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Huda Beauty’s Plan to Disrupt the Fragrance Industry

"We want this to be a whole layering experience. We're all made of so many layers."

It’s not every day you have the chief executive of a billion-dollar company channelling Dionne’s look from “Clueless.”

But that’s Huda Kattan. The self-made ceo of Huda Beauty can seamlessly oscillate between Nineties nostalgia and private equity investment strategies without skipping a beat. Clad in a black-and-white tweed skirt suit, Kattan and her equally fashion-forward sisters Mona and Alya are ready to share their not-at-all-average business plans. In short, they’re building a conglomerate.

Huda Beauty is launching fragrance. Then, it’s launching skin care.

The five-year old company of super influencer Kattan, who has 28.2 million followers on Instagram, plans to launch multiple subbrands over the next year, bringing the business into at least two entirely new beauty categories. Those subbrands will be complete with their own identities but will live under the Huda Beauty umbrella. Sales for 2018 are expected to double to $400 million at retail, according to industry sources.

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Kayali, the fragrance brand, is set to introduce a collection of four scents on Nov. 16 with the company’s core retailers, including Sephora, Cult Beauty, Harrods and Selfridges. The Elixir, Citrus, Musk and Vanilla fragrance bottles will retail for $118 for 100 ml.

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Even though people might be like, ‘What? Why are they talking about this right now?’ Later, they’ll appreciate it and it’ll make them able to buy fragrance without going into a store — that’s the whole point.

Kayali, which means “my imagination” in Arabic, is the brainchild of Huda’s sister, Mona Kattan, a fragrance enthusiast who started separately mulling over the idea of launching perfume more than seven years ago. Now that Huda Beauty is of scale, Mona has a natural fragrance platform, the sisters said.

All three sisters — Huda, ceo; Mona, president, and Alya Kattan, chief Instagram officer — sat down for an interview at New York’s Park Hyatt hotel to exclusively unveil the fragrance line and talk about their strategy to become the next big multibrand beauty business.

“I actually did not want to do a fragrance,” said Huda Kattan. “I was adamant about not doing a fragrance because I do not understand how you sell fragrance. I know how to sell makeup — I put a lipstick on, I do a nice look, I take a selfie — I can sell lipstick.”

But Mona got Huda to change her mind.

“Mona started talking about this whole [fragrance] layering thing, and I started doing it…I just created some beautiful concoctions by mixing pepper and vanilla together. I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I love this.’ Then I couldn’t stop layering. And I was like, ‘OK, Mona, you know what? We’re going to turn this into a lifestyle.'”

The plan, with Kayali’s first fragrance set, is to create a movement around fragrance layering — a process that’s ingrained in the Middle East, where the Kattan family lives, but not so big in Western cultures.

Huda Beauty's Huda Kattan Launches Fragrance
The Kayali fragrance lineup launches Nov. 16.

“Part of the culture in the Middle East, especially the Gulf countries, is when you go to someone’s house, and you go for lunch…when you’re finished eating, as part of the tradition, they bring a tray to you with their home fragrances that they’ve created with a local perfumer and you spray yourself and do your own little mix — then when you leave, you smell like that person’s house,” said Mona Kattan.

It’s like an emotional bookmark, Mona Kattan said — and that fits into what Huda Beauty is all about. “For us, beauty’s all about emotion,” she said. “When you get a new fragrance, you’ve created a bookmark into your life and every time you smell it, you’re going to remember that exact moment.”

All layering concoctions are not created equal — the first time Huda layered fragrances, it was not a great success.

“I remember the first time I layered. It was stinky,” Huda Kattan said. “It was too much oud, musk— I hated it. We wanted to make something really easy. We’re going to have cocktails and recommendations.”

For Kayali — a name Mona and the Kattans’ father, Ibrahim Yahya Kattan (a micro influencer in his own right, with 14,000 followers) came up with — the fragrances are meant to be educational. Crafted by Firmenich, they’re packaged in elongated octagonal boxes that feature the key notes, so consumers can start to understand what scents they’re drawn to.

