Louanne Ho, owner of Creative Occasions, finds joy in the difference made by her downtown Algonquin boutique. All-natural body products and artisan-crafted and fair trade items draw shoppers in and better the world all at once.
Creative Occasions: More Than a Fair Trade
"You wouldn’t believe how much this bar of soap costs here. It’s ridiculously priced — you have to open a shop!”
For several years, Crystal Lake native Louanne Ho (photo, center) would receive phone calls like this from her close friend, Elaine, and others encouraging her to take on the competition with her superior soaps. But Ho, who owns Creative Occasions in downtown Algonquin, never thought the idea of running a boutique was a possibility.
“It was kind of thrown at me … Elaine would immediately hang up after she told me about an overpriced item at a garden center or store and eventually that got annoying,” Ho said with a chuckle. Ho hosted home parties for a while, selling her soaps, scrubs, salts and candles, and started to notice that her items were becoming quite popular.
“People were pushing me to have [my items] available or to do something online so that they could always get the things they liked and I just never did anything with it — I was a stay-at-home mom and before that I had a career,” Ho said.
Ho would later find that with a little bit of luck and a lot of passion, life can take you to the destination you might never have envisioned. In January 2011, she opened shop at 124 S. Main St. in Algonquin and began to sell her homemade soaps, body scrubs, bath salts, and soy, palm and beeswax candles, along with her sister Linda Ho’s artwork. The rest naturally fell into place.
Regulars at Creative Occasions use the word “addicted” to describe their love affair with the soaps. And it’s no surprise why. After 20 years of experimenting with different recipes and tweaking her own — paired with the use of organic ingredients — Ho has nailed the magic formula.
Creative Occasions carries soap fragrances for both men and women, and some varieties, like its newer scent Cool Water, have become even more popular with the male demographic. Ho explained why her soap is better than any other variety found in the retail market.
“I don’t use any preservatives or chemicals,” she said. “Anything that I can obtain organically, I do. When possible, I use local things like local honey. I use essential oils and I put more moisturizers in my products. I’ll often make a block of soap and my friends have to try it, family has to try it, close customers have to try it … they are my guinea pigs.”
The Importance of Fair Trade
Creative Occasions takes great pride in the fact that it supports the fair trade market. Selling an item through a fair trade system means that the artisan or creator of a product receives all the profit from the sold item.
Ho and her employees value the principle of fair trade so much that they even joked that the term “name brand” is taboo in the shop. Ho regularly receives a variety of different accessories and other items from all corners of the globe, including tamanu nut oil from Fiji, Beads of Hope from Kenya and a special paper from rare shrubs produced only in the Himalayan mountains of India.
“I think [fair trade] is the epitome of a true American economy,” Ho said. “I don’t believe in charging people more than what they should be charged … I don’t want people to visit Creative Occasions and see things that are out of reach in this economy or in any economy. It’s important to me — that’s the way that I would want to be treated. It’s the only way that I could operate.”
Goods from Abroad
Ho began a working relationship with the fair trade cooperative Hope Exchanged through her friend and colleague, Carla Boelkens. Boelkens, who travels to Nairobi, Kenya, one to three times annually on mission trips, generously gives her life savings to buy all the paper jewelry beads she can made by women in refugee camps. Beads are made from recycled material and scraps of any material the women can find. Boelkens takes on the task of explaining to the Nairobian women what trends are popular in the United States and then distributes the jewelry here.
“Many of [the Kenyan women] have had family members who have died of AIDS; many of them have AIDS themselves,” Ho said. “Lots of times, all their other family members have been killed in the war in Darfur in Sudan. They need to support themselves and their children and they’ve learned to make a craft and be able to make a profit off that.”
Further support of her fair trade philosophy comes through in Ho’s relationship with Naya Paula, the Indian handmade paper factory located in the Himalayas. Naya Paula assists marginalized women in obtaining jobs in the small paper business — only about 20 women work there. These women not only receive profits, but benefit emotionally from heightened morale.
