Remember that morning when you woke up and it seemed that all of a sudden every beauty fiend you follow on social media was suddenly raving about the springy cream-to-powder finish of some obscure brand called Colourpop? Or how about the week when literally everyone you know was posting photos of their coffee-ground-covered legs with the now-ubiquitous Frank Body brown paper packaging in the background? Can you even recall a time when your feed wasn't plastered with artfully shot images of bespoke Function of Beauty shampoos and conditioners? Like Athena springing fully formed from Zeus' head, there are some beauty brands that seem to appear from relative obscurity and rocket to social media fame, seemingly overnight.
Also like Athena, those brands are clever – packaged and designed with an eye toward snagging that all-important influencer love that can make or break an emerging brand's chances of becoming a household name. "Oh, I've seen that on Instagram," is fast becoming the most sought-after form of advertising currency, which is perhaps what makes cosmetics company Karity such an anomaly. In a beauty landscape where everyone and their vlogger is obsessed with unicorns, Karity might just be a genuine mythical creature – an Instagram famous beauty brand you've never heard of.
Karity is the brainchild of entrepreneur Isaac Rami, and like any good Insta-bait startup, Karity comes with its own origin fable: Rami was sent to pick up an eyeliner at the mall for his wife and found himself outraged at the prices, ultimately becoming determined to do what the major cosmetic conglomerates were doing but more accessibly, cheaper and with the same high quality. It's a good story and no doubt a true (anyone who's ever found themselves at a department store beauty counter is bound to be familiar with the grim incredulity of sticker shock), but in an era where every third brand is clamoring to tell you how revolutionary going organic is and how the big names in the business are swindling us, it may be the flip side of Rami's story that's the most intriguing. Describing himself as having "an entrepreneurial mindset," Rami comes from a background in e-commerce for digitally native brands like Jomashop: precisely the areas of innovation that traditional beauty brands had been slow to adapt to.
"The idea came to me to start a company that would offer high-performance makeup products at prices that were actually affordable," Rami says. But competing in a crowded beauty space against brands that had decades to develop their customer bases would require more than just a solid product offering — the model itself would also need to adapt to allow the brand to achieve Rami's lofty goals.
"Traditional beauty brands move through the basic ladder of producing products and selling them to customers at a high markup in order to make a fat profit," he says. "There are sales agents, traditional marketing costs, wholesale distribution costs and finally the retail markup in order to purchase space on shelves." That kind of operation poses a major challenge for a fledgling company, and an expensive one. So Rami went a different route. "Once the idea came to mind that I wanted to start a cosmetics brand, I knew I had to sell directly to the customer and put them first. That was incredibly important to me."
When the brand launched in 2015, it was a rare breed. Karity uses a direct sourcing method, buying the raw materials for the products themselves, then partnering with factories to manufacture according to Karity's proprietary formulas. It's a model that may sound familiar to those who are familiar with other direct-to-consumer brands like Colourpop or Kylie Lip Kits (both of which are manufactured by the same company, Seed Beauty), and it's one that had distinct benefits for a independent beauty company. Direct sourcing is estimated to be able to save some brands as much as 4 percent of their overall product costs, a difference that could in turn be passed on to customers in the form of lower retail price points.
"From day one, we had to be strategic about the products that we produced and brought to market," says Rami. "We are self-funded, so any decision that we made had to be thoughtful." For that reason, Karity's initial offering was one that may seem unexpected for a brand inspired by the prices of eye products: makeup brushes. "We started selling makeup brushes because they don't have a shelf life," says Rami. Ranging from $4-$20 for individual brushes to less than $50 for a full 24-piece brush set, these vegan-friendly brushes quickly began attracting attention for their quality as well as their too-good-to-be-true pricing.
The gambit was wildly successful: Within the first year of the brand's launch, Karity sold 750,000 brushes, and this year that number is projected to close in on 2.5 million. That's no small feat for a brand that has never run an ad campaign or sought out sponsorship opportunities. "I would say this was one of the best decisions we made early on. It allowed up to really focus on attracting customers and figuring out who she or he was."
