2 May 2017

Founders with a fresh take on black hair and makeup

We speak to three founders who are transforming the business of black hair and beauty.

MDM Flow

What? Makeup brand
Why? To make lipsticks that cater to black women
When? Founded 2013
Who? Florence Adepoju, cosmetic scientist
Incumbents: Sleek, MAC, Iman, Bobbi Brown, NYX

MDM Flow is a makeup brand – and a movement.

‘Three years ago I only cared about the product,’ says founder Florence Adepoju (pictured above), a cosmetic scientist who devised a new formula for lipsticks that catered to darker skin, after realising the filler ingredient used by many big makeup brands was only suited to pale skin. She now finds herself spearheading a new vision of what a makeup company could be.

‘A lot of other brands identify with a particular aesthetic,’ she says. ‘MDM Flow is more about the attitude.’

‘Brands still successfully use stylised icons like Marilyn Monroe,’ she adds, pointing to how little change there’s been in many major makeup companies’ marketing over the years. ‘But a customer now exists who has much more nuanced and diverse influences. That’s why small brands need to – and do – exist; to show things can be done differently.’

Four years since starting out, MDM Flow has a strong following across social media and a confident brand identity that, Adepoju says, matches the ‘MDM Flow girl’ and focuses on body positivity, rather than ‘preying on female insecurity’ as traditional beauty brands have been accused of.

‘The biggest thing you can do online is create a community, have a conversation, talk about the industry, connect with the customer,’ she argues. MDMFlow’s blog features interviews, a homage to Michelle Obama (‘The Baddest FLOTUS That Ever Was’), stockist and product updates, and call outs for new product requests.

Distribution

Despite the power of a strong online presence, physical retail remains a key component for a new cosmetics brand. ‘There’s something really personal about beauty,’ says Adepoju. ‘You need to feel the weight [of a product] and swatch it to have an affinity with it. You can’t gain that trust online, and you can’t try before you buy like fashion.’

But getting a lipstick through the door is tough. Boots, the UK’s largest cosmetics retailer, rarely trials small brands. It can be hard to convince buyers that there is demand for a product; Adepoju says she has met with retailers who have denied that there is a problem with their offering for darker-skinned women.

Others, however, have taken note of MDM Flow’s customer reviews and press attention. ‘I’ve had buyers say no, and then turn around six months later,’ says Adepoju.

MDM Flow lipsticks are now stocked by Boots online, Harvey Nichols, Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal in the US and MECCA in Australia. However, Adepoju is pushing hard to get into Boots stores and to feature in its marketing materials – without which, she points out, it’s hard for smaller brands to be discovered even when they are stocked, and can lead to misleading sales performances compared to the incumbents.

Joining the party

Adepoju hopes the big brands’ grip on the market will ease. ‘I hope the beauty industry will become as nuanced as the fashion industry,’ she says, pointing to the impact the rise of ethical independent clothing brands has had on bigger companies.

But it is, she insists, far harder for a startup cosmetics brand to get going. Finding a manufacturing partner, gaining contacts with ingredients suppliers, meeting minimum order quantities, navigating legislation and patenting new formulas are not for the faint hearted.

‘The industry is very insidious,’ says Adepoju, who made contacts with suppliers and manufacturers through her cosmetic science degree at the London College of Fashion.

Finding a cosmetics factory that would produce her products was tricky. ‘Nobody wanted to work with me at the beginning,’ she says. ‘They said, “We don’t know who you are or who your brand is”.’

Adepoju considered investing in her own equipment, but realised this would limit the range of products she could make, and the company’s growth. Instead, the £2,000 Adepoju raised via crowdfunding platform Indiegogo enabled her to work with a factory that produces for larger retailers. (She won’t disclose any details – ‘it’s really competitive information to put out there’.)

Crowdsourcing product development

True to her brand, Adepoju recently put MDM Flow’s next product move out to her customers, surveying what they like and need from a foundation. ‘It’s giving power back to the consumer,’ she says. It’s also a much more authentic move, that a larger company would find impossible to replicate.

The Afro Hair and Skin Co

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What? Hair and skin care products
Why? Gap in the market for eco-friendly, British-made products targeting black women
When? Launched 2016
Who? Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka
Incumbents: Shea Moisture, ORS

‘I didn’t see any brands that aligned with who I am – a modern, black, British woman,’ says Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka, who conceived of The Afro Hair and Skin Company in 2012 to fill what she saw as a gap in the market for eco-friendly, natural and sustainable hair and skin care products for black women.

