Iman may have one of the most famous faces in beauty, but she also has one of the most astute brains in the business. As the founder and chief executive officer of Impala, she sells her namesake cosmetics line in about 2,000 mass-market doors and has estimated retail sales of $30 million. She also has an eponymous clothing and accessories line on HSN.
This story first appeared in the June 5, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Now, Iman is expanding her empire with Jay Manuel Beauty, a color brand created by the makeup-artist-turned-TV-star best known for his work on the Next Top Model franchise. The brand launched on HSN this spring, and brick-and-mortar distribution is currently under discussion. Sources estimate it could reach $8 million in first-year retail sales.
Recently, Iman and Jay Manuel sat down with WWD Beauty Inc at the Crosby Street Hotel and talked about everything from diamonds to distribution strategy. Clearly the duo are fast friends, but where Iman is a dramatic orator, who speaks in capital letters, exclamation points and rolling Rs, Manuel is all business, sprinkling his remarks with continual references to his brand’s unique selling points. Together, though, they speak the lingua franca of consumers and the industry alike — a powerful combination that they believe will pave the way for beauty’s next big brand.
Iman and Jay, you’ve known each other for a long time. How did you first meet?
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JAY MANUEL: We first met for a cover photo shoot. Iman had always been an idol of mine. When I was a teenager, I used to have all of the fashion ads and pictures on my wall and, of course, I had pictures of Iman.
IMAN: You see! Everybody says, “When I was a teenager” or “When I was a child!”
MANUEL: So Iman shows up and I was like, “OK, now we’ve got to do Iman glam.” As soon as I was done, she says, “Can I say something?” I’m thinking, uh oh, what did I do wrong? She says, “It looks great.” I still felt like there was a “but” coming. Then she said, “But you did my makeup in about half the time of anybody else.” I thought, Is this a good thing, a bad thing? And then she said, “I feel like I look retouched.”
IMAN: To me, I find a lot of times makeup artists give you “their” look. So you almost can see who did your makeup. What I liked about what Jay did at that shoot and what he is still good at, is how individual he makes everybody look. When you look at yourself, you look like your beautiful you. And then, more importantly, it takes less time and you look like you are retouched.
MANUEL: It’s not about putting your stamp on it. It’s about taking their individual brand and look and elevating it and doing your thing. Soon after that, I started playing around with airbrushing, mixing these formulas specifically for Iman and traveling [with her].
IMAN: I remember a trip to the Cannes film festival. I was under contract with De Beers, for the launch of a big diamond collection, and it was amazing, wherever I was shot, it didn’t matter, I always looked great.
How long ago was that?
MANUEL: Seventeen years ago.
IMAN: This is how good he was — at times, I would call him and say, “I need you to do my makeup. I’m going out this evening.” He’d say, “I can’t, I’m working all day,” so I would go to his apartment in the morning — in the morning — to have my makeup done for that night and it would still be fresh.
So you’ve really seen Jay’s career evolve.
IMAN: Evolve and just blossom.
MANUEL: It was Iman who said to me, “You are doing more than just makeup with a lot of your clients. You need to be paid as a creative director. You need to be paid for your postproduction.” I remember, she sat me down in her kitchen, she