When you think about the last year in beauty, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s EDM-soundtracked hair tutorials on TikTok, rave reviews of new skin care products on Instagram Reels, or your best friend sending the group chat photos of their new makeup/skin care hybrid find. 2021 was full of notable beauty moments and trends, three of the biggest ones coming directly from female beauty founders. There were a few overarching themes that ran deeper or hit harder than the rest, namely like the “skin care-ification” of hair, a return to natural, “no makeup makeup”, and complexion-specific skin care. Hair care brand Ceremonia, skin care brand Topicals, and makeup brand Tower 28 were among the names that led the charge in these industry-shifting trends. And the founders behind these brands are as much a force to be reckoned with as the brands themselves.
Women make up the vast majority of purchasing power in America and that number only goes up when talking beauty specifically — 97% of American women report buying multiple hair products per year, for example. Despite that statistic, only a sliver of beauty brands are actually led by women. A WWD deep-dive illustrates that among the top 20 beauty manufacturers, just three are led by women. For women of color, who make up an even larger share of that beauty industry buying power, the number is zero. But with every seemingly-insurmountable situation comes those visionary disruptors ready to do just that — change the very face of the $511 billion beauty industry themselves.
To celebrate the female minds who, along with their best-selling brands, lead the year in hair, makeup, and skin care, TZR spoke to three of the biggest, boldest names in beauty right now for a reflection on their journey to success, the year past, and what’s to come in the industry.
Babba C. Rivera, Founder of Ceremonia
A star-studded professional résumé filled with companies including Uber and Away is impressive, but possibly even more impressive is Rivera’s ability to embody the proverbial high-fashion It-girl, the creative/analytical entrepreneur, and the doting mother. Rivera, who’s always made advocating for fellow Latinas a top priority, identified a glaring gap in the beauty marketplace. “For the longest time, this category has been dominated by celebrities fronting big-box beauty and red carpet hairstylists creating their own brands,” Rivera explains to TZR. “But what’s interesting is that the industry has been heavily focused on styling versus care…Ceremonia was born out of the desire to bring back the care aspect to hair while celebrating the richness of the Latinx culture.” For Rivera, that representation and celebration was and is so crucial to the brand’s ethos — she considers a one-year anniversary campaign celebrating the diversity of the Latinx community one of her proudest moments.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the “skin care-ification” of hair, but it’s not just marketing jargon cajoling people into buying hair serums. As Rivera rightly points out, there’s been a significant, ingredient-focused pivot among beauty consumers. This can probably be traced back to increased accessibility to information about formulas and materials as well as social media at large. But knowing what goes into your beauty products has become a significant factor for buyers in every beauty industry category — and that’s where Ceremonia’s thoughtful, health-first formulations and transparent ingredients lists shines.
Couple the rise of the conscious consumer with a pandemic-forced pivot toward embracing natural hair color, textures, and types, and it’s no wonder Ceremonia’s popularity soared. “At Ceremonia, these are two core pillars of what we do,” Rivera says. “We practice hair wellness with all of our formulas, and have a strong emphasis on products that not only make your hair nice for the day, but that also have nutrients to help improve your overall hair quality over time. This strategy plays into our larger mission of empowering consumers to re-fall in love with their natural hair and embrace what they have, instead of trying to change who they are.”
Rivera is all too familiar with the unique challenges that come with womanhood, but she’s flipping it on its head. “There’s no getting away from this identity,” she says point-blank, ticking off comparatively paltry fundraising numbers and unconscious biases as just some of many hurdles female founders need to clear just to compete. “I find an enormous sense of purpose in questioning the status quo and redefining what it means to be a woman today,” Rivera says. “Fundraising for my own business while highly pregnant, launching Ceremonia while having my baby at the NICU, and now growing my company with a toddler and a second one on the way has given me a lot of encouragement to showcase not only for myself, [but for] my team and the rest of the world that women shouldn’t need to choose between family or career.”
Olamide Olowe, Founder of Topicals
Olamide Olowe might be barely old enough to rent a car, but she managed to blow the doors off the notoriously exclusive skin care industry with a keen eye for business and a deep-seated sense of purpose. Like so many Black women, Olowe often found herself not only unrepresented within the beauty-sphere, but unconsidered, too. “I grew up with skin conditions and never saw people of color be centered in the research and branding of ointment brands,” Olowe tells TZR, explaining how she got the idea to start Topicals. Her brand is an instantly recognizable one — you’ve almost certainly seen the cheerily colorful aluminum tubes of Faded, a signature product, scattered across the artfully messy bathroom counters of Instagram’s coolest content creators. But while cool seems inextricable from Olowe’s DNA, her goal for Topicals reaches far beyond aesthetics.
