FROM BEAUTYMART, ANNA-MARIE SOLOWIJ AND MILLIE KENDALL TALK BUSINESS, SUCCESS AND THE COMPANY’S FUTURE
Carla Valois Lobo
Last month we visited BeautyMART’s HQ in Highgate, where we spent an enjoyable morning with Anna-Marie Solowij and Millie Kendall. They talked freely about how and why BeautyMART was established, how they first met each other, in what way Topshop impacted their business, and which brands and products they’re keeping an eye on. Fortunately, they also revealed to us what’s coming next for BeautyMART. Check out the complete interview below:
How did you decide to found BeautyMART?
Anna-Marie Solowij: I was writing a column for the Financial Times about the changing face of beauty retail and how younger women weren’t being addressed. There were still the same places to shop; nothing had changed since we were young. Millie and I were friends with the team at Harvey Nichols – I used to edit their magazine and Millie launched brands in there, such as Shu Uemura, Aveda and L’Occitane, so we had a good relationship with them. I ended up sending an e-mail to Daniela Rinaldi, [Concessions & Beauty] Director at Harvey Nichols, and saying “this got to change, you should do something”. We ended up going to see her, and [after two presentations] they said “let’s do it”.
The main job really was to talk to the brands because you can have a million ideas to a shop unless you got anything to put in it and sell, forget it it’s not going to happen. It began like that – that was about five years ago, and it took us a year to talk to all of the brands, probably took us half a year to get everything together and another half year to get all of the investment together that we needed. We opened in September 2012 in Harvey Nichols. A year later we launched our website, and we opened in Topshop in October 2013, and that really changed the business. We’ve realised we were talking directly to the consumer that we always had in mind.
Millie Kendall: Yes, it was the costumer that we’d always wanted because it was a young fashion costumer. They care about what they’re wearing, what they look like and they’re experimental. Topshop was a game changer for us.
AMS: Topshop is a really exciting environment; it’s somewhere we’d always had in mind right from when we launched the business. It’s made the business very exciting because it’s so fast and we always said that we would work quickly, we would bring things in that were on trend and of the moment. What’s actually happened is I think we’ve created a few trends, and with our experience we were able to identify products that were exciting, new to the market but also fitting with what people want at the time.
But coming back how did you meet each other?
MK: We met in Harvey Nichols in 1990. 25 years ago, God, it’s a long time! I was working for Shu Uemura and Anna was writing for ELLE – they had a shoot before the store opened and I had to go in and make sure it looked good.
AMS: The story I was doing for ELLE at the time was about where professional makeup artists go to buy their products. There were two stores in London that still exist – Charles H Fox and Screen Face –, and I thought Shu Uemura was an exciting place to go and shop because it was a professional brand in a retail space. It wasn’t somewhere kind of private and exclusive.
When did you first notice BeautyMART was really taking off?
AMS: Immediately really.
MK: We don’t know yet.
AMS: I mean that were two things: success among your peers, people within the industry, and with the public, and brands coming to us as before we were coming to them. That’s one level of success, and then the other level is whether you are making any money, if you’re profitable. This two things kind of run in parallel and you have to keep doing both.
MK: I think that one of the most important things for us has repeatedly been featured in VOGUE. It was not just because Anna was a beauty director because they’re not obliged to write about us at all. Funny enough this past few months really kicked off for us in such a big way with press.
And how and when Topshop approached BeautyMART?
AMS: Topshop was always on our list of places we wanted to be. The founding principle of BeautyMART was that we were going to sell a range of products from cheap to expensive, across lots of different brands and we were just picking the best. We wanted to take mass brands to premium, which we did in Harvey Nichols, but we also wanted to take premium brands to mass, which was the Topshop game. That happened because the creative director of Topshop’s got a teenager daughter, who came into our store in Harvey Nichols and the following day we received an e-mail saying “OMG, we have to have you. This is exactly what Topshop should be doing; you’ve got the right energy”. From that e-mail it probably took three months for us to open in Oxford Circus, and it’s been crazy ever since, it’s like feeding a monster because it just eats stock.
How to you select each brand/product that is available at BeautyMART?
AMS: It’s instinct and experience. Initially is whether it looks great because I think people shop with their eyes. If you that that sense away how the hell do you choose a product? Impossible! And I do test all the products. You [Millie] like things that work for you personally, whereas for me it’s about if it’s a good formula and if it’s worth expending the money. Between us I think we have a sort of breadth of taste and experience.
MK: I have no taste!
AMS: No, but in a way your taste is quite commercial and that works because I’m a real snob about what a product looks like, the packaging. But between us we kind cover off pretty much any customer from a 12 year old girl to a 95 year old woman. I’m just trying to think of things that haven’t been successful but that aren’t many because we’re quite harsh critics, we’re really judgmental. It’s very different when you’re working as a buyer for another business and when you’re buying for yourself; our reputation is on the line with every product that we buy.
Could you list some brands/products to keep an eye on?
AMS: At the moment some of the Korean brands. The funny thing is that is hard to say what we’re looking at for the future because we don’t operate like most retailers as we can work much closer to the deadlines. I feel very strongly that trends change so quickly that as big retailer you cannot keep on top of them. Given that we’re small and very flexible, we might see something tomorrow that goes into the store in two weeks’ time that I can’t tell you about today because I haven’t seen yet.
But from what’s in store now?
MK: We just put Amazing Cosmetics in, which is a fantastic concealer.
AMS: It’s a tiny little tube. It’s a cream concealer and it comes in 20 shades but we’re taking 10, which is probably 10 times more than most brands will sell. So it has a very wide colour choice, and you can use it everywhere and it’s highly pigmented but really light. We’re going to be selling John Frieda – they came to us two or three months ago, it’s always been on my radar as a brand that we would like [to sell] but they didn’t want to operate with us to begin with. I think that they’ve realised that retail has changed.
MK: CODE VLM‘s mini mascara is been all over the press at the moment. What I love about it is because it’s short it’s the right length; it’s the same length as my eye so it’s actually much easier than a long one. I think it’s brilliant; I have one in my makeup bag, one in my dressing table, and one in my car.
Do you have a daily routine or each day is different?
MK: If every day was the same I’d go crazy.
AMS: There’s always something going on every single day. Whether that be somebody calls in sick, or a new product that lands on our desks, or we get asked to speak about the business and our experience. The website does down, I mean the disaster stuff happens every day as well as the positive side.
MK: It’s a proper rollercoaster.
AMS: I think with social media you can’t control your business. Well you can if you have a PR division, which we have because what we say is driving some of that social but having put the message out there you can’t determine what people are going to do with that. So you might have a big campaign that goes out there and nobody responds to or you can have no campaign and somebody really major with a big following spots a product, falls in love with it, tweets it and suddenly you have a pick in sales that you have nothing to do with and you have to constantly react to that. There’s a feeling that anything can happen at any point, there isn’t a routine.
MK: The difference now is that when I first had a shop, which was in 1999, we closed on Sundays but our business now is 24/7.
What are your plans for the future?
MK: Well we would like to take a holiday. Preferably, not together. I think we want to start with more brands and more development of brands because I think is where our passion is. We’ve done the shop, we’ve prove ourselves, we’ve done the website – we could use a little make over on the website maybe – but it’s about developing brands and kind of moving those forward. There’s finding brands and then there’s creating brands.
So are there any plans of a BeautyMART range?
MK: Yes, we would like to start developing products.
AMS: That’s part of the plan since the beginning because the minute you establish a name for yourself and the authority – they trust us and they know you can do the job that we do well – and I think the minute you can apply that expertise to your own product range then why wouldn’t you? It would be mad not to.