“We decided to put the notes on the packaging so people could be like, ‘Oh, that’s what that smells like,'” Mona Kattan said. “A lot of times you spray a perfume, you have no idea what’s inside.”

“Even though people might be like, ‘What? Why are they talking about this right now?’ Later, they’ll appreciate it and it’ll make them able to buy fragrance without going into a store — that’s the whole point,” Mona said.

Kayali’s bottles feature an elongated octagonal shape, made of clear glass with a diamond-shaped topper meant as a nod to the traditionally elaborate flacons frequent in the Middle East.

“If you go into the old souks in any Middle Eastern country, you’ll find a lot of these diamond-style bottles, but they’re super small. We wanted this to be a more modern piece of the Middle East,” Mona Kattan said.

More broadly, the collection is meant to shake up the fragrance industry, she noted, in a similar way that Huda Beauty shook up makeup.

But Kayali doesn’t have Huda Beauty’s inherently visual — and Instagrammable — traits. Bottles are pretty, but perfume is clear and not smellable via mobile phone, leaving a new and potentially challenging task for Alya Kattan, who handles the brand’s social media accounts.

For the first time, the sisters hired an agency, Anomaly, to help with the creative. Marketing materials are partially inspired by a Snapchat filter Huda Kattan saved a few years ago — one that looks like layers. And Alya Kattan has already set up Kayali’s own Instagram page.

“We already have over 10,000 followers,” Alya Kattan said. “We have three posts and we just started the page.”

But for fragrance, the marketing strategy extends far outside of Instagram into real life, where pop-ups are part of the strategy to get the fragrance in front of people’s noses. Sample sets will be created so customers can test all four scents. In 2019, the company will spend money on digital marketing for the first time, Mona added, as well as focus on its e-commerce strategy.

“The tagline is ‘every layer of me,'” Huda Kattan said. “We want this to be a whole layering experience. We’re all made of so many layers. Let’s discover those layers and figure out who we are and enjoy it for the process, smell delicious through the process.”

The launch of Kayali has taken the family, including Huda’s husband Christopher Goncalo, chief operating officer, through a transformational process. Now, instead of just one brand, they’re running two. And in the second half of 2019, they’ll launch a third — a skin-care brand that is being manufactured in Asia, Huda Kattan said, declining to provide further details. Beyond that, one more beauty brand is in the works but isn’t far enough along to be disclosed, she said.

Each of these projects will operate as a separate brand. The business is also open to making acquisitions, Huda Kattan said, though it is not currently in the process of doing so.

We couldn’t re-create Huda Beauty now…There are so many influencers now who are trying to launch brands and they’re struggling because it’s a different time. They need the right marketing to really get people’s attention.

The subbrands came about partially because the fragrance concept just didn’t fit into the identity she’s built up for Huda Beauty — which is known for full-coverage makeup, colorful shadows, big lashes, bold highlighters and its many lip colors.

“I couldn’t comprehend this for Huda Beauty,” Huda Kattan said. “Where does the layering come in? It’s its own identity. Even with the skin-care brand, it’s going to have its own identity, completely different than Huda Beauty.”

It’s unlikely, too, that the new brands will be able to follow the Huda Beauty business formula to any success, she said.

“I don’t think we’re foolish to where we think we can do everything really well, like, ‘We did this thing with Huda Beauty and now we’ve reached so much success that we can mimic the same thing over and over,” she said. “We couldn’t re-create Huda Beauty now…There are so many influencers now who are trying to launch brands and they’re struggling because it’s a different time. They need the right marketing to really get people’s attention.”

Video: Huda Kattan On Being Your Own Boss

In addition to adding brands, Huda Beauty is going through an internal transformation, with new key hires, including Nathalie Kristo who joined as U.S. president from L’Oréal, and Helena Sampson who joined from Kendo as European president. Huda Beauty has also built up its product development team.

Those additions come after an influx of capital from TSG Consumer Partners, which bought a stake in Huda Beauty in 2017 that is said to have valued the beauty company at $1.2 billion. Since then, the brand has been able to ramp up its launch cadence.

