Bobbi Brown Talks Embracing Your Natural Beauty — and the Rise of Indie Brands

Morgane Lay
Morgane Lay

When I was a very young girl, I used to watch my mother get ready for date night with my dad and thought she was so glamorous. I was obsessed. Growing up, I never felt as pretty as I thought she was, and so I used to play with makeup so I would look "prettier." But my way of doing my makeup was that I didn't want anyone to know I was wearing it.

When I was 16 years old, I went in for a "makeover" at a department store and while doing my makeup the lady said, "Your nose is too big. Let me show you how you can change the shape of your nose and make it smaller. Your skin is too yellow; let me fix that, let me fix this, let me fix that." By the end, I looked god awful, and she made me feel like shit. When I went home, I washed my face, looked in the mirror, and thought, Wow, I look so much better now. That experience always stuck with me.

Bobbi Brown

When I finished high school, my mother sat me down and asked what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea. She said, "All right, pretend today's your birthday, and you can do whatever it is you want." I told her I wanted to play with makeup at a department store, and she said, "Well, I'm sure there's a college somewhere for that."

On Starting a "Natural Beauty" Revolution

I found Emerson College, applied, and got my degree in theatrical makeup. I loved what I created there, but when I left and moved to New York to start my career, the beauty and fashion world slapped me in the face. Back then, makeup artists thought they had to recreate the face — they had to change the shape of the nose, the lips; they had to completely master a different human being base. It was similar to what that woman at the department store tried to do.

Bobbi Brown

The style was Jerry Hall — the contoured cheeks and the contoured nose — and I just couldn't do it. I wasn't a painter-type makeup artist, and I couldn't figure out how to get it done. More than that, it was not makeup that I actually thought looks good. Then one day, I started doing it my own way.

For a cover of a magazine, I was working with was a young teen and made her look bronze-y and natural. I'll never forget, I showed it to a very famous makeup artist and he said, "You're never going to work if you can't do makeup the way everyone else does — you might as well just throw in your towel."

Well, I didn't throw in my towel. I went on another shoot and they let me do a similar look. Slowly, I started doing what made sense to me, and by that I mean just really simple makeup. A little concealer on a blemish, brushing up someone's beautiful bushy eyebrows, a dab of blush on the cheeks. I honed my style, which people would say was the "natural look." That, to me, was just colors that I saw naturally in people's skin.

And that's how I started doing makeup.

Bringing a New Style of Makeup to Fashion

After years of working, traveling, and doing all sorts of jobs, I got an agent and then I started getting paired with very famous photographers. Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier — they really liked the style of makeup I did. I started to work my way up by working with better photographers and better magazines.

Bobbi Brown

People started recognizing my work, so by then if they wanted a certain kind of look, they would call me. At the time, Kevyn Aucoin was a very famous makeup artist as well; if they wanted the Kevin look, he would get the call. If they wanted the Bobbi look, I would get the call.

It took a long time for us to each find our paths. There have been many times in my career where I felt, Oh, I'm not talented enough to do these jobs, because some people did want the other style of makeup and it took me a while to realize that this is my passion and what I believe in, and I'm not going to feel bad because I'm not a makeup artist who paints the face.

It's exhausting trying to pretend you're something that you're not. It's exhausting trying to glue on false eyelashes, it's exhausting straightening your curly hair, it's exhausting wearing high heels when you're five foot tall.

Decades later, there's been a shift in people embracing their beauty. It's been a long time coming: It's exhausting trying to pretend you're something that you're not. It's exhausting trying to glue on false eyelashes, it's exhausting straightening your curly hair, it's exhausting wearing high heels when you're five foot tall. When you're comfortable with who you are, to me, it's confidence.

Creating the OG Indie Brand: Bobbi Brown Cosmetics

I wish I could say I was brilliant, but in my life, I've had these amazing moments where opportunities present themselves and I've thought, Why not? This could be really cool. So one day I was doing a shoot for a magazine and I was talking to the chemist that made a lot of products at this store. I told him, "I've always wanted to create a lipstick," and he said, "I'll make it for you."

I then explained exactly what I wanted: something that's not greasy, not dry, not smelly. I wanted it to look like the color of my lips, and he made it for me. Then I had the next "a-ha" moment, where everyone does not have the same color lips as I do; the color that works on me might make someone else's lips dark or orange, so I made different lip colors and started selling these very basic lipsticks of my house. I called them Bobbi Brown because I didn't know what else to call them.

Mark Mann

I sold them out of my house for a year and a half, and then one day I met the cosmetics buyer for Bergdorf Goodman at a party in New York. And that's how I launched my lipsticks at Bergdorf Goodman.

Back then, to launch your own beauty brand, it was more rare. But things are changing. I love the young indie makeup brands. I have been mentoring a bunch of young founders, and I think the cool new thing is going to be more popping up.

Hopefully, the big brands will realize that it's time to do things differently — it's time to have a much more organic message. It's not about a nominal bullshit formula in a fancy bottle with good marketing; it's about real products that give people what they really want. The internet is a very great way for brands to actually see what other people think of the products. That's really the best place to get feedback.

After all these years, what I love seeing is how young people are starting to accept how they look, and choosing products that help them love it even more versus fight it. I think that's a big moment.