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Pete Unplugged: The Beat Goes On

WWD’s Pete Born meets a duo harnessing the energy of the music scene to create a hip new makeup brand.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 05/09/2014

It was long past midnight at an after party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the room was reportedly rocking as Nirvana veterans Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic tore up the night while jamming with Joan Jett and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Among the lucky listeners were a couple of guys dressed in the dark tones of downtown cool and sporting soft French accents. They weren’t A&R men from the recording industry or showbiz operators, but Gilles Kortzagadarian and Stephane Siboni, cofounders of the Ardency Inn indie makeup brand, a duo who are clearly plugged in with their own take on the beauty of music. Along with their head makeup artist, James Vincent, who did Jett’s makeup for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Show earlier in the evening, they have redefined urban chic with grit. As Kortzagadarian says, “Everybody is a rock star at the end of the day.”

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The Ardency entrepreneurs see themselves as storytellers using the medium of makeup to paint a portrait of the rock-goddess lifestyle. By putting the best face on music, they also tell everyone in the audience that they can look their best. The renegade vibe of rock ’n’ roll is the very essence of the indie spirit that Ardency perfectly captures because at heart they are as much in love with innovative beauty products as they are with the beat of the music lifestyle.

“We saw what music artists stand for,” Siboni says. “They actually use makeup a lot as a way of expression and we saw that their fan base was emulating what they do. They are repeating the look. Every time there’s a new single out, a new music video, there is a new look with it. You find on YouTube a million tutorials to replicate that look.”

Kortzagadarian adds, “One of the reasons we love this music lifestyle is because we can really draw a parallel between the lifestyle of a musician and the lifestyle of a downtown New York girl, or every woman at the end of the day. Sometimes you put yourself on stage. You have a dinner party to go to, you’re going to a club, so you’re really going to step it up in terms of makeup. Most of the time, you are going to be off stage, just like the music artist. Maybe you are going to school, you are going to work. You want makeup that is going to insure that you look your best, but you don’t necessarily want to be noticed as much as when you are putting yourself on stage.”

He sees makeup, with its kaleidoscope of changing seasonal shades, as an ephemeral art more akin to the fashion industry than the sku-fixated beauty business.

The Ardency cofounders, who have known one another for 25 years, fell in love with music since listening to Depeche Mode, and they have certainly kept the faith. Their marketing campaigns are driven by promising musicians who appear on the Ardency Web site, either in still photos or performing in streaming video, wearing products like Modster Smooth Ride Supercharged Eyeliner, Modster Long Play Lip Vinyl lipstick and Punker Lash Wax, a mascara made of wax.

The approach is a natural for social media. Since starting the brand in August 2011, they have recruited musical ambassadors like Marie de Villepin and Shadows On Stars from Portland, Ore., who will be the summer face of Ardency, starting in May. On the night of the Greenpoint party, Kortzagadarian and Siboni intended to go see a Swedish electro-pop artist called Elliphant, whom they are considering for an ambassadorship. Instead they went to the Hall of Fame event at Barclays Center, where they sat rapt, listening to the legends they grew up admiring. They seemed engrossed, even as the old-school Brooklyn fans hooted and booed, punctuating the din with shouts of “hard core.”

So it was just another night on the job. Ardency, which operates out of an office on lower Broadway, welcomes its ambassadors to the brand by throwing a party, usually full of downtowners, at which the artist performs and is photographed for the Web site. Kortzagadarian, who calls the events “Ardency Sessions,” and Siboni talk about one day having a recording studio in their office. They also dream of taking the brand global by using a combination of international and local artists.

But they never lose sight of what really drives the brand—highly innovative makeup. Erin McCarthy, head of product development, is another key player at Ardency. Even though Kortzagadarian maintains that the biggest problem for indie brands is a lack of consumer awareness, Ardency has attracted followers in the highest of places: Margarita Arriagada, chief merchant of Sephora, and Claudia Lucas, director of merchandising for beauty at QVC.

“They have a great sense for product and wanting to fill a unique space that’s edgy,” says Arriagada. “We love seeing this musician tie-in and this rock vibe.
“They already have some hero products,” she continues. “When I speak to them I say, ‘Don’t try and do everything at once. Build your hero franchises.’ The foundation they have is amazing.”

Arriagada, who describes Ardency’s stage of development as “incubating,” with a distribution of 50 doors in the chain, was referring to Americana Custom Coverage Concentrate. Priced $38 for 15 ml., it is a pigment concentrate designed to be mixed with moisturizer. Depending on how much is added, the results can range from a tinted moisturizer to a liquid foundation.

Lucas scheduled the Americana product for an on-air debut at QVC on April 25. “We love what this product represents, this idea of a customizable foundation. We were really impressed.”

Sephora’s Arriagada adds, “We are going to continue to support, guide them, help streamline and help clarify their voice because it’s too busy on the presentation. We feel they have potential but they’re at that beginning phase.”

Kortzagadarian agrees, noting, “We are finding the right balance between promoting the lifestyle and the music and the great innovation that we have to offer. We put the same amount of effort into the marketing as we do into the product development. We want to be on top in both areas.”

But he and Siboni have even bigger ideas—“to not just create a bunch of products, but create a strong brand that’s going to drive those collections into the hands of consumers.” Kortzagadarian pauses then adds, “If you really build a strong affiliation with a brand—the lifestyle—then people will become more than just customers, they will become advocates for the brand.

“They will come again and again. That’s the best customer.”

The key to all this is found in the name, Ardency, which in the dictionary means passion.