Hometown Heroes: Maayan Zilberman is transforming sugar into a work of art

This Vancouver producer is turning New York on its ear with her high-concept candies

February 9, 2016

By Max Fawcett

We live in the age of the mashup, but there might not be one that’s more interesting than Maayan Zilberman’s combination of candy and couture. The 36-year old designer and entrepreneur, who was born in Israel and raised in Vancouver, has captured the imagination of the candy world—yes, that exists—with her high concept creations, ones that have been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Vogue magazine. And no wonder: the hard candies, which combine a punk rock aesthetic with carefully calibrated flavors, are like nothing you’ve ever seen (seriously: have you ever seen a “candy mixtape” before? Didn’t think so.) But Zilberman can trace her interest in candy back to two formative experiences that she had as a kid while visiting Granville Island: the candy section at Kid’s Only, and the Olde World Fudge Company in the market proper. “There was a guy in the corner of the booth that used to mix the boiling sugar, and then he’d pour it onto this big marble slab. I used to sit there and watch it—and beg my mom to let me watch it for longer. That’s where I really learned how to do that kind of thing. And I still dream about watching that guy.”

As it happens, Zilberman only recently starting tapping into those dreams. She’d already enjoyed plenty of success and acclaim as the co-founder of The Lake & Stars, a line of lingerie that launched in the spring of 2007 and would end up collaborating with major brands like Kate Spade New York and H&M. But after serving a stint as the creative director for Fredericks of Hollywood, a major American lingerie retailer, Zilberman found herself snowed in last year during a particularly brutal east coast winter. “It was just so cold last winter that we weren’t really going out much, so I started making candy at home because I wanted to make some art but didn’t have a studio at the time.”

Her candy making may have been intended more as a creative endeavor than a culinary one, but after posting some of her creations on Instagram and getting positive responses she decided to start selling them to select clients. By this past October those select orders had turned into a pop-up shop in New York’s meatpacking district, and she created a company for her rapidly growing business a month later. She decided to call it Sweet Saba, a nod to the relationship she had with her grandfather—the word “Saba” means grandfather in Hebrew—and the time they spent together in the kitchen when she was growing up. “It wasn’t necessarily candy, but we used to experiment with all sorts of weird combinations of things.”

Credit: Jason Lewis

Photo: Jason Lewis

That sense of experimentation helps to explain why she was drawn to making candy after having already built a successful business—and a big name—in the lingerie industry. “In a funny way it’s kind of come full circle,” she says. “This process is far closer to making artwork the way that I had intended when I first went to college. It’s much more hands-on, it’s far more immediate, and there aren’t so many rules—I can really make whatever I want. I don’t have to observe a fashion calendar—or any calendar, aside from holidays.” She hasn’t completely abandoned her former career, mind you, and says she’s working on another lingerie brand that will combine a magazine with an online platform. There’s also a book that’s coming out that will feature her sketches and drawings, many of which inspired the candy she makes, and a television show that will see her traveling to other candy-making hotspots around the world. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s even working on a line of kitchen supplies with an as-yet-undisclosed company. “You’ll see,” she says. “It’s in the works.”

But the sweets are still the main course in Zilberman’s professional life right now, and she’s hard at work on a handful initiatives that should see the Sweet Saba brand attract even more attention. There’s a line of packaged candies featuring vitamins and dietary supplements that she’s hoping to distribute through high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods, and an idea for some alcohol-infused ones that would taste like a Cosmo or a Manhattan. But the most interesting application of her talents is the medical marijuana edibles brand that she’s looking to sell into California and Washington State. “It’s in development right now. We’re working with scientists to make a digitally dosed and responsible line of candy that looks like my work.” And while she’s open to shipping those north of the border once they’re ready, she says she’ll wait for the Canadian government to get around to legalizing marijuana first. “I would love to do it Canada,” she says. “It just depends on the rules. And I’m still very Canadian in that I follow the rules.”

Until then, Vancouverites can order from her online store, and hope that she finds a place to set up the same kind of pop-up space that she has in New York. “The Standard Hotel, in the meatpacking district, is hosting my pop-up that’s opening for Fashion Week. They’re giving me some real estate and sponsoring the event and the staffing and everything, so I just bring in all of my merchandise. And I want to do something like that in Vancouver. I don’t want to build it all out myself—it doesn’t make sense if it’s for a short period of time.” But, she says, she’s willing to wait until the time is right. “I don’t want to push it too much. Everything works out. So if it makes sense to do something in Vancouver, then it would be wonderful to come and spend some time with my family—and maybe they can help out, too.” And if you can’t wait until then, well, you don’t have to. “I’ve already been shipping to Vancouver,” Zilberman says. “They can order it on my website. It’ll just take another week, is all.”

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