August 10, 2014

Made in America Series: California North


Sausalito-based skincare company, California North, was founded in 1990 by Jim Miller in response to a perceived need for quality skincare products for men. Eventually the brand evolved into a skincare brand for everyone—men and women, offering a range of products that have you covered from head to foot.  This cruelty-free company (no testing on bunnies!) manufactures all product in the USA, and their message to customers: Be yourself, we’ll take care of the rest.

With such a conscientious business approach, it’s unsurprising that California North generally prefers to keep a low-profile and let the quality of their product do the talking for them.  However, we couldn’t resist doing a little talking ourselves after we tried and were wowed by their products. I mean, how could we in good consciousness keep this skin-saving line a secret from our readers?  Answer: we couldn’t.

Almost everything in CN’s skincare line is formulated to be used on both face and body, which means your morning routine just got streamlined (oh how we love, love, love, versatility).  We’ve especially been loving the Gelskin Wash and Gelskin Scrub; the combination of the two has been divine.  Our skin has never looked better and our makeup has been going on flawlessly.

And for those of you whose alabaster skin may have found a better home in Elizabethan times but still want a (safe) summer tan, look no further. We’ve tried plenty of self-tanners in our day, and none has ever come close to the gorgeous results of California North.  This best-seller truly is amazing—easy to apply and authentic looking with no Jersey Shore-orange or jaundice-yellow, just a natural sun-kissed glow that doesn’t give you away with streaks or scent.


Intrigued?  Keep reading for our illuminating, in-depth interview with founder and CEO Jim Miller and find out how a noisome elevator in Spain is responsible for the company’s signature scent, why there’s no place for animal testing in the skincare world, what it was like to start a business pre-Twitter, and most importantly, where you can buy your own California North products (because we’re not sharing!):

When you started California North in 1990, was it unusual in the skincare world to manufacture product in the US? What prompted you to manufacture domestically?

Actually, skincare labs have been making great items in the U.S. for years. In recent decades offshore manufacturing has become so popular that brands like us have become the minority.
For us it was about developing great skincare to combat the outdoor elements of northern California specifically, the wind, sun, and salt air. So really California North Skincare was a product of our environment here in California, and then we evolved further. We started in a Marina in Sausalito, and could never envision developing products anywhere but in California.
Offshore manufacturing is not something that makes sense for us. You lose the personal touch, the quality control; you lose all the things that make you unique. There’s only one Sausalito and one California North here. We have to stay true to that. We can talk to our lab and production partners at will and see our products coming to life anytime which makes for a better product for our customers. Offshore is also a huge logistical time and monetary expense, which doesn’t make sense for small businesses like us.

Today, emerging brands are expected to develop brand awareness through a deep engagement with social media (which we love), but, what was it like starting California North before the existence of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram?  As a small company, how did you market your product and gain a loyal customer base? 

Yes it was very different, so to be recognized we started with Nordstrom in 1993. Jim Nordstrom (Great Grandson of Nordstrom Founder, John W. Nordstrom) helped me to show our items to the right buyers, and we sold our skincare products, launching O2xygen for men there in 1994. We stayed with them in most stores through 2009, a great run. While working with them, we developed other department store and specialty store relationships, while sending product to magazines for editorial reviews and awards. The combination helped us to be marketable.

At Oak73, our motto is Original, American, Kind.  Do you have a motto or mantra that defines the ethos of California North? 

To our customers our motto is, Be yourself. We’ll take care of the rest. It’s unwritten, but we value uniqueness in each individual and want our products to hold that special place behind the scenes in people’s lives. Dress the way you want to. Pursue interests that make you happy. Live your life and have fun. We’ll always keep you looking great. That’s the mindset that drives us here. So no, we don’t have a motto. It’s really just about being unique and marching to the beat of our own drum here in California. Unique skincare and fragrances, truly.

If you had to choose one product that you would consider most identified with California North, which one would it be?  What is it about that product that represents CN so well?

While our Self Tanner is No.1 in sales volume, O2xygen, for me, is the identifier.  Here’s a quick story of how what inspired the fragrance.

