It's no secret that women of color are continually underserved by the beauty industry in a myriad of ways. And while the sector has made certain strides toward filling the gaps in product offerings, it still has plenty of catching up to do in regards to showing up for women of color.
It was with this in mind that Ozohu Adoh created Epara, a natural luxury skin-care line made specifically for and by women of color, in 2017. And while the line can already be found in various countries all over the world, from the UK (where it's based) and Belgium to Kenya and Nigeria (where Adoh grew up), Epara makes its debut in the United States on Tuesday, launching exclusively with Barneys New York, both in-store and online.
Not unlike many other beauty pioneers, Adoh's journey began with a personal skin-care struggle, and an equally difficult time finding a solution already on the market. So she took matters into her own hands.
"I had been suffering from a skin disorder which the doctors really struggled to diagnose, and therefore they couldn't treat it," says Adoh. "So I was really struggling, trying to get all sorts of products and I was willing to invest whatever amount of money in it to get rid of the issue, but it just never happened. I'm African by origin, so I did some research on African botanicals, and then just started to experiment." And those trials and errors paid off. "Before I knew it, I happened upon a formulation that worked for me. I was just going about my job every day, until somebody saw me. She'd known me for a very long time, and said, 'Your skin looks amazing now, what are you using?'"
The formulations Adoh was uses were mixtures of various butters and oils kept in nondescript jars. After sharing them with one friend, others wanted in on her luxurious-feeling DIY products, and later urged her to consider commercializing. While she began to entertain the idea, Adoh knew she couldn't just rely on the opinions of her closest friends before she left her comfortable job in finance and strategy to venture into the then-foreign world of beauty. So she did what any reasonable business professional would do: She conducted a focus group.
"These women, they were actually an interesting bunch, because most of them were professional women with some disposable income and most of them had used all of the top brands that you know," she said of the 20 women of color pooled together. "They had very refined taste in regards to skin care," says Adoh. "So, when I gave them this product and they all tried it and said, 'Oh my God, yes, I like it, I like it, I like it,' that quite strong validation for me."
Fast-forward to today: What began as rudimentary but effective concoctions in Adoh's kitchen now represent Epara's 10-piece product range, which specifically targets two main complexion concerns women of color face on the regular: hyperpigmentation and hydration.
"For women of color, our main issue will not be from wrinkling and all of the anti-aging stuff that would normally come with maybe some of our friends," says Adoh. "For us really when we age, you might start to see some discoloration. We also wanted to address the hydration, and particularly, we wanted to break the cycle of how when women use very harsh cleansers, it leads to overproduction of sebum. Then you look like you've got oily skin when you actually don't have oily skin; what you do have is slightly distressed skin, which is why it is then is trying to compensate and sort of rebalance itself."
From there, Adoh and her team created what they consider the essentials for those concerns — including a moisturizing face cream, brightening night balm, intense hydrating mask, hydrating serum, eye serum, cleansing lotion, cleansing oil, face oil, hydrating mist and a body cream, the line's only body-focused product — though they don't expect everyone to need every product.
What all of the products have in common, however, are that they each contain botanicals, essential oil and plant extracts. All of the natural and organic ingredients used by the brand are ethically sourced from co-ops and farmers from across Africa (think moringa oil from Kenya, marula oil from Morocco, and shea butter from Ghana), making up 95 to 100 percent of the range, depending on the product.
Epara is a luxury brand with a luxury price point to match, with each item ringing in between $60 and $230. The prices are pretty on par with (and even more modest than) many prestige lines, but for Adoh, they also imbue the products with a sense of responsibility. "I want to put out a product that is clean, but I want to make sure as well, because it is a high price point, that it's also effective," Adoh adds. "At the end of the day, I want to be pragmatic."
Clinical trials run by Epara and its lab have shown reduction in uneven skin tone and scarring, and a brighter complexion in as little as two weeks. After trying the product out for myself for one week, I saw significant improvement in my own hyperpigmentation.
Product and price range aside, Epara has managed to give women of color the sumptuous, minimal branding, packaging and messaging that have long been non-existent in products catering specifically to them. To be a woman of color and know that the creams, serums and lotions were made by another woman of color with quality ingredients is one thing. But to then be able to experience the feeling of those products fitting into your life aesthetically — doubling as decor in your bathroom, prompting still life-esque photos of your top shelf for Instagram à la the La Mers and La Prairies of the world? It's truly an immeasurable joy.
"It's important for us to have luxury," said Julee Wilson, Essence fashion and beauty director at a New York City press event for Epara's launch, which she hosted. "We deserve it."
At the very same event, Adoh elaborated on the origin of the name Epara, which means "to cocoon" in the Nigerian dialect of Ebira. "I thought of it as wrapping yourself in luxury," she explained. It's this 360-degree attention to what women of color need from the beauty industry, in terms of both product and brand experience, that made Epara fit to partner with a retail powerhouse like Barneys just a year after launch.
"We were excited by Ozohu Adoh's approach to creating luxury skin-care for women of color," says Jennifer Miles, the senior vice president and division merchandise manager of cosmetics at Barneys New York. "Epara gives us the opportunity to offer our consumer a luxury skin-care product tailored to their specific skin-care needs."
The partnership paints a clear picture that we need both innovators (like Adoh) and champions (like Barneys) to further the progress within the beauty industry, and the picture is a hopeful one. Here's to more empowered women of color in the labs, in product development, and calling the shots behind the scenes. The industry at large will be better because of them.
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