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How Hard Candy's Founder Built a Cult Beauty Brand From Her College Dorm

Dineh Mohajer is doing it again with Smith & Cult.
Dineh Mojaher. Photo: Smith & Cult

Dineh Mojaher. Photo: Smith & Cult

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Back in 1995, while promoting a little film called "Clueless," Alicia Silverstone unwittingly helped launch the beauty career of Hard Candy founder Dineh Mohajer. David Letterman had asked the actress about the baby blue nail polish she was wearing during an appearance on his show, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hard Candy is now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the brand is launching an anniversary throwback collection this month. It seemed like a perfect time to catch up with Mohajer, who sold Hard Candy to LVMH back in 1999, and has since launched another nail polish line called Smith & Cult

Mohajer tells us what it was like to start a beauty business while in college, in the days before everyone used the Internet.

How did you get started in this business? You were really young when you launched Hard Candy.

In the beginning, I just mixed two colors together. It wasn’t something that was deliberate or methodical. One afternoon I wanted baby blue nail polish and they didn’t have it at the store. And when I say the store, I mean anywhere — Barneys, Saks, beauty supply stores. They didn’t have it, and I just had this fixation. I mixed blue and white and I got baby blue. Then I did it with the purple too and I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what I wanted!”

I was just wearing it and making it for my friends. And everyone wanted it. I was pre-med at USC, and I was really sick of studying hydrocarbon chains and sitting in the basement of a lab extracting DNA to get my name on a paper. I was ready to procrastinate by the fourth summer. The timing was perfect. So I started making it.

Were you just making it in your kitchen or something?

I was mixing Essie white with a bright metallic blue that I found at a cheapie beauty supply place. It was some horrifyingly tacky thing. I worked at Fred Segal for two months to cover my friend’s job while she was out of town. Sharon Segal, the owner’s daughter, was like, “Oh my god, I love this nail polish you have on, do you want to bring it in and sell it?” That’s when I figured out, oh, people might want this.

I found where to get that tacky blue and purple and I would buy a bunch of them. I also got these mixers, like traditional ketchup bottles that you see in diners. I would sit in front of the TV and dump every single blue bottle into the ketchup bottle. Then I would take Essie whites — I would buy them out from beauty supply stores. I’d get a deal because I’d buy every single one. I’d dump all that in, and then I’d sit there and shake it. Then I would go back to all the white bottles and fill them up with this new color that I’d mixed and I would stick a ring on them and that was it. I didn’t have a logo or anything. I started with baby blue, lavender, yellow, peach, mint green and baby pink. The little jelly ring that went on it came about because I was doing a birthday party, and we were at a party supply store called Party On. They had all these rings in one bin and they were all fluorescent, and they kind of matched the hues of my nail polish. I had grabbed them as a joke because we were going to make little bags as party favors. That ring fit over the nail polish perfectly.

The original Hard Candy colors. Photo: Hard Candy

The original Hard Candy colors. Photo: Hard Candy

Who discovered you next?

So then I took it to a few stores, because it was selling out at Fred Segal. It would take awhile to make a batch of these things. I delivered 250 of them, and they called me and said, “We’re sold out and we need a bunch more now.” And I remember being like, oh god I just turned this term paper in, you’re ready for more? I was not happy about it. Then I watched Alicia Silverstone on David Letterman talking about her sky blue nail polish and I thought, I made that in my house two days ago.  So then I sent it to all the magazines. I didn’t do anything strategically, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Everyone wrote about it and in one month, every magazine had something on it with the phone number to my house. This was pre-Internet. My college apartment phone number was in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. We put five [phone] lines in and it would not stop ringing for four months.

At that point did you say, “I’m done with med school, this is my new thing”?

I didn’t even get a chance to contemplate whether I was leaving or not. It just grew so quickly. By August, when I had to register for classes, I was going into [a meeting with] Neiman [Marcus] and it was like wait, I forgot I have registration today. I never went back.

