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Dr. Kristina Ivy launched RICA Bath & Body as an homage to her great-greatgrandmother. (Credit: David Benthal)

kristina ivy

Dr. Kristina Ivy can recall sitting around a kitchen table in Arlington, Va., and watching in awe as her great-great-grandmother’s hands worked cornmeal and honey into a thick paste.

Blended together in a mixing bowl, the ingredients weren’t destined to be baked off into a bread, but rather spread upon the bare faces of her daughters — and theirs — to gently exfoliate, remove dirt from their pores, and infuse their skin with vitamin C to improve elasticity, brighten and restore.

The comforting, communal memory conjures images of balmy late summer days, plucking rose petals from a bush in the garden later to be used soaking in a bath. Roberta, her great-great-grandmother, known to all in their county as simply “Big Mama,” taught her descendants how to mix perfume with their own fragrance; that goat’s milk in a bath can help improve skin tone, among other natural remedies. 

“My parents’ house was next to my grandparents’ house, next to my cousins’ house, next to my aunt and uncles’ house,” Dr. Ivy says, curled up on a linen sofa inside of her Greenport boutique. “We had a lot of land and would all do stuff together. But there were so many women in my family. We didn’t have a lot of boys, and so I always appreciated the connection women are able to have with each other.”

Stepping into Dr. Ivy’s RICA Bath & Body, you’re pulled into a multisensory experience. Soft, relaxing music hums and a soy candle flickers, emitting an alluring aroma of citrus, cream and vanilla. An array of plush robes, fuzzy slippers and blankets entice you as you peruse RICA perfumes, bath milks and body butters.

The physical store may have landed on Main Street just three years ago, but the stories and inspiration behind the products you’ll find on its shelves are steeped in familial and agrarian history; shaped and formed over generations of women who came before.

Passed-down, tried-and-true remedies aren’t necessarily new. 

Well before the days of 10-step skincare routines and Sephora, the ancient Greeks used olive oil for a shimmering, healthy glow. Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey. Indigenous Americans steeped juniper berries into a tea to treat skin impurities and exfoliated with cornmeal.

Using her grandmother’s recipes, Dr. Ivy smiles, recalling how the women in her family always emerged from the bath refreshed, poised and restored.

It’s almost surprising that her fascination didn’t lead Dr. Ivy into dermatology, though her family dynamic has had an undeniable impact on her path. Helping women embrace wellness and ward off stress is at the heart of her career as a clinical psychologist focused on women’s health.

After graduating from New York University, she went on to pursue advanced degrees at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, earning a doctorate at age 27.

Dr. Ivy, now 52, said she was always passionate about helping women feel less alone. “We tend to feel kind of alone, because we’re giving so much. We’re taking care of kids, we’re often taking care of

our parents as well, our husbands, our home,” she said. “Women carry a lot.”

In private practice, her patients ranged from young women anxious about starting college or new careers to mothers navigating postpartum stress, to sex, relationships and divorce.

She also spent time working at major metro area hospitals in low-income communities as a supervising psychologist, overseeing people grappling with other challenges like addiction or HIV.

By 2000, the work took a toll on Dr. Ivy, who was early on in her career and needed an outlet to decompress. She turned to a nostalgic activity, thinking fondly of Big Mama and her Virginian roots.

“It was intense, and so coming home and making soap was just this great thing to do while connecting with the memories of what I had growing up,” Dr. Ivy said. “I became this mad scientist. I took all the stuff I had learned from my grandmother and just had literally volumes of recipes I’d try.”

Over the next several years, the collection of Big Mama’s recipes would ultimately become four core products for Dr. Ivy’s new wellness brand, RICA, which was officially launched in 2010 with four products: a moisturizing body butter, sugar polish, foot balm and lip butter.

She debuted the line at a humble craft fair in a Manhattan church basement. One of those products, a Big Mama-inspired recipe, remains a bestseller to this day. Butter All Over is a fluffy, cloudlike shea butter cream that’s easily absorbed into the skin to nourish, soothe and even tame flyaway hairs. 

