How one 19-year-old harnessed the power of her “teenage insecurity” to become a beauty industry game changer.
Written By CASSANDRA HUYSENTRUYT GREY
Photography By BEN HASSETT
Makeup By ARIEL TEJADA
Hair By TOKYO STYLEZ
Styled By MONICA ROSE
Nails By SALINA NEOU
In a new series, VIOLET GREY profiles female beauty entrepreneurs who are considered industry game changers for their individual approach to business. Each one entered the conversation in her own manner and maintained a steady, if not unparalleled, trajectory with her indomitable spirit. Here, we study how the all-powerful influence of social media led to Kylie Jenner’s direct-to-consumer beauty empire.
Sex and the City sold a lot of Manolos, Michael Jordan’s jump shot sold a lot of Nikes, MTV sold a lot of records, and Kylie Jenner’s real-life exposé on Instagram and Snapchat is selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lipstick. Linear television is dead (@kylizzlemynizzl just ate it for breakfast), the drugstore beauty aisle is rather empty, and kyliecosmetics.com is breaking the internet. You could say that this rupture with the past began when she launched her brand in November 2015, with just one Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kit, retailing at $29.99. You could also say the markings of an industry shift started before then, with a teenage girl whose insecurity (common at that age) was only amplified under the glare of the spotlight tracking the most famous family in the world. You could say all that—and it might be true.
But the precise moment that rocked the beauty world was the chain reaction caused by the launch announcement of the Lip Kit on @KylieJenner, which led to a complete sellout on kyliecosmetics.com—all within mere seconds. Her fans opened the doors and gave her a seat at the head of the table in that split-second moment, and turned “teenage insecurity” into the fastest-growing cosmetics empire in the history of the beauty industry.
The 19-year-old Jenner sits at the helm of Kylie Cosmetics—with the support of startup SEED Beauty and the advice of her unfaltering mother, Kardashian matriarch Kris—and the fledgling company has the beauty establishment quaking in its boots. (“It’s kinda cool,” she admits of the admiration and respect she has generated among the competition.) The product itself is not revolutionary (although the Lip Kit, comprising a perfectly matching set of lip pencil and liquid lipstick, is novel), but her method of doing business is. Rather than follow the more conventional route of conducting a handful of well-appointed interviews and securing shelf space at Sephora with hopes of selling the brand to a cosmetics conglomerate, Jenner’s entire marketing strategy relies on her social media, and her only stockist is her website.
Social media is everything to me. It can also be a negative space for celebrities. But what would we do without it?
The secret sauce is her all-powerful Instagram following (hitting more than 85 million), which seems to reach everyone. She’s sanguine about the Faustian pact she’s seemingly made to live her life online. “Social media is everything to me,” she says. “It can also be a negative space for celebrities. But what would we do without it?” To follow her is to appreciate a Warholian approach to capitalizing on celebrity obsession and the art of the exposed. Jenner is true to her uninhibited nature and embodies the notion of being unapologetic. She’s not just selling lipstick; she’s selling young, self-made, augmented, famous, and fuck you. Her look is pop-culture gold. We could think of Jenner as a reality star or a model, but judging by Kylie Cosmetics’ growing momentum, it is now undeniable that she is a bona fide businesswoman.
“I always knew I wanted to create my own lipstick,” Jenner explains, as she recounts how her brand came to be while sitting in her capacious Calabasas home. “I said, ‘We need to trademark Kylie Lip Kit’—that was what I wanted to call it.” Key to the Lip Kit was the invention of the Kylie Jenner “look,” directed by Jenner and engineered by her glam team of makeup artists, hairstylists, nail artists, stylists, plastic surgeons, and dermatologists. The transformation from girl to pop-culture phenom isn’t a new story in Hollywood: The difference between Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe is a hand-drawn mole and a bottle of bleach. “I was obsessed with lips in general, and with making my lips bigger before I got them injected,” says Jenner. She always felt her lips were unfairly thin, so she spent hours with liner and lipstick manipulating their appearance.
Motivated by this ritual of drawing on her own lips, she created a two-product pairing—a kit, if you will. “Usually, when girls do their lipstick, they use a lip liner and a lipstick, and they never have a match,” she says, explaining a problem nearly every woman has encountered. “So I just created a perfect match, because that’s what I’ve always wanted.” Problem solved.
This is just intuitive to her. She’s not trying to figure out the landscape, she’s not trying to understand what the impacts are; this is just what she innately knows.
Jenner speaks fervently of her business like it was preordained; a dream realized before she even knew it existed. This is in no small part because of Kris’ mentorship. “When my kids were really young, it was easy to talk to them about passionate projects that they wanted to be involved in,” she says via phone from her neighboring Calabasas residence. Kris remembered being struck by the mantra of her friend Kathie Lee Gifford’s father, something along the lines of, “Figure out what you are passionate about, and then get paid for it.” Kim Kardashian West seemed to take this advice seriously, using her fan base to launch a plethora of Kardashian-themed products. Kim was the first to ask her fans for input on what she was doing, whether branding a perfume or choosing where to open a store. “I didn’t understand what she was doing,” says Kris. “She was the queen of telling us all what to do, because she realized there was a true and direct relationship. I think she taught the other girls, and especially Kylie, how to interact with the fans.”
