Founded almost a decade ago, the millennial beauty start-up takes a big step with a hyped SoHo flagship.
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On a Saturday afternoon in late January, a stretch of North Sixth Street in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn looked as if the internet had physically manifested itself. Direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane, Brooklinen, Interior Define, Parachute Home and Gorjana are interspersed here between the giants: Nike, H&M, Patagonia and Lululemon.
Only Glossier, purveyor of youthful beauty products, had a line outside.
“When we were walking over here, we noticed the girls holding the pink bags,” said Eva Kemal, 22, a health-care consultant who was standing next to a You Look Good selfie mirror with Audrey Pooser, a college friend. “It’s just so much of an aesthetic.” Ms. Kemal’s nails matched the pink Glossier shopping bags (a coincidence).
“It’s very much an aesthetic,” Ms. Pooser, 23, chimed in. A longtime Boy Brow and Cloud Paint fan, she picked up a “special occasion product” — a red lip gloss. “I appreciate that they make the checkout aspect collaborative once you have tested the products, and picking up the pink bag felt like a reward.”
Robyn Rapaport, 25, is another Gen Z-er who made the trip to the Glossier store because of the “aesthetic.”
“It’s very aesthetically pleasing,” Ms. Rapaport said from outside the store, where she waited with five friends in a line of about 40 people. Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser, a pandemic discovery, has been part of Ms. Rapaport’s skin-care routine for nearly three years.
On Friday, the Glossier aesthetic is heading to Spring Street in SoHo, where the brand’s flagship will be around the block from the restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda on Lafayette Street — another place people love to wait in line in extreme New York City weather, except for rosewater waffles, not rose-flavored Balm Dotcom.
The new store is a selfie palace, a Gen Z beauty Disneyworld and homage to New York’s efficient yet sometimes unreliable subway system. There is a 500-square-foot lounge that’s bigger than most stores downtown, outfitted with a larger-than-life facsimile of the Glossier You solid perfume, thumbprint and all.
During a tour of the new space, Emily Weiss, the founder and executive chairwoman of Glossier, and Marie Suter, the company’s executive creative director, floated around the shop. They pointed out banquet tables for displaying eyeliner and lipstick, and a wet bar where one can make an appointment. (Imagine Apple’s Genius Bar, but for makeup or skin-care services.)
An old-school carnival claw machine gives players a chance to win G-shaped cookie cutters, hair clips and more, and an area called a gift shop is stocked with merch, current and of years’ past back by popular demand, like a 2022 beach bag from the Miami store. The flagship has its own exclusive black hoodie (so New York!), and $5 from each sale will be donated to the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, which seeks to equip young women with leadership skills.
The pièce de résistance, a floor-to-ceiling New York City subway-style mosaic, was made by Miotto Mosaic Art Studios with tiles imported from Italy. It’s the same workshop behind the tiled murals in some of the city’s subway stations, including Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art in Times Square and the sea turtles and jaguars at the Museum of Natural History stop on 81st Street. At Glossier, white, red and pink tiles are fashioned into roses, orchids and a tube of Generation G lipstick. Naturally, “You Look Good” is etched into the mosaic and faces a mirror, begging you to take a selfie.
In keeping with the subway theme, MetroCard machines in five stations will spew out Glossier-branded MetroCards printed with red lipsticks. On Friday, pink-jumpsuit-clad store and corporate employees will hand out pink roses to subway riders at the Spring Street station.
“Glossier literally defined a category — the millennial, direct-to-consumer beauty brand,” said Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and founder of the Light Years consultancy.
Glossier was introduced in 2014 with more expensive than drugstore but still affordable moisturizer, skin tint, face mist and a multiuse salve, Balm Dotcom. Every purchase came with cute stickers, in a matching pink Bubble Wrap pouch (the oft-mentioned “aesthetic”).
The brand sold the idea of “being you, but better” and enhancing your natural features with barely-there makeup and moist, plump skin. Glossier models were diverse, a concept that today seems obvious, but a decade ago felt novel. Ms. Weiss was speaking to Gen Z before Gen Z knew she was even speaking to them.
Things haven’t always been so rosy — er, millennial pink — for Glossier. In recent years, the brand stuck to its digital-first roots, focusing on its technology rather than innovating its products. But the novelty of being a direct-to-consumer brand wore off. Fans just wanted to buy Glossier in a store nearby, which was impossible if you didn’t live in New York or Los Angeles.
In 2019, its sister brand Glossier Play, a line of lacquered, sparkly makeup that anticipated the “Euphoria” makeup trend, misfired on all fronts. The collection didn’t resonate, and the products’ excess packaging spurred a prickly discourse: unsustainability. Customer frustration mounted.
Glossier Play was discontinued after a year. In 2021, Glossier’s U.S. sales were down 26 percent from the previous year, according to data from Bloomberg Second Measure. Its troubles were much publicized, including complaints, in 2020, of racism, highlighted by an Instagram account called Outta the Gloss. The company apologized on Instagram, saying it had not created an “inclusive, safe environment.”
Ms. Weiss, 37, said she had a “penny drop” moment in 2021 while reading TikTok comments. “The top three things people were asking us for, loud and clear, were, ‘Why aren’t you available in Ulta or Sephora?’ ‘Why don’t you ship to my country?’ and ‘Can you please make new products?’” (Glossier’s site currently ships only to a handful of countries outside the United States and Canada.)
Glossier spent much of 2022 regrouping. The company laid off about a third of its work force in January; Ms. Weiss stepped down in May; and Kyle Leahy, formerly the chief commercial officer, stepped into the chief executive role. Ms. Leahy oversaw a corporate restructuring and departure from the brand’s core business model, which until this year has been selling only on its website and in its stores. In July of last year, Glossier announced it would sell its products at Sephora.
The Sephora debut is one week away, a new website is scheduled to go live in April (with shipping to more countries to come), and there’s a higher number of products dropping this year. Instead of roughly four launches per year, Glossier will introduce new items every four to six weeks, from shade add-ons to Cloud Paint to entirely new products like deodorant. Stores in Boston and Chicago will open in the spring.
“We started as a millennial brand,” Ms. Leahy said. “We were founded as a direct-to-consumer business. We are beyond that. We are bigger than that because we can now resonate with Gen Z.”
According to Kleo Mack, the senior vice president for global marketing at Glossier, the idea for a recent Balm Dotcom charm event came from a TikTok post in which someone put a charm on their balm.
“We sent them a DM and said: ‘This is so cute, so amazing. How did you come up with this?’” Ms. Mack said.
Earlier this month, Glossier reintroduced its Balm Dotcom with an updated, Gen Z-friendly vegan formula and a new applicator tip. The company sold $1 million worth of the multipurpose balm in the first week, it said.
Glossier expects its sales to rise significantly this year; in 2021 the company raised $80 million from investors, giving it a valuation of $1.8 billion.
On Feb. 23, every Sephora in the United States and Canada — approximately 600 stores — will be outfitted in millennial pink, including six-foot-long displays of Glossier’s greatest hits (Boy Brow, Glossier You fragrance and Milky Jelly Cleanser) and posters with drippy tubes of pink Cloud Paint taking over all front windows. Tables of blush and perfume will be placed at each entryway, and Balm Dotcom stations near cash registers will carry all nine flavors, including Wild Fig, a limited edition from 2020 that Glossier just brought back.
“We have so much history in terms of what works for the brand, and so we’re going in with more knowledge than pretty much any other brand we’ve ever launched,” said Artemis Patrick, the global chief merchandising officer of Sephora.
At this time 10 years ago, Ms. Weiss was shopping around a new idea: a website that would sell beauty products, and eventually body care and fragrance. She convinced investors (mostly male at the time, according to Ms. Weiss) that millennials like herself would buy these items online from a brand they’d never heard of — or even tested first.
The concept was a continuation of the beauty website Into the Gloss, the blueprint and feedback loop Ms. Weiss started in 2011 that would help shape Glossier. On the site, industry insiders, “it” girls and celebrities often detailed their most unhinged and unrelatable beauty routines. Once, Lauren Santo Domingo, a founder of Moda Operandi, doled out shampoo recommendations with this disclaimer: “Not like I wash my own hair, I can’t even remember the last time I washed my own hair.” The posts were addictive and aspirational.
Eventually, selling only to consumers online and in select cities went from an early advantage to a hindrance. The “community first” company was no longer serving the community.
“There’s a point in the scaling of a business where it becomes too big to not have to introduce some processes, and that can be really disruptive to the existing culture,” Shireen Jiwan, the founder and chief executive of Sleuth Brand Consulting, said of Glossier’s growing pains. “It can offend people on the inside, offend people on the outside — and it brings leadership scrutiny.”
Isn’t that what always happens when David becomes Goliath, or in the case of Glossier, when the start-up becomes the incumbent?
Clear Lipstick Case “Before, it was just a microcosm of girls in New York who were downtown going to the Lafayette store,” Ms. Weiss said. “Now Glossier’s global, it’s nationwide, it’s in every Sephora store.”