Obviously you had to get a business launched. Who helped you with that? How did you find manufacturers?

When I first started, it was with about $700 of my own money. My sister and I brainstormed and [the name] Hard Candy came out of that. Then my parents saw how hard I was working and they knew I needed startup capital to keep up with the orders. They actually didn’t loan it to me, they just gave it to me because they’re so nice. I think I started with $80,000. 

Do you remember at what point you had to outsource?

As soon as I got Nordstrom, which was probably three months in. I found a manufacturer, which was very difficult. I opened the Yellow Pages and it was basically like a treasure hunt. I found a glass maker to make the bottles and I remember I bought something similar to Essie and it was a standard mold. The supplier of the bottles gave me a manufacturer, and then I worked with them to color match. I did it all myself. It was awful. I was not prepared at all.

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Were there disasters?

The whole thing was a fucking disaster! The growth was so big that finding a fulfillment house was hard. You have to remember, this was before the Internet. I don’t even know how I did it. I found a place that would warehouse and ship all your orders, and we did everything via fax. It was so ugly.

Did you meet any mentors early on, either at the stores or in the industry?

No, unfortunately. But I found a CEO and the day that I hired him I will never forget. I just had nothing left in me. I was running inventory, running manufacturing and making the stuff. In West Hollywood, I had this little college apartment that had an attached back unit garage. I had women who were assembly workers that I found through a union putting rings on and packaging the Nordstrom orders. Every day I would end my day going to FedEx. It was so brutal.

What happened after you got a CEO and became a legit business?

I was free to focus on creative development and increasing revenue streams. I developed glitter eye liner, which no one had ever had. That’s what put us on the map.

Vintage '90s Hard Candy imagery. Photo: Hard Candy

Vintage '90s Hard Candy imagery. Photo: Hard Candy

Why did you sell Hard Candy?

We couldn’t keep up with the growth. We needed capitalization to get to the next level. I was the creative director. I ended up leaving after a year.

So what happened then?

We did another company called Goldie. It was adorable. It was for Bath & Body Works, and they acquired it. It doesn’t exist anymore, but we still own the rights to it. We could develop things in large quantity and we had The Limited [the company that owns Bath & Body Works]'s purchasing power. We used old packaging sitting around from the ‘60s that no one wanted. It did really well. That was 2004 to 2008.

The Goldie line. Photo: Goldie

The Goldie line. Photo: Goldie

How did Smith & Cult come about?

I started working on independent stuff, and consulting here and there. But nothing until I developed Smith & Cult. I have incubations as we speak, but Smith & Cult is the one that actually ended up going to market. I have other developments and brands that I’m working on.

It’s a very different nail polish environment right now than when you started Hard Candy. How did you decide to develop a new brand in the same space again?

I wish I could say I thought about it like that. It’s all I know how to do. I just like making pretty things. I was told that there was a company that was interested in meeting with us about a nail lacquer idea, and I put together an idea of a diary of the beauty junkie. 

Smith & Cult ad imagery, and "Teen Cage Riot" Photos: Smith & Cult

Smith & Cult ad imagery, and "Teen Cage Riot" Photos: Smith & Cult

You’ve been getting a lot of attention because the names [like "Gay Ponies Dancing in the Snow"] are really quirky and the bottles are really beautiful and different. How did you do it?

It’s the same thing that happened at Hard Candy. I had names that were really uninhibited and whatever felt right. We had Trailer Trash and Porno — we were the first to do those crazy names. Now I just think it’s names that relate to experiences I’ve had. Dirty Baby is one of our colors. It links back to what happened at a wedding I went to. Each entry in my diary is a color. One of my best friends, Spencer Susser, is a director, and he shot everything for me just as a favor, and we art directed it together. The visuals are where my heart lies now.

What advice would you give for someone wanting to launch something into the world?

I think my biggest piece of advice is to be very careful about who you trust and who you don’t.