Beauty Entrepreneurs On Where Indie Beauty Has Been—And Where It’s Going

In the wake of recent developments such as Beauty Independent parent company Indie Beauty Media Group co-founder Jillian Wright’s departure, the closure of Aubrey Organics and the arrival of Chanel’s clean beauty N°1 collection, which picks up on many of the themes indie beauty brands have championed, we’ve been wondering about the state of the indie beauty segment.

So, we decided to check in with beauty entrepreneurs about their thoughts on it. For this edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 30 of them: In what ways has the indie beauty segment changed since you started your brand? How do you think it will evolve going forward?

Bee Shapiro Founder and Columnist, Ellis Brooklyn And The New York Times' Skip Deep

I started covering beauty about 13 years ago, and the entire beauty industry has changed so much! Back then, it was about the big heritage brands like Chanel, Estée Lauder, Dior and so on. MAC was disruptive with their backstage fashion week looks. Indie was still very mom-and-pop. It was very arts and crafty, and many of the indie brands were stocked at natural food stores or on Etsy.

There's been a revolution in indie beauty the last few years. Indie has become trendsetters and a driver of the clean and/or conscious beauty movement. Many have thrived on social media, whether that's Instagram or now TikTok. It's changed entire categories like skincare, fragrance and haircare.

Going forward, I'm seeing that some of the heritage brands, the ones that have continued to thrive, have caught onto the innovation train and are changing the game once again. I think of Chanel's new N°1 line. Dior has some gorgeous innovative formulations. They have come out with like their Lip Glow line. Many indies are no longer quite so niche or small (like Kosas, Tatcha, Briogeo and more), while several megas are more cutting-edge than ever.

It's an exciting time with technology more at the forefront. Technology has transformed how we look at sustainability (at Ellis Brooklyn, we're using green chemistry in the sourcing of many of our ingredients), but also effectiveness of formulas. Olaplex comes to mind.

Ashley Prange Founder, Au Naturale

Over the last decade, I have seen the indie beauty world expand from a few players to many. Au Naturale has been a leader in the clean beauty movement from the start and, while our space is growing, its definition has become watered down. Great allowances have been made for what ingredients and processes are accepted as “natural” or “clean.”

In this moment, consumers must take great care to understand what “clean beauty” products live up to their personal definition of conscious and sustainable. As someone who champions the health of consumers and the planet, I see this as the greatest pain point in the clean beauty space.

The upside to growth in our space means that raw materials have been optimized to fit varying definitions of “clean” and “green.” I am continuously impressed with the innovation in raw materials that translate to better finished products that are better for people and the planet. This is progress.

I have faith in the upcoming generations as their values appear to dictate their purchasing. We have seen growth with gen Z who aligns with our mission of veganism, sustainability and philanthropy. Au Naturale has always been a brand and a cause, and we are pleased to see consumers adopting a more intentional purchasing path that aligns with our ethos.

It is my hope that this mindset goes mainstream, that our entire society adopts this practice with every purchase that they make so positive impact can be felt at every touchpoint, most importantly with the environment.

Dana Jackson Founder, Beneath Your Mask

When I launched Beneath Your Mask five years ago, it was much smaller brands entering the segment. Very few came in with funding already. Now, it’s much bigger players entering the market that already have funding, huge backing and followings, and a ton of retail experience and access already. It’s much harder for the truly small founder to enter the market now.

I do see much more access and inclusivity in the space, which I’m really excited about. I hope to see truly innovative indie brands that are inspired by real experiences and have amazing stories continue to realize their vision, even without having deep pockets, funding and big celebrity followings. I think that’s where the innovation, drive and fresh ideas are.

Ada Polla CEO, Alchimie Forever

The Indie beauty segment has changed in a number of ways:

Distribution: Indie beauty brands used be discovered in indie beauty boutiques. This channel, however, has shrunk significantly in the past few years and very few true independent boutiques remain. At their growth stage, the end all be all for an indie brand was to then be represented at Barneys or Saks. Well, that is no longer always the case. Distribution has shifted online as many indie brands are now digitally native, launching online exclusively and even sometimes remaining exclusively online.

Promotion: The way indie bands are promoting themselves and growing their name recognition has changed. Hello TikTok and social selling. Hello IG influencer collabs. None of this was around when I launched Alchimie Forever. This may also be because of where the target customer is. Most new brands are going after the millennial and gen Z demographic.

Number of indie brands: I feel that this number has simultaneously grown and shrunk! So many indie brands are now part of larger companies and conglomerates. Yet, I also feel that everyone is launching a brand every day. (Do we really need another celebrity brand?). The sheer volume of activity seems much higher than it was 10 to 15 years ago: more new launches, more investments, more M&A.

