I started. I mean, I knew there would be people interested in trying and using the products but I never thought there would be so many. Just by making and using these products I’ve realised that the natural way of caring for skin and health has better results, whilst not impacting the environment or our own health. The most common choices we have available also have chemicals, additives and synthetics that we don’t know the effect of long term. But having a natural choice means we know we are being healthy caring for ourselves. That is also in connection with going back to our roots. There is a saying ‘don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t eat’ and I think our older generations used to take care of sicknesses, skin and generally resolve things in healthier ways by using things from the kitchen and garden. I admire and treasure that. I have also experienced that it works so I guess that’s why I’ve chosen to care for ourselves in this way. Like me, more and more people are becoming aware of how necessary it is to care for ourselves in a better way… Moi provides just that.

Moi offers lip balms, body butters, body scrubs, massage oils, toothpaste, shower oils, facial elixirs, soap, hair treatments and coconut oil for now. I am working on baby products and deodorant too. Moi offers a very complete scheme of products to care for skin and body. All the ingredients I use to make the products are either wild harvested, like my coconut and the cusi [from the babassu palm] oils, or are organic, like my olive, brazil nut and buruti oils, along with the cupuacu [a tropical fruit here] butter. The essential oils I use are also organic but they are imported unfortunately since there isn’t production of organic essential oils in Bolivia.

At Moi I try to keep things really as natural and unprocessed as I can. I think that has really proven itself by how it works on our skin! I have a lot of returning customers that really love the products and how they feel on their skin. There are even some customers who will simply try the product and instantly notice how good it feels to use them. I think it’s because they really are truly natural and we don’t need a whole lot of chemicals, fragrances and additives in the products we use to care for our skin and hair.

Since Moi has participated at the Mercadito Pop the last 4 or so times the products have been exposed to many people from many different backgrounds and I guess the best promotion is word of mouth. One person will try a product, tell someone else, call me and turn up to the Mercaditos to specifically look for my products. I think that the products are proving themselves. Combine that with the trend at this moment to care for the environment and oneself and that’s probably why even the media wants to talk about my kind of products. This is really great for Moi as a business. I never considered there’d be this much demand for my products but I’ve received calls from people in every city in Bolivia so I feel really inspired and encouraged to keep going, making more and more products… and somehow make the business grow because there are people who want the products.

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Where does the name Moi come from?

Well, I wanted the products to have a name that would be easy to remember, sound nice and wouldn’t be something like ‘Vanessa’s natural products’. Back when I lived in Sweden I had a lot of friends from Finland and the word for hello in Finnish is Moi and they were always greeting, saying moi moi. I thought it sounded so nice, pretty, joyful and playful and somehow that word stuck in my head. I started thinking about how it also means ‘me’ in French and this added a strong message behind it. Really what these products are is something for each of us, so everyone can relate to me, my products, mine.

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How have your experiences overseas and your studies impacted you? What were your thoughts when you returned to Bolivia?

I studied studio art and interior architecture in the US and had the opportunity to be an exchange student in Sweden at Konstfack, Stockholm’s design school. Both experiences have really made me what I am as a person in the sense that I got to see a completely different side of the world compared to what I was used to here. The way of life in those places encouraged me to become a do-it-yourself person, mostly in Sweden. I lived in a building which had a room on the bottom floor where you could dispose of things you didn’t want anymore – not trash, things like an old TV, or whatever. I started calling it ‘little IKEA’ since I found things that I knew I could use and transform. Things like turning a table into a huge picture frame, for example. I did all sorts of things with stuff I found and became more aware of reusing, recycling and up-cycling.

The time I spent in Sweden was also a very introspective time since human relations are not the same as in Latin America. They were much more distant compared to what I was used to. So, I spent a lot of time in nature. I lived across the street from a big natural reserve in Stockholm and on the weekends I would open the kitchen windows to start eating breakfast at 10am and not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon because I’d just be watching all the birds that would come to feed. There was this calm and sense of peace that I got from sharing my time with nature, in nature. I really loved that. Since then I always wanted to be closer to nature in every way that I could. At that time also, there was a big boom in Europe to do everything natural… you could find eco, organic everything at the supermarket… even organic beer. I became this person who rarely left the house and was always making something out of something else and spent most my money buying the healthiest organic food I could find.

The way Scandinavians design is very clean. I’ve been greatly influenced by their simplicity and minimalism in the way I live and design and even the way I present my products. I like to do things that way, but I add reused materials in what I create with the use of some colour.