From there, the brand expanded into eye shadows, which have subsequently become one of the mainstays of its current product line. Available in more than 50 shades in individual pans, curated sets and refillable, build-our-own palettes, the rainbow hues earned a reputation among in-the-know influencers as ideal dupes for department store favorites like MAC.
Karity has since expanded its offerings to include lip and face products, as well as a mix-and-match concealer palette, but it's the eyeshadows that still draw the most fervent devotion. Their Nudes & Rudes palette — a collection of neutral tones in matte and shimmer finishes — was so popular when it launched earlier this year that 50 percent of the brand's established customer based placed orders for that one palette alone.
But it's not just the eye shadow shades that inspire this level of obsession amongst the brand's fans. One of the keys to Karity's success, as Rami sees it, has been in the company's ability to listen and respond to its fans in ways that more traditional beauty brands can't (or won't). The packaging, for example, leaves out one feature that's considered essential to many department store brands. "We don't include mirrors on our 21-shade palette. The first reason is that it would cause a huge logistical nightmare. A mirror that size would cause the shadows to crack during shipment because it's too heavy," explains Rami. "The second reason is the customers who are purchasing the 21-shade palette are usually makeup artists or makeup enthusiasts that are sitting in front of a vanity and don't need the mirror for application." It's this type of common-sense approach that has benefitted Karity's ability to be nimble and to expand quickly.
That attention to customer needs has also led Karity in a very different direction from some of its hyper-minimalist, millennial-seeking competitors (cough, Glossier, cough). Where streamlining and compartmentalization have become the order of the day for many brands, Karity has intentionally focussed on providing a wide array of options. "We're not a minimalistic brand. Our customers are creative and constantly trying new looks. We're the brand that consumers can come to when they want to test trends or are interested in expanding their makeup collections. We wanted to give them the shades and formulas that they wanted, without emptying their wallets," says Rami.
But how does a brand with little to no active marketing achieve the kind of fan following that Karity has amassed? "We've benefited greatly from word-of-mouth marketing and really utilizing social media and beauty influencers. Social media is in our DNA," says Rami. "We have used social media to connect with our customers in every single way. From product development to customer service... we turn to social media. It's been a direct line of communication with our customers. It allows us to stay hyper-focused on what they really want from us."
Indeed, the brand's social media presence is bolstered by an impressive ratio of organic user-generated posts; it's full of shots from makeup artists and enthusiasts from all over the country showing off their skills in vibrant, often fantastical designs that would feel equally at home on a theatrical stage or a fashion week runway, all lovingly re-'grammed with credit to the artists (an engagement rate consistent enough to make many better-known brands green with envy). "Our biggest hurdle in 2017 was keeping up with product demand," says Rami in what is arguably the most genuinely humble humble-brag ever.
Maybe it's a surprise then, that after just under three years in business, Karity is opting to refocus its brand. Following a year of changes — 2017 marked a switch from shipping the products directly to a partnership with a fulfillment company that ships orders in less than 24 hours — Karity re-launches its website on Wednesday, featuring a new design and branding in hopes to appeal to existing customers while also reaching a new, even broader, audience.
"We're updating our website with new images to give our current customers and new customers a sense of who Karity is as a brand. We're really putting effort into making it a fun site, since it's our only point of contact with our customers," says Rami. The company is also expanding its product offerings with two brand-new 15-shade eyeshadow palettes that cater specifically to the Instagram set: Just Peachy (a mix of matte and shimmering pinks, oranges and plums) and Unicorn Dreams (a cool-toned set of rainbow hues), both poised to become big sellers.
As for what else the future holds for Karity, Rami describes the brand's goals as "limitless," suggesting that fans should be on the lookout for more new launches across multiple product categories. "We have big aspirations and we're only going to up the ante on how customers shop with us," he says.