Beauty and cosmetics mogul Bobbi Brown takes us through the evolution of an entrepreneur

by Lindsey Blair

Be who you are. That is the mantra that beauty and cosmetics icon Bobbi Brown has been repeating since her earliest days in the business—an interesting stance to take in an industry tethered to creating products designed to alter looks.

Bobbi in Montclair, NJ Sept 2013, WWinperpetuity

But Brown, as it turns out, is famed for going against the grain, for paving her own way, and it’s precisely those qualities that took her brand, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, to the top (currently the highest selling makeup artist company founded by a woman). One would think that in order to attain such an accomplishment, a meticulous, well thought-out plan would have been pivotal from the start, but actually, Brown simply followed her heart.

While describing her early days as a makeup artist, Brown recalled that, “I don’t think it was something that I set out to do or thought about. I was just trying to do my best job at makeup; I had no clue what I was doing, honestly. When I would do a model’s make up, I just avoided what was convention at the time,” she explained of an attraction toward more neutral tones, which was contrary to the bright-colored trend of the ’80s. “It didn’t make sense to me that the foundation didn’t match the color of the skin. I like blush that looks blended and didn’t want to have a heavy hand, so just started doing makeup the way I thought models looked prettiest.”

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The Chicago native knew that she wanted to get into the cosmetics industry, but wasn’t certain where that journey would take her. It helped that during her years at Emerson College in Boston, she was able to design her own major.

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“My mother was smart enough to ask me what I would do if it was my birthday and I could do anything I wanted,” she recalled. “So I said I wanted to go play with makeup. That’s when I knew I wanted to learn everything there was to know about it, but thought maybe I’d want to do makeup for TV or the movies; I really wasn’t sure.”

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With a degree in theatrical makeup, Brown moved to New York City to work as a professional makeup artist, and found herself immersed in the beauty industry, taking on a multitude of freelance gigs. One such job made history: she was called to do Naomi Campbell’s makeup for Vogue in 1989 (the first time a black model appeared on the cover).

“You never know you’re a part of history when you’re doing it,” she laughed as she remembered the moment “as if it was yesterday. I’ll never forget it. It was in the Hamptons and really early in the morning—they had to get the shot at sunrise. I’d done Naomi’s makeup once or twice before and she always did her own lips. This time, she didn’t. She would draw her lip line with a pencil and fill it in with a light color, and I did not do that. I kind of stained her lips the color they naturally were. I heard when I came out that she was livid. But you know what? It ended up being the inspiration for one of my lipsticks, so it was fine.”

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After seven years in the industry and making a name for herself using distinctly moderate and natural tones, Brown stumbled upon what would in time become an empire. In an effort to re-invent and clean out her own makeup kit, she realized that she didn’t have a single shade of lipstick that she would actually wear.

“One day I met a chemist at a photo shoot and I told him my concept and he said he’d make it for me,” she said. “I had no intention of putting my name on a product; no one did that back then. Now, everyone has a product with their name on it.”

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Brown wondered if she could sell her new lipstick shade to her friends and model clients, but quickly realized that not everyone liked the same shade that she did. So, she asked the chemist to make 10 lipstick shades, and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics was born.

As a professional in the industry, she’d had already made some important friends, one of whom was a beauty insider and editor for Glamour magazine. She wrote about Brown’s new cosmetic line, which snagged her the attention of buyers at Bergdorf Goodman. She launched at the legendary retailer with a single table and 10 lipsticks.

The Bobbi Brown Cosmetics brand was founded on three simple principles: makeup should be easy to apply, a woman should be able to do it herself, and it should make her look better.

“I’m someone who has this trait that I think is pretty magical when it comes to being an entrepreneur, and that’s being really naïve,” she said. “I just never thought, ‘Oh this isn’t a good idea,’ or ‘Oh, this might not work.’ I didn’t have money; I just did it. And people liked it!”

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Brown also credits the success of her brand to the fact that it was founded on three simple principles: makeup should be easy to apply, a woman should be able to do it herself, and it should make her look better.

“I mean, call me crazy, but that was what I was looking for—and it worked,” she said. “I was able to make the color of a foundation match someone’s skin and I wanted to make sure there was a color for every skin tone—I don’t care if you’re the fairest or the darkest.”

That “be who you are” mentality translates into everything Brown does. “My style of makeup was created to enhance you, not to tell you what is wrong with the way you look,” she explained. “It’s something I will always believe in. As I get older, I think it’s so incredibly important to realize that you can’t be what you’re not. You might as well just be the best version of yourself.”

Brown sports a long list of accomplishments, including being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, being named Glamour Woman of the Year, status as a New York Times best-selling author, and recently, being appointed Lord & Taylor’s Creative Consultant to launch her latest venture: the concept shop, JustBOBBI.

Featuring merchandise ranging from wellness and beauty products to apparel and accessories that reflect the businesswoman’s unique aesthetic and holistic lifestyle, JustBOBBI aims to give a 360-degree view of her favorite things. The launch coincides with her latest book, Beauty from the Inside Out (Chronicle Books, 2017), for which she adopted a unique perspective, that of a curious journalist doing research on the best products to use for inner and outer beauty.

BB portrait - August 2014 - Ben Ritter @ Home in Montclair, NJ

“I’ve been a health nut for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I’ve always been someone interested in how I can make myself better. So I tried things. When I wrote the book, I was on a mission to be a better, healthier version of myself,” then concluded the interview with advice for any woman who wants to pave her own way professionally.

“The first thing is you have to have a college degree,” Brown said adamantly. “I don’t care if you go to a junior college—just get a degree. Don’t think that you’re just going to become an entrepreneur; you have things to learn. Second, you need to work in the field you’re interested in, because you need to understand how businesses work. And third, the thing that you’re ‘entrepreneuring’ has to be something that’s not out there…something different. It’s going to require a tremendous amount of work and a constant thought process to keep it fresh.”

Bobbi Brown Cosmetics
575 Broadway, 4th Floor, Manhattan
646.613.6500 / bobbibrowncosmetics.com