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Building a Brand With Mario Dedivanovic

Two years after its launch in the middle of the global pandemic, Makeup By Mario is gearing up for further international expansion.

Mario Dedivanovic is meticulously cleaning  the dust off a black office swivel chair with the only tool he has on hand — Makeup By Mario gentle makeup remover wipes, proving that they are truly multipurpose.

He is in what will hopefully by December be his first permanent office, having had his team housed in a succession of WeWork offices (and at home during the pandemic) in New York City since launching his makeup brand, Makeup By Mario, which this weekend celebrates its two-year anniversary. 

But for now, the midtown Manhattan locale is a building site, filled with paint cans, ladders, plaster, exposed wires and various tools. There’s even a construction worker finishing painting one of the walls white in the background.

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Ever the visionary, Dedivanovic, who has now positioned himself in one of only two chairs in the office after covering it with some brown paper his assistant found, can already see it coming alive, pointing to the marketing and sales areas and to where the product development’s “mini lab” will be located, set to take up the largest space on the floor complete with special lighting to mimic natural daylight. It will also be an area he envisions spending much of his time. 

“I have tons of lab coats. I get really dirty when I’m working in product development,” he said. “It’s not typical of how many people work. I have tons of pigments and stuff like that, and so when I’m thinking of something in my head and I cannot verbalize or communicate it, I just make it.” 

Dressed in a dark navy blue shirt paired with gray pants, he is sitting in what will soon be his office, with the terrace that closed the deal for him clearly visible.

“I think it’s very rare in New York to have a private terrace in an office,” he added. “When you’re working on product development, nothing beats the natural light — being able to just take a few steps out there into the natural daylight and see the tones and colors.” 

Moving into a permanent office has been a long time coming for Dedivanovic. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, to Albanian immigrant parents, he has worked from the age of 12, from bagging groceries at a supermarket to a stint as a pretzel boy at the Bronx Zoo to managing a hot dog stand to working as a busboy at a restaurant in Little Italy. At 17, he set his sights on a career at Sephora and got hired as as a greeter and fragrance consultant, before working his way up to makeup artist and eventually booking clients outside of the store. 

It was then that he met Kim Kardashian, whom he has been working with ever since, from international fashion weeks to numerous magazine shows and everything in between. In an Instagram post to celebrate her American Vogue cover earlier this year, she wrote: “When Mario first started working with me his agent told him not to work [with] me anymore and working with a reality star would never land him a US Vogue cover. He said he would choose me over the cover and fired his agent. It might have taken us over a decade but I couldn’t be more proud of my glam team who always show up for me.”

Amid his busy roster of his celebrity clients and other ventures, Dedivanovic began exploring the development of his own makeup brand back in 2017, with the goal of launching in 2020, which would have then marked 20 years in the industry. After meeting with a number of industry veterans, that vision started becoming a reality when he joined forces with Alicia Valencia, now the brand’s global president.

With prior experience working on other makeup artist-founded brands such as Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Pat McGrath Labs, she has been instrumental in helping bring his retail plans to life including the exclusive global retail partnership with Sephora, complementing Dedivanovic’s key focus on product development, creative and social media.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the brand, which launched during the global coronavirus pandemic, a time when large swaths of the country were still stuck at home and not buying much if any makeup.

“The biggest challenge was the launch phase in the middle of the pandemic, but also pre-launch,” said Dedivanovic. “I think it was March 17 when New York closed and we were just waiting to go into our new offices at WeWork and had hired a few key employees and everything just kind of stopped.

“I was here in the city at home, alone with my puppy, and I remember just thinking the world was ending,” he continued. “I really struggled from a personal space: isolation, feelings of sadness and then fear. I was crippled with fear. I was sort of on top of the world until then in terms of my makeup artistry career. My Master Classes were booming and I had brand partnerships and clients and all this stuff going on and I was so excited to begin the process of the brand and the new employees and then everything just stopped.”

At the same time, though, it was also the brand that helped him navigate these feelings. “[The business] was almost a savior for me because I had to get up every morning. We were developing the Master Lip Palette and they needed the colors for the lab so I literally went to my makeup closet and pulled hundreds of lipsticks and began melting and melting and mixing and mixing,” he recalled. “This is how I initially created a lot of the products for the launch — in my dining room by myself.”

