Molly R. Stern has long wrestled with the standards of beauty society has established for us. As a celebrity makeup artist, she's made it her personal mission to enhance the things her clients love about themselves, not hide the things they hate -- and for that she's gained loyal clients. (Her most loyal being Reece Witherspoon.) But she's also -- wait for it -- a fashion designer.
In the late '90s, when Stern was living in New York, she started M.R.S., a line of pretty, sexy separates. M.R.S. quickly gained a serious following: Shalom Harlow wore a slip dress to the CFDA Awards, while Jennifer Aniston wore a piece on the cover of Rolling Stone. Soon enough, Barneys was placing orders and the Met was calling to borrow something for the latest costume exhibit.
Unfortunately, buzz wasn't enough to sustain a business. In 2004, Stern closed her studio and moved to her hometown of Los Angeles to keep doing makeup. It's crazy to think where M.R.S. might be now if the CFDA Fashion Fund or Incubator existed when M.R.S. started out. But the good news is that, after a decade in hibernation, M.R.S. is back. The spring collection -- available at Mrsbymrs.com -- includes a perfectly boxy t-shirt with fluttery sleeves, a stretchy pencil skirt with a cute kick-pleat and a raw-edge slip dress in gray jersey.
But Stern has done things differently this time around. I recently spoke to the multi-talent about her plan for the M.R.S., and maybe more important, her empowering message.
You just launched a few weeks ago. How's it going so far?
We've been selling, which is great! Google Analytics is the most exciting thing that has ever been created. And the response has been wonderful. We've already got seven testimonials of women sayings that these are the kinds of beautiful things they want.
Let's talk about the first iteration of M.R.S. When did it launch?
1997-98. It really came from a desire to do something more creative with myself and my hands than just makeup. I was 25, 26 and coming into my own, living in New York for the first time, and starting to connect with my body. I was sort of a tomboy up to that point, and I was coming to terms with my curves. So I started making shirts that honored my shape as well as my style. Fashion never really fit my body type -- I was too curvy for it -- so I made something edgy and cool but had my shape in mind. My roommate, on the other hand, had the body of an 11-year-old boy. She put [one of the shirts] on and starting moving in this sexy way. She turned into Marilyn Monroe. Women want to feel like women, they want to feel like themselves. That was the beginning of it, designing on that philosophy: work with what you've got. That's my philosophy with makeup, too. Build up what you love, don't cover what you hate.
And you had a good run, right?
We were in business for seven years. Everybody wore it. I had this insane access because of my makeup career: stylists, influencers, models, actors. I would say probably the two highlights were when we got on the cover of Rolling Stone -- Jennifer Aniston wore something. Then, Shalom Harlow wore a jersey gown, I think to the CFDA Awards. The next day we got a call from a curator at the Met. They ended up taking one and putting it into the collection. We were just like, "What, we’re in the Met?" They asked if we wanted the dress back or to donate it to the museum's permanent collection. We're in the catalog online.
That's every designer's dream. And yet you ended up shuttering. What happened?
We had so much love, so much energy and no business model to turn all this magic into a real business. No CFO, no operator, we were flying by the seat of our pants. "Constantly reacting" is the way that I describe it in hindsight. Barneys wants to carry us? Oh! Let’s figure it out. Everything was a reaction. There was never any real thought or planning.
And you were still doing makeup, right?
Oh yeah, makeup continued to be my bread and butter.
So you decided to end it.
I was newly married, under intense stress, and we didn't know what we were doing. I really wanted to start a family. It was a priority. In my young mind, everything I was doing to that point was temporary, because I was really meant to be a mother - that was the purpose of my life. So I decided to take a pause and I delved back heavily into my makeup career. I had three kids over 10 years and I was with CoverGirl for four years as their celebrity makeup artist. I decided that I could empower women through beauty. I thought, "I'm an expert! People will listen to me and I can tell them it's okay [not to be perfect]!" I had been doing makeup at that point for 18 years; I fell into it at 16. I wanted to be a positive voice in the beauty industry.
But was the line always in the back of your mind?
I missed the clothes. People would ask if I would ever do them again. We had a lot of fans, loyal people that were always asking me about it. Two years ago I got an opportunity to sell the top seven pieces through a retailer. It didn't work out, but there were more aggressive pushes. I decided to take a stab at it. I wrangled a friend to float it for a couple of years. The goal this time is to bring different people in, hire the right people.
Who are the right people?
My initial investor is super connected in the business world. She found me a CFO. I was working an Old Navy job and telling everybody about my project. The producer on the job suggested that I meet her husband. He's a brilliant guy -- an MBA -- and he's settling in as our operator. A young girl who was interested in me as a makeup artist has come on board to help with social media. And we're working with this amazing woman who has worked with TOMS so that we can think about conscious capitalism as well. All good human beings.
Tell me your elevator pitch. Your vision for 2014's M.R.S.
M.R.S. 2.0 is motivation, radiance and style. When I'm tapped into the things I'm proud of, I feel happy. Style is the same thing. You can have access to all the fashion in the world, but if it doesn't represent you in the best possible way.... We're also doing a lot of content on the site that's inspirational. I want people who visit the site to read something that makes them feel good. So much of the beauty and fashion industry is pushing an idea that whatever we are isn't good enough. That we need to be skinnier, younger, all these things that we just might not be. Instead, we need to be exactly who we are and build on that.
Above: Adrienne Cohen for M.R.S. Photo: Courtesy