Makeup Mogul Sonia Kashuk Shares Her Secrets to Success

The beauty entrepreneur on her eponymous line, game-changing products and how she created "masstige."

Oh HAI! That's just me with celebrity makeup artist, entrepreneur and all-around superwoman Sonia Kashuk when she was in Toronto last month for a press event. No biggie!

Actually, spending time with her was more like a major career highlight. The setting was a private dining room in the members-only Soho House, where a small group (not more than a dozen beauty eds) gathered for tea and makeup chat, right up close and personal:

Trust me when I tell you this kind of thing pretty much NEVER happens. (Okay, I did just have lunch with Dick Page too... apparently May was "famous makeup artist month" for Canadian media.)

Anyway, once makeup artists become big enough to be household names—as Sonia is from her 15-year partnership with Target—they're kinda like celebrities themselves when they come to town, so you only get limited access and usually a formal, "on-script" presentation. But not with Sonia. She was cool enough to spend a full hour sitting down with us to talk super-candidly about her business and beauty philosophy.

Obviously, we hung off of every word. Here's what we talked about:

How did the idea for your line come about?

I first went to Target in late 1997 with the idea of partnering to do a beauty brand. The impetus for that was I had done a beauty book with Cindy Crawford called Cindy Crawford's Basic Face.

It was a very successful makeup book. While we were out promoting it, I was in a Target store. Cindy was signing books and I found myself wandering up and down the aisles, and I remember looking at a single brand that had 10 different shades of red lipstick. All I could think to myself was, "Oh my God, if I'm this completely overwhelmed and wouldn't know which colour to choose, how must the average woman feel?" I'm a makeup artist, I'm a woman, I'm a mom. How do you navigate all of this?

At this time, there was also the emergence of the makeup artist brands in the prestige sector. So Bobbi [Brown] was doing her lipsticks and launching into the prestige market. François [Nars] was still working on his line, as was Laura [Mercier]. All of us were the group of makeup artists that worked alongside each other at that particular time. Prior to this, I worked for Aveda, helping them to get their makeup line revised and reworked. As these makeup artist brands were emerging as a new forefront of the beauty industry, people would say to me, "Sonia, why aren't you doing a brand?" But unfortunately—or fortunately—I didn't have the right timing to go into that market. And I was like, the prestige market doesn't need another makeup artist brand.

But when I was in the Target store and I saw this completely overwhelming area, I thought, why can't there be great products in the mass market?

What was makeup like in the mass market at that time?

I have to say—and I'm totally honest—as a makeup artist, the only thing I bought at mass was mascara. Because the eyeshadows were like stones; you couldn't get any colour off them. They didn't have good intensity or pigment. I just couldn't get the payoff if I was doing an editorial. The packaging was like dreck; it was horrible. With a black mascara, you didn't have to worry about getting colour payoff or what was the tone. I always had that mindset that the drugstore was where you got your mascara. To this day, I think it's crazy, the mascaras in the prestige market.

How did the partnership with Target allow you to produce great quality at mass prices?

When I had this moment at Target, I thought what I would have to do is partner with a retailer. What that would mean is I could go right from manufacturing to retail, so I could go for the best quality product but keep it affordable. If I decided to do this on my own and sell it to Target and then Target sold it, I would have to cut quality by probably 60 to 75 percent in order to meet the price points. But by partnering with Target, I could start with a much more expensive quality. I've had assistants work with me that say, "You know Sonia, it's fascinating because I've had makeup artists at MAC say that they can't afford to do some of the formulas you do." Because it has to go through so many different margins. MAC has to make it, they have to sell it, it goes through these three or four different cycles until you get to a final retail. Whereas I was eliminating all of that by choosing to partner with Target.

So I can tell you there are big manufacturers that work for a lot of different brands. And of course you go in and you do your own shade work. Oftentimes, you might get something and you'll tweak the formula a bit, maybe I want more shimmer, I want less. But there are formulas that I have where the basis of them, the same thing is what Tom Ford does. My chubby lip crayon, it's the same as what François Nars does. But I can be at a quarter of the price because I'm not going through all of these multiple mark-ups.

How did you help create the "masstige" trend?

What I did was really that idea of partnering with the retailer so that we could bring luxury to mass. When I launched at Target, I have to say, I pioneered a whole new trend in retailing because no one had ever done this before. Beyond being the first makeup artist to launch into the mass market, I was also the first individual to ever partner with a retailer and go forward with this idea of creating a beauty brand. I always tease them; I say, "You're a very good bank." They said to me, "We don't know the beauty industry. That's your thing. But we know how to get that product into the stores. We're a retailer." So by me handling my end of the deal and them handling their end of the deal, it was this collaboration.

