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Indie Beauty Expo’s First L.A. Edition Spotlighted Indie Brands on the Brink

An increasing number of emerging indie beauty brands are experiencing the growing pains of entering major retail distribution.

What happens to up-and-coming beauty brands when they are more up than coming?

That was a question explored last week at the first Los Angeles edition and the second edition overall of Indie Beauty Expo, where an increasing number of the 105 beauty exhibitors at the Shrine Expo Hall were sorting through the process of going from small time to, if not big time, at least somewhat bigger time as they charge into major retailers. Their survival at stores will depend on how deftly they manage that transition and the support they receive from retailers as they make it.

“They are learning that just having a good formulation, cool packaging or a [public relations] firm, none of those individually is going to mean success. You have to get the combination right,” said Nader Naeymi-Rad, cofounder of IBE. “When you are talking to a large buyer, they want to know you can scale and to scale you have to invest, not only in manufacturing your formulations, but also in demand generation. While a lot of buyers want exclusivity, they also want the brand to be popular.”

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Pour Le Monde Parfums, which will soon be joining department store assortments, seems to have the front-end investment part down. The natural perfume brand’s creator and former magazine publisher Wendi Berger secured enough ingredients and warehouse space to establish a sizable brand even before her brand got to that stage. “I didn’t launch as a small batch brand. I launched as a brand ready for distribution,” she said. “That is something that not a lot of indie brands do.”

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Odacité, an organic skin-care brand and Nordstrom neophyte, is slowly unfurling at retail to handily cope with expansion. The brand initially opened four of the retailer’s California stores and a Canadian store in Vancouver last year. This year, Odacité entered Nordstrom’s Honolulu store and anticipates entering two stores in Toronto. Next year, additional Nordstrom locations are set to carry the brand. “As a small brand, you start with a few doors, and you really work those doors,” said Odacité founder Valerie Grandury, who stressed that picking suppliers that can grow along with a brand is helpful, too.

As indie brands multiply at chains, Naeymi-Rad counseled retailers not to have unrealistic sales performance goals. “You shouldn’t have the same expectations on small, niche brands that you should for Vaseline,” he said, continuing, “I think tempering expectations when working with smaller brands is a way of meeting them in the middle. [And retailers can] incubate them because they may not be ready for you this year, but, if you give them some advice and tell them what milestones they need to hit, you can catch them later.”

The welcome news for retailers thirsting for unique beauty merchandise, according to Naeymi-Rad, is they are “spoiled for choice.” From products diving into untapped categories to brands breaking into the U.S. from abroad or the market altogether, that choice was certainly on display at IBE. For example, in an unusual move for a natural skin-care brand, SkinOwl introduced a lightweight concentrate for the neck called Neck+ exclusively at Cult Beauty. The London-based e-commerce site has already reordered the spring release three times.

“The European market is obsessed with their décolletage, and they [Cult Beauty] felt they had a shortcoming in neck products,” said SkinOwl founder Annie Tevelin, noting the product would be offered domestically on the brand’s Web site by July. “There is not too much in the green space really taking care of this area.”

Among the international exhibitors arriving Stateside via IBE were Max and Me, an Austrian skin-care brand featuring delicate sketches of magical elves on its packaging; Ryor, an extensive herbal beauty line from the Czech Republic that Sonia Whitfield of American distributor Our Happy Box commented is similarly positioned to Tata Harper and Dr. Hauschka; and Scentered, a British range of portable, essential oil-packed fragrance balms. “America is a big market, and I’m a commercial person. I want to build a big company that improves lives,” said Lara Morgan, founder of Scentered, and former chief executive officer and founder of Pacific Direct. She detailed Scentered is available at 65 stores, notably Space NK, outside the U.S.

There were plenty of emerging American brands, too. Pinch of Colour is on a mission to produce cosmetics without water, and is premiering in September with matte lipstick and an illuminator stick. HAN Skin Care Cosmetics is delivering makeup made from plant, fruit and vegetable pigments at a fraction of the cost of most natural makeup brands. Hairstylist Giulia Heiman developed Be Biotin to infuse the hair vitamin category with classy design. “For years, I recommended supplements to my clients and, although I was selling them a $44 shampoo, I sent them to the drugstore for a plastic bottle of vitamins,” she said. “I always felt there was a product missing for salon shelves.”

Women’s health specialist Nicole Granato focuses her two-year-old namesake Los Angeles brand on products such as a facial mist with aloe extract and organic rose water that cross beauty and wellness. She is planning to locate a store on Rose Avenue in Venice to showcase her products and a curated selection from other brands like raw, organic skin-care purveyor The Body Deli. “My goal is to make it a holistic wellness center that goes back to what holistic wellness was,” said Granato. “I want to make things simple again.”

Whether they pursue their own stores, wholesale accounts or both, not every indie beauty upstart present at IBE will hit the jackpot, but expo cofounder Jillian Wright suggested that, if brands prepare properly, many can sustain substantial businesses. “I want to instill confidence in these brands. I want them to think about scalability, getting out of their kitchens and taking the business seriously,” she said. “Indie beauty is a movement that is going to change the beauty industry in a very meaningful way.”