The Mauro Interview
The extraordinary life story that led to the creation of Spina Organics: an interview with Mauro Spina
In the process of creating a new brand and a new product concept, there are often defining moments. Can you tell us about a defining moment of Spina Organics?
I think I know what you're after—that classic example that goes more or less like this: "I was a wildly successful producer (or fund manager, or marketing VP), but finally got fed up with the rat race. So one day, I decided that I would quit the corporate world and pursue my dearest dream—to develop the best vegan dog body wash in the world" (smiles).
Well, my own story is rather more 'organic' than that. I was born in San Fernando di Puglia, near Barletta in Southern Italy, and we were very poor. One of the ways my family managed to make some money was by growing medicinal and aromatic plants in the sun-drenched fields around the village. When I was young, my grandfather would strap me or my sister Ottavia to his bicycle—this was his way of preventing us from falling off—and we would head for the hills. We would leave first thing in the morning and spend all day there, because each plant has its best time: chamomile must be harvested early, then comes lavender, and so on. By the way, I would be lying if I told you that, at the time, I really enjoyed it...
Was the rest of your family involved in this activity as well?
No, not all of them—and actually, the central figure was my grandmother, Savina Rinelli. She was the one who taught me how to combine botanical extracts and how to mix plant-based potions and unguents. She was certainly no ordinary person—even her looks were special, to say the least. She had fiery red hair, very fair skin, and eyes that could turn from blue to grey depending on her mood. She would have made quite an impression anywhere, but in Southern Italy, she was even more strikingly different.
Today, we would say that she was the village healer. Back then, we were more straightforward: my grandma was the witch. She knew all the natural remedies, she mixed some great cosmetics and shampoos, she knew how to lighten the ladies' hair and add highlights with plant-infused decoctions, lemon juice and honey. I got to watch her close up, since my very important job was to wave away the flies that were attracted to her mixtures!
People would also consult her if they felt that a curse had been put on them. She would cure them of the 'malocchio'—the Evil Eye—after having diagnosed the seriousness of the issue by reading the patterns of olive oil on water. This is not an ability I have inherited, but I certainly learned many, many things by watching her, and by spending endless hours in her kitchen, where Ottavia and I took turns as her helpers.
Ottavia, by the way, has built an impressive reputation of her own. She ended up relocating in Los Angeles, like myself, and has become what I would term a 'Cosmetic Celebrity Chef'. She devises highly specific, bespoke beauty treatments, just like Savina Rinelli used to do. I cannot give you any name, but as far as show business is concerned, Ottavia caters to the A-list. In fact, she has become the expert on face and body, while I concentrate on hair and scalp.
This certainly sounds remarkable. If I get it right, you felt inspired by your heritage to develop some plant-based hair products of your own.
Actually, that comes further along in my story. First, I became a hair stylist, and like many other ambitious young men from Southern Italy, I felt that my future was somewhere up north. So I first headed for Milan, where I was lucky enough to be hired at the iconic I Vergottini hair salon. Then I moved on to Paris, where I was able to work at René Furterer's salon. Furterer was pioneering a scientific approach, using the trichoscope to analyse the hair follicles and to evaluate the hair's health and type. Additionally, he believed that plant extracts were vastly superior to chemicals—and this was long before anybody was even thinking about hair care products being sulfate-free and paraben-free, let alone 'organic' or 'vegan'. Many colleagues were skeptical, but time—as well as the success of his salon—has proven him right.
Did his success prompt you to revive your own knowledge of plants and plant-based cosmetics?
Not yet—I still had some journeying to do. From Paris, I went to England, where I became a top stylist at The House of Leonard in London, the salon owned by Leonard Lewis. He was better known as 'Leonard of Mayfair' and remains one of Britain's hairdressing legends. I later opened my own salon in London, and it was only at that point that I started reviving all that ancestral knowledge of plants' properties and benefits. At the same time, I drew on what I had learned from René Furterer in Paris, with his more scientific take on plant-based hair care. Somehow, it just felt right to combine both approaches. This was also when people started to look for more 'natural' solutions in many areas, including cosmetics and haircare.
This is a fascinating story, but we are still a long way from the development of dog care products.