The manufacturer that I chose to go to, who I'd worked with when I was at Aveda, had never ever had a client from mass market. They only did manufacture for the prestige market. So when I launched, everybody was like, "Oh my God, who is she using?" It also caused all the other brands to relook at packaging and relook at formulas. I'm proud to say I pioneered a new trend in mass market and truly feel that I was inspirational and a part of coining "masstige" because I was bringing luxury to mass. And being able to keep those price points affordable.

The Lauder group, who are all friends of mine, said that actually made them try a relationship with Kohl's in the US, but it didn't really work. And now years later, it's what Drew Barrymore is trying to do with Walmart in the States. And we laugh because she's like, "I'm the first brand to bring luxury to mass." And I'm like, "Wait, have I been nowhere for 15 years?"

In today's world, there's a huge blur between mass and prestige. I think it's great that a lot of the cosmetic companies have stepped up their game both in formulas and in product. When I spoke about those products 15 or 20 years ago, I absolutely would buy them today. There's a huge uptick in the entire arena of mass and every player has really paid so much more attention to what they're offering to women. There's some really great products. It's not what it was when I first started.

Hence, it's scary because the competition is intense. They've really upped their game a lot. So okay, I've got to keep upping the ante. But it only makes us all better. The end result is that women out there are getting the best of everything they can.

What has changed about your brand from when you first started?

If you saw the brand from the beginning to now, it's gone through many iterations. I'm all about refreshing all the time. I feel like it gives you something new to look at. I also know and respect beauty editors because it's always, "What's coming across the desk? What's going to look good on a page? What's going to pop and be able to work on multiple different levels?" So we have evolved a lot since we launched, but just because I get bored and I'm always like, "What's new and what's next? What's a fun new thing to capture your audience?"

When we first launched, we were all in electroplated silver. We launched in boxes, so you didn't even see any colour—which was very aggressive for us to do, and we found out it wasn't the right thing. We launched in the fall 0f 1999 and we had a huge amount of press and great acclaim to our launch, but in order to really go where we needed to go, we were going to have to revise to be able to show colour. So a couple years out, we revised again to show colour and the numbers blew up. In that environment, there's no one there to help you, so it's all eye candy and you've got to see what's in the package. But I still probably would have launched the way I launched because it differentiated us so much from what else was already in the market.

Why is quality so important?

In the end, I believe that quality wins. I'll say to Target when a sourcing person comes in, "If anything, increase your retail a bit. Do not take anything down to try and win on price because I won't allow it." The reason why we have grown continually for 15 years and continue to grow is because of the quality. I continue to push the envelope all the time. And I have never stood back and said, "I've got it," like, the line is great. I'm always like, "It can be better. It can be more." And I keep pushing it. I've been neurotic and a pain in the neck about what the brand looks like. I'm on it literally 24/7.

The Tinted Lip Balms and the Sheer Shine Lip Glosses, they're in metal packaging. Half the people in the prestige sector won't do metal packaging because of the weight. And even putting magnets in—it doesn't happen there. It's those little nuances. It's all about attention to detail because it's the details that set you apart from what the others are doing. Also because the brand is run so entrepreneurially, I have a touchpoint with every single formula and every single shade. It's very Mom and Pop in a weird way compared to all the big majors that I sell against. When you're L'Oréal or Revlon or Maybelline or CoverGirl, they're not one person. There's just no way. I'm hopeful that people understand and see that coming through.

How do you compete against the bigger players in the beauty aisles?

In certain categories, I cannot compete. In mascara, the big guns patent their brushes and a lot of it is brush technology. It costs a fortune to patent a brush handle. How I competed was way before anybody else did, I combined a comb on the other side. At least it gave me a certain sense of uniqueness. And also for me as a makeup artist, I would always put mascara on and then comb through the lashes. So I thought, "Why not have something do double duty and make it into one product?" That's how I went in with mascara for a differentiation factor. There was no way I could go up against L'Oréal. Who would I be kidding?

I'm selling against a lot of huge names in the marketplace. I'm up against hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising money, and that we have survived is unheard of. Two weeks ago, we had the Cosmetic Executive Women Awards in the States. It's like the Oscars of the beauty business so it was like my shining moment. I won for best lip product at mass for my Satin Luxe Lip Color and best face product at mass for my Illuminating Bronzer.