But since then, a lot has changed. His brand is now in over 1,500 doors globally via Sephora. Sources told Beauty Inc. that sales are forecast to end the year at around $50 million. Dedivanovic and Valencia declined to comment on sales, but a representative for Makeup By Mario said every product that has launched in 2022 has ended up in the top five of its category at Sephora, with Moistureglow Plumping Lip Serum selling out in all shades in less than 24 hours after its launch. The SoftSculpt Shaping Stick had a waitlist of 20,000 people before it came back in stock in June, and Dedivanovic said that the Master Mattes Eyeshadow Palette is the best-selling palette in the U.S., despite the fact that “sales were not great at the beginning obviously.”

Moistureglow Plumping Lip Serum

“That’s something that’s incredibly meaningful to me because I remember the painstaking passion and effort, research and studying that I did for years for [the Master Mattes Eyeshadow] palette. I remember people telling me during the process that you’re doing a texture that the consumer is not used to, and I just knew in my heart that it was going to work,” said Dedivanovic.

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On social media, too, the brand has built up a large following, with over 1 billion hashtag views on TikTok and 11.5 million followers on Instagram.

As for its performance at Sephora, Alison Hahn, senior vice president of makeup and fragrance, said: “When we first began discussions regarding a potential partnership, we knew our clients would clamor to get their hands on products that Mario had personally developed and that he uses to create such iconic looks — and it was extra exciting given his personal history with Sephora. Unsurprisingly, since Makeup by Mario first launched two years ago, the line has done exceptionally well — with his Master Mattes Eyeshadow Palette, Soft Sculpting Collections and Moisture Glow Lip Serum being just a few of the products beloved by our clients.”

Dedivanovic added: “I have a deep history with Sephora. It was a dream of mine to launch in that store which happened exactly 20 years after I started working there. The partnership is very near and dear to my heart. We work very well together.”

And there’s more to come. The line is launching in four markets in the Middle East this year (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait) and another five in South East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines), plus the U.K., all via Sephora. It will also this year open in another 200 doors in Kohl’s x Sephora. It’s already in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand and ships to every country worldwide on Makeupbymario.com.

In terms of categories, Dedivanovic sees complexion as the biggest opportunity. “I can’t say what we’re launching, but we have things coming that are ground-breaking formulas, true innovations, first to market. That’s also going to bring a lot of global growth to the brand simultaneously.”

With all this growth, his team has expanded from just three members at the end of 2020 to 36 full-time employees today, in addition to several freelancers, contractors and part-time staffers. 

For now, the business is self-funded, beginning with very little money, which is how Dedivanovic wanted to do it. “We did it starting at the bottom. And that’s how I’ve done everything in my life, really starting at the bottom.”

But he doesn’t know for how long as expanding and growing a business is “very costly,” although he declined to comment on whether or not he was actively exploring funding opportunities.

Master Mattes Eyeshadow Palette

On what makes his brand stand out in a crowded space (NPD Group said artistry brands were makeup’s biggest gainer in the first half of 2022, with sales topping $1 billion), he believes that it’s the brand’s ethos of artistry and craftsmanship and approachable education. “Everything is based off of my techniques as an artist and I’m taking those techniques and turning them into products that are very easy to use. That’s where the core strategy is for everything.”

As for Master Class, his makeup tutorial workshops that began life in 2009 and ballooned from about 20 students to greater than 2,000 in some cities, before being halted due to the pandemic, they will come back at some point although likely in a different form.

“I think about it every day. Master Class ended on March 17 when everything closed down. Then I was too busy with the brand and trying to balance my clients,” he says. “Now that the pandemic is better I definitely do plan to do Master Class, but I want to reinvent it. I want to make it bigger and better. I want more people to be able to have access to it.”

There’s also the question of managing his time, from flying around the world with celebrity clients to building his brand to Master Class to self-care — a skill he is still learning.

“I didn’t really manage my time my whole life,” he said. “Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been working and I’ve spent my entire career traveling, never in one place and living out of a suitcase because I was on a mission.”

For the first time in his life he recently took two months off from traveling for work. He’s also about to take a vacation to Turks and Caicos to celebrate his 40th birthday.

On turning 40 this Saturday, he says: “I feel great. I feel confident. On a personal level I feel like I’ve stepped into my manhood. I don’t have fear anymore. I used to have a lot of fear. I’ve overcome that. I’m happy to be turning 40. And I’m so optimistic and excited for the future and turning 50 and 60. I feel in a really, really good place right now.”