Try out an 18.21 Man Made product and you might be tempted to praise it as the bee’s knees to your customers. The Texas-based brand is famous for grooming goods formulated to meet the needs of modern men, but which look like they time-traveled from 1920. From packaging to aroma, the products evoke a sense of effortless cool. Man Made Wash comes in what looks like a glass whisky bottle, complete with a sepia-toned label. Beard Balm smells of French vanilla bean and spicy pipe tobacco, conjuring images of speakeasies with flappers on the arms of dapper dandies.
None of this is accidental. Cofounders Aston LaFon, Angel del Solar and David del Solar didn’t stumble onto the concept of premium, Prohibition-inspired offerings by chance. This is not a tale of luck, but rather one of grit. From the jump, the trio deliberately set out to correct a deficit they saw in the male grooming market–and do so with a dash of class.
Although Michigan-born LaFon is the only company cofounder who didn’t study cosmetology, he grew up in the industry, with a stylist mother who sometimes worked on clients in their home. “Occasionally I’d help her with foils or perm rods, so from an early age I had a sense of how happy people felt after getting their hair done,” he recalls. LaFon’s mother eventually transitioned to working as a distributor for Joico, a professional salon brand few in their town had heard of at the time. Young Aston watched her earn a competitive wage while gaining business acumen–and in his late teens, the budding entrepreneur got his own idea for a new hair product.
“With zero knowledge regarding inventory or distribution, I handmade a few samples in my kitchen, and eventually started receiving product orders,” he says. At age 23, he sold his small business to American International Industries and moved to Texas to escape the cold. “After meeting my wife and taking a few years to travel, I came to realize that the more you spend money, the more it goes away,” LaFon says, laughing. Needing income, he returned to the beauty industry, this time following in his mother’s footsteps as a distributor for Lakmé haircare products. The Lakmé gig led to a stint working with San Antonio-based Princess Beauty, an independent distributor of top brands including Aloxxi, Brazilian Professionals, GKhair and more. As a rep who serviced salons and spas in Texas, he learned how to support hair professionals by first uncovering their missing needs, then finding the ideal items to fit those specific niches. He was recruited by Enjoy, and came to be ranked among the haircare line’s top consultants. While cultivating elite salons throughout the Lone Star State, LaFon found himself repeatedly searching for educators who could speak with knowledge and passion about how to best use prestige products. That’s when he met Angel del Solar.
Born in Pamplona, the northern Spain city famous for its annual running of the bulls, Angel del Solar started styling hair at age 15. During the day he went to high school and every evening he apprenticed in a local shop. Mandatory military service (abolished in Spain in 2001) conscripted him to the army after graduation, where he worked as a barber. After returning to the civilian salon world, the young artist met a Revlon art director named Luis Romero Colás (the current president of Intercoiffure Spain).
“Luis took me under his wing, and as my mentor he provided invaluable insight into hair,” del Solar says. The student soon became a teacher himself, serving as one of Pivot Point International’s first instructors both in his country and abroad, from Portugal to Argentina. He says, “I was mastering and sharing the fundamentals of precision-cutting, three-point cutting and other advanced techniques that would prove instrumental to my career.” Along his journey, he met and married an American woman when he was 26, and the two moved to Seattle to be close to her family.
This was during the dot-com era; everything was booming. Del Solar went to work for Gene Juarez Salon & Spa in Washington’s upscale Bellevue neighborhood, and he skyrocketed in a short time from novice to star employee. He then broke out on his own, opening two Angelo Mendi (for Asurmendi, his second surname, as per traditional Spanish naming custom) boutique salons in Bellevue and Tacoma, and then worked on Pureology’s creative team before fatefully joining Enjoy as an art director. “I traveled with the brand for nearly five years, training stylists on a method I developed after decades behind the chair,” del Solar says. His personalized system is based on the idea of deconstruction: The elements of a pixie, bob or other fundamental cut are broken down and examined to determine how they might be best reassembled for both efficiency of execution and superiority of appearance.
As it happens, LaFon was likewise energized by this same concept. “I was pulling apart the business side of hair, then giving it back to stylists in a way that aimed to be more nurturing,” LaFon shares. “When I met Angel, I realized we were speaking the same language–the only difference was he had a Spanish accent.”