There's probably 15 winners and everything is divided between mass and prestige. It was a huge, huge, huge deal. Just that recognition from the beauty industry so helps to validate and reinforce what I have been pushing away at for the past 15 years. It was one of those defining career moments that don't come that easy.

I actually had a fight with somebody at Target who didn't want to change the lipstick and thought the packaging looked amazing. I'm like, "It IS amazing! But it can even be beyond amazing!" We had this bit of banter and I won. You get this gut [feeling]. It's hard to tell a major retailer that I design and go from the gut. Most people are like, "Where's the focus group?" I'm like, "I go from the gut." And then to have that lipstick in the new packaging to win the best in its category... somebody was on my side. The people at Target were waving the white napkins, like, "Okay, you were right."

How involved are you with developing new products?

My brand—even though it's with a big retailer—is run very entrepreneurially. I position myself as that entrepreneurial spirit. We're kind of the centre nucleus in the middle of this big player. I myself choose every formula, I do every shade you'll see on this brand. I design every brush shape. Every nail polish shade. I go into the stores at Target in Minneapolis and sit on the floor in the basement figuring out where the products go. It's like a third child to me. Hopefully that's what comes out—the passion, the drive and the determination of making something that I'm incredibly proud of, and that will rival any player in the prestige makeup category and come in at a third to a quarter less the price. But hands down, no difference at all in quality whatsoever. If anything, I can actually exceed quality because some players in prestige just can't afford to do what I can do.

I've been in the business since 1980. It's just innate. I eat, drink and sleep it. It's funny because my husband also happens to be in the beauty industry—he's in the hair business—and my kids sometimes at the dinner table are like, "Enough already, you guys, can we talk about something else?" But I think you have to eat, drink and sleep something to achieve success and to stay on top of your game and keep yourself educated, knowledgable and aware.

Where do you get new product ideas?

The Skincare Edit Recommends

It's understanding and being aware of trends and what the needs are. You'll get this kind of percolating energy about a product or a new thing that's going on in the industry. And trying things. I'm in more events for the industry where they send you home with those giant gift bags and you have the opportunity to try a lot of stuff.

How often do you come out with new products?

We have the core collection and we always do seasonal colour, so every spring/summer we do limited-edition collections that are more seasonally focused. Also, with all of our cosmetic bags it's always a seasonal focus. The fact that we're so affordable, I'm like, throw your makeup bag away and buy a new one. It's $4.99. We've found more things from looking in someone's makeup bag and you just want to die.

Why did you recently change your packaging?

We did kind of a repositioning—not that anything was broken, but just that I get bored, and I'm like, "I can't look at that anymore, I want to change."

We blew up the logo; we went to all-black packaging. I think there's this whole psychology about black and prestige. I think that a lot of women's mentality or thought process correlates black packaging to Chanel or MAC, to quality.

It's very hard to convey quality in advertising. If somebody has an answer, I'm happy to listen, but we've had struggles with that for a long time. You don't want other people to look bad for you to look good. That's not the way you should ever do business. So there's kind of this weird psyche where if I can't say it with words, say it visually. That's truly what prompted the whole redesign of trying to convey the quality message. It was interesting because when we first launched to the press in the States, that was exactly the feedback. "You know Sonia, we've always loved what you've done, and we know that the quality is there, but we feel like this has finally come together."

How did you become known for your makeup brushes?

You can't do great makeup without great brushes. When we first launched, we had little applicators in with all the eyeshadows and the blushes. After a couple of years, I'm like, "Why did I even do this?" I'm telling people they're disposable, get a great brush. So we eliminated the applicators. It's a different thing, doing makeup with an applicator versus doing makeup with great brushes.

At the time, you could not find an affordable makeup brush. A powder brush was $60 or $75. If you did try to find one in mass, it would hurt to even use it. Who knew that 15 years later I'd be known as the brush lady?

Because we were the first with affordable brushes, it just became a huge category. So often if I read anything, it's like, "The Sonia Kashuk brush, the brush, the brush...." I became the brush queen just because of not selling against anybody in it. It wasn't that I set out to go after brushes.

They were designed by myself and a friend who is an industrial engineer. We carved them out of clay and prototyped them. We were the first ergonomic brush to come out. Then it evolved to the opening price of brushes, our core basic brushes with white handles. Then we stepped them up for the black brushes. It's almost like a good, better, best, [although] the white brushes are amazing. Then we kicked it up a step, so that if you wanted to really go for that creme de la creme brush, it's going to be there.

