Words by Shelby Deering. Images by Josh Olson.
It’s a cold winter afternoon and Kyle LaFond, founder of American Provenance, sits in a heated shed, flanked by vintage metal beer trays and a deer mount, relics of the days when it was his hunting shack. Now the building serves as the headquarters for his line of natural products that feature deodorants, beard balms, aftershaves and more. And they’re quickly achieving cult-like status. In just two and a half years, the products have reached store shelves in 40 states and are found at nearly 400 retailers, including Whole Foods.
LaFond, with his easy, down-home, Wisconsin charm, talks about how his experiences have influenced his products. He first worked at the Department of Natural Resources, which fostered his appreciation for natural goods. Then he was the director of business development at a local brewery, where he sharpened his business acumen. And finally, LaFond worked as a teacher for a few years, which is where he was first inspired to start American Provenance.
The small team that makes up American Provenance craft the goods themselves – pouring pomade and adhering labels by hand. With the scent of his own smoky Firepits & Flannels aftershave in the air, LaFond tells us how this all became a reality.
What inspired you to start American Provenance?
When I was teaching, one of the things that troubled me was that a lot of my students relied heavily upon products that contain so many harsh chemicals. I joked around about how in the morning, in the middle school especially, when you walked down the hallway, it’s just this chemical fog. During the day, I’d always have these crazy headaches. I had a light bulb moment where I was walking down the hall and I thought, Oh my gosh, wait. This is an old school. I don’t have any windows. There’s terrible ventilation. I’m sucking this stuff in all day long. It’s no wonder why I feel great in the morning but I feel like garbage in the afternoon because I’m exposed to all this stuff. At that point, I came up with this project for my kids. I told everybody, “I want you to bring in something you use every single day. I don’t care if it’s a hair product, skin product, whatever, bring it in. We’re going to go through this list of chemicals and we’re going to do research to figure out what these are.” The kids were kind of shocked to find out about all the different cancers and health issues and whatever else. The next year, I bought a bunch of raw materials. I told the kids, “We’ve done the research. Now we’re going to make our own.” And the first year, we actually did production. It was the first assignment I ever put together where the following year, kids came in and said, “Hey, Mr. LaFond, are we going to do the Personal Care project?” And I thought, there’s got to be something to this.
Have you always been a natural product devotee?
I’ve been using natural products for years, but I was never satisfied with the natural deodorants I was buying. When I read the label, I want to know exactly what’s in it. If there is something that I can’t read, can’t pronounce, or don’t know what it is, I’m not going to use it. I want stuff that is pure and natural and effective.
And that’s what led to the creation of your deodorants?
Yeah, the deodorant has spread like wildfire. It’s been great to see how people have responded so well to our deodorants. We don’t use water, fillers, or any artificial ingredients. I tell folks all the time, if you take a traditional deodorant and flip it over to look at the back panel, oftentimes the first, second, or third ingredient listed is water. Water is just there basically as a filler for ease of application. But when you have water, you’re going to have bacteria, so then you need to have some type of chemical application to offset that. By the fact that we don’t use water in anything, we don’t need to use any of these harsh chemicals. It’s all about quality. I want to have quality products out there.
On your website, you mention that your grandfather is your role model. How has he influenced your products?
This property is my family farm. My great-grandfather originally acquired the farm way back when, and then presented it to my grandparents as somewhat of a wedding present. My grandparents were traditional dairy farmers. He was such a hardworking guy. And that is kind of the inspiration here. He was the kind of guy that was always tinkering around with something. I think that I got my inquisitive, creative nature from him because he was always trying to figure out different ways to fix things on the farm. He would see a problem and he’d figure out how solve it. When I think about that for our products, we identify the problem. There’re too many chemicals in the products we’re using. Let’s do something about that.
Tell me about your scents, and how they got their unique names.
We have eight of our own blends, ranging from woodsy and earthy to fruity and floral. And we have our single scents, like lavender, grapefruit, and lemongrass. When we were naming these products, I had my notepad on my bed stand, and when I’d get these crazy ideas in the middle of the night, I’d just jot them down. And we’d come together as a group and try to figure out which paired best and which made the most sense with which scents.
How did the tattoo art on the labels come about?
I’ve always looked at tattoo art as… art. Once we came up with the names, I handed them out to my buddy Andrew Holdorf at Six Roses Tattoo. Andrew and I grew up together. I thought, man, this is a wonderful opportunity with him because I wanted to give him a broader platform to showcase his skills as an artist. I gave him the names and I said you’ve got complete creative control over this process. Go ahead and put together whatever you think inspires you with these names, and he knocked it out of the park every time. I’ve got a bunch of talented friends, which is great.
Is that his handiwork on your own arms?
Oh yeah, everything is Andrew.
What does the future hold for American Provenance?
Late this past year, we came out with travel-sized deodorants, which have already been a big hit for us. That’s been pretty overwhelming so far. Our single scents have really come on strong. A lot of folks are very familiar with single scents, so we’ll probably expand upon that line at some point. I think the big thing is, we’re just getting started. I’m just getting warmed up. For me personally, I think it’s very exciting to think about the future. You know, seeing how far we’ve taken it in just two and a half years. I really think that with this, the sky is the limit.