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Illume: Fanning the Flame

LOS ANGELES — With a return to a less "corporate" ownership and a venture into bath and body care and perfume, candlemaker Illume appears fired up for its next phase in the marketplace. <br><br>The brand, among the pioneers of a thriving...

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LOS ANGELES — With a return to a less “corporate” ownership and a venture into bath and body care and perfume, candlemaker Illume appears fired up for its next phase in the marketplace.

The brand, among the pioneers of a thriving category that got consumers spending $40 for a candle and adding up to $2.4 billion in retail sales in 2001, according to Unity Marketing, claims a fervently devoted following for its mouth watering-scented wax works. Illume’s new owners are banking on that success, which reached $14.2 million in candle retail-wholesale sales last year, with three new lines of scented skin care products.

Pharmacie de Luxe by Illume began shipping in June, four months after the management buyout from parent company, Illuminations. The $120-million specialty chain had acquired Illume from founder Lynette Reed in 1998, four years after the former struggling actress started the brand out of a 700-square-foot storefront on Third Street here. (Last year Reed came out of hiatus with a line of single-note fragrances, candles and body products under the Izzy Sayan name.)

Former Illuminations executives led the management buyout of the new entity, called Starlight and Illume Inc. Based in Bloomington, Minn., Starlight manufactures under its name and private label for Victoria’s Secret and other major brands. The two brands had combined wholesale sales of $29 million. Although company representatives declined to comment on the sale, industry sources put the buyout at $25 million.

Backed by John Norton, a shareholder at Illuminations and private equity investor, the new company is also co-owned by president Cory Van Buskirk out of Cincinnati; senior vice president of sales and marketing Scott Leoncini from Santa Rosa, Calif., and chief financial officer Kevin Knepper in Petaluma, Calif.

Illume manufacturing and wholesaling, is based at the 10,000-square-foot Sun Valley, Calif., facility.

“Illumination was such a corporate monolith and we’d always maintained a family environment,” said creative director Michael Loring Probst, who has been with Illume since its early days. “We prefer to work with that small business feel but think like a big business.”

Retailers such as Sonia Deepak, owner of Illiterature on La Brea Avenue here, believes even consumers noticed Illume had lost a bit of its focus during the Illuminations reign. An Illume resource since Reed started the line, the store has devoted its 375-square-foot loft to the brand. As for the new bath and body line, Deepak is considering carrying it. Illiterature now stocks Thyme Ltd., Fresh 21 Century and Dirty Girl.

The shift in ownership, added Probst, “was kind of seamless. If anything we seem to be doing more business.” The bottom line should also benefit, he noted, with profits remaining with the brand and lower overhead costs resulting from a new candlemaking system and an updated research and development lab which cut the Sun Valley staff to 96, yet improved efficiency.

Pharmacie de Luxe bowed with a bath gel, hard milled bar soap, mineral salts, body lotion and, of course, an aromatic candle. Wholesale priced from $3.25 to $8, its the kind of innovative scents that have become a hallmark of Illume such as rosemary grapefruit and rose marjoram.

In November, major retailers who carry Illume candles will get a first sniff at Circa, the company’s first perfume and the maiden product of Illume’s second bath, body and beauty line. The eau de toilette, as well as a heavy body crème, body gel, soap bar and scented candle will officially launch to buyers in March 2003 smelling of Savannah Mandarin, Avalon gardenia, and Buckeye carnation.

Considered the designer line of Illume, complete with packaging that evokes a boutique sensibility, Circa price points only run a couple of dollars more than Pharmacie. The 1.8-oz. perfume bottle, expected to wholesale for about $8, is a small glass bubble with a narrow frosted tube for a cap. Probst describes the packaging as “kind of Old World jazz babyish.”

In fact, the company expects the bath and body lines to eventually outsell even the candle line, now carried in 4,500 doors in the U.S. and a handful in the United Kingdom. Combined sales for the bath and body venture are conservatively expected at $1.5 million in 2003. A Pharmacie body scrub and face-friendly moisturizers are expected to be ready by the first half of next year.

But that’s not all. In January, a line of milled bars called Illume Classics based on best-selling candle scents such as gardenia, cucumber, pear, sea and pomegranate will be introduced to retail buyers. The hunky 8-oz. bar, wrapped in a striped wrapper and wholesaling for $5, is positioned as a gift buy.

That month, Illume will also bring out Flower Therapy, a line of soy-based candles which will also eventually expand into a soy skin line. The benefits, admittedly, are more about marketing. “Consumers are crazy for soy,” said Probst. “They’re asking the retailer for soy products.”

A retail expansion is also on the drawing board for the next five years, but no word yet on when or where. Like its Third Street store, it will likely carry multiple candle bath lines not owned by Illume. In the meantime, the original Los Angeles store is getting a makeover in October, as is the Web site, illumecandles.com.

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