I believe there will be fewer and fewer truly independently launched indie brands. The model of bootstrapping, using savings to launch, growing slowly over years and years, and remaining truly independent (until the exit point) is no longer sexy.

Brand launches want to be (need to be?) bigger, and I think the incubation model (launching with expertise and big funds behind you) will continue to grow. Brand incubators will be the new indie band launchers. I also believe that the two big trends of 2022—the metaverse and livestreaming/social selling—will impact how indie brands are launched and grown.

Jana Blankenship Founder, Captain Blankenship

I started Captain Blankenship over a decade ago, and it is wild to look back and see how much the indie beauty segment has exploded since then. In 2009, it was a small community of indie clean beauty brand founders, most of whose brands started as passion projects in our kitchens. We all knew each other and were rooting each other on.

Our mission then was very simple. We wanted to educate the world about the benefits of plant-based products, and we were successful in that mission. Here we are, a decade-plus later, and there are so many brands and so much consumer interest, but this has also created some confusion. The definition of “clean” beauty has become increasingly murky, and “greenwashing” is making it more complicated for the consumer to make informed decisions.

As a brand, these shifting definitions have led us to only want to dig our heels in even deeper to the radical transparency and integrity of our business practices. We seek new ways to communicate to the consumer that we are committed to sustainably harvested plant-based formulas made with time-tested organic ingredients. We are direct-sourcing from farmers and cooperatives when possible, which always goes hand in hand for us with sustainable packaging and supply chain improvements.

I see brands including ourselves looking to certifications such as a B Corp, 1% for the Planet, Leaping Bunny Certified, MadeSafe and EWG as ways to differentiate ourselves and clearly show the consumer we are a force for good for people and the planet.

Jessica Morelli Founder, Palermo Body

The biggest change has been the sheer volume of brands and products now on the market. When I began formulating natural skincare in 2008, there were so few options available and even fewer that fit my aesthetic and lifestyle. Today, natural and clean beauty have become the standard, and I couldn't be more thrilled for this seismic shift in our industry. Sure, there's more competition, but that's healthy for any industry.

As things continue to evolve and the volume of options increases, it will lead consumers to dig deeper into the values of each brand and seek those that align most with their own. Anyone can start a brand nowadays, so you need to have a true purpose and articulate that clearly to your customers in order to succeed."

Connie Lo Co-Founder, Three Ships

When I co-founded Three Ships Beauty in 2017, the indie beauty market was still inundated with prestige brands charging upwards of hundreds of dollars for skincare products. Nowadays, we are seeing new indie brands offering accessibly-priced products, while still using 100% plant-derived formulations.

There has also been a huge shift towards more transparency, which is our mission at Three Ships, both in terms of ingredients, but also supply chain and operations. Finally, I love the huge push towards a bigger focus on sustainability (blue beauty) as opposed to the standard natural formulations (green beauty).

Katharine L'Heureux Founder, Kahina Giving Beauty

When I launched Kahina in 2009, there were very few all-natural and certified organic beauty brands (although greenwashing was very popular), but it didn't take long before there were a number of small green brands popping up. Brands in those days were very supportive of each other. We all understood that as a group we could have a greater impact increasing awareness of the importance of green beauty, both for individuals' health and for the environment.

A Night For Green Beauty, organized by the people behind the brand La Bella Figura, was really the first showcase for small green beauty brands. It was very chummy and we all collaborated and shared information. Soon, the space grew and the Indie Beauty Expo became the showcase for startup beauty brands. This was so exciting.

Since the early days, the space has grown quite crowded and it has lost its focus on environmental sustainability. And because of the quantity of brands now in the space, it doesn't feel as collaborative. Many brands have been swallowed up by large corporations.

I think that people value knowing the stories behind the brands and supporting small businesses. The past two years have been challenging for small businesses, and I imagine many of those less established brands without a strong story and/or supply chain are finding it very hard to gain a foothold.

My hope is that people will care for and nurture the hard-working entrepreneurs who are creating innovative and high quality products by purchasing from small independent retailers and directly from the brands.

Romain Gaillard Founder and CEO, The Detox Market

We launched The Detox Market in 2010 so I would say that a lot has changed. Brands like Ilia ,RMS Beauty, Tata Harper or Odacite had just a handful of SKUs, the term clean beauty didn't exist, and no one had interest in this segment.

Fast forward 12 years later and clearly it is completely different. Indie brands are now competing with conventional beauty, investors are very active in the segment, formulators are getting better and better at clean beauty, and ingredient makers are focusing on natural ingredients. There is now a strong ecosystem producing hundreds of brands every month!