How often should you wash your brushes?

I do it all the time, [but for most women] I feel like at least once a week. When you're finished doing your makeup in the morning, when you're at your bathroom counter, just take them right there and wash 'em off, lay them flat to dry, and the next time you go back to touch up anything, they're done, they're clean and you're ready to go. I feel like it's just putting that step into your daily routine. Think about the cleanliness at the counter. I'm not even saying you have to use [my brush cleaner]. If you have a bar soap and a sink, just wash. I don't care how you do it, just do it.

What's your favourite product?

I have a few. I love the Perfecting Luminous Foundation. I think it's so pretty on skin. It's luminous, it covers, it'll build, it's very easy to work with. It's great for neutralizing any redness because of the yellow base. Some of the people I know at the lab that have access to every single brand, up to hundreds of dollars, will use this. Because it's just a beautiful finish and it's so easy to apply.

I'm also a huge fan of my Eye On Neutral Palette. I feel like it's just easy. Every colour you need is there. You can get a variety of different looks.

And my Illuminating Bronzer I now wear year-round. People are like, "Oh, you're tanned." I'm like "No, I'm not, it's my bronzer."

I use and test everything. Thank God I do because sometimes I see something that's malfunctioning or packaging that's having an issue. I constantly have to be trying everything just to be making sure that everything is perfect.

The other thing is that although I have expensive packaging and it's a fortune, I'm always super-conscious because if it breaks, just because it's sold at mass, people will say, "See? It's cheap." And it's not. But if your Chanel compact breaks, you're like, "It cracked, no big deal." So you're under so much more glare and scrutiny from just where I sell. It's a different mindset. I overcompensate in every way, shape and form, knowing what I'm up against.

Do you have any products that are popular with celebrities?

We do an incredible hair brush that stemmed from how we did so well with [makeup] brushes. Last night when I was on the plane, one of the makeup assistants sent me a text. He's like, "Sonia, I'm here with Khloé Kardashian. She loves your hair brush." I had done a limited edition of it in gold. "She calls it Goldie. Is there any possibility that you can get her more?" I'm happy to send more Goldie. It's one of those cult brushes.We were written up in Consumer Reports against the Mason Pearson hair brush and we won. Every single hairdresser, the big editorial guys, all use my hair brushes. It's crazy.

Photo: Vogue UK

But we get asked [by celebrities] for a lot of different stuff. We're shipping out so much stuff all the time.

What's your beauty philosophy?

I think that trend is fun, but I'm definitely more of a classisist. My brand as a whole is always on trend but not trendy. I like refined, polished and just looking somewhat classic. That doesn't necessarily mean only beige or brown eyeshadow. I just think that at the end of the day, people want to look pretty. I like things that have a certain prettiness and femininity.

I'm a minimalist with powder in general. I use a small multi-purpose brush so that you can spot it on where you want it and leave highlights where you want them. It's a very controlled application.

What are your biggest beauty pet peeves?

So often you read that you should always go a shade lighter on your concealer. Not necessarily. Also, a very strong lip line. Those types of things where it's just so artificial and not properly blended.

Also seeing makeup on the skin where there's too much powder used. Or not seeing realness in skin. Because no matter what, you can put foundation on but it doesn't have to go everywhere—and probably 99 percent of the time it doesn't have to. I love seeing skin. I think there's nothing more beautiful than glowy, healthy skin.

How has the Canadian launch been so far?

We have issues here; we're not as in stock as we should be. Unfortunately, it's a learning curve all the way around. Knowing that [we were] welcome, but it was totally so much more beyond what everybody's expectations were. I'm dying when I'm reading Twitter and people are saying, "I'm going in the store and there's nothing there." So please support us. We will be back in.

What's next for you? 

I started as a makeup line; I've evolved to a beauty brand. You'll see, coming soon, we're even evolving further. I kind of see this all going to this lifestyle beauty brand. My aim is going after all things under beauty so that you could be a bit of a one-stop shop. I always like to say long-term, it's trying to create this store-within-a-store, almost like a mini-boutiquey kind of thing.

I don't know about you, but I cannot wait! Isn't Sonia incredible? Tell me...

Have you checked out the Sonia Kashuk line at Target yet?

What are YOUR favourite products?

Are you inspired by Sonia's beauty success story?

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