“The scent isn’t overwhelming, and it seems to have maximum spreadability,” my husband tells me as I paint a thick layer of Soft’s Moisture Mask onto his face after a fresh morning shave. Launching today and packaged in a little glass tub scrolled with the kind of font you’d imagine on a ’70s ice cream truck or glossy surf magazine, the formula’s ingredient heroes, such as hyaluronic acid and squalane, are designed to deliver a soothing water bomb of hydration rather than a stinging tingle. After 15-ish minutes of relaxing (and even lighting a stick of palo santo), he splashes it off with warm water. “How does your skin feel?” I ask, knowing his very particular taste in post-razor products. “Soft!” He emphasizes. “It’s got, like, a little forcefield of soft—you don’t even have to touch it and you know it’s soft.”
It was just a couple of years ago when Patrick Dolezal, Emily Farra, and James O’Dwyer were sitting on the floor of a New York City apartment deciding it was time to expand their friendship (which began in the midwest, at Indiana University) into a business. “James and I really started to get into skin care beyond just the essentials,” says Dolezal of when he and then-roommate O’Dwyer adopted the habit of masking after a day spent inundated with emails, texts, and social media updates—a routine that Farra had passed on, along with her cache of products. “They stole all of my stuff, pretty much,” she jokes. In addition to Farra’s taste in skin care, it was also the ritualistic element of self-care that spoke to Dolezal and O’Dwyer. “I was doing a mask, and I came out of the bathroom and James and our other roommate were also doing masks, and it was something I hadn’t seen before,” Dolezal shares of the team’s initial “ah-ha moment.” Farra’s position as a Vogue fashion writer coupled with Dolezal’s background in biology and O’Dwyer’s tech experience meant that each brought a uniquely valuable skill to the table as they started brainstorming an identity and testing existing products that ultimately snowballed into Soft, a skin-care brand directed toward men who are interested in skin care, but might not know where to start.
To engineer the Moisture Mask, they linked up with a lab in California that applied European Union standards when selecting biocompatible, nontoxic actives rather than the old-school Wild West approach. “The U.S. bar for developing cosmetic products is, like, basically nonexistent,” says Dolezal of complying with EU rules that exclude around 1,400 harmful ingredients (versus the U.S.’s 11). On top of hyaluronic acid and squalane actives, the recipe incorporates barrier-protecting niacinamide and antinflammatory turmeric extract meant to soothe a range of complexions. “You can put it on and wash it off, or you can just leave it on overnight, so it really distills the process down to a single step and just makes it that much easier for guys to use,” he explains. “It’s not just about having perfect skin or a perfect face, it’s about enjoying the process and maybe embracing some of your flaws,” Farra adds. The fragrance, too, was a necessary update to the Cool Water–esque aftershaves and peppermint aromas that she noticed dominating the men’s space. “I was like, ‘We need to find a better scent that feels different, but still gender-neutral in a way,’” says Farra of selecting the ultra-light ginger notes. “I use it all the time, it’s definitely unisex,” she adds.
Even the name, inspired by their first product’s smooth texture and results, has a dual meaning. “Soft has traditionally been used as an insult, almost, for not fitting within the blueprint of traditional masculinity,” shares O’Dwyer of the term he remembers being tossed around by football teammates “if I didn’t hit someone hard enough” in high school. “We really want to embrace that word and kind of flip it on its head, because soft is really a positive thing,” he says. That meant eschewing the traditional route of marketing toward “really aggressive or sporty” men, or rugged types who might be captured fishing with a full beard. Instead, the team viewed the category through a modern lens. Soft’s models are captured wearing pale pastels, sipping negronis, chatting on landlines, and holding flower stems. It’s much more in line with the “soft masculinity” movement seen developing Stateside via K-Pop stars like the members of BTS, who confidently exhibit candy-color hair hues and dewy, made-up complexions, or even the internet’s reclamation of the term softboy as a gentler male genre.
To focus on the relaxation aspect of it all, the brand’s Ritual Set includes a bundle of luxe matches and energy-cleansing palo santo, while on the digital front O’Dwyer applied his knowledge of customer experience to design an interactive website that incorporates elements like guided meditations, cocktail recipes, and playlists to be enjoyed during the masking experience. In a dream future, forward-thinking artists like Gus Dapperton (the trio has admired his work for years) would be invited to contribute to playlists and collaborations. Dapperton, in Dolezal’s mind, exemplifies “the version of masculinity that we believe in as well” and fittingly told Vogue during an exclusive video that “once you express a true interpretation of yourself, then life becomes beautiful.” O’Dwyer seconds the notion of a new wave of dudes that aren’t afraid of following their instincts, even if it simply means taking a minute to chill out, put on a record, and spend 15 minutes finding balance in personal routine. “It’s about being vulnerable and sensitive and in touch with your emotions,” he notes. “And really just being comfortable with who you are.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue