Many cosmetics consumers found love in a previously hopeless place—Sephora—when Rihanna launched her Fenty Beauty line of products last month. For decades, make-up companies have designed cosmetics primarily for white consumers with pale skin and pink lips. In the last few years, companies including Neutrogena and BareMinerals have come under fire for offering only a few shades on the darker end of the spectrum in their concealers and foundations, respectively. Fenty, with 40-plus shades of foundation on offer, is intentionally catering to the consumer of color. The results so far have been successful: Some Fenty shades carried in Sephora stores sold out within days of the products' launch.
But Fenty isn't the only upstart company looking to change the industry. Pound Cake, a cosmetics start-up based in Philadelphia, seeks to solve another inequity in the cosmetics industry: For women with base lip tones that are not pink, lipstick often doesn't show up as how it looks in the tube, or in advertisements. Pound Cake, which is raising money on Indiegogo after winning a $10,000 cash prize from Temple University's Fox School of Business, has created five prototype matte lipsticks that apply the same bright, retro-looking red to women with pink and brown lip tones. After fundraising, the company will mass-produce and sell the red lipsticks, along with a line of pastel lipsticks that is in development.
Pound Cake was founded by 23-year-old entrepreneur Camille Bell, who brainstormed the company after feeling frustrated that make-up she tried on in stores wasn't showing up on her skin as she expected it to. Along with her business partner Johnny Velazquez, Bell is creating a "pro-black, pro-fat, and pro-trans feminist company," as the company's Indiegogo states, that aims to works with communities underserved by the cosmetics industry, rather than to merely market to them.
Pacific Standard spoke with Bell about the challenges of creating a inclusive make-up company; the gaps that still remain for women of color at the make-up counter; and why cosmetics companies won't win customers of color simply by making a black celebrity a brand ambassador.
Tell me the story of how Pound Cake got started.
There have been countless times that I've tried on lipstick thinking that the color in the tube would be the color on my lips, and it rarely is. I'll look at advertisements of models wearing lipsticks, and because those models don't look like me, I never get an accurate representation of how those cosmetics are going to look. These models are predominantly white with predominantly pink lips— a lot of these cosmetics companies don't understand that men and women of color tend to have darker lip tones, because we're darker-skinned, and thus will have different results when trying on lipsticks.
So that's why I wanted to [create Pound Cake] and start with lipsticks. Because I found that an issue, and I found that people weren't necessarily thinking about ways to solve that problem. For them it was just about, OK, let's put out as many lipsticks [as possible], instead of trying to think of why are black women having a harder time finding cosmetics, and thinking deeply about that issue.
There has been a lot of talk recently, with the launch of Fenty Beauty, about women of color finding the right foundation. Is the industry focusing as much as it should on boldly colored cosmetics?
No. For the longest time, the focus of a lot of these companies has been predominantly white consumers. When Rihanna dropped her line [a few] weeks ago, that's when other companies started posting, "Hey, we have darker shades as well!" I don't find it to be very genuine. And then even the colors that they choose to show [aren't sufficient.] Our community, the black and brown community, we don't just come in one shade of brown. A lot of these companies, you'll go to their site and look at their foundation choices and they'll stop at what we call a light brown, or a chestnut brown, when in actuality there's a lot of people in our community that are a lot darker. When you don't have colors for them, these companies are indirectly saying, "This space isn't for you, we don't think you look beautiful and important." The current cosmetics companies definitely still have a lot to do, and it's not just about foundation. It's not just exploiting our bodies and using them on advertisements to get our dollars. It's understanding our community as well. And not just showing one type of black person.
The skin shades that you've set out to cater to are called "light, medium, warm, deep, and rich." Those last three shades, for darker skin tones, have such lovely and evocative names. To what extent are you thinking about the wording of beauty products?
Because people aren't too familiar with our brand that's outside of our immediate network, for right now we outlined [the skin tones we're designing for] for our Indiegogo as "light, medium, warm, deep, and rich" so people can get an understanding. But we actually have different names that coincide with our brand theme [in mind]. To name a couple off the top of my head, when we come out with foundation, we have "Sugah" to represent one of the lighter skin tones, and then we have "Vanilla" to represent the darkest. A lot of people have asked, "Why did you choose Vanilla to go with someone for the darkest skin tone?" We've always said that, when we think of vanilla extract, it's actually very dark, and the vanilla bean itself is actually very dark. We also have "Brown Sugar" to go with one of the names. So all of those names coincide with our brand name, Pound Cake. And all of our lipsticks go with that theme as well.
How did the name Pound Cake come about?
There was definitely a naming process. I spent about a week by myself running through names in my head. I tried to think of something that expressed my mission, but wasn't so direct and on-the-nose that it capitalized off of it; after a few ideas, "Pound Cake" came to me. "Cake make-up" is what cosmetics were called in the '30s and '40s, so I found that to be a perfect representation of and for what we know as the make-up beauty industry today. Since my goal is to disrupt the negative practices and standards that come with the current make-up and beauty industry, I thought of "Pound Cake." Cake represents the current cosmetics and beauty industry and I want to pound that, I want to disrupt that. It serves as a call to action to people, it represents to them that we represent a new kind of "cake."
