Lesley Thornton remembers the first time she saw a glimmer of herself represented in luxury beauty: She was working as a makeup artist at an Estée Lauder counter in a department store in 2003, and Liya Kebede had just been named the brand's first-ever Black spokesmodel in its then 57-year history.
"It showed me that there was a place for Black women in the luxury beauty space," she tells me over the phone, reflecting on how that moment in part inspired her to create Klur, her California-based skin-care brand built on "eco-inclusive botanicals."
Thornton's resumé includes nearly 20 years of experience in the beauty industry. Having gotten her start in retail, she eventually opened her own facial studio, where she spent years working as an esthetician and formulating products for her clientele. She went on to channel her skin-care knowledge and personal desire to see Black consumers better represented in the luxury "clean" beauty space into Klur Skin, a small beauty line sold at Urban Outfitters. But after a little more than a year, when Thornton didn't see it taking off in the way she'd envisioned, she pulled it from stores to undertake a complete re-formulation and re-brand.
The second iteration, Klur as it exists today, made its debut in 2019 — to "crickets," as Thornton herself tells it. Despite introducing the very same science-backed, "clean," sustainability-centered, intentional formulas and beautiful, minimalist packaging that beauty editors, influencers and retailers would find themselves clamoring to partner with and write about one short year later, Thornton was met with swift, pervasive rejection when she'd pitch the brand. She even took a temporary job as a Lyft driver for several months to keep the company afloat.
Then, amid the pandemic and the notoriously difficult-for-small-businesses climate of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement found a new urgency. Consumer and retailer demand for Black-owned brands exploded. So, too, did Klur's caché.
One influencer post snowballed into many, which led to a staggering spike in brand awareness and demand. Klur topped "Black-owned beauty brands to know" lists the internet over, won the hearts of editors (including me) with its effective-yet-gentle formulas and found spots on the chicest of top shelves with its minimalist packaging.
If 2020 was an absolute rollercoaster of a year — one of overwhelming difficulty and sudden triumph — for Klur, 2021 promises to be one of reflection, intention setting and harnessing that momentum for the brand's future. Recently, Thornton began to find the time to meditate on the last 12 months and find meaning in it all. Ahead, she shares with Fashionista how transparency helped Klur cope with 2020, why she thinks sustainability and inclusivity must remain linked and why she refuses let Klur become a "Band-Aid" fix for retailers with a history of racism.
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Tell me about Klur's origin story and how your own background informed how the brand came to be.
Klur is a byproduct of all my experiences — as an aesthetician, as a consumer, as someone who has worked as a makeup artist and who has spent nearly 20 years in the beauty industry.
I started my career as a makeup artist in department stores. When people ask me about how Klur came to be from a brand perspective, I think it's all the parts of everything I wanted to experience as a consumer and didn't get to experience. I don't think I ever felt fully appreciated, whether that was as an aesthetician, as a Black skin-care educator, or even as a consumer.
But Klur did not get here overnight. The company has been around for years. We launched in 2015 as Klur Skin and even had been in retail at Urban Outfitters. I had never sold my products to anyone [besides my facial clients] at the time; I was just formulating for my [facial studio] customers and myself when Urban Outfitters became a part of the story. I realized that there were very few Black-owned brands back in 2015 that were in the clean beauty space — I wouldn't even say that there was one that I can remember. But Black consumers were being sold really horrifying, actually very toxic products. And I don't use that word lightly.
So I realized: There's a problem here. There are all these weak links. There are poor formulations that are being sold to Black consumers. There are clean beauty brands that won't even post dark-skinned people [on social media]. There are brands that are only talking about ingredients and never talking about people's stories. I took the experience I had as a person on the retail floor, as a salesgirl, as a consumer and channeled that into the brand.
What do you think sets Klur apart from so many other skin-care companies out there, and how does it fill those gaps you experienced as a consumer?
A lot of Klur is just my personal experience and my personal touches, and I think what makes the brand so unique is that my philosophy is so unique. Klur is based on three pillars: community, sustainability and eco-inclusivity.
I didn't really know where I was able to fit as a beauty consumer. And when I became a makeup artist and retail salesperson, there were three brands in the department store: Fashion Fair, Esteé Lauder and an emerging MAC Cosmetics, which was still barely five or six years old. I was working at the Estée Lauder counter when Liya Kebede became the first Black spokesmodel [for the brand], and it was a huge deal.