I was in an elevator in Spain, with smoking and overdone fragrance my aunt used to wear, and literally was choking in discomfort. Imagine being stuck in a confined space with smoke and extremely strong fragrance. Claustrophobia and suffocation! I started thinking of a light but lasting personal fragrance to make, not sweet, citrus but again lasting, so working with Firmenich (legendary fragrance artists) we went for it. It took about 9 months of really deep thought and iterations, and I had what I wanted in O2xygen for men-a clean, clear, crisp fragrance. It represents this area so well, a daily use EDT that does not shout, and like true oxygen, you can’t see it or taste it, it just is.

You had a lot of business experience under your belt when you started California North, but getting a business of the ground is full of difficulties.  What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting CN? Likewise, what is the most rewarding aspect of owning your own company?   

The biggest challenges were in early formulation, finance, and distribution.  The formulations were great, but were they great after 6 months? That was a learning curve as I was interested in ingredients and their function, and some times they don’t go together.  Financially my mind said do not borrow money, so that made it tough from day one to generate our own capital from sales but we did it.

Distribution was tough for 3-4 years, selling at shows, to independents, and finally some online, but once we started Nordstrom and started to fill in other retailers, things smoothed out.

Simply said, the ultimate reward is developing products that people enjoy, that function as intended, and to watch the production turn to shipping and sales is very exciting. That and being so independent is very appealing. We can move fast and experiment in every aspect of our business. A small team is also a huge benefit. We talk constantly and share a deep passion for the brand.

Does it become easier, owning your own business as time goes on, or are you constantly faced with new problems to solve? 

I think it is easier if you approach it with the thought that everything new or challenging is revealed to an owner as you grow (you experience things and learn to develop solutions). Once a problem is solved, it’s a solution that goes into my library, and a library of solutions makes things calmer as you re-apply solutions that have worked before. At the same time you are always ready to tackle new problems, create new solutions. It’s that mindset that makes it easy, being adaptable and unafraid.

A major part and issue in the skincare business are the new safety/health regulations that are constantly being developed, largely in the E.U.  There’s so much technical data needed to have passed on Safety Assessments of our products; the same ones without issue that we have been selling for so many years. We passed on all products and have our Safety Assessments, but are waiting for the next regulation of ingredients, which often causes re-formulation, delays for our international partners, and additional expenses. 

Overall if you listen to your own business, it does teach you everything that you need to know about it. It teaches you what your customers want and value. It teaches you where to edit, improve and where to quit. It teaches you to evolve and grow through what you experience along the journey.

You have an impressive line of shaving gels and creams, are they formulated for women as well?  Being beach season I know our readers would love a great recommendation for a fantastic shave. 

I would recommend Razor Shavecream, which won an award in FHM magazine.  Perfect for shaving the face for men, and body hair maintenance for both men and women. It was formulated to be light, and is concentrated so you need only to coat the hair to be shaved, and being such a light coat, you can actually see shave lines and get a really accurate shave. It’s also true skincare so it conditions skin with each use.


We love that you are a cruelty free company that does not test on animals.  As that is one thing we don’t have to worry about in the fashion industry, can you speak a little to that practice?   How widely does animal testing still go on? 

It seems so primitive and we just don’t think it has a place in skincare development. We are part of the Leaping Bunny, and Born Free, and have been for years, confirming with our suppliers that ingredients and finished products are not tested on animals. It’s probably necessary with drugs, testing aversion, but for skincare we are only interested in the reaction by humans to the products.  It is still going on in other countries, China mostly, but awareness is beginning to stamp it out.

We love California North, can you tell our readers where they can shop your products? 

Domestically our products can be found easily on our website, californianorth.com, and through select retail partners.

We’re also participating in a few American Made projects. Our products are currently available at The American Brand Project and as part of the Martha Stewart American Made Project in partnership with Ebay, which will enable both domestic and international orders seamlessly via Ebay. You can find us in the Health and Beauty section there.

Our focus, post department store, has been to sell to independent retailers and that list is growing. We also export abroad to our distributors in Belgium, Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia.

Where the business takes us in that respect; as long as customers want California North Skincare we’ll do our best to deliver it to them!

Where to buy California North:

For a limited time only, get 15% off each item purchased at californianorth.com.  Enter "OAK" at checkout.  Expires 10/8.  Standard ground shipping to the lower 48 states is also complimentary for orders over $50. 

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