Farmers harvest the branches off these rare, renewable resource shrubs and bring them down from the mountains. The Indian women then pound off the bark and process them. The result is a large quantity of paper, journals, cards and other paper products.
“Nothing is automated,” Ho said. “I’m able to help these ladies by purchasing their items and getting the word out whenever I sell any Beads of Hope or paper from India. When people hear their story they really feel compelled to help in some way; the struggles around the world can be tackled in small bits — just by purchasing a piece of jewelry or a paper product.”
In fact, Ho felt so compelled to assist and empower these women that she scheduled a trip to Naya Paula this past May to teach the women there how to make their own soap and candles. Unfortunately, her dog Igby — the shop’s mascot — got sick, so she could not make the journey. She is, however, creating a specialized DVD for the women that includes techniques and instructions on how to produce soap and candles, and plans to make the much-anticipated trip in the fall.
Treasures All the Way from … McHenry County
Although Ho is an avid proponent of a global fair trade system, she believes in its benefits on a local level, as well, through selling the work of local artists (see sidebar).
“The self-satisfaction, the pride, the respect you feel for yourself after you see someone purchase one of your items is astounding,” Ho explained. “I love being a part of a small community and showcasing the art of those artists in that community. Shoppers might walk in and receive a taste of artwork that is done by people who they actually might know.”
Just being within the downtown, eclectic atmosphere of Algonquin also drives and inspires Ho and her staff. They enjoy great working and friendly relationships with business neighbors and believe recent developments will create the perfect storm for growth and interest in this special district.
“With the Algonquin Western Bypass happening and with the [Riverside Plaza] condos being built on the corner [of routes 31 and 62], I think it could become a downtown area that could really rival Crystal Lake, Geneva or St. Charles,” Ho explained.
Hopes for the Future
As her shop evolves, Ho would like to start carrying more essential oils for therapeutic use. These oils contain medicinal properties to treat, and sometimes cure, many ailments like sinus problems and muscles soreness. Returning to natural elements to aid one’s health is crucial to Ho.
“I want to get away from chemicals we find in our everyday products and back to what nature has provided us with,” she said.
Creative Occasions is located at 124 S. Main St. in Algonquin. For more, call 847-458-6240 or visit www.creativeoccasionsandmore.com.
Sidebar 1: Local Artists Featured at Creative Occasions
Hailey Thoma (photo, right) is a Creative Occasions staffer and art student attending Illinois State University. She sold one of her pieces within a day of displaying it at the store.
David Engle is a retired Barrington High School art teacher who now instructs art at his own studio down the street from Creative Occasions at 106 S. Main St. Ho said she loves having his artwork in the shop.
Jack Holt is a ceramist who teaches at River Arts Studio (www.riverarts-algonquin.com), a block away from Ho’s shop.
Splashed with Creativity (www.splashedwithcreativity.com) by Crystal Lake’s Miller Mary is quality, affordable art designed to enhance buyers’ living spaces. Splashed with Creativity also offers monthly charity events, providing greeting cards made from photos of the paintings, with the proceeds donated to different charitable organizations.
Former obstetrics nurses Michelle Johnson, Mary Kay Horney and Laura Richmond of Better Letters (www.betterlettersinc.com) worked together for more than 10 years at a local hospital when they had an idea to make unique photo art for their own homes and gifts. Today, it’s a booming local business.
Sidebar 2: ‘Satori’ is Alive at Creative Occasions
Louanne Ho originally hoped to name her shop “Satori,” the Japanese term for enlightenment. But after a few foreboding comments from her friends on how it sounded too much like a Japanese steakhouse, Ho gave in to a simpler title. Still, the idea of satori continues to shape her time at Creative Occasions.
“‘Satori’ means an enlightenment, or understanding, on the path to nirvana,” she said. “On this path I’ve met so many wonderful people and it’s made me happy … it’s taken me from a place of turmoil in my life and made me feel like I am contributing or am somehow helpful to others.”