The two quickly became colleagues, then fast friends. “I supported Aston’s work as a consultant by serving as an educator for his classes,” says del Solar. “We got along, and he soon began inviting me to dinner at his house with the family.” After collaborating for several years via Enjoy, the duo decided to kick-start their own business. Del Solar relocated to Texas, where they founded a distribution group called Credible Culture. “The idea was to provide custom education and prestigious products to premium salons,” LaFon says. Their company took off, serving at its peak more than 100 top salons throughout the state. The pair realized they needed one more set of helping hands.
FROM DUO TO TRIO
“I’m close to my brother David, so I always dreamed we might work together professionally in some way,” Angel says. But as a kid, his brother’s own desires tended more toward science than beauty. “I wanted to be a doctor,” David del Solar says. That changed after his army consignment, when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by applying to culinary school. “My father was a chef and I’d always loved cooking–and especially eating–food,” he says. David studied in Spain and France and then spent time mastering skills at preeminent European kitchens. All the stars aligned after he found himself captivated by the deconstructed food movement. “I became fascinated by the concept of paring a dish down to its core idea, then rebuilding it back up using my own creativity and techniques,” he explains. “I also loved the chemical aspects of that process, which relate to my enthusiasm for medicine.”
When Angel asked his brother to join the Credible Culture crew, David immediately saw how beauty was the next natural step for him. “Look at emerging food-industry trends and you’ll be able to predict what’s coming next for beauty,” he says. Case in point: While living in Morocco in his early 20s, the young cook was introduced to an avant-garde emol- lient touted as olive oil’s superior counterpart. Every chef suddenly had to lay hands on that groundbreaking ingredient. It was called Moroccan oil–also known as argan oil, which has since risen to prominence in
the beauty world as “liquid gold” for hair care. David accepted Angel’s offer and signed up for evening cosmetology classes so as to master the basics and weave together his chemical, culinary and creative skills.
LIFTING THE PROHIBITION
Soon after joining forces, the trio noticed something curious: a new movement stirring among men who were seeking, yet not finding, elevated grooming products. Many thus found themselves turning to salons and to hair- and skincare items marketed to women, for lack of better options. “Existing market choices seemed limited to inexpensive cosmetics that came in black-and-chrome packages and smelled of either peppermint or tea tree,” LaFon recalls. “It felt like a prohibition had been declared on quality men’s goods.”
In response, he and the del Solar brothers set out to create a distinctly masculine line that gentlemen could own with pride. “Spoil him” became the call to action, while three rules guided decisions from the start: Each product had to look cool, smell great and function impeccably. “We understood that following this law of threes would help us make an emotional connection with consumers,” LaFon explains. Launch- ing without investors, the team pooled their savings and debuted in 2014 with products sold from the back of Angel’s car. “We drove his Prius to the ground,” LaFon recalls. The passion project soon expanded from the garage to a warehouse that could handle the booming sales of 18.21 Man Made, a name referencing two amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the 18th, which initiated Prohibition, and the 21st, which ended the national ban on alcohol. LaFon says, “Because we couldn’t find the uncommon men’s goods we’d been searching for, we decided to bootleg our own.”
Materials felt more substantial a century ago, so the creators opted for glass jars and bottles as opposed to plastic. Packaging hairspray in a riff on an old-time beer can or body wash in what looks like a whisky flask brings the theme full circle. “I buy and study antiques from the 1920s not only because I love them but because it adds value to our brand when we incorporate durable designs from the past,” David says. As an immigrant, he finds resonance in the very American story of restriction, rebellion and repeal–and customers seem to agree. As consumers embrace the allure of this compelling story, 18.21 Man Made continues its skyrocketing growth, with plans to expand into Macy’s and Ulta stores this year.
The packaging may look old, but the ingredients are fresh and natural. Quinoa, jojoba seed oil, organic shea butter and macadamia are among the top components constituting each concoction. Many are first tested by David in his at-home lab before getting mass-mixed. While Aston spearheads sales, Angel is responsible for education, photo shoots and shows. “We come from different backgrounds, but add us up and we make one solid men’s grooming expert,” LaFon muses.
Angel adds, “We’re all experts with strong opinions, and often we have more solutions than can be applied and more planned products than can be launched.” All three agree on the most challenging aspect of working with friends and family: having a wealth of great ideas to draw from!