“With the beauty industry becoming so busy…you actually need to have more newness, so we decided to do more newness,” Huda Kattan said.

Asked about the long-term future and a possible initial public offering, the sisters were hesitant, with Mona noting that it would bring “unnecessary pressure.”

“You do never know, though — we also said we wouldn’t go into beauty,” Huda Kattan said. “Or get private equity,” Mona added. “So you just never know.”

In the near-term, Huda Kattan’s focus has turned to workplace culture.

“We’re not hiring all these amazing people with amazing experience that are going to tell us how to do our job now,” she said. “They understand that Huda Beauty is a different company so they’re listening as well…as experienced as they are, they’re very humble.”

Having more people in-house has allowed more senior members of the team to put on their mentoring hats, teach newer employees and even surprise Huda Kattan — known for being extremely picky about product formulations — with a product that she didn’t even know she wanted.

“When we launched Precious Stones [eyeshadow palettes], I had put together four palettes and they came to me and were like, ‘You forgot emerald.’ They gave me the emerald [palette], finished,” Huda Kattan said. “I didn’t touch it. And everybody died over it, and I had nothing to do with it.”

She described company culture as apolitical and demanding, with a warm and fuzzy side, confirming with one new employee in the room.

“We are really a family business, and everybody on the team feels like they’re a part of our family — we feel like they’re a part of our family,” said Mona Kattan.

“It’s really important that people feel happy. You spend more time with people you work with than your family members. Even if you work together — we’re not together as sisters — we’re spending time together as team members,” Huda Kattan said. “I want to spend more sister time,” Mona noted.

The company has started bringing in wellness coaches for the team, and is building a “fun floor” in its Dubai office that’s meant to be a collaborative workspace, Huda Kattan said.

While the business’ culture may have a top-down approach — Huda Kattan herself is known to be demanding, yet warm and fuzzy — Kattan admits she is not your typical ceo.

“I’m not necessarily looking at P&L — I do, but not as often as a ceo would [normally]. I look probably on a monthly basis,” she said. And while she doesn’t like seeing women underrepresented at the top in beauty — “that makes me mad…that’s a problem” — she does not want to be ceo of Huda Beauty forever.

That doesn’t mean she’s willing to give up the final say, though. Ideally, she’d remain chairwoman of the board.

“I’m more concerned about legal and IP a lot, in leadership I’m more concerned about the team, making sure everybody vibes together, that’s really important to me. Communication internally on the team is really important to me,” Huda Kattan said. “I would like to be the deciding factor, because I don’t want to do what’s been done before. But if I could do a more creative role and then be the voice of the brand or the chairwoman…”

Kattan, a declared feminist, likes the idea of a future ceo one day being another woman. “I don’t know how I’d work with a man being the ceo. He’d have to have a lot of respect for women. I would need a man feminist.”

Mona, Huda and Alya Kattan.
Mona, Huda and Alya Kattan. Joshua Scott / WWD

That comes up because the boardroom behavior of many men she’s met with through the years has been off-putting, she noted. “They just flirt with you and they don’t know you’re an equal,” Huda Kattan said. “That bothers me.

“It came to the point where when I’d see another woman on the other side I’d be like, ‘Oh, finally, someone who is going to really talk to me and really make eye contact with me and really have a conversation with me and we’re going to really get s–t done,'” she said. “I hate that I felt that way. There are so many wonderful men I’m meeting now who are feminists, and I have so much appreciation for them.”

Her business idols, she noted, are also men — Steve Jobs for his brand building, as well as Jeff Bezos — though she said selling on Amazon “doesn’t make sense for us.”

“The thing I love about Jeff Bezos is he was very strategic. He f–king patented the one-click, who does that? That’s genius. He did Amazon Workspace, that is so genius. He did those things that no one would think of,” Huda Kattan said.

“He created an ecosystem for the future of business,” Mona Kattan said.

“I will tell you, without telling you, that really inspired me,” Huda Kattan added.