I left Sweden, although I had a great job, a wonderful apartment and didn’t have anything to complain about to come back home, to a place where nothing is possible but at the same time, everything is! Here I feel like everything can be reinvented… more than reinvented… everything is still in diapers in Bolivia so you can influence the art movement, the food movement, the culture, everything. We haven’t been industrialised to the same extent as the US or Europe. I want to make a difference, to do something good, not just for myself but for this country which I love with all my heart and I figured I’d be much better use here than in Sweden or the US. I love being back here. I love this city with everything that comes with it, including the chaos and the amazing landscapes you can see everywhere. I love being able to do what I want and love and to realise that there are lots of people in tune with me and what I do.

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Now that you are a natural mamma with a gorgeous baby girl how do you view baby products and what sort of baby care do you want to include in your product range?

I was never a big consumer, I guess, when it came to cosmetics. I always thought the less stuff you use, the better it is and the same goes for Rafaela. I only use organic coconut oil and sweet almond oil on Rafaela’s skin. I don’t use any baby shampoo or baby cologne or even the regular diaper rash cream. Rather, I use this sort of butter that is made with olive oil, bee’s wax and calendula flowers. I’ve had really amazing results just using these products and nothing else. We went to the tropics for Christmas and I didn’t want to use insect repellent because I know it’s filled with chemicals and toxic stuff, even when it says it’s for kids, so I found this insect repellent that’s only made with essential oils so it wouldn’t be too harsh on her skin. I learned that it is not necessary to put a bunch of things on babies. I’ve seen baby cologne in the supermarkets but babies smell so wonderful already! I think that putting too many products with fragrances on a baby will somehow impact their sense of smell. I think it’s better not to. I recommend to most of my customers who have babies to only use coconut oil on their skin and right now I’m working on a diaper rash cream and massage oil for babies.

As a way of life, my partner and I commit ourselves to be conscious consumers in general, particularly when it comes to food and health care. We feel truly privileged to have access to some of the best ingredients/materials out there because of our jobs, and we love being able to provide them for our daughter.

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How have your perspectives shifted or evolved since becoming a mother?

I think greatly! Everything changes in a way when you become a mother. I became aware of many things, maybe too much. I’ve been absolutely aware of everything I ate, drank and got close to. It made me rethink even the clothes I wear and everything I do – even walking on the street and smelling the cars’ exhaust. All these things that previously I did think about but was never too cautious of. But having Rafaela in the streets, breathing the exhausts is something different.  I feel like motherhood is something that we all instinctively know how to do and it’s the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me but it also teaches you something every single day – from patience to a million things. Of course, I have never felt this much love ever. I guess being a mother also makes me think how I can be a better person in everything I do and making these personal care products is really connected to that as I want to offer my baby the best I can in every way. If I can choose to give her the most natural food I will and the same goes for caring of her skin.

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You are one creative lady! What else do you enjoy doing?

I may be a make-a-holic! I enjoy learning how to do anything and everything! I am a very hands on learner and I like to work out how things work. I like to renovate and make furniture, design all sorts of things, build things, sew, turn old things into new things… basically I like to do anything, everything. I am very curious so that helps! I didn’t just want to be an artist or an architect and then have to hire other people to do the things I don’t know how to do. So instead, I do and learn about everything I can. This doesn’t mean that I will not hire other people to do certain things, but I do like to at least know how to do what I ask to get done… Of course I am not going to make a car to travel or move around but if I can get my hands on some clay so I can make my own plates and mugs, I would! I would definitely knit sweaters or sew some pants for my daughter, myself or my partner! I’ve always dreamt of having a house which I had built with my own hands and that I would have made the chairs, knitted the blankets. I’m just really curious and want to learn how everything works and I enjoy doing stuff!!!

How do you balance everything?

I believe we can be and do anything. With enough dedication (and today’s access to information) we can all find ways to accomplish almost everything. Perhaps I struggle making the time to do all I want to do. But because I’m a freelancer, I’m actually able to do different things at different times on different jobs. However, it is not easy to balance what you do when you do too many things. I would work on a design project for a couple of months and then get on a different project for another few months. Now that I’m a mother, especially, I don’t balance much. I try to work and I end up only playing with Rafaela and changing diapers… but I chose to be a mum and I’m as happy as I can be so I’m not going to try to balance anything at the moment… hehehe…

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What are your dreams for the future?

I dream for a lot of things for the future. I think at heart I am a gypsy somehow. I really love how life changes from one second to another and how opportunities just rise out of nowhere. I like that the future is a book of a million blank pages to be written and I don’t know where I will be in 2 years. I would absolutely love to live in Coroico or a very far away place surrounded by nature… but I like to go with the flow and I don’t know if life will take me to live to a different country, doing something completely different to what I am doing now… I like that the future is unknown and exciting.

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