While the pared-back packaging of her hair and face butters and oils is typical of ‘eco’ brands, it’s unusual among products for black women. ‘I wanted to redefine the perceptions around afro beauty brands,’ she says. Drawing attention to ingredients sourced in the UK is another way Meier-Oruitemeka differentiates her brand.

‘It’s clear people are looking for what we have,’ she says, pointing to ‘organic’ growth through word-of-mouth and Google searches, rather than spending big on marketing.

While The Afro Hair and Skin Co is proving popular, Meier-Oruitemeka is still hand-making her products in small batches, and says building trust with customers is important.

‘Testing it isn’t as carefree as popping into a shop; it takes a larger leap of faith and trust. But due to lack of choice people are more willing to just try things out.’

She’s been offering trial sizes on her website to encourage customers to give her products a shot.

Ideally, customers would be able to just pop into a shop to pick up her products – but not necessarily from the likes of Boots or the ethnic retailers. For Meier-Oruitemeka, it’s more important that her retailers have ‘specialist knowledge about natural products’ than cater specifically to black women. She could see her products selling in a green lifestyle store, for example.

‘There’s a bit of a taboo when it comes to embracing ‘ethnic’ products. I think it’s related to an uncertainty about how to market products to black women, but that could easily be resolved: rather than relying on stereotypes and cliches, talk about what’s important to us.’

All Shades Covered

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What? Online hair extensions retailer
Why? To capitalise on the huge amount spent by black women on their hair
When? Founded 2013
Who? Tommy Williams
Incumbents: Good Hair Ltd, London Virgin Hair, ODB Hair, WM Hair

Unlike many founders in this sector, Tommy Williams wasn’t motivated to set up his hair extensions e-commerce company to solve a problem he personally faced. Instead, he’s spotted a commercial opportunity.

‘This is a ridiculous market,’ says Williams, who was first put on the scent when he realised his sister, then a student, was spending upwards of £1,400 a year on hair extensions and styling.

She is, Williams believes, fairly typical of the 1.25 million black women in the UK. If so, the afro hair extensions and styling sector (let alone hair care products) is worth over £1bn.

While there’s no shortage of companies selling hair extensions, synthetic and human, in the UK, few mainstream high street retailers stock them. The industry’s supply chain is also notoriously long-winded and opaque (read Making human hair extensions).

Like other British companies selling real hair extensions, such as Pretty Kinks and Xsandy’s, All Shades Covered buys its extensions direct from a factory in China. This, estimates Williams, saves the customer £40-50 on an order worth £350, as several layers of the supply chain are stripped out.

However, despite Williams’ direct contact with the factory, he has no means of definitively knowing where the hair he sells has come from. Shukurat Mumuni, founder of Pretty Kinks, admits as much: ‘You can never be 100% sure of what you’re being told, even if you went to see the factory yourself.’

Professor Emma Tarlo, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths who has widely researched the hair trade, suspects the majority of human hair extensions and wigs on the high street are not what they say on the packet. Categories such as ‘Remy’ (cut from donors, with hair cuticles aligned) or ‘Virgin’ (unprocessed) and ‘Brazilian’ are used at a brand’s discretion. Tarlo points out that between 70-80% of hair exported from India is made up of combings, fallen hair collected from several sources, then sorted, untangled, bunched together, and chemically stripped (to remove the cuticles to avoid knotting). High-quality ‘Virgin Remy’ wigs can easily sell for £1,000 to Orthodox Jewish customers, she adds.

One alternative is to use synthetic hair extensions. Big Hair No Care is a startup helmed by Freddie Harrel, a beauty blogger, to offer wigs and clip-in extensions that have easier-to-trace origins. She claims the ‘premium fibres’ used for her afro-textured range of wigs are both lighter, and more natural looking, than human hair that’s processed to replicate the same texture.

Williams’ plan is to build All Shades Covered out into a complete afro hair service solution, where customers can order extensions and wigs, book stylists to customise them, and receive the end product within one working day.

So far, 65% of All Shades Covered’s sales have come from outside of London. Williams says many early adopters have been university students without a local store to visit.