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How Beauty Guru Sonia Kashuk Keeps Her 17-Year-Old Business Current

We spoke with the entrepreneur and longtime Target collaborator about her start in makeup, what makes a high-quality beauty product and bringing newness to her brand with every collection.
Sonia Kashuk. Photo: Richard Burbridge

Sonia Kashuk. Photo: Richard Burbridge

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.

With more than 35 years of industry experience, Sonia Kashuk learned the ropes in the beauty world a bit differently than today's massively successful vloggers and under-the-radar brands in the digital age. A makeup license was a requirement for Kashuk's career path; she never saw her finished looks until they were published in a magazine; establishing relationships with well-known photographers was instrumental to landing more work (for her, it was Arthur Elgort) and retouching was never a "thing." "It was a lot more challenging because the camera saw everything," says Kashuk. "It was training ground for perfection compared to today's retouching. If there was something on a model's face, you couldn't say, 'Don't worry about it.'"

Kashuk tells Fashionista her start in makeup began by accident. While styling the band Lipps Inc. for the "Funkytown" music video, the shoot's makeup artist had cancelled and Kashuk was asked to step in. "I had no idea what I was doing but I loved it," she says. Afterwards, she enrolled in beauty school and then started traveling in between her hometown and New York City to assist makeup artist Linda Mason. Once Kashuk finally made the permanent move to the Big Apple in the early '80s, a string of consulting jobs led to a creative director role at Aveda for the next seven years. But it was the birth of the "makeup artist brand" era — Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier and Francois Nars — that inspired Kashuk to start her own of line of luxury-leaning beauty products for the mass market. After approaching Target with her idea and spending 18 months producing her debut collection, Kashuk launched over 100 products in the fall of 1999. "We truly revolutionized the industry in terms of bridging the gap of mass and prestige because the quality was comparable to those items at a third of the price," she remembers.

We spoke with Kashuk about bringing newness to her brand with every collection, what she looks for in a high-quality product and what's next after her longtime partnership with Target.

What's your process behind creating new products?

So much is innate — it's a gut feeling. Being in the industry for 35-plus years, there's a cyclical sense to things. But I think just by living, you get an idea of what the needs are. I find inspiration from every day and travel is a big thing for me. There are always different things that can spark an idea and an interpretation for a new product. We have a bag that will be coming out for fall inspired by the Frank Stella exhibit at the Whitney Museum. If you live with your eyes wide open, there's a lot to see.

And how do you maintain newness with each collection?

I do think about how to find and carve out my own space within a very busy, overcrowded category. If you look at the evolution of the brand over the years, it's a lot. We put out new products at least three times a year and it's a whole focus on design. It's not just red lipstick — it's that red lipstick in a super cool package. And so that part is what I think always pushes me. Sometimes it can be daunting. What am I going to do next? You understand the burnout behind people who are constantly designing something new. There's a need to restore and refill your creative gas tank. Where is it coming from next? So you have to keep yourself out there and, like I said earlier, keep your eyes wide open. Something that you never thought twice about can turn out to be an extraordinary inspiration.

What makes a good, high-quality product?

For me, blendability and the pickup on your application when dusting with a brush. If you feel a powder, does it feel silky and luxurious? I think feel has a huge play, as does wear and the visual impact. We are so well-known for our brushes because we approach them from a very design-driven perspective. How do I make that product jump off the shelf and look enticing? Unfortunately, where I am currently sold, you can't feel it or touch it, you can only see it. I love things that are pure and simple in design, but that doesn't work in Target. You have to recognize the environment that you're in and figure out how to grasp attention.

Sonia Kashuk's spring 2016 collection in collaboration with artist Dana Louise Kirkpatrick. Photo: Sonia Kashuk

Sonia Kashuk's spring 2016 collection in collaboration with artist Dana Louise Kirkpatrick. Photo: Sonia Kashuk

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Tell us about your new collection for spring.

It's actually my favorite collection that I've done. I was at Art Basel last year — on the last day and we walked up to this artist's booth, Dana Louise Kirkpatrick from Los Angeles. I was completely taken by her and this super powerful message that she was putting out there. I visited her studio and we talked about beauty and empowerment for women. Dana has amazing style and so much depth and soul, so I looked at her and asked, 'Would you ever be interested in a collaboration?' 

These products are must-haves with packaging designed from Dana's artwork. It's fun and very different yet all super-wearable. There's this amazing smoky eye palette with four different versions, lashes, a red matte lip shade and a shine lip topcoat. When I was a makeup artist, clear lip gloss was a must have. I also wanted to do something that was a cross between a bronzer and highlighter. It was more about giving the skin a beautiful glow rather than strobing or this whole craze with highlighter. I guess I'm of that old school of thought where we have talked for so many years to women about empowerment. So this idea of completely transforming your face doesn't sit with me. 

You announced last year that Target has acquired your brand. What prompted you to make that decision?

My two children are off to college or beginning their own lives, and I felt like I have done a lot with this brand. I'm sure Target can take it to another level. It was this sense of my kids and who they are and allowing them to grow and expand into other things. And I always thought of my brand as a third child. It was about letting go. It's almost when you're so close to something, you have less perspective. After 18 years of literally sitting on top of [my brand], I have to give it room to grow and expand. It was about next stages and the next generation.

So what's next for you?

We'll see how things are playing. Currently, I'm working on spring 2017. I've had an extraordinary journey and I'll definitely do something. It's not retiring, it's rewiring. I want to be open to opportunities and the most important thing is finding that release of creative energy.

Do you see yourself always being involved in the beauty space?

I don't know. Business is über creative. I'm interested in home, I'm interested in a lot of things. But you have to have passion. That's what drives success. And so it's really understanding what it is that I'm passionate about. Beauty has been a huge part of my life but I want to be able to grow and learn new things — and there's still a lot for me to learn. It's a vast world out there.

Sonia Kashuk's spring 2016 collection is available on now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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