On the contrary, we are almost there! My next move was from England to California, where I opened a salon in Beverly Hills—first on Melrose Boulevard, and then on Rodeo Drive. By then, my natural, plant-based haircare line for humans was well-established, and my 'haircare alchemy' was an instant success with my American clients. As you might know, Angelenos have a very special relationship with their dogs, and they want their four-legged companions to share their lifestyle in every respect. So, increasingly, I got requests for dog care products from my clients—and I started some specific developments, because a shampoo for humans is not very likely to work well on a dog. Oatmeal, for example, is not always soothing for dogs—it can be drying if used too often; and tea tree oil, which is great for humans, has no regulations on it, and can be harmful to animals. I therefore had to do a lot of ad hoc research to come up with the right solutions.
Then, unexpectedly, my wife and I had what comes closest to that "defining moment" you asked me about earlier on.
Tell us more about this!
Eight years ago, we bought Tina. She is a purebred blue doberman. These are beautiful, athletic dogs, but they are prone to alopecia, and Tina was no exception. By the time she was 2, she had very little hair left and she suffered constantly. We consulted with various vets, and the best they would come up with was cortisone shots. I would not want this ever for myself, and I did not want it for our dog. With almost 30 years of experience as a hair stylist, I knew a few things about hair loss, and I devised my own healing plan: it combined a high frequency, follicle-activating ozone treatment with a customized dog wash we used once a week, to keep the skin very clean and maintain an optimal pH balance. Within six months, Tina's hair had started growing again, and at 5, she was completely cured and had a gorgeous, lustrous coat—which she has kept ever since.
This inspired me to work on my first comprehensive line of dog care products—free of harsh, unhealthy and potentially damaging chemicals like sulfates and paraben, and based on plants and natural extracts that are specifically beneficial to dogs. Soon, we were endorsed by several veterinarians, and I started receiving thank you letters from all over the US and beyond. I was even able to help the mayor of Idyllwild, in Southern California, to grow healthy hair again... He sent me a very touching letter to tell me how grateful he was.
You mean the mayor used your dog wash?
Yes, indeed (laughs). Mayor Max is, in fact, a handsome labrador, who was elected to his office with a comfortable two third percent of the popular vote—you can check it on the internet! This is one of those absolutely true 'only in California' stories... Now that he regularly uses the appropriate dog body wash, he has at last a coat worthy of his tenure and of his role as a leading public figure.
You launched Spina Organics not too long ago. How would you describe this new venture?
All my previous research, and all the ancestral plant knowledge of my grandmother Savina, have been combined into a series of formulas which gently cleanse, detoxify, moisturize and soothe the dog's skin. In addition, the coat becomes more beautiful, shiny and silky. I can now draw on a full 30 years of experience with plant-based human care products, and I have spent over a decade developing pet care products as well. Quite often, I just feel immediately when something is right.
Spina Organics is the next generation of dog care products. It is a complete treatment line of vegan, organic shampoos, which are complemented by a detangling conditioner—great for long-haired dogs— and a fur refresher. What makes our new products different is the fact that they are lighter and better balanced than ever. In more than one case, we have reduced the amounts of extracts used and increased the gentle, soothing components. This makes the new line ideal for a wide variety of dog and coat types.
We use many different botanicals as well as various extracts for their beneficial properties. Bamboo extract, for example, is 98 % silica, and therefore an ideal moisturizer. Charcoal absorbs impurities and detoxifies, while being anti-bacterial and anti-fungal at the same time.
Last but not least, let me tell you about our Spina Organics oil. It deserves a description of its own. I called it 'Miracolo', because it really does miracles. It is amazingly effective against hot spots, irritated skin and minor sores. In addition, it has impressive relaxant properties. Our Miracolo Oil is unscented, so you can even use it on your dog's nose, while combining eight different botanical oils, each with its own benefits. You need only a couple of drops to massage your dog's feet—most dogs love it— or any other body part.
One last question: what will come next?
I have many more ideas to extend the line, and I'm working with my technical team on several new formulas. As soon as we finish launching the brand nationwide, we will introduce new products with even more benefits. For now, we are still in the process of putting together a great team, in order to live up to the market's expectations and to handle all the enquiries—like the one I got about a week ago. I received a phone call from somebody who wanted, obviously, to get straight to the point. He snapped: "Can I talk to the CEO?". I answered: "Can you bark?". A rather long silence followed. I added: "Tina, my doberman, is our CEO, but I take messages".