For your initial collection, you're offering to produce the same bold color on five different skin tones. How did you go about initially designing that first color, and making sure it worked on those skin tones?
The Hot Cakes collection is a line of five red, retro matte lipsticks that, like you said, when applied to different skin tones, will all look the same. People are free to rock whatever lipstick they choose to, but we know that a particular red [is in style now]. On our Indiegogo page we show five different lip tones—pink, dark pink, medium brown, brown, and deep brown—because lips are our canvases, and we have to account for the base when we put lipstick on. We're working with a cosmetic chemist in California, and we're going to bring in models of various skin tones [to try lipstick shades on]. It's a trial-and-error process, kind of like a case study. We're going to be very involved making sure that the lipstick is showing up in the way that it's represented. It's going to be very tedious, but we don't want to be a company that is half-assed, and just makes cosmetics to make cosmetics. I want the red that I see to show up that way.
As you mentioned earlier, many major cosmetics companies put famous women of color on advertisements, but don't necessarily offer an inclusive set of cosmetics for women of many shades. Do you plan on disrupting the way that cosmetics are marketed, in addition to how they're created?
Things that my partner and I have spoken about when we get to the point of marketing is not just showing one C-note. When we talk about companies that actually do choose to advertise black women, they predominantly still align with Westernized beauty standards—thinner noses, lighter skin, and loose, curly hair. It's very rare that you see a darker-skinned woman with a wider-set nose with 4C kinky/curly hair. So we wanted to make sure that, when we do show this range of women and men, that they don't just have one phenotype. We're showing people with thin noses and wide noses, thinner lips and fuller lips—I'm Liberian, so my head and my face is bigger, so I'm not just showing people with cute tiny heads—so people can really see themselves.
Your company doesn't just want to be inclusive in terms of color: On Indiegogo you say you are a "pro-black, pro-fat, and pro-trans feminist company." What does a pro-fat and pro-trans company look like?
For years, people have been made to feel like their skin, their size, their gender identities weren't beautiful or worthy. Even now, with beauty lovers seeking representation, beauty companies wish to capitalize off of their characteristics. When you ask me what that looks like, I would take as an example Munroe Bergdorf. She was the first black trans woman [to appear in a L'Oréal Paris Campaign], but she had just been working there for a week and she spoke out about her thoughts on [white supremacy] and she was fired for that. She had a really high position, and she took to social media to talk about the social injustice that's been happening to black people in the black and brown community, and she was fired.
So when we think of being pro-trans, pro-fat, it's not just using these people to fill a quota, it's actually understanding these different identities, their backgrounds, where they come from, and what's important to them. We actually want to be involved in the trans, black and brown, and LatinX community, and create a safe space for those people. My reason for adding [that identifier] was to tell them we're here for them off the bat. I didn't want to add that down the line because, in other people's eyes, it's becoming more accepted to come out and say, "Well now, we're for LGBTQIA rights," treating it like a hot commodity. These are the issues and values that Pound Cake believes in, and I don't want to just use these different groups as advertisements. I actually care about these different communities.
I understand you have 23 days left on your Indiegogo. What are your plans for after the Indiegogo? What do you plan if or if not you get to your goal amount?
We just won $10,000 from Temple University's Fox School of Business in August. If we raise an additional $20,000, we'll then be able to take our prototypes, perfect them, and start that process of bringing in different groups of people with various skin tones and lip tones so we can start perfecting our prototypes even more. We're hoping by May of 2018 that we'll be officially launched, that we'll be ready to go [after] perfecting everything—the website, the packaging, the imaging, and also the formulation.
It is a longer process than people think, and I'm also a perfectionist—I'm a Virgo—so I want to make sure everything is the way it needs to be. And I don't want to let people down, [because] people really enjoy this first line.
If funding comes through, what would your goals for your next collection be?
We already have a few different collections. We have the Tea Cakes collection, [for instance], which is a line of more pastel colors. But down the line we definitely want to break into foundation and blush as well. I'm a big blush gal. That's something else the cosmetics industry doesn't understand—that we as people of color come in various skin tones. I'm the lighter end of the spectrum, but even for me there are so many blushes that I can't personally use because they will not show up on my skin tone.
Make-up websites tend to shout out to Fenty, M.A.C., and Bobbi Brown for offering foundations and colors that have been inclusive to many skin tones and undertones from the beginning. What is Pound Cake adding to what's already out there?
We add a lot in terms of just being authentic and being pro-black, pro-brown, pro-fat, pro-trans, and not being scared to say that because we're not a corporate company. But most importantly we're creating colors made for your lip tone. Everyone's talking about your skin tone, but they forget about your lip tone. How many times have people of color put on a lipstick and it's supposed to be pink and it shows up gray, or it shows up ashy, or it doesn't show up at all? So we're taking a step deeper in looking at—OK, what is the base? People of color have many different bases.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.