Glossier founder Emily Weiss: ‘Beauty has very little to do with looks’ | Global
Halfway down an expensive shopping street in Covent Garden, a few weeks before Christmas, two women stand outside a large glassy facade, wielding clipboards with intent. Their presence suggests the opening of an exclusive club, perhaps, or the private view for a buzzy new art exhibition. There is a small, discreet “Glossier” on each door. In two days’ time, this London pop-up for the cosmetics and skincare brand will open to customers, who will begin to form queues that snake down the street. Social media will be filled with glowing Glossier hashtags and posts demanding that the brand “take my money”, alongside artfully filtered pictures of its floral rooms, each decorated in bespoke, multicoloured, William Morris-inspired wallpaper. This is retail as theatre, and Glossier is a hot ticket.
For now, only invited influencers and editors flit through its floral chambers, nibbling on macarons, sipping Champagne and snapping pics. The back room, in particular, is a hit. It has no products in it, just a recreation of the rooftop of a London house, almost life-sized, millennial pink, Rachel Whiteread by way of The Virgin Suicides. Guests pose in the Glossier-branded mirror that fills the wall opposite, the chimney stacks looming over their shoulders. Other mirrors bear the three feel-good words that sum up the ethos of the company that many say has shown the beauty industry a new way to operate. They are a gentle squeeze of the shoulder, an affirming pep talk, a stranger’s compliment on the bus: “You Look Good.”
Emily Weiss arrived in London on a red-eye flight from New York last night, and she mingles with her guests like a seasoned pro. Weiss set up Glossier when she was just 29, and in its short lifetime – she is now 34 – the brand has become culturally pertinent and financially impressive. In March 2019, Glossier was valued at $1.2bn, turning Weiss into one of the rare female founders and CEOs of a unicorn company. The majority of Glossier sales are digital and its business thrives on its devoted online community, but it has two permanent stores, in Los Angeles and New York, where it has its HQ, and it occasionally opens hype-inducing temporary pop-ups, like the one we are in now. In the soft-corporate language that hangs around like fragrant perfume, we are not in a shop, but having an “experience”.
After the visitors have gone, I sit down with Weiss in a corner of the room, encased in yellow flowers. She is erudite and thoughtful, and very good at talking, particularly when it comes to the brand she built up from four products to this. She points out that there are still only 36 Glossier products. Its minimalism is a canny part of its identity, making everything seem essential. “If you look at Sephora, for example, they have 12,000,” says Weiss. “This is a different kind of beauty experience. You don’t need a store this big for 36 products. We could do this in a vending machine.”
So why do it at all?
“It’s more about the beauty of coming in here and having it sound a certain way, smell a certain way, having an interaction with an editor who’s fun or engaging,” she says. Glossier staff are known as “offline editors”, and sport utilitarian pink boiler suits, wearing their gender pronouns on badges. “Or it’s about meeting someone in line waiting outside, who uses the same products or is from the same town or has the same hair and you talk about where you get it cut. It’s really about bringing people together.”
People are the key to Weiss’s vision, which has disrupted the traditional cosmetics industry business model and has set a new blueprint for success. She often talks about the “democratisation” of beauty, about how Glossier came up with its products by asking women what they wanted, rather than telling women what they needed. She built awareness through word-of-mouth on social media, and the community that lives for its famous pink bubblewrap bags, chic design and solid, functional basics is deeply loyal. The official Glossier account has 2.4m Instagram followers, but there are unofficial spinoffs, like Dogs of Glossier (the shops are pet-friendly) and Glossier Boyfriends (bored partners posing with face creams). “We think a lot about hospitality rather than traditional sales,” says Weiss. Her goal is for “people to leave here and go to brunch the next day and be like, oh my God, I went to Glossier yesterday.”
Though it may sound corny in theory, the strategy is clearly working. I thought my own expertise in cosmetics extended to which supermarket moisturiser doesn’t give me spots, yet the cleverness of the brand is to insist that everyone is its target audience, even me. It is almost subliminal; it turns out I have plenty of Glossier in my makeup bag. A friend recently reminded me that the only beauty product she’d ever heard me talk about was Glossier’s Boy Brow, a sort of pomade that plumps the eyebrows. I ask Weiss how she made that happen, without me even realising? She looks both pleased and patient. “With something like Boy Brow, we don’t build the hype, we build the product,” she insists. “We built the product based on listening.”
When she created Glossier, Weiss was running a cult beauty blog, Into the Gloss, which she had set up while she was working as assistant to Elissa Santisi, the then style director at US Vogue. On Into the Gloss, Weiss regularly asked women to show her their beauty routines for The Top Shelf (a precursor to the now common #shelfie). She used the insights from hundreds of interviews – “from Kim Kardashian to the girl with pink hair who worked at a coffee shop and had cool style” – to build up an idea of what women might want from a cosmetics brand. She had noticed, in the case of Boy Brow, that women liked to style their eyebrows, but often found that brow gel was too crunchy. “I’m like, what if there were a product that deposited some colour, but wasn’t crunchy, wasn’t flaky, didn’t separate your hairs so that you could see skin through it so much, beefed up your brows, made them look a little feathery?” Last year, they sold a Boy Brow every 32 seconds.
When Weiss was rummaging through bathroom cabinets, she recognised that all the women she met shared a certain sense of shame when it came to their beauty routines. “I realised how sheepish otherwise very confident women were about beauty,” she explains. “It’s indicative of some sort of societal conditioning and beliefs that admitting to liking beauty must mean you’re frivolous or not very bright or can’t be taken seriously.”
