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How a 'New York Times' Beauty Writer Started Her Own Product Line

Bee Shapiro's Ellis Brooklyn is unfussy and, unsurprisingly, very editor-friendly.
Ellis Brooklyn's body milks. Photo: Bee Shapiro/Ellis Brooklyn

Ellis Brooklyn's body milks. Photo: Bee Shapiro/Ellis Brooklyn

If you regularly read about beauty, your eyes have inevitably landed on Bee Shapiro's byline at some point, probably in the The New York Times Style section, for which she's been reporting on products and trends since 2011. Remember that explainer on Kylie Jenner's lip filler preferences? That was Shapiro's work, one in a series of celebrity beauty profiles she's been doing for the paper recently.

It's somewhat less likely that you've happened upon Shapiro's side project — at this point, at least. Over the summer, she launched a range of scented lotions under the brand name Ellis Brooklyn, into which she's funneled the knowledge gained from years spent testing other companies' goods. (It's a story not dissimilar to that of Glossier, a product offshoot of beauty blog Into the Gloss.) Though Shapiro says she'd known for a while that she wanted to start a business of her own, the specifics of the venture came together when she got pregnant and suddenly became hyper-aware of the safety of the formulations she was slathering all over her skin. Synthetics aren't always great for the body, nor are all essential oils, some of which turn phototoxic under sunlight and heat.

"I was really looking for a natural formulation of body lotion, because that's the thing that you most put on your body, that smells great. And I have to say, I couldn't find it," Shapiro says.

Boom: White space in the market. Shapiro's real kick in the pants came from knowing that she was having a girl.

"I never want her to think her mom didn't just go for it," she explains.

After beginning development on the line two years ago, Shapiro launched Ellis Brooklyn in June with body milks in two fragrance variations; she's added two more scents since then, as well as candles (a soy-wax blend with a hemp wick), which came out this month. To date, the brand is entirely self-funded, and Shapiro has only one employee: Her sister, who quit her corporate job at AT&T Wireless to work full-time on the brand.

For the scents, Shapiro found a creative partner in the perfumer Jérôme Epinette, who also creates fragrances for Byredo and Vilhelm Parfumerie. Epinette ticked all her boxes: New York-based, willing to avoid phthalates and parabens — both of which have been linked to possible reproductive issues — and down to take a chance on a then-unproven founder.

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"Getting someone to sign on was really hard, and I think Jérôme just has that entrepreneurial spirit," Shapiro says. "He started working with Byredo before it was anything. I think you have to find a perfumer who's willing to take that risk with you."

Fittingly for a writer-founder, the concepts behind each scent are literary in nature. "Pseudonym," which begins very green before mellowing into something rather sultry, is inspired by D.H. Lawrence's sexually charged poem "Figs." ("When it first came out, it was a scandal," Shapiro says. "I love it, first of all, because who doesn't love a scandal?") The dynamic style of American authors like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut motivated Shapiro to create "Verb," a blend that leads with the freshness of bergamot and mandarin.

As Shapiro points out, Ellis Brooklyn is very much an editor's brand. Its packaging and scents are elegant, gender-neutral and unfussy; the number of products on offer is kept to a minimum. While those qualities fit Shapiro's own criteria, she discovered that it doesn't always align with big retailers' more-is-more perspective.

"When I started walking the floors at department stores, the stuff was glitzy. And then you realize why, because when you're on the floor, the stuff is glitzy to stand out," Shapiro says. "Retailers love lots of products, whereas editors are exactly the opposite."

Luckily, big department stores aren't the only ones out there. The first store to carry Ellis Brookyn was Shen Beauty, a Brooklyn boutique that prides itself on a tightly curated selection of products. Since then, a host of retailers, including Net-a-Porter and Kirna Zabete, have signed on.

"[Ellis Brooklyn] has done a lot better than I thought it would," says Jessica Richards, the owner of Shen Beauty. "It's $55 for a body milk, which is high."

Richards, a former Vogue staffer, sets rigorous standards for the products she carries, making a point of cherry-picking only the best items from each line and minimizing product crossover. (She sells only one brand of acne products, for instance, under the belief that it's the best on the market.) Thus far, Richards says shoppers have responded well to Ellis Brooklyn, and within the line, "Pseudonym" is currently the best seller. ("It's soft," Richards says, by way of explaining the scent's wide appeal.)

Just before I called Richards, Shapiro had stopped by the store to drop off her new candles. Don't expect to see Shapiro pushing out new products at a breakneck speed, though; she's maintaining a thoughtful cadence to product launches in an effort to get each one right. And besides, she still has deadlines to hit.