Before she knew it, Dr. Ivy was showing her products at trade shows at the Javits Center, up against established brands in the big leagues. “At my first show, I was like ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? I’m next to all these huge companies, like Crabtree & Evelyn,’” she recalled.

Major retailers took note and as the business grew, it was time to expand production. Dr. Ivy rented a production space in Red Hook, Brooklyn and moved in — just two days before Superstorm Sandy hit, changing everything.

“I lost everything,” she recalled of the powerful storm, which inundated the low-lying area with salt water and left thousands without heat or electricity.

But the storm couldn’t extinguish her hope, and a rainbow awaited as two weeks later, West Elm picked up her line.

“That was huge,” she said. “That saved me.”

From there, it was a whirlwind as her products began appearing in West Elm, Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie stores globally.

After purchasing a home in Southold in 2013 and moving to the North Fork full time with her husband, Ben Wartofsky, a stand up comedian, in 2018, Dr. Ivy opened a pop-up shop in Southold in June 2019 that wound up staying open through the holidays.

When a Greenport storefront became available, she decided to pursue the opportunity for a permanent boutique. She signed the lease in January 2020, got through Valentine’s Day, and then, it was like déjà vu as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, grinding normal life to a halt.

No stranger to challenges, Dr. Ivy reevaluated her own life and business during the pause.

“We were palletizing,” Dr. Ivy explained, recalling the process of producing and shipping products in such large quantities that they were packed onto pallets to be shipped worldwide. After the pandemic, she decided to focus primarily on retail. “I think my palletizing days are over! It was just a lot of product.”

Since reopening in Greenport, the shop has become an oasis for wellness and community, as shoppers often trade information from the mundane (anyone have a good babysitter?) to swapping anecdotal tips like acupuncture helping with menopause or taking magnesium for insomnia.

In addition to clean, ethically-made skincare and beauty products, the inventory has grown to include relaxed loungewear-inspired clothing, home décor and a popular line of hand-poured candles in scents like Salt + Shore, Bourbon + Cavendish and Coconut Husk + Turbinado.

From four initial products, there are now 55 unique items and a line of more than a dozen signature scents.

Soft neutrals are the prevailing scheme used in the boutique, where Dr. Ivy hopes to introduce wellness treatments like acupuncture, meditation, massage, sound therapy and facials in 2023.

During the pandemic, Dr. Ivy and her husband also purchased and renovated two rentals, transforming them into wellness retreats. One, in Southold, is a 1940s bungalow near Kenney’s Beach that’s a serene sanctuary and has drawn artists and writers looking for a muse, couples looking to reconnect and people experiencing grief.

The women in Dr. Ivy’s family have notably lived well into their 90s — her grandmother Vivian to 105, which she has attributed to her ability to “turn off.”

“Her secret was always just that she knew how to close the door on daily demands,” she explained. “She’d say ‘If I can’t control it, I’m not going to worry about it,’ which is really hard to do.”

It’s certainly easier said than done, but Dr. Ivy is a strong proponent of finding time in your day for small acts of kindness towards yourself, whether it’s setting aside 15 minutes for yoga, or soaking in a bath, taking time to walk your dog or setting a timer and getting off your phone for any amount of time. 

Given her background, Dr. Ivy knows that the clinical side of healing — doing the work — cannot be understated. But these little luxuries also contribute to mental health and wellbeing, especially in the social media age that’s been detrimental to anxiety and depression, particularly in women.

She likened talk therapy to going to the dentist. “You go when you’re in pain,” she said.

As she shares these family stories and love of the North Fork through her work, Dr. Ivy hopes to remind people to take a deep breath and appreciate where they are, as they are, imperfectly and amid whatever chaos life has in store.

Reflecting on the journey so far, she’s living proof of that.

“The lesson for me with that is that life is this weird, hilly road that has peaks and valleys,” she said. “You just have to ride it. You never know what good is going to come.”