Tim Hollinger, co-founder of Bathing Culture, makes lists.
He shows me his journal on Zoom, with line after line of tasks to accomplish that day. It clearly takes time to write out this list, but Hollinger enjoys it.
Tucked away, staying along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, Hollinger has agreed to give me 30 minutes of his time for this interview. I’m thrilled, because he seems fascinating straight from the get-go. The way he speaks is eloquent, words winding tangentially, a slow and steady speech pattern guiding whimsical thoughts.
I ask him the question: “Who are you?”
Most jump into their title, their brand, because it’s a core part of their identity – and the topic of the article. I do the same with QUILL.
So I’m taken off-guard by Hollinger’s answer.
“I am someone who wants to leave the world better than I found it, and that feels increasingly hard, but in the grand scheme of things, I think that we’re making progress.” He pauses, then continues, equally thoughtful in his second half.
“I am someone who lives in the moment, and finds joy in the small things, and tries to bring out the best in the people around me, and tries to maintain perspective. And tries to learn something new every day. And tries to give my community, my family, my friends, my partners, the love that they deserve.”
And if that doesn’t set the tone for an interview, I’m not sure what does.
In most articles, I start off with a summary of the company – it’s what I’m given. But this is Tom Hollinger, so I don’t get what I’m expecting… and I don’t mind.
Ultimately, Bathing Culture – based in Northern California, on the beautiful Mt. Tamalpais – was born from… bathing culture.
“Spencer [Arnold, my co-founder,] and I are very interested in how timeless bathing is. It cuts across cultures and communities,” Hollinger says. “When we started off, we didn’t have a brand, we just had a community and we would make products for them,” like soap. Then came stickers; specifically, one that said “Love Is Rad,” the same sticker that led me to Bathing Culture in the first place.
Eventually, Arnold and Hollinger sat down and decided that they wanted to form a business. “Basically, we said ‘Hey, let’s make products that we can stay excited about, can connect people to these experiences, and can be safe for personal and planetary health,’” Hollinger says, as if starting a brand is that simple.
But for the two of them, it was. Because, again, bathing is a fascinating concept to them. “When you strip all the way down and it’s just your body and it’s just the beauty of all different bodies and celebrating that this is something that people have always been doing, there’s such cultural depth there,” Hollinger says.
It’s true: we’ve been bathing since the beginning of time, no matter the gender, age, culture. It’s not just women in the tub with Chardonnay – “though I don’t want to shit on the woman in the tub with the Chardonnay, because that’s a legitimate experience” laughs Hollinger – bathing comes with its own experiences. And Arnold and Hollinger were not experiencing Chardonnay in a tub.
“We would take these hikes into the wilds and find hot springs and just get naked with a bunch of people and get in the hot springs,” recalls Hollinger. It’s an experience not many people get to have, though.
I ask if it’s fair to say that they’re essentially giving the experience to those who can’t have it. He nods. “There are so many people that are seeking out these experiences, and we really wanted to give people the opportunity to have the experience at home and connect people to that.”
It’s not just the tub and Chardonnay – though, again, it’s a legitimate experience – “bathing can be having a moonlight soak with 10 of your friends. It can be jumping in a sprinkler in your front yard with your cousins. It can be all of these things and that is just so incredibly liberating.”
And when you’re bathing, there’s a certain peace to it; there’s a mood boost. “There’s the joy [with bathing], but then there’s also the relaxation, the solitude,” he says. “And at a time where the world is not healthy, the macro sense and the importance of being able to take care of ourselves is just so critical right now.”
Our world is a mess right now, no doubt about it. From the Roe v Wade ruling to the Don’t Say Gay laws to the Ukraine war to the global pandemic, the population is struggling. We need to find peace; why not start in the shower?
After all, “the mental health reset we get from that pause, that shower, that calmness of some warm water or the reset of some cold water, is incredibly important,” he says. “We can span from the peaceful to the joyous and bring positivity or fullness across that and through the experience of the bathing.”
Self care is something I tend to neglect. I may not bring my phone into the shower, but I can’t think of the last time I enjoyed it, the last time it wasn’t wash-my-hair-wash-my-body-jump-out-and-go. But speaking with Hollinger, who is so passionate about the healthy act of bathing, I make a silent promise to myself to take my time during my next shower.
Tim Hollinger and Spencer Arnold met in middle school, attending a school in New York for dyslexic students. There was an instant connection at 14 years old, and they’ve stuck with each other since, growing alongside each other. How has starting a business all of these years later changed things?