“Topicals mission is to transform the way people feel about skin through effective, science-backed products and mental health advocacy,” she says. “Our mission continues to evolve to meet the needs of our community.” It’s a mission that’s clearly resonated with the Topicals audience, resulting in the brand completely selling out at Sephora within its first 48 hours of arrival — that was when “I had my first realization that we made it.” So promising is that ethos that in 2020, Olowe became the youngest Black woman to raise $2 million in funding, an investment her backers must be still thrilled with considering the brand’s importance to Gen Z and Millennials. Much of the brand’s success can be attributed to Olowe’s insistence on only formulating products with the most well-researched, science-backed ingredients possible, but a relatively new philosophy that doesn’t make some unattainable idea of “perfect skin” — or glass skin, or glazed donut skin, or poreless skin — the goal.
Olowe and the Topicals team know that so-called perfect skin doesn’t exist. “The journey to healthy skin is more important than the destination of clear skin,” she says. “Everyone is always looking for that one product that will solve all of their problems when in reality, our genetic composition is so different that not everything will work for everyone.” A far cry from the “miracle cure” marketing approach to skin care, it’s no wonder why young people in particular flock to Topicals.
Because she hasn’t always felt represented in the beauty community, Olowe’s committed to putting that inclusivity and celebration of identity at the forefront of her business. “I try to take an intersectional approach to create our products, campaigns, and company culture,” she explains, and it’s clear from even a cursory scroll through Topicals’ social media that Olowe thoroughly succeeds. As for the year ahead, things are looking bright. “We’re looking forward to transforming the way people feel about their skin and ultimately themselves through storytelling and fun,” she promises. Millions of beauty fans can’t wait.
Amy Liu, Founder of Tower 28
Amy Liu has been entrenched in the industry for nearly two decades now and has seen plenty of makeup trends and brands come and go. “But as someone with a history of eczema-prone skin,” she tells TZR, “I couldn’t even enjoy the best part of working in beauty: trying out all the latest products! Even the clean alternatives were either triggering for my sensitive skin, totally unaffordable, or too clinical and lacked any fun.” Her own journey for the perfect products gave her an idea — why not just make her own? Upon Tower 28’s 2019 launch, the brand became the first and only makeup line to completely and entirely follow the National Eczema Association guidelines, making them officially free of all potentially irritating ingredients. But it’s more than just clean, safe, gentle products that make up the Tower 28 ethos. “Growing up Asian-American in L.A., I didn’t see myself reflected in pop culture nevertheless beach culture,” Liu explains. “I’ve lived on the westside of L.A. my entire adult life and I love that the beach is a place where everyone gets to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. “My mission in launching Tower 28 was to create an approachable beauty company inclusive of all skin tones, skin types, budgets, and beauty philosophies, and inspired by the diverse and healthy L.A. lifestyle I love.”
Based on the runaway success of the brand, it seems like Liu’s inclusive approach resounds with entire generations. Tower 28’s enjoyed plenty of word-of-mouth virality, especially on peer-to-peer platforms like TikTok, thanks to the sustainable packing, irritation-free formulations, and the lush, colorful products themselves. Just as skin and hair care have seen a return to more natural-focused ideals, so has makeup — scroll back through any beauty influencer’s grid to see the evolution in almost-real time. Even the most elaborate makeup trends of the day — like the Euphoria look that’s so enraptured Gen Z in particular — intentionally don’t try to cover up every dot, blemish, or scar. That physical vulnerability seems to be a reflection of the emotional vulnerability encouraged in part by legitimately conscious brands like Tower 28. “Internally, we talk a lot about our tagline #ItsOkayToBeSensitive and it’s a throughline for both product development and 2021 in general,” Liu explains. “Whether it’s our team or customers, people in general are going through a lot whether that manifests itself in your skin or mental health. At Tower 28 we try to be mindful of both and try to be a little corner of the beauty industry (and social media) that people can count on as their safe space.”
As a mother to three children, Liu says she likes to take that maternal lens and turn it towards her brand — she even jokes that Tower 28 is her fourth baby, and it’s an apt comparison. “I am trying to raise all my babies with strong values and a commitment to community,” Liu explains, and those values come through in everything she says about the brand, from its day-to-day work models to the flexibility she grants her employees — as a beauty industry vet, she knows too well how all-consuming the work can be. While 2021 was a massive year for the brand, it wasn’t without its challenges. “We’ve also dealt with Asian hate and global supply chain issues,” she shares, along with lingering effects of the pandemic. “Ultimately, it’s made our company and supportive community stronger, and tested our ability to be agile as a brand,” she says. “We were overwhelmed by the amount of support we have received from customers, creators, industry leaders, and brands who believe in us and share our same values. We are so glad to see people vote with their wallets and realize their power to make change as consumers.”
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