Kylie had the passion and Kris had the business sense, but they lacked someone who knew how the notoriously closed beauty industry worked. “I just had the trademark for so long, but I didn’t know where to start,” says Kylie. “What factory, who to go with; I just didn’t know anything. My mom really helped me with that. She drove all over Los Angeles to all of these factories looking for the perfect one.” Enter Laura Nelson, president of SEED Beauty, an LA-based indie beauty manufacturer. “I decided to start up SEED Beauty with the mission to really develop new brands and bring them to market in an untraditional way,” Nelson says of the company she founded with her brother in 2014. When Jenner came calling with her big ideas, it seemed like the perfect match—not only did they share an innovative approach to beauty, but they’re also Calabasas neighbors. “My number-one job is to listen to her,” Nelson says of their process. “She has great instincts, so we allow her to follow them, we listen, and then we figure out how to action that as quickly as possible.” SEED’s integrated manufacturing process and American manufacturing facilities allow the company to turn around product in record time. It also means they can be super reactive to consumer interest. When Kylie Cosmetics’ December pop-up proved to be a wild sellout success, they instantly started work on a similar concept for Valentine’s Day 2017 in New York. The opening saw more than 2,000 die-hard Kylie loyalists lining up in subzero weather to get a chance to witness the eighth wonder of the world, the Lip Kit Wall, and to buy a lighter with Kris Jenner’s face on it.
All three women agree that the key to Jenner’s success is her authenticity, coupled with an unwavering belief in her product and a deep connection with those who buy it. “This is just intuitive to her,” says Nelson. “She’s not trying to figure out the landscape, she’s not trying to understand what the impacts are; this is just what she knows.” Kris adds, “She was probably seventeen; she wasn’t even an adult yet. But she knew what she wanted, and she knew exactly what it was going to look like.” Or, as Kylie puts it, laughing, “If I look in my bag and there’s no lipstick, I’m like, ‘What am I going to do with no lipstick?’ I NEED lipstick.”
Even with her killer instinct for what girls want, however, Jenner wasn’t sure she had a hit on her hands. With her first kit, she recalls, “I called my mom freaking out and saying, ‘Oh my God, Mom, this is too much, are people gonna buy it? This is crazy!’” Yet she so believed in what she was doing—her mission, if you will—that she financed the project entirely herself. “And then it sold out in, I think literally under a second…I refreshed the page and everything was gone,” she says. Jenner has continued this corporate culture of scarcity. Once a product is gone, it’s gone, leading to products that repeatedly sell out in minutes and an atmosphere of wild anticipation around her brand.
She was probably seventeen; she wasn’t even an adult yet. But she knew what she wanted, and she knew EXACTLY what it was going to look like.
We’ve grown accustomed to child stars going into decline after puberty hits. What’s so inspiring about Jenner is that, as the architect of her own destiny, she reversed this narrative entirely. “It’s about hope, and dreaming really big. And wanting the best for ourselves. And not stopping,” says Kris of the family ethos that has so empowered them. “If you give up or get discouraged, we have to help one another.”
Jenner’s internet-slaying social presence now sees her as the millennial marketing opportunity for brands and even other artists. “Someone tweeted me today, and said, ‘New artists shouldn’t care for their song to be on the radio, they should really want it on Kylie’s Snapchat,’” Jenner says, adding that every time she has a song playing on the social platform, it goes viral. In fact, her Snapchat in particular has elevated her to something akin to a performance artist. She lip-syncs by a sun-drenched pool, long nails pressed to her perfectly beige lips, rap playing in the background—and millions watch. And those millions watching are opening their wallets to get the look on kyliecosmetics.com while supplies last.
Whatever is next for the young social-media maven, entrepreneur, and Kardashian scion, it will be of her own making. “I’m obsessed,” she says of what she’s created, and adds that she’s working on her second video for the brand. It sounds just like a music video or a trailer to a movie, yet there is no movie and there is no song, there is just the theater of makeup. Pondering her journey, Jenner reveals some of the steely resolve that lies beneath her Sphinx-like exterior. Calmly, but with fierce intent, she says, “I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking over Kylie Cosmetics.” Jenner is unequivocally a pioneer in her own right, forging a path with her prowess. Others are undoubtedly taking note of it—and following suit.
VIBE My fireplace is always on.
BEDSIDE BEAUTY Lavender (organic body oil and spray).
ALARM Lately yes because I’ve been staying up late, but usually I can’t stay asleep past 8 a.m.
MAKEUP My makeup room has all these drawers filled with makeup that I just rarely touch because I use the same stuff every day: Laura Mercier Setting Powder, Kylie Cosmetics eyeshadows, two mascaras (Too Faced Better Than Sex and brown Dior Iconic for under the eyes—Dior is a necessity to me). I love MAC brushes, Nars Concealer, Anastasia Brow Wiz, Anastasia Contour Palette, Anastasia Stick Foundation, Makeup Forever Foundation, Becca Blush, Nars Blush, Benefit Blush, Maybelline Fit Me Blush, Stila Lip Color, and Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits.
FOOD I always make breakfast. I make eggs and rice and sausage. T [Tyga] actually put me on that because his mom always made him eggs and rice.
COFFEE Double shot Americano with almond milk.
TEXT First I read all my texts. I usually have a bunch because I have a lot of family members and we have a big family group chat. The main one is with my three older sisters, Kendall, and my mom. Then we have one with that group plus Scott, then we have a separate one with that group plus Rob.
SOCIAL I check Instagram really fast and see who’s on my feed. When I’m interested I’ll go on YouTube and see what people are saying about Kylie Cosmetics, just to learn how I can improve. Some people say mean things on purpose just to get views.
MORNING MEETINGS I have a daily makeup meeting with my Kylie Cosmetics team.
In polite society, the best advice is beauty advice.
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