“I think that having this brand together has really helped our relationship,” Hollinger says. “It’s challenged our relationship. But it’s really, in the big picture, helped it, because we’ve been forced to really make sure that we’re communicating about business things, but then also about personal things on a very deep level.”
I mention how so often, it seems that business partners don’t even like each other. They huddle to their own sides, taking care of different sectors, rarely communicating. I tell him that he and Arnold seem to collaborate across sectors.
“I would say Spencer is definitely like the product and creative engine behind a lot of what we do, alongside our designer Greg. And I’m much more on the operational side,” Hollinger explains. “But there are still things that we’re just both all over, which is a lot of fun.”
Fun is important to Hollinger and Arnold, and though the term “codependency” often has negative connotations, Hollinger sees it differently. “I think for us, there’s a sense of play in a lot of what we do and how we work together.”
They carry this play from the backend to the front end.
“We always like to put little Easter eggs in things for people to find. And most people won’t notice that stuff, but it’s part of what brings us joy in our work.” There’s the word “joy” again. “People [can tell when a brand] care[s] about what [its] doing or not, and sometimes [they] can’t quite put [their] finger on what it is. For us, making sure that fun is coming through is important.”
An example: the rainbow branding. I have to ask about the rainbows.
“We just launched our Heat Wave Body Oil” – I congratulate him immediately, and he thanks me before continuing – “and we use the rainbow motif, but we use it almost like a flame. And then we have other oils where they’re more wavy. From a branding perspective, it’s just really fun to play with that.”
Bathing Culture was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to an extremely queer-friendly community. Rainbows, as we all know, represent LGBTQ+ pride. But it’s never “just” something with Tim Hollinger. No, the rainbow isn’t just to say, “hey, we’re gay-friendly!” though that is part of it; of course, with him, there’s more.
“When water hits the light, there’s a rainbow. I think playing with that duality of light and darkness – like light in the rain – and the known and unknown, right?” muses Hollinger. “I think that’s just something that is worth exploring and celebrating.”
When you search their symbolism, rainbows represent hope during difficult times. A duality, right in the meaning. How appropriate.
It’s not just about joy, though. There’s important work being done with Bathing Culture: specifically, surrounding sustainability.
“Look at the manufacturing and the supply chain where these products are coming from, and a lot of the synthetic products don’t biodegrade,” he tells me, something I connect to much of Marissa’s eco-conscious writing for QUILL. “So with that in mind, we’re really committed to full-cycle sustainability: a sustainable business, a sustainable lifestyle, and sustainable packaging, and sustainable products,” Hollinger says.
Their main point of pride for sustainability: refills. People are able to take empty containers – from shampoo containers to mustard jars – and head to one of Bathing Culture’s more than one hundred refill partners, rather than buying container after container of product. It’s captured the attention of big brands, bringing awareness to the smaller, up-and-coming Bathing Culture.
Speaking of which, you’ll never find Bathing Culture throwing their ethics out the window for the sake of partnering with bigger brands or receiving more exposure. They’ve turned down partnerships with companies that are pro-”give-everyone-a-gun” or anti-LGBTQ+, because “[Arnold and I] want this brand to be an extension of a safe place, a safe space. And we want these products to give people a transformative experience without sacrificing our ethics.”
In a capitalistic world, where greed regularly wins over morals, it’s admirable and refreshing to hear this stance. It’s because, explains Hollinger, they know that they can make a difference – anyone can.
“Sometimes it can feel like you’re having a small impact, or as a brand, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he shares. “But people notice, and even just standing up for what’s right or taking steps – and this is on an individual level too – it really does make a difference.”
We’re hitting our time limit. I reflect on everything that’s been said, and I realize that this is the first interview where I’ve seen someone’s thought process as they work through their answers, as they discuss their work, as they share their personal insight and greatest emotions.
We only had 25 minutes of interview-time, but I ask if there’s anything Hollinger would like to share before we go; anything extra he can think of that he’d like for me to put in.
I feel that I can write a decent article, tell a story via 30-to-45-minute interviews. But the feeling I receive from his answer is almost too much. It’s a simple answer, but it’s one that closes one of the most intimate interviews I’ve had:
“No, I trust you.”
Tim Hollinger trusts me to tell his story, and tell his story well. And where there should be panic, I feel… validated.
We hang up, and I begin to write.