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Changing Careers Helped These Beauty Entrepreneurs Break Through the Industry Noise

Insights gleaned from a panel discussion at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Rose-Marie Swift, Linda Wells, Celia Ellenberg, Michael Marcano, Georgie Greville and Nick Axelrod. Photo: Courtesy of SCAD

Rose-Marie Swift, Linda Wells, Celia Ellenberg, Michael Marcano, Georgie Greville and Nick Axelrod. Photo: Courtesy of SCAD

Welcome to Career Week! While we always make career-focused content a priority on Fashionista, we thought spring would be a good time to give you an extra helping of tips and tricks on how to make it in the fashion and beauty industries.

It seems like all you need to start a successful beauty brand today is a lipstick and a million followers, if you're to take the examples of Kylie Jenner and Jeffree Star at, ahem, face value. But there’s far more to launching a cosmetics and skin-care empire than one might expect, and for many beauty entrepreneurs, the path to building a beauty empire is non-linear.

That's according to a group of industry experts who gathered to discuss their careers and give their take on the state of the beauty industry at the Savannah College of Art and Design, which launched its own Business of Beauty and Fragrance degree program in fall 2018, focusing on social entrepreneurialism, natural wellness, and ethics and sustainability as part of the larger beauty industry.

In order for SCAD students to complete the new degree program, they will have to launch a new beauty or fragrance product, in addition to launching their own brand. Those capstone projects may hurl graduates right into the center of beauty entrepreneurship, something the experts on SCAD's panel — which included Nick Axelrod, co-founder of personal care brand Nécessaire; Milk Makeup co-founder and creative director Georgie Greville; executive director marketing for The Estée Lauder Companies, Michael Marcano; RMS Beauty founder and makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift; and Flesh founder Linda Wells — didn't come to until later in their own careers.

Luckily, their diverse career experiences are what gave the panelists unique perspectives about the beauty industry, elements of sage advice they were keen to impart on SCAD students.

Take Swift, a veteran makeup artist who founded her "non-toxic" brand RMS Beauty in 2009. Swift's drive to launch her own line came from years of seeing the impact that chemicals in makeup, which she applied on models in fashion shows and editorial shoots, had on the skin and body. Those experiences are what made her ultra-inquisitive about how products are made, and sensitive to consumers who are looking for clean beauty.

"The consumer, they're much wiser, they're not fooled...they ask brands questions," says Swift. "You have to know what your brand is about, you have to know the ingredients, where it gets sourced, how it’s sourced. You have to know even how the electricity is done in the labs."

And for RMS Beauty, a commitment to sustainability — another non-negotiable for any fledgling beauty brand — is about more than limiting plastic usage.

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"The more I find out about packaging and recycling and all that, and what is recyclable, I find out a lot of things that are not recyclable," says Swift. "For example, we have our glass jars, they're acid-etched. Those are recyclable. But when you frost them, the spray frosting the big companies use, that’s not recyclable. So, brands are kind of jumping on that bandwagon of saying, 'oh yeah, we have recyclable glass,' but it's not actually recyclable if it's been sprayed."

While Swift started in beauty as a makeup artist, other entrepreneurs on SCAD's panel began in editorial, including Axelrod and Wells, who worked as a beauty and fashion reporter and founded and edited the beauty magazine Allure, respectively. While the technical aspects of launching a beauty brand required a bit of on-the-job learning, the ability to create compelling content — one absolutely required to market a new brand successfully today — was second nature to both founders.

"You have to look at ingredients, which isn't my purview but content is, as content," says Nécessaire's Axelrod. "You have to understand where they're sourced from, what does it do, what is the score on the environmental working group's website, what are consumers going to research when they’re looking up a product and ingredient information."

It was his editorial mindset that allowed Axelrod to really focus on what some might consider semantics — like using the word "clean" rather than "organic," which the brand considers ambiguous — to make Nécessaire stand out.

"We had mapped out a couple of different content franchises that would demystify ingredients that are in beauty products, which are not three ingredients, there are dozens of ingredients in a product," he says. "Some of them sound scary, some of them are scary, kind of looking at it as a learning opportunity for people buying into our brand was something we had preemptively planned for. Within the comments, we get ideas for new ways to talk about ingredients."

But connecting with consumers isn't just about demystifying beauty products; it's about provoking and exciting them, too, according to Wells. After having founded the beauty magazine Allure nearly three decades ago, she left parent publisher Condé Nast in 2015, eventually joining Revlon's chief creative officer. While serving in that role, Wells also got the opportunity to create Flesh, a color cosmetics brand with a name intended to give you pause, if not make you totally cringe, for the company.

"When we launched Flesh, we had all these outrageous product names like 'Moist Flesh,' which was kind of delicious and wonderful and provocative and cool. There was even a Reddit thread at one point about how horrible names were," Wells says. Flesh's marketing strategy is to vex its audience. In one instance, the brand scoured the Internet for all the bad things people had to say about it, then compiled those comments and threads in a fake digital newspaper (fake news, how timely!).

For both those SCAD students or anyone else jumping headfirst into the beauty industry, it seems a look outside the box (or, say, a lipstick tube) helps elevate what's in it. 

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