2011 November 10
The Beauty Chronicles, Vol. 1: Wende Zomnir, Urban Decay
Scott Nathan View Gallery
(NEW YORK) Welcome to the inaugural dose of “The Beauty Chronicles,” our latest addictively oh-so-Daily series. Expect a slick swipe of industry intel, a coat or two of fascinating behind-the-scenes dish (i.e. how that beloved lip gloss got its ridiculous name), and a healthy spritz of insight into what’s really going on in the beauty industry today. Meet the pretty faces behind the cult prettifiers that rake in mega millions—and the products and lines that are just hitting the shelves. Without further ado, the full scoop from Wende Zomnir, Urban Decay’s executive creative director. From the brand’s endearingly grungy early days (think Garbage and scads of surfer gals) to its enduring success a decade and a half later, there’s plenty of intrigue—and ballsy, blush-worthy nail polish names—to go around.
BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
What were you doing pre-Urban Decay?
I had spent five years in advertising and marketing. I'd learned a lot, but I knew that a big, corporate structure wasn't going to fulfill me personally I needed to do something more entrepreneurial and self-directed. I had to be creative, but not for other people. I was doing some freelance journalism and teaching scuba diving on the side to make extra money. Then I met Sandy [Lerner].
How did you meet Sandy?
My best friend in Chicago, who now lives here in L.A., had an ex-fiancé who was Sandy's business manager. The ex-fiancé was still totally in touch with her because he was still totally in love with her, and he called up my best friend to tell her about this idea Sandy had for a makeup line with wild, crazy colors. My friend said, "oh my God, you have to Wende. She can make this happen." I flew to San Francisco to meet with Sandy, knew it was a great basis for an idea; I helped her design it, flesh it out, and bring it to market.
So how was Urban Decay born?
It's kind of a crazy story! This is Sandy Lerner's brainchild, and I came in at the very beginning, we partnered up and created the brand out of this crazy idea she had for a really alternative cosmetics company. Everyone was saying it had to be named Urban something. Sandy and her husband, who’s totally “Mr. computer scientist,” sat in their living room started Cisco Systems and invented the router, which provides like 90 percent of internet connections—just said one day "oh, why don't you call it Urban Decay?" and the name just stuck. I never thought, 15 years later, that this would still be happening. We thought it would be fun for a couple years, we'll do some nail polish, and this will be great. I was in my twenties, and I wasn't even thinking about what I would do after.
How did you nab your first retailer?
Our first customer was Nordstrom—I got the name of the cosmetics buyer sort of in a sneaky way. My boyfriend at the time had a friend over at his place, and the friend was a swimsuit rep. While his friend was taking a shower, I went through his bag to look at his customer list, of all these swimsuit buyers' names. I called the buyers and said I'd gotten their names from the swimsuit rep. They handed all the cosmetics buyers' names over, and Nordstom somehow worked out!
Which famous faces have fawned over Urban Decay since the start?
Celebrity used to not be so handled; you used to just meet these people! I was obsessed with the band Garbage when we started. I managed to track down Shirley Manson in the middle of Wisconsin at their recording studio. I sent her all of these half-filled tester bottles with handmade labels. Shirley ended up being totally supportive, and one of our first fans. I met Gwen Stefani the same way, through the back when everything wasn't done with all these contracts and lawyers. I met this girl who made clothes for Gwen; I remember going to Gwen's house in Los Feliz and doing yoga on her patio.
Any zany moments from the earliest days of Urban Decay?
For my first displays, which had those fake nails to show the range, but we had these really unusual, rich colors, that the display people couldn’t match between the polishes to the plastic nails. We realized we'd have to hand paint them. Nail by nail! I employed a bunch of surfer girls to do it—they would show up dripping wet after they were done surfing and sit on my deck, painting fake plastic nails duct taped to giant sheets of cardboard. It was so out there!
Have any names ever been too taboo, even for Urban Decay?
We did a show for Betsey Johnson, and the makeup artist Charlie Green did the looks, and we were involved. We did this lipgloss just for the show, which was themed "Guys <3 Betsey." We named the bright red, sheer, drippy gloss "Guys <3 B.J." B.J. for Betsey Johnson, right?! We thought we were so hysterical! It was just too much for the retailers to take. It was a label situation, so we were able to change the name to "Guys <3 Betsey."
What’s the rationale behind your racy names?
In general, we really don't shy away from much. We don't swear in our names, but we do use a lot of street names for drugs and all kinds of different things. We put it all on the table with a collection of names, and we edit from there. Sometimes we the name is just there; other times, we refer to this list of names that we keep when we're stuck. Other times, nothing on the list works, so we get a whole group around the table to brainstorm. Sometimes it involves a glass of wine or two; that stuff gets pretty into the gutter! There are no rules in the room, and nothing is too awful. It doesn't have to leave the room or even make the list of backup names.
Do you ever go beyond your staff for naming inspiration?
We also call in "experts" sometimes. We have these smoky eye shadows called Smoke Out Kits, and we wanted to name them after different slang terms for marijuana. So we called the ex-boyfriend of one of the girls who works here, because he happened to be a very heavy pot smoker, to give us names. It's a really organic process!
What names can we look out for on the shelves in the future?
We have a totally pale, nude-y, buff color that we're launching called "Walk of Shame." In that same vein, we have a dark brown color we're launching called "Back Door." It could be the back door to a nightclub, or...
Gotcha. Have you ever had issues with parents or straight-laced consumers over the risqué product names?
We actually do not market to consumers under 18 years old, or under 21, for that matter. If women under 21 or 18 want to buy our brand, are into it, and can convince their parents, that's their family's business. But we don't purchase any media to advertise to younger women. A mother once wrote to me because her daughter was overweight and she thought our Big Fatty mascara was insulting and mean. Little did she know that Big Fatty was not about weight, but was, in fact, once again a reference to smoking marijuana. We had these double-sided lipsticks once that were called Schizo Sticks because they were double sided, and people loved them. For two years, I got hate mail from the associations and alliances for the mentally ill.
Did any retailers ever raise concerns over the line's general sass?
Yes, one department store did a bit; they wanted to really "vanilla" everything out, change our display signage, etc. That's fine; they know their customer. Other big, big retailers with more fashion-forward customers have totally embraced us and told us to just go for it; they see that approach as a point of difference for their brand. Sephora is another one that's always embraced us, and they're truly innovators. We did an exclusive launch at Sephora for these rich, super glossy, all-over lip pencils, called Super Saturated Lip Pencils. There's one called "Fbomb," and it's Sephora's best seller in the line.
Has there been a marketing push to do a tamer capsule collection or offshoot line?
People always talk about that, and we do get approached. One big retailer wanted to sell our brand in the junior's department, but they want a sharper price point and we weren’t going to do that. Another huge retailer was hot on us to create a line for their stores; they embraced our brand and have done interesting things fashion-wise, but it was an issue of scale. We don’t know how to run a business that way! We have a unique position in the prestige market.
What's the trick behind Urban Decay's allure?
Our philosophy is that it’s never done. We’re constantly evolving the brand, and it’s always been that way! The merchandising is never done, the product line is never done…once I came to that realization, I stopped chasing my tail and striving for perfectionism, because it’s simply never done! People are so fascinated by celebrity magazines because they're covering people who have created such interesting lives for themselves. Most people want that in their own lives as well, and we bring that to them a little bit. It's not your basic beige eye shadow palette; it's the Naked palette.
How has Urban Decay fared compared to other lines that also launched in the late ‘90s?
A lot of the brands we were neck to neck with in the beginning aren’t here anymore, like Tony & Tina. Another brand we considered a competitor was Hard Candy; they’re still around, but they’ve gone mass market and are sold at Wal-Mart now. Our strategy has always been to be consistent and steady; to always do the right thing in terms of product selection, working with the retailer, our own employees, and our customers. I think that’s been really good for us.
And way, way before Urban Decay came to be...what was your relationship like with makeup during your formative years?
I'm from Texas, so you know how to apply make up when you're born, basically—well, maybe when you're a little girl—growing up there. My mom is a real Texas beauty, and I was always interested in it. I remember how lipstick smelled from when I was a little girl. To this day, when I smell an old-fashioned lipstick formula with oils that they don't use today, it feels like I'm seven years old again looking through my mom's makeup, since scent is that reptilian thing in your brain that evokes the most memories. When I was 12 or 13, my parents bought me the original Calvin Klein blockbuster makeup set for Christmas. It was like heaven! The thing was the size of a phonebook, with a giant mirror, all these eye shadows and blushes with probably terrible pigmentation and crappy brushes. I remember taping pictures of Brooke Shields and other young modes to the mirror in my bathroom and recreating the looks. My first make-up looks weren't necessarily "Texas make-up"; they were more Robert Palmer-ish looks, from the '80s. I went on to compete in the Miss Texas U.S.A. pageant, and my make-up went in a different direction. There were heavily contoured eye makeup and cheeks, but not a lot of color. It was about the false eyelashes making your face stand out on stage.
How much makeup do you wear nowadays?
I’ll go for three or four days in a row with a lot of makeup; today I’m wearing lots of purple, yesterday I was all about a burgundy lip. And then I’ll use around one day each week to really experiment with skin products and not much makeup, and then I’ll try a bunch of stuff out when I get to work. Those are the days I really look weird, with a different product on each eye! Also, if a product is supposed to be waterproof, I’ll go surfing in it; if it’s supposed to be sweatproof, I wear it on a run. I’m my own personal guinea pig.
What’s the craziest request you’ve ever received?
About a year into starting Urban Decay, a woman called our office asking for several gallons of Asphyxia nail polish [an iridescent fuchsia hue] because she wanted to paint her Ford Explorer that color. We weren’t able to do that, because although nail polish and car paint are made in the same factory, they are different formulas. So we went to the lab, matched the color, and had special car pant created for her. We recently had our first Urban Decay-inspired tattoo, which a girl based on a peacock on our Ink for Eyes packaging. It’s definitely a dedicated group of customers.
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