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.
A slew of whip-smart creatives based in Brooklyn and upstate New York —with backgrounds in music, art, design and fashion — have carved a niche for themselves during the Maker Movement wave with whimsical beauty lines. Their meticulous branding models target a slightly different version of the same consumer: A smart shopper that knows what she likes and is willing to invest in quality products. At the heart of each company are obsessively-tested formulas that many converts swear by. Thankfully, these products are more than the beauty industry's response to the cringe-inducing term "festival fashion."
One such brand, Captain Blankenship, peddles scent-driven goods with precious names, like the new mica-flecked Golden Waves Sea Salt Shimmer Spray or Sky Dancer Bath Salts, which I imagine is not unlike how you would describe dropping acid during an Ellie Goulding set at Bonnaroo. The tinctures and their illustrated labels were dreamed up by art curator Jana Blankenship in 2011 while she was living in California. Now a natural perfume expert, Blankenship moved to upstate New York three years ago, where she took up the beauty biz full-time. Knowing this, the whole free-spirit thing starts to make a lot of sense. And inside that jar labeled Petal Gentle Face Mask is a product that's actually pretty grounded.
"If you're working with organic pink rose petal powder, it's actually made from thousands of dried rose petals," says Blankenship. "It should connect people back with the landscape where these ingredients came from."
"I think the natural movement is inherently West Coast-y, and the East Coast has been influenced by that."
Seattle-based Herbivore Botanicals, founded in 2011 by Julia Wills and Alex Kummerow, noticed a trend migration similar to Blankenship's in recent years. "I think the natural movement is inherently West Coast-y, and the East Coast has been influenced by that," said Allie Fraley, Herbivore's marketing manager and brand ambassador. Wills and Kummerow began stocking their all-natural yet highly-effective formulas, like a $72 sapphire-blue facial oil, on the shelves of Sephora in late 2015, cementing a spot for similar brands in the industry zeitgeist.
"On the West Coast, the natural movement is really driven by herbalists," says Tara Pelletier of quirky, colorful, vegan-touted Meow Meow Tweet. "Maybe New York is a little more design driven, in a sense."
Pelletier and her partner Jeff Kurosaki are a Bushwick brand of coolness that you could almost bottle, too: Both visual artists (Pelletier works with textiles and patterns, Kurosaki does drawings), musicians, and lovers of botanicals, the duo also makes killer scented soaps. The couple founded MMT in 2009 and moved to the Hudson Valley a year ago. If Meow Meow Tweet were a girl, she'd be into bright vintage clothing, puns and music shows, according to Pelletier. Enough said.
Despite the twee, kaleidoscopic critter labels that they collaborate on, the ingredients in MMT's products are surprisingly bare bones. Using organic plant oils and botanicals, Pelletier — who is also trained as a chef — says she wants every ingredient list to "read like the menu in a slow-food restaurant." She says each product was developed to solve a problem. For all the bells and whistles in the branding, it's nonetheless decidedly focused skincare.
It's not just visual creatives who are playing alchemist, either. Novelist Tanwi Nandini Islam was inspired to launch Hi Wildflower in 2014 after years of playing with essential oils while doing apothecary research for her book, Bright Lines. Islam's stunning collection of candles, perfumes, and body oils features labels that recall 19th century botanical illustrations.
Scents named after romantic locations — like Hawaii's Hanalei or the West Indies — evoke that golden branding buzzword: "wanderlust." It doesn't hurt that her fragrance notes read like free verse poetry, either. "My celebrity Hi Wildflower girl is Lupita Nyong'o," Islam says. "Kind of like this hippie-meets-haute-couture-fashion girl."
For some brands, the new age stuff goes a lot deeper. For example, Desirée Pais, an acupuncturist and Kundalini yogi, launched a line of several serums, hydrosols and salts in late 2014 under the name Benshen, which means "root of the spirit" (referring to the Chinese acupuncture point that connects the mind and the body). Her first serum, Nourish, is an earthy blend of sweet almond, olive, jojoba, sea buckthorn, blue chamomile, lavender, evening primrose, rose hip, and carrot seed oils.
"I wanted to create a really nurturing and beautiful ritual for women...to develop a better relationship [with] themselves," Pais said.
East or west, former fashion designer Anit Hora, founder of NYC's Mullein & Sparrow, thinks that smaller brands are changing the game for mainstream beauty. "Because these indie brands are really making such an impact, bigger companies are starting to notice, and taking a cue from our product lines," Hora says, citing Olay's new Regenerist Luminous Facial Oil as an example. Mullein & Sparrow, Herbivore Botanicals, Captain Blankenship, and Meow Meow Tweet all have face oils in their collections. "We've had this for years, and now it's the new It product."
Indian-born Hora, who is a trained esthetician with a knowledge of Ayurveda healing, makes a cult-classic Immortelle & Myrrh Facial Serum that moisturizes and brightens skin while improving tone. Downplaying trends, Hora looks to luxurious packaging to attract an older woman with Mullein & Sparrow, citing Anthropologie as a similar market. But she's still got some rose petals sprinkled in for good measure.
Both Hora and Pelletier talk about an even newer guard of indie beauty cropping up that's into pared-down, minimal packaging. The consensus? These brands are just blending in. "[Consumers] can see they're more excited about the stuff that is unique on the inside and on the outside," says MMT's Pelletier. The eye-catching outsides and flowery copy might be attracting women to these local brands — but it's the quality stuff in the bottle that's making them stick around.
We'll burn some sage to that.