She’s turned pretty into powerful and created a global company off the back of just a handful of lipsticks. NEXT sits down with the world’s nicest millionaire to find out what it takes to become Bobbi Brown.
It’s a scorching hot day in Sydney’s chic suburb of Mosman when I meet makeup maven Bobbi Brown in her store. She sits on a leather couch, curled up with one leg underneath her, a cup of organic lemongrass tea in her hand. With a tight allotment of time, niceties are almost forgone and after five minutes we’re delving into the complexities of what makes her tick, when she comes out with: “See, you seem like an entrepreneur to me.”
“Do I?,” I say, taken aback.
“I don’t know why but you just have something in your eyes – like you could probably figure out anything.”
From that point on, I’m putty in her hands. Because if anyone would know, it’s Brown. She is the Queen B of business in the beauty world, making a multimillion-dollar entity out of just a few lipsticks. For Brown, this is about the fifth interview she’s done today and it’s only just gone past lunch, but she has a warmth about her that makes you feel like she’s not regurgitating the same old story. When in reality – after almost 25 years in the industry – she probably is.
At exactly five feet tall, Brown is petite, yet her commanding presence stretches her high above everyone else. In her store, dozens of people are gravitating around her, making sure everything is running to military precision but she’s unperturbed when a makeup artist who’d heard she was in town sneaks in with a friend and proceeds to gush over her, telling Brown her makeup palettes are ‘genius’. Instead of palming him off to stick to her strict schedule, the down-to-earth Brown chats away. She has a white striped scarf draped around her and is wearing blue jeans, a dressy cream T-shirt, loafers with a slight platform, and her signature heavy-framed glasses. Her dark hair is down and the only visible makeup is her black eyeliner. No fuss or bother.
Secret to her success
The 57-year-old has a colourful resume: founder and chief creative officer of her eponymously named cosmetics, New York Times best-selling author (she’s written eight books), eyewear designer, and current editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Beauty. Did we mention she’s also on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiation? Appointed by President Obama himself. And to top it off, she’s a philanthropist using her brand to help educate and empower women. In short – she’s an entrepreneur powerhouse, whose success and influence expands with each year. So what’s her secret?
“Having good people around you that you like to work with and that you trust. Honestly, that’s it,” she says without missing a beat. “But it’s also really important to have people around you that you can say ‘oh my god, I hate that’ and they don’t get upset. They just know I want to make things better. I’m always someone who feels I can do better.” >
Hit the ground running
Like many successful people, Brown – a happily married mother of three grown-up boys – is determined and driven. But way back in the beginning she had something else that proved crucial. “I was so naive,” she says, smiling. It was that naivety that helped her when she moved to New York to pursue a career as a freelance makeup artist.
With no role model and no idea what she was doing she got a business card made, started asking questions, and opened up the Yellow Pages. “I looked up ‘model’, I looked up ‘makeup’, I looked up the union. I looked up whatever I could and started making phone calls, making appointments and talking to people.” It worked.
Before long, after a period of offering her services for free, she had paid work. And seven years later she hit the big time for any makeup artist – the cover of Vogue with Naomi Campbell. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. She once did Jerry Hall’s makeup and when she was finished, the supermodel said thank you, took it all off, and did it again herself. Instead of running to the bathroom and crying, Brown sat and watched as Hall applied her makeup in a bid to learn how she could improve.
Brown follows a mantra – ‘get on and do it’. “Too many people think about what they should do. You just have to do it,” she says matter-of-factly. “If it doesn’t work out, do something else.” It’s this very attitude that has got Brown to where she is today. Her first range of just 10 lipsticks was a new concept on the market – a range designed by a makeup artist, and not, as she puts it, by ‘some Harvard-educated marketing person’. It was the kind of bright idea that likely had those in the industry thinking ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ And it proved a hit with women. “I sold them to friends, models, and editors. A magazine beauty editor wrote about it and we were bombarded with calls. My husband took orders, put them in envelopes and mailed them. That was how we started the business.”