Does she really think that attitude still persists? “For sure. You can look to someone like Kim Kardashian, and look at how much people will dismiss her as a business person, probably in part because – does she wear a blazer, and show up as a business person?” Weiss is wearing a blazer, with big, stompy biker boots; she looks like a business person, but also like you’re meeting an extremely well put-together friend for lunch. “So I think that the standards and the norms are changing, but there are still a lot of micro-judgments passed on women, based on how they look.”
At Vogue, Weiss noticed something else while backstage at shoots and fashion shows. “One of the things I realised really early was that at every makeup artist’s table, they’d lay out all their products from their kit, and almost half of the stuff was skincare.” She passed this on to her friends and Into the Gloss readers. “In order for your makeup to look better, start with a skincare routine. Even my friends were like, ‘Oh if I want to look good, I’ll just put on a bunch of makeup.’ I really wanted to help people understand that that was a way to start a step earlier.”
I ask Weiss if she thinks Glossier is responsible for the rise of no-makeup makeup, the barely-there look. “I think some of that might be from what we’ve been doing,” she says, carefully. “I also think that’s the way the world is moving. People are spending more time on making social media content, and less time doing full faces of makeup, because there’s a new filter every day that can give you a new look.” Makeup sales, she says, have flatlined in the US, while skincare sales are rising. Glossier, with its early focus on skincare and its positive, you-look-good affirmations, is already in the perfect place.
Weiss grew up in Connecticut, within commuter distance of New York City; her father was in business, her mother a stay-at-home mum. “I have always really liked fashion, but it was totally inaccessible for me. I didn’t grow up with money to go buy designer clothes,” she says. She babysat for a neighbour who worked for Ralph Lauren, and when she was 15, asked if she could intern at the company.
Later, she studied art at New York University, interned at Chanel, then at Teen Vogue. She appeared on a couple of episodes of early reality show The Hills. When she graduated she became a fashion assistant at W magazine, then went to Vogue. She was still at Vogue when Into the Gloss began to look like a success. She was running the site between 4am and 8am and eventually had a choice to make.
“There was a real fork-in-the-road moment where I just couldn’t do both,” she recalls. “I felt like I just had to take a leap.” Was that scary? “Not really,” she shrugs.
I wonder how much the $1.2bn valuation of Glossier, which now employs 200 people, changed things for Weiss. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but the responsibility is to our customers and our community,” she says, impeccably on message. She admits it’s different to how it was just five years ago, when they were 10 people in an office, preparing to press go on the early Glossier site, which had just four products to sell. “We had no idea if anyone would even care. So here you are sitting with a year’s worth of work and products and, you know, heart and soul and sweat and tears. How are the stakes any less high than that?”
Is she good under pressure? “I think so. I have a very normal everyday life. I hang out with friends from college and we go on vacation together.” My knowledge of life as a CEO is drawn almost exclusively from Succession and those “how I do it” diaries where executives talk of moon dust smoothies and 3am workouts, but Weiss says it’s not like that at all. “On Fridays I go to my friend’s apartment and we make pizzas with her two-year-old. I’m in my mid-30s, so I make sure I’m taking care of my body, but I’m not a maniacal fitness person. That’s never going to be me. I kind of just go to work and go home.”
A few days before we met, Weiss was named as one of Time magazine’s Next 100; they called her “one of her generation’s great disruptors” and she was asked to give a speech. “I was very nervous,” she admits. She spoke about how the beauty industry had “historically made people, mostly women, feel they aren’t enough”, and spoke brightly of today’s “courageous, resilient, unflappable” teenage girls. “To girls everywhere, may you know how much power you have to change the world,” she said, finishing her speech to great applause.
The Emily Weiss I encounter today seems so unflappable that I assume she must have felt like a powerful teenage girl herself. “I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.” She pauses. “I was not a popular kid. One of the things I’m grateful to my parents for is that they always encouraged me to find my voice and didn’t ever silence it. Even when teachers would say I was hyper,” she laughs. “Or, you know, kids would think I was too much.” She seems momentarily reflective. “What was your question? Did I feel powerful? I think I probably did, for those reasons, even when I felt like people, or society, were trying to keep that down.”
The Glossier aesthetic, if you could sum it up, is a dewy glow, a kind of low radiance, to look as if you’ve just come in from a crisp winter’s walk, or an afternoon in the sun. In her essay Always be Optimizing, the writer Jia Tolentino cites Glossier as an example of the way we “idealise beauty that appears to require almost no intervention”; in many ways, you can argue that the “natural” look is harder to attain if one is not naturally beautiful to begin with.
But Weiss is nothing if not ambitious; she wants to redefine the concept of beauty itself. She returns to the shame women felt when they were showing her their products for Into the Gloss. “There is judgment or narrow-mindedness about beauty, and what that word even means. I don’t think beauty is something anyone should feel ashamed about appreciating or acknowledging or demonstrating or embodying, and it has very little to do with looks at all. I think it has to do with your lived experience.”
As the days pass, more and more of my friends who live and work in the city start to mention they’ve been to the pop-up. They have diverted long runs to pass by, or sent in boyfriends for gifts, or spent their lunch breaks queuing, just to see what it’s like inside. They all want to have the experience. They all want to feel that they look good.