I think that it has become more professionalized and will continue to be hyper competitive as more expansion continues in the clean beauty space. I just hope that it keeps its indie side because the beauty of indie brands come from the eccentricity and boldness of these brand founders.

Ericka Rodriguez Founder, Axiology

Indie beauty brands are always ahead of the curve. They set a trend or start a movement by solving a major issue within the industry then larger brands follow a few years later. That’s been the case with the clean beauty movement as well as vegan and cruelty-free.

For example, Axiology received a lot of attention when we launched in 2014 because a luxury vegan and cruelty-free lipstick with only 10 natural ingredients didn’t exist. Today, there are lots of vegan and cruelty-free makeup products, some of which are offered by the larger brands.

The next big issue indie brands will be solving for is sustainability. The beauty industry is responsible for creating 120 billion units of packaging waste per year. Those of us who started our makeup brands with a desire to help make beauty more ethical will definitely be innovating to be more sustainable.

Axiology is aiming to be 100% plastic-free by 2023. So, if there’s something I hope larger companies copy from the little guys, it’s creating products mindfully and with intention because the planet sure needs it.

Rahama Wright Founder, Shea Yeleen

When I launched Shea Yeleen in 2005, it was really difficult to find an indie beauty community to learn from and share resources. I relied on Google to get many of my startup questions answered and faced several challenges identifying the right vendors to help me launch.

Today, there has been an incredible shift, and there are several networks, Facebook groups, and incubators that make it much easier for brand owners to launch and scale. Although the industry remains competitive, I hope that more resources and communities are created to establish greater bonds and opportunities for indie brands to collaborate and support each other in this growing industry.

Greg Starkman Co-Founder and CEO, Innersense Organic Beauty

The indie sector has grown from filling bottles in the kitchen and bootstrapping to the boardroom, thus becoming big table stakes over the last few years. Today, young indie brands require a larger capital investment to enter the space, gain consumer awareness, channel distribution and scale.

Marketing at all levels to establish one's brand identity in a competitive environment has never been higher coupled with maintaining one's brand's trajectory and relevance beyond the first 2 years. The stakes are higher than ever as larger companies incubate or launch portfolio brands marketed as indie or celebrity to tap into a rapidly growing multimillion-dollar segment.

As for the future, indie beauty thrives on new innovation and the passion that only comes from young entrepreneurs. It is those unique brand stories that build brands through social and digital influence.

Retailers like Credo, The Detox Market, Citrine, Aillea, Cos Bar, to name a few, are hungry for newness and innovation. This is the true heartbeat of indie brands. At the end of the day, it requires smart marketing, patience and entrepreneurs’ unwavering commitment for success.

Annie Tevelin Founder, SkinOwl

Looking back, I had no idea social media and the maintenance of social media would play such a massive role in owning a business eight years later. Instagram had just taken off and wasn't nearly as dynamic or inundating as it is now. If your brand started eight to 10 years ago and you're still around, you've probably evolved past your initial business plan in massive ways as so much of this online landscape has been the wild west.

My hope for the future is that small businesses fight to stay small, independent businesses. With so many people wanting to grow your brand, it is a choice I make every day to stay focused on my growth goals for my brand. “Potential” can be a dangerous word other people put on you when you want to remain small and intentional.

Chase Polan Founder, Kypris

When I launched Kypris over a decade ago, indie beauty seemed split. On the one hand, there were clinical brands on the market filled with exciting, scientifically based actives, however, lots of ingredients that weren't very good for people or the planet.

On the other hand, there were a lot of craft brands made in kitchens or studios espousing artisanal ingredients and values that were beautiful, certainly better for you, but not as elegant or effective. The intersection of these two paradigms was really where I saw and still see Kypris.

In the years since, independent brands are more commonly made in labs, which is an ideal and preferable place to manufacture products. Brands are embracing a wide variety of sustainability efforts and are learning from one another’s' successes and missteps.

My hope for the future is that we will continue to see a variety of sustainability and regenerative practices championed by an array of entrepreneurs and companies, whether it's a forward-thinking ingredient story or an innovative way of packaging products or both. I'm most excited to see the myriad ways innovation will be boldly applied. If you really think about where innovation has come from and continues to thrive, indie beauty is the forbearer of the future.

Cynthia Besteman Founder, Violets Are Blue

I started in 2015 and launched at the Indie Beauty Expo, which had maybe 50 brands [and was operated by Beauty Independent parent company IBMG]. By 2018, it had hundreds of brands, which in part is because they were so amazing, but also it showed how many indie brands launched in those three years. What I noticed as well was that indie didn't necessarily mean "green.” I like that as it makes room for all kinds of brands and philosophies.

Since 2018, there are more science-backed ingredients in the indie space and synthetic ingredients are not looked at as necessarily a bad thing, particularly when they help save the ecosystems. This helps us explore new types formulas and technologies to improve our newest launches. To see so many suppliers coming out with really cool natural and synthetic ingredients, and focusing on natural products in a scientific way is really exciting. We are able to compete with the big companies. Yet, with our brand stories, it makes the buying experience more enjoyable.

That brings me to the other main thing I have noticed changing. Buyers are looking more for brands that have a story and a cause, not just products that work well. They want to support and experience, and a brand that is making change in the world. I hope both of these trends continue!

Paula Hayes Founder, Hue Noir

The indie beauty segment has expanded considerably since I started my brand. The diversity of companies across product categories and the innovations coming out of those companies speaks to access, and the segment has been a catalyst for the industry as a whole. Indie beauty has always been good at responding to consumer needs.

Going forward, I think it will evolve into more personalized offerings for consumers across beauty product categories. And I hope it will continue to lead the way in developing innovative products delivered in novel and sustainable ways.

Linda Wang Founder and CEO, Karuna and Avatara

When I first started back in 2009, indie brands were barely a thing. Back then, the beauty industry primarily focused on big players who made it hard for indie brands to shine.

I feel that technology has changed everything and made it all possible! With smartphones, apps, social media, digital advertising, etc., building your own business is achievable and accessible. There are many platforms like podcasts to help indie brands get their story out there. The main component is being able to connect on a one-on-one basis using TikTok, Instagram, etc., making these encounters personal for consumers.

I believe this trend will continue significantly since the world has changed so much during the pandemic. People are working more independently and realizing that working remotely can also create results. Because of this movement, more people are yearning to own their businesses.

Kari Gran Founder, Kari Gran

It was a bit fringe and certainly not mainstream in the early stages. Everyone had a personal story and a strong drive behind what they were doing.  As there were fewer of us, we all knew each other and wanted everyone to succeed.

As more selling channels opened and as consumer interest gathered momentum, the indie segment grew tremendously.  It’s not a small group anymore. I still feel the camaraderie, but it’s harder to keep up with everyone who is newer to the space, not to mention that it seems like forever since we’ve all been together at an event!

I mirror our industry to the growth of the organic food movement. The choices of organic/non-GMO foods are mainstream because consumers voted with their dollars and companies listened. My hope is that our industry grows in this direction, but still leaves room for indie brands to develop. I also hope that our industry continues to be a force behind sustainable packaging, shipping and all-around mission-driven values.

Meryl Marshall President and Chief Product Officer, Hynt Beauty

The indie beauty segment will always be viable and growing as consumers are all about discovery and a bit less about loyalty. We are all excited to try new products, so as the pandemic wanes and R&D becomes less tedious, due to supply and labor issues, there will always be an interest for newness.

More than in the past, I see mainstream, large brands “copying” many of the values of the indie brands, which have paved the way for enlightened consumers. The competition is fierce and affordable pricing and availability will continue to be a challenge for smaller brands.

Frederic Fekkai Founder, Fekkai

Today’s indie brands have truly innovated the beauty category and have led to a disruption amongst the larger corporations. The new meaning of an Indie brand is not only independently owned and operated, but also a brand dedicated to authenticity, passion and lifestyle.

The global beauty category will deeply benefit from the latest trailblazers in the indie beauty community who are coming to the table with revolutionary, radical and creative ideas.

Naa-Sakle Akuete Founder and CEO, Eu'Genia

When I began Eu'Genia, clean beauty was so inaccessible. It was impossible to find cool brands in major stores. Now, retailers and brands are making it a lot easier to make choices that feel good, do good, and work!

For example, our line of clean, vegan, cruelty-free moisturizers, Mother's Shea, is now sold at Target and Walmart. While the clean beauty mainstays like Credo, Detox Market, Follain, and Beauty Heroes will always be my faves, I am so excited to continue to see clean indie beauty expand beyond them to allow everyone to be able to benefit from awesome good-for-you products.

Laura Xiao Founder and CEO, Henné Organics

I love how much indie beauty has grown since we started in 2015! One challenge I think most of us have faced in recent years, though, is the social media algorithm changes. It's made it a lot more difficult to reach our customers and followers.

As things continue to evolve, I do believe more options will become available, and the good thing is that it pushes us to be creative, pivot and think outside the box.

Stephy Kim Co-Founder and CEO, Moonlit Skincare

Independent beauty now takes up 20% of the industry. There's so much to be excited about, but the evolution that I'm most delighted about is the progress and innovation around sustainability. As we celebrate year five with Moonlit Skincare, the rollout of sustainable packaging is our main focus.

Indie brands have the ability to be nimble and implement new ideas quickly without having to wait for approval across a corporate chain. The faster we all can move forward as an industry towards sustainability, the better.

Katherine Ramos Co-Founder, Rituel de Fille

Indie beauty was so much more niche when we started. There's now much more opportunity that small brands with passion and focus can bring to the market. At the same time, larger global brands have been evolving their businesses to replicate the indie beauty founders and brands modernizing the beauty category.

With their vision and dedication, indie brands will be the epicenter of innovation in the beauty industry. While we might face a lot of particular challenges as well, our creativity, agility and close relationships with our customers give us remarkable advantages. Vision and dedication mean we can create experiences that are meaningful and special.

I hope that interest in indie beauty as a whole continues to grow, and just as importantly, awareness of what makes indie brands and their products genuinely special.

Cary Lin Co-Founder, Common Heir

One of the biggest ways we've seen the indie beauty landscape change since starting Common Heir last April is the focus (and rightly so!) on inclusivity and highlighting founders and women of color who have a unique story to tell. I'm so inspired by many founders and women of color who helm these new, disruptive brands who have noticed a market need for something that really suits them and are deliberately designing for communities that have been underserved by conventional beauty brands who just aren't speaking to or making products with their needs in mind, whether it's haircare, skincare, color cosmetics or body.

To us, this is an incredible change for the better. What we'd like to see more broadly is inclusivity beyond marketing campaigns or paid influencer partnerships, not just in their models, but in how brands actually develop products, test them with their community, and iterate on that feedback with intention and action. It's been an important part of our brand DNA from the beginning, and it's inspiring to see this really accelerated since.

Dorian Morris Founder, Undefined

The beauty game is shifting, and I’m all for it. Undefined is focusing on democratizing beauty, and this is truly coming to life as the power dynamics evolve and consumers start to vote with their dollar to support brands that are not just focused on profit but the greater collective good. I think retailers are recognizing the incrementality indie brands bring to the table and assortment inclusivity will move from a nice-to-have to a must-have.

Susan Wong Founder and CEO, HAN Skincare Cosmetics

So much has changed with indie beauty since I started HAN, and one area is the criticality of digitalization, which, of course, was largely accelerated by the pandemic. Not just having your DTC website and social media presence, but also integrating AR/VR technologies for virtual try-on capabilities in particular.

I'm hoping the cost of the technology becomes more affordable so smaller indie brands like ourselves can offer this enhanced experience for the customer that some larger beauty players are doing today.

Boris Oak Founder and CEO, Evolvh

When I launched Evolvh in 2009, there were virtually no resources for founders. You had to figure everything out on your own. Today, there is an entire A-to-Z ecosystem of support making the process of starting a brand much easier.

The one big downside of this ecosystem is so many new brands today are following the same playbook. My hope for the future is to see even more true product innovation and pushing of boundaries, which is what we always strive to do with every new product innovation at Evolvh.

Anisha Khanna Co-Founder and CEO, Sonage

Pandemic restrictions have diminished the advantages of big brands with large in-house resources and a limited ability to use them. This has leveled the playing field for indie brands like Sonage. We have the ability to adapt more quickly and intensely on an ongoing basis.

Over the last two years, despite the challenges and instability, the natural skincare segment has grown and so have we. 2020 to 21 was not fun, but weathering mammoth challenges is incredibly empowering!

The future at Sonage is all about innovation and conscious consumerism. We are introducing new products and innovative packaging that reduces our carbon impact. We are maintaining forward momentum and are excited about what the new year brings.

Christina Ramirez Founder, Plus Ultra

From a business standpoint, I’ve never seen so many new, small indie beauty startup brands get acquired by large companies. I think it’s so amazing to see these small brands come out with new products that larger companies have not focused on such as customization of colors, and organic and clean ingredients. The pandemic has made millennial and gen Z shoppers get comfortable with trying new beauty brands and products online, so it’s completely changed the way our generation shops the category.

Indie beauty brands have helped raise awareness for inclusivity and diversity within the beauty industry. Big brands and retailers are reflecting on the proportion of women and POC within their organization. Years ago, it was important for millennial and gen Z shoppers to purchase brands with purpose, but now brands also need to walk the talk with diversity and inclusion, which we love to see!

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