Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Carroll Gardens boutique Shen is an oasis in the beauty desert of brownstone Brooklyn. Owned by Jessica Richards and Jules Stringer, the shop specializes in hard-to-find beauty products, with an emphasis on British brands (Jules worked as a journalist in the UK for fifteen years) and natural, organic, and hand-made products. More important than a product's origin or its ingredients, though, is its effectiveness: The owners test everything to make sure it really works. Below, they answer our emailed questions about beauty and Brooklyn.
What made you decide to focus on natural/organic beauty?
Jessica: For me it was more about opening a beauty store in the neighborhood that sold amazing products that weren't available to all us moms here in Brooklyn. Jules introduced me to the fantastic world of organic beauty and now I'm completely obsessed.
Jules: Having written about beauty for so long, I became a real stickler for all things real. Although we all love the idea of miracle products for the skin, I only really believe in a decent routine and nature. I am an ardent vegetarian and against animal testing so it is an obvious route for me, but I don't let it rule my life and constrain my choices.
Over the past ten years or so, organic eating has become more and more mainstream. Is the same true for natural beauty? And is that a good thing, or does it mean the term "natural" is inevitably going to be watered down?
Jules: The term "natural" has definitely been watered down. It does make me cross when I see it used as a marketing tool and it couldn't be further from the truth. However, the customer knows a lot more now by means of the internet, so you can't deceive for long. It's so easy to know when something is working and is truly natural.
Do you find customers are looking more for products that are natural, or for products that are effective? Is the natural/organic/non-toxic factor a requirement for them, or is it more like icing on the cake?
Jessica: I think that our customer is more interested in the organic and natural beauty products for themselves and their children. Although I find that the market for everything is really shifting that way. A lot of women say, "Just give me something that works!" I think it's a more icing-on-the-cake situation for most.
Jules: I definitely think our customers prefer the more natural product and we have many products that are certified organic or contain organic ingredients. We don't limit ourselves to just natural/organic brands and aim to offer something for everyone, but we really wouldn't feel happy buying into a very scientific line that might be full of unknowns. We have gained a reputation of quality skincare that we have thoroughly tested to ensure good enough results. We are very fussy on sun care and only take lines with natural sunscreen; we have a new line called Soliel Organique which I think will do really well and is gorgeous.
Why Carroll Gardens? Are most of your customers from around the neighborhood, or do you find that people are traveling out from Manhattan? And how do the in-store demographics compare with who's shopping online?
Jessica: Because I live here and it's so needed! All of Brooklyn is in need of beauty stores! We are the forgotten land next to Manhattan, and what people don't realize is that more and more people are moving to Brooklyn. Most people are from around the neighborhood, although we have the women who travel from the city in their chauffeur-driven cars to stock up on Amanda Lacey and such because we are the exclusive retailers in the country for more than 11 brands.
Jules: Online we have captured a definite market from California, Arizona, and Texas and it's such a thrill for women to be finding us because we have products that are unavailable anywhere else in the US. Those customers come back and repeat-shop.
Sephora is supposedly signing a lease in downtown Brooklyn, and the Barneys Co-op on Atlantic Avenue also recently added an apothecary section (although it's pretty small.) Do you feel like the beauty landscape around here is changing? What about the retail landscape in general?
Jessica: I would be happy to have a Sephora in the neighborhood. They are no competition to us as we are a very different store! We are small, with focus on customer service and really finding out about customers' wants, needs, likes and dislikes. Not to mention that we know almost all of our customers on a first name basis, as well as their kids. Some just come in to say "Hi" and hang out.
Barneys Co-op is a different as well. Most of the women in this neighborhood have a hard time shopping there because they have strollers and the store is not stroller-accessible. The biggest mistake they made was not researching the neighborhood. Bird, which has been here forever and carries most of the same brands, has that customer. They should have opened a shoe and handbag location; they would have done amazing business. That is now what we are lacking in this neighborhood.
I think the retail landscape is getting to be more and more like the West Village and Soho, and that excites me. My husband who grew up on 11th Street and would have never come to Brooklyn as a kid now lives here and avoids the Village because of what is has turned into. We have lived here for five years and seen it change immensely since we moved in. I like it; he not so much!
What beauty trends are you most excited about this spring?
Jules: We have had huge success with a range called Kahina using organic Argan oil from Morocco. Argan oil has many benefits and suits the whole family, which is a bonus. Again from Morocco is Barbary fig oil, which has all the benefits of Argan but just a little bit more.
My mother went to Marrakech last year and hunted some down for me. I managed to persuade a friend and supplier of ours who we sell exclusively to make a serious face oil blend using the Barbary fig oil. We shall be selling it later this month in Shen. It is by Mrs. White's from England and is a fabulous anti-ager, great on pigmentation, scars and all sorts of skin problems, and it's becoming a real beauty buzz.
What do you have planned for the future at Shen?
Jessica: I would love to open a few more shops and grow our web business but we are both moms so maybe just one shop will be enough—I love it! Maybe a line of our own in the future, who knows? We are going to start with a candle collection and see where it goes from there.
You've tested every product in the store. What's the one item you can't live without?
Jessica: The one product I can't live without right now is the Annee de Mamiel spring facial oil. She makes only 100 and we get about 30 of them, of which two go to me. I also really love Rare Elements pre-wash treatment and shampoo and conditioner, Amanda Lacey cleanser—the list goes on forever.
Jules: I have been using Amanda Lacey's cleansing pomade for many, many years and I have tried so many others along the way and nothing comes close. It is the most luxurious way to cleanse, and most efficient, and thankfully I have managed to convert many American women now and I hope many more. I have also had amazing results with Kahina's Serum. That continues to stay in my bathroom, bottle after bottle.
· Sephora Might Just Open in Downtown Brooklyn [Racked NY]
· Shen [Official Site]