How did that moment — seeing a Black woman as the face of a beauty brand — impact you?
I actually just spoke with the woman who gave me that job at Estée Lauder the other day and she said, 'I remember that moment, I remember asking you to put the picture of this woman up in the lightbox.' I took a step back and for the first time ever I saw a Black woman in luxury beauty. I'd never seen it before.
When I built Klur, the community aspect was so important because I don't want anyone to ever feel left out the way I had felt left out. When I say I focus on it being an inclusive brand, I really mean that. I wouldn't want any consumer to feel what I felt when I was younger.
How does Klur's mission to be a 'sustainable' brand play into that?
Sustainability is deeply important to me and I felt like, in order to actually have a sustainable message, we can't leave anybody out, because the only way we get to a more sustainable world is actually through inclusivity and everyone doing a little bit. We need everybody, so [Klur] is an eco-inclusive line because we all have this duty to the planet. We all have a job to do.
Tell me about the decision to re-brand and re-launch Klur in its current iteration.
I voluntarily pulled out of Urban Outfitters in 2016 after being with them for about a year and a half. I started from scratch, scrapped my website. I had just enough money to start over with reformulating the products; creating cleaner, better, more high-performance products that were science-proven. I took into consideration: How can you make products that make people feel better without having all this [marketing] fluff and stuff?
What you see now is the second iteration of Klur. I dropped everything that didn't make the brand feel beautiful. I wanted to tell stories of people, not just ingredients. I wanted to focus on humanity and sustainability. It took a long, long time.
What was the response to the re-brand like initially?
I re-launched in January 2019, and there was no interest. I was beating on doors. I could not get press. I could not get people to return my emails.
My press releases [described Klur] as a 'Black-owned luxury beauty brand,' and people weren't interested in talking about this. In early 2019, I'd already quit my job at as an esthetician because I felt so confident in what I had created. Urban Outfitters had already sold my first iteration years ago, so I thought I'd be able to [get into] retail right away — but I was not able to find a retailer at all. Not a single soul, except for a small boutique in Los Angeles called LCD.
There was no celebration of multiculturalism. There was no interest in Black-owned luxury brands, in putting this topic at the forefront or considering how brands don't even talk to Black consumers. It was deeply disturbing.
Clean beauty was very un-inclusive. It was for white women. There was a human disconnect, there was a social disconnect, there was an elitism about it.
How did you cope with that lack of interest at the time? And when did things start to change?
I leaned into my internet community and I realized that there were people who were interested. It wasn't press, it wasn't retail. It was actually the consumer who wanted Klur. And when I saw that, I thought, I'll just keep going, keep reaching out to these few people who follow me, and start making relationships with people who do believe in my brand. I started making content around what I wanted to see and focusing on talking about sustainability and skin science.
Retailers and press were waiting for trends to happen; consumers were already wanting it. Eventually things started getting better. I was able to quit the three-month job I'd taken with Lyft to support myself and take out a very small loan and just start pushing the brand. I rented another facial studio and went back to doing facials to keep myself going.
Little by little, interest started to come. But I think when everything happened last year with BLM, things really took off. Marianna Hewitt posted Klur first. One of her friends was one of my original community members and told her about it. She bought some Klur products — she didn't ask me to send them, she paid for it and everything — and then she spoke about it [on social media]. And then her friends started posting and re-posting. And that kind of went from there.
How did that groundswell of support impact the brand and impact you?
I would still be doing facials had that not happened, essentially. At the time I had this small organic community of probably 20,000 people, and had I not had that, I would have essentially given up. I was deeply discouraged and super traumatized by the whole experience [of being rejected]. I'd just come out of a time with all of these retailers saying 'No, there's no room for you, we're not interested, that brand is not something we would want to carry.'
What was it like to experience such sudden attention and success in the midst of also coping with the pandemic as a small business owner?
Klur is a very, very small business. Everything that I've done has been out of my pocket. I've never paid myself anything. I have some contracted help, but for the most part, it's on me. Seeing this major influx of sales and attention, I had to quickly get some help. I think I'm actually just now processing my feelings about everything. I was just trying to keep up with the demand, make sure that people were getting their products, things were being delivered.
