After my post on Glossier, I decided to also look into their competitor in the indie makeup brand space, Milk Makeup. You may ask, ” What makes this brand so different?”
On face value, the 85-piece line covers pretty standard territory: concealer, foundation, blush, highlighter, eyeliner, brow pencils, and a variety of eye coatings. The colors are saturated, they shimmer, and much of the makeup has a glossy finish. Everything is cruelty-free. Standout products are riffs on classics, like its “Holographic Stick,” which is a purple-tinted highlighter spruced up with real meteorite dust and pearl powder.
But Milk’s success is less of a surprise when you consider who is behind it. Surpassing expectations has become something of a habit for Mazdack Rassi, Milk’s charismatic co-founder. Rassi got his start in the industry in 1996 when he convinced the owners of what was once the headquarters of the National Biscuit Company to open a photo studio in the building, located on West 14th Street in the then-wasteland of New York’s Meatpacking District, and let him run it.
Milk Studios quickly became a hub for established photographers and designers. Then came MADE fashion week, a showcase for emerging designers that Rassi co-founded with Jenné Lombardo and Keith Baptista in 2009, an equally out-of-the-box endeavour that proved to be a huge success, helping to launch the careers of Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Joseph Altuzarra and others. Meanwhile, Milk has birthed a full-fledged creative agency, pumping out content for large-scale consumer brands, as well as its own editorial platform.
All three were taken with the idea that makeup could be an “accessory that had the power to lift people up and make people feel beautiful,” explains Rassi. Of course, it wasn’t new for a photo studio to create a cosmetics line. Smashbox did it in 1996, finding success with a product offering inspired by the images shot in their studio. But what Rassi and his co-conspirators had in mind was different.
“The makeup line has nothing to do with our studios,” he says. Instead, Milk Makeup was built around another powerful asset: the company’s online following of over 1.4 million people, many of whom are young, creative and uninterested in following trends dictated by traditional beauty editors and brands.
Then Rassi and his co-founders did something unheard of: without so much as a single product, they pitched the idea to Sephora, a client of their studio business. With Sephora on side, they just needed the product. But Rassi decided not to partner with an established beauty player. Instead, he turned to Dianna Ruth, Milk Makeup’s fourth co-founder. Ruth was a beauty industry veteran, who had developed products for Bliss and Sugar while at Li & Fung, and for Benefit, Hard Candy and Lipstick Queen, while at Nu World. Ruth first joined the venture as a consultant, becoming chief operating officer a few months later.
Here, the company’s lack of experience in cosmetics became an asset. “What I realise now is that many people, when they launch new lines, they usually look at everybody’s best-sellers and then they do their version of that,” says Rassi. “We didn’t look at anyone’s best-sellers. We didn’t have the industry baggage that perhaps a lot of companies in that industry would. We just looked at everything from fresh eyes.”
Milk’s other major asset was its physical studio space and staff, who proved to be useful guinea pigs. Rassi, his wife, Ruth and Greville would cook up ideas and products in their workshop — a windowless room, which had previously served as Kanye West’s studio while he was developing his shoes — and then run out and have Milk employees try them.
Milk Makeup’s hook is a character: the Milk Girl. developed from free-flowing focus groups. Company cofounder Mazdack Rassi says this “girl” is the kind of person who takes five minutes to put on her makeup in the back seat of a cab as she’s being ferried between chic events. She’s too cool to want a full makeup mask. Accordingly, Milk encourages swipes of colorful eyeliner and dabs of lip color. or one thing, Milk girls and guys didn’t use tools, preferring instead to do their makeup on the fly, often just as they were running out the door. Likewise, they didn’t have the time — or the desire — to reapply their makeup midday. They cared about what went into their products, expecting companies to use paraben-free, mostly natural ingredients. They also didn’t treat their products with kid gloves; they dropped tubes of foundation on the floor and chucked concealer into purses.
So, Milk Makeup had to be easy to apply; it had to be crafted from high-quality ingredients and it had to last. Most importantly, it had to stand up to a constantly-on-the-go urban lifestyle with all of its mess. It was this last imperative that lead to what was perhaps Milk Makeup’s biggest innovation: Packaging infused with antimicrobial silver so that, according to Ruth, “It could be dropped on the bathroom floor and still stay safe and won’t discolour.”
When the Milk Makeup team returned to Sephora, it was with an offering that included lip markers, shadow-liner hybrids and multi-purpose skin formulas in rollerball or stick packaging that eliminated the need for brushes. In addition to offering up valuable retail space, Sephora has acted as a sort of unofficial mentor to the fledgling brand, advising its founders on everything from what new shades to produce to how to scale its team.
So understand your customer well, develop something that really fits their needs, have great relevant marketing and get a fantastic supporter. Sounds like a good recipe for success. Now for me to try to be a Milk Boy.
Check out my past post on Glossier here