With savvy negotiating skills she didn’t even know she had, she played department store giants Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman off against each other for the rights to sell her brand. The latter won and in 1991 Brown, with her first son in her arms, launched the range at the iconic New York store. Her success story has become industry fable: they sold 100 lipsticks, their quota to sell in the first month, within the first day. Brown became the talk of the town and started adding other products such as lip and eye pencils. By the mid-90s they expanded overseas to Canada, Japan, and London. Then Leonard Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder dynasty, called. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve beat us’ [in store sales] and wanted to buy the company.” At first Brown declined but after meeting with him and securing ‘total autonomy,’ she accepted.
That was 20 years ago, and today Bobbi Brown Cosmetics has a presence in 63 countries, and her New York team alone consists of 135 people. As much as she relies on having a good team behind her, it’s clear the driving force comes from Brown herself. She’s an ideas lady – always has been, admitting to sometimes having ‘too many’ ideas. “I throw a lot up here and there, so many I don’t have time to see if all the balls are in the air still. So sometimes I’ll say ‘whatever happened to something?’, then I’ll be like ‘ooooh – put it back on the agenda.’”
Over the years her makeup ranges have been inspired by an array of influences, from the complexity of the famous National Geographic photo of the Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes, to stained lips caused by her children sucking popsicles, to the diversity of the varying shades of chocolate. But one of the areas she’s most proud of is her invention of the gel eyeliner, which was created almost by accident after the desperation of an ill-equipped makeup bag on a photo shoot caused her to line her eyes with mascara and a q-tip.
“I called my office and talked to head of product development. I said, ‘What do you think, is this okay?’ She called the lab, and they said, ‘Yeah it’s gel-based, so it’s okay’. I said, ‘Remember that little inkwell
I bought at a flea market? What if we pour it in and call it gel ink?’ She said, ‘Oh my god!’” Next time you’re perusing the makeup counters take a look around – most makeup companies now have one just like it, ink pot and all. It’s also Brown’s number one selling product worldwide; two are sold every minute. Overall, she sells a whopping 24 million products a year.
Balancing it all
For someone who has based her whole career on makeup, Brown barely wears any – preferring to apply hers between red lights on the way to work. She’s a woman full of juxtapositions; even though she’s part of what is often construed as a glamorous industry, she opts for an almost masculine dress style, she’s an author but can’t type, writing her books by hand, and she’s a business mogul who loves rap music (once dancing on stage with rapper Flo Rida.)
Brown will be the first to admit she’s “not really sure how the whole thing happened”. Regardless, her abilities and attitude to ‘never over-think things’ and to just ‘live in the moment’ have proven a recipe for success, seeing her evolve from a makeup artist to a global entrepreneur. She may sound like a workaholic but she assures me she isn’t. She does work hard, she says, but doesn’t work long hours. She believes ‘lifestyle is more important than work’ and follows this motto, like the time she turned down doing Nicole Kidman’s makeup to go to her friend’s 40th birthday party, or, early on in her career, when Jean Paul Gaultier asked her to come out for drinks and she went home with her young family instead.
Later that night I see her at an exclusive event at department store David Jones. She’s wearing her standard jeans and glasses but she’s dressed it up with wedges and a Chanel-esque black jacket. Once her Q&A section is over, she steps off the stage and the whole population of the room seems to whoosh towards her, until you can’t even see her head through the crowd. The guests are clambering over each other, trying to get closer and closer with every breath.
Ever the professional, she smiles for photos, nods and chats before being escorted to another group by a New York colleague who made the trip with her. She’s clearly used to being put on a pedestal, but she has a knack for flipping the status quo and making each person she meets feel important (so maybe it wasn’t just me?) That said, she still comes across as being genuine. A makeup artist comes up and gifts her with a jewelled necklace befitting his queen. It’s paste, and possibly ill-fitting to her outwardly minimalist tastes, but she puts it on anyway and wears it for the remainder of the evening.
Her voice gets raspy; she starts to look a little tired. Someone jokes to her it looks like she’s been inundated with attention. “I think I’ve just about talked to everyone,” she says seriously. And she has. It’s busy, but Brown seems unfazed. Just another day in the office. So does she think she’s made it? “Yes, I think so,” she says, smiling. And is there still more she wants to do? “Yes,” she says knowingly. “A lot more.”
From the editors of NEXT