We had a lot supply issues, a lot of issues with UPS — we had things get lost. There was the huge problem with the postal service at that time. Our packaging was affected and supply chains were slower.
I actually did not have time to process anything until January of this year, when things kind of slowed down after the election. I'm just now feeling I have the emotional capacity and bandwidth to sit with myself and how I feel.
What were some of the ways that you coped in the moment just to keep customers happy? Can you talk me through little bit of what you had to pivot, and how you overcame those challenges in the moment?
Transparency helped us cope, just to be very straightforward with people so that they knew what was going on in the background. It felt like the only thing people had [to look forward to] at that time were packages and things that they were ordering online, these small things became really important to people.
I have the most amazing customers — they were all so understanding. As long as you openly communicate with people, they'll understand. I wrote an open letter on my website, I put an open letter on Instagram. I did weekly updates to communicate with everyone what was going on.
Our intention is to do business from the right place. If that means we have to stop deliveries right before holidays to release some of the burden on USPS or UPS, that's what we'll do. If that relieves the burden on our small team, then that's what we'll do — and we'll communicate that. Some people were willing to wait three weeks to three months to get their product. I coped with it by being honest and transparent.
Leading from the heart, my community was able to give me support in return, because they were beyond understanding. I got so many DMs and messages of support. And that goes back to our community. More than anything, even if you can't afford our products, there's still a community at Klur for you. At the end of the day, I want our consumers to feel seen, heard and appreciated.
Where is Klur's business now?
Things are going great. We're still seeing such growth, especially in our community and of course that translates into sales, which have remained pretty steady. We're in talks with retailers and trying to figure out which ones to partner with. This is murky water for me, having gone through those 18 months of rejection, and then suddenly having 70 retailers reach out when there was increased demand for Black-owned brands.
I've had to make it a policy to say no to everybody so that I can vet who is authentic and who isn't. In the past, I'd seen retailers close the door in my face and now everyone is inviting me to their party. I thought, 'I was just asking you, and now [you're asking me] because it'll make you look better and inclusive. But I know that you're not.' But I'm in conversation with a few retailers that I feel are a genuine fit.
How are you vetting retailers to make sure they meet certain standards for Klur to partner with?
They have to make sense. Aesthetically, values-wise — we have to share at least some of the same values.
I think one of the very first retailers that reached out [when conversations about Black Lives Matter were peaking] was Revolve. And Revolve is notoriously un-inclusive. It's not a bad company, but it does not reflect our values. I will never have Klur products sitting in a Revolve. We're not seeing the world from the same perspective.
I'm using common sense and also looking at retailers' past. Reformation has had some very open issues with internal racism. My cleanser is not going to absolve you. You're going to have to change your values. I don't think that selling a product is going to change the conversation. The retailer must be open to that conversation. I think saying openly that you're in solidarity and want to carry our brand doesn't change anything. You need time to make a plan of action.
Just asking to stock Klur is a quick response, a Band-Aid. I'm not going to be your Band-Aid. I even had someone tell me, 'I don't have any Black designers or Black brands and I want to remedy that.' And I thought, I'm not your remedy. So, of course there's a vetting process, but it's also instinctively knowing when a partnership is more beneficial for them than it is for me. Most of the time, it's more beneficial for them. Throwing a facial oil on your shelf isn't going to remedy the world of racism or your past policies.
What does your team look like now? Have you grown at all?
This year, the goal is to grow the team, but right now we have two contract workers three days a week. For now, with Covid, I'm just playing it safe, because a lot of the work that has to be done has to be in person.
What are some of your goals for the company?
I'd like to have a creative team take over at some point, to really bring the story of the brand to life. In the long term, my goal would be to really find retailers and partnerships that are actually authentic and genuine — just a few that we can really grow with, retailers that believe in what we're doing.
What advice do you have for other small businesses owners who are people of color?
Specifically for this time, my advice would be to establish your values and your boundaries. A lot of people are going to need you right now, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good fit.
Then in general, my advice is to always keep quality in mind. Black consumers are always deserving of better than what we receive. It's long overdue that Black consumers get better formulas, better products, better packaging, better messaging, better marketing. So I believe that Black entrepreneurs and creators have to do better and raise the bar to fight against the stigma.
This interview has been edited for clarity.