#BeautyDisruptors is a new series in which Yahoo Lifestyle Beauty Editor Jacqueline Laurean Yates interviews CEOs, inventors, and other extraordinary individuals who’ve managed to shake up traditional norms, launch innovative companies, and change the stagnant conversation on beauty.
There’s something to be said about someone who launches a makeup brand that has nearly 10 million Instagram followers, cult-classic products, and a must-have eyeshadow palette that influencers can’t stop talking about. Meet Wende Zomnir, the founding partner and chief creative officer of Urban Decay Cosmetics. She also happens to be a wife, mother of two boys, and self-proclaimed beauty junkie.
In the mid-’80s Zomnir’s “aha” moment occurred when she noticed there wasn’t a makeup brand that spoke to who she was. During that time, she recalls, ads portrayed supermodels with blond hair and blue eyes as the ideal beauty. Zomnir knew that was a specific mold that everyone couldn’t fit into.
She tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “It really bothered me that we were sort of beholden to this standard of beauty that someone else defined. I actually had this experience when I was 16 years old. My parish priest came up to me, and he said, ‘I think you’re hiding behind your mask of makeup.’ [I told him,] ‘I’m not hiding at all. I feel like I’m revealing myself, and I’m telling you about myself.'”
Zomnir instantly realized she shouldn’t feel judged about wearing makeup, and it should be about self-expression. This realization gave birth to Urban Decay.
Yahoo Lifestyle was eager to find out exactly how Zomnir carries such a massive makeup brand on her shoulders. Keep reading to learn more about her wins, challenges, and how she continues to push Urban Decay to new heights.
Yahoo Lifestyle: What separates Urban Decay from other makeup brands in the beauty space?
Wende Zomnir: It started from an authentic place, and we’ve always been about what I call “beauty with an edge.” We still try to do that in everything we do. The market changes; people’s needs and wants are changing. Expectations in terms of what a makeup brand delivers is always changing. You have to stay on top of all that, and I think because we also come from an authentic place of being makeup lovers ourselves, we’re not marketers that figure out, “What does the market want and need?” We are makeup junkies who are like, “Oh, my God. I just tried this amazing formula, and I have to share it with everyone else.”
Why do you think Urban Decay’s Naked has been such a cult-classic eyeshadow palette? Is it actually the bestselling product that Urban Decay has?
I think the Naked palette is the bestselling palette of all time. At one point we were up to one sold every, like, 4.5 seconds around the world. It’s not quite at that level right now, but, for a time, they were definitely the hottest thing going.
What’s interesting about Naked is it goes back to the authenticity I was talking about earlier. That origin story came from me saying, “Ah, I gotta travel for this trip, and I need these four basic eyeshadows, and I gotta take all this other color with me. So maybe I should just make a palette with those four basic eyeshadows so I can just throw that in my bag every time.” Those were the four basics that I build everything off of. The highlight, the transition, all of it. It had a really authentic origin, and I thought to myself, “You know? It’s just really about being kind of naked.” It just happened.
How do you factor in the brick-and-mortar experience in an increasingly e-commerce-dominated world? With that, how valuable is having a physical footprint in this day and age?
It’s important to have a physical footprint, but my goal has always been to work really closely with our retail partners Ulta and Sephora because they are experts at bringing a great experience to the customer. Sometimes people want to touch and play, go with their friends, and have a makeup experience. They want to get their makeup done together, and I think that’s really important in makeup. It’s beauty and needs to speak to your soul. It has to be more than just this consumable good. There is an experiential aspect to it.
At the same time, I think you can never downplay the importance virtual and web stores and partners that are online that are selling your stuff in the right and most appropriate way. You have to play both sides in a big way.
What are the toughest challenges you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
I think a lot of people underestimate how important cash flow is. You’re always strapped for cash, and those definitely were the days when we were like, “OK. We gotta make the payroll.” But we always pulled through.
Also, anytime you have a downsizing moment or something’s not working out with a certain group or an individual, having to let someone go is tough because I really view everyone as family. Those are always tough business decisions for me because it’s really personal for me, and I don’t like to feel cold or disconnected.
Reports have revealed that men and women aren’t treated equally within the corporate world. Have you faced any specific challenges as a businesswoman?
It’s hard to know because I wasn’t ensconced in a big, corporate culture where men were being paid more than women for the same job. We were defining our own culture, and it was mostly run by strong, smart, powerful, bold, brave women who were taking chances on coming to work for us and not taking that cushy, corporate job with the parachute and all the benefits. They were coming to work for us, and, yes, we were paying them equally to any guy that would come join us, so it’s a little bit different. It was kind of cool to define our own terms.
Has the influx of celebrity-backed brands changed the beauty business?
It’s not that much different than how social media changed the beauty business, whereas people are able to have their own personal input. Our customers are able to tell us what they want, and celebrity-driven brands are a lot like straight-up beauty brands in that way. Celebrities are now brands in and of themselves. It is about whether or not they are in touch with their customer, and I think brands such as KKW and Kylie Cosmetics definitely are. When these celebrity-driven lines are in tune with their customers and keep the quality of their products up, they’ll be successful.
Speaking of celebrities, how do your partnerships happen? How did you end up working with Ruby Rose?
There’s no road map to it, we’ve discovered. Some people naturally gravitate to you, fall in your lap, and sometimes those really personal connections end up not working out and sometimes they do. For Ruby Rose, I was introduced to her by a stylist and got her agent’s information and just started talking. Then I ended up having a super-strong connection with Ruby. From there, we had to make the decision. Is this the right person? For me, it’s always about are they a good fit for the brand, and can I work with this person? Do I connect with them? I think it’s important that they have the right demeanor to work with us.
Has social media made consumers more or less loyal to specific brands like Urban Decay?
It’s definitely made them less loyal, but it only accelerated what was already happening. Back in my mom’s day, [she] and all her friends, they picked their brand, and they’d have all their makeup from that brand. They really wanted everything to match and all be the same. But when we started Urban Decay, I knew that I wasn’t going be everything in everyone’s makeup bag. I didn’t expect to be. I just wanted to be your No. 1 eyeshadow, and some weird lipstick you’d put on every once in a while. That was really my goal.
I think brands are more and more expecting that they’re going to share the love with other brands, and I think you see it on social media and throughout the makeup community — everyone supports each other. It’s like that old adage, the more positive you put out, the more you get back, and [the more] negative you put out, [the more] you get back.
Luckily, we have really loyal fans. I think we are a brand that’s made up of people, and people are imperfect. Sometimes people misspeak, so I think we learn from all that, and hopefully, our fans still love us and move on. Nothing is in malice, ever.
— Leppie (@LepBeljac) August 25, 2016
Inclusivity is super-important, and if you look back through our historical archives, we were really pushing the whole thing way before anyone else in terms of shapes, sizes, colors, all of it. We really wanted to make the definition of beauty broader and more inclusive from day one. That’s really what Urban Decay has been all about.
I’m super-thrilled to see that people are demanding more in terms of shade range and undertones and all of that because it’s something we’ve been trying to do for a long time, and we’re continuing to expand our shade range because it’s really a welcome thing now. We work meticulously on real people. It’s not us coming up with a spectrum of shades based on some database. We actually get all of our friends and figure out what’s best that way. Each shade is actually tied to a human being.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
- How this Liberian-born entrepreneur went from selling soap on street corners to building a beauty empire
- These Insta-famous eye masks are perfect for selfies (and skin care, too)
- 8 skin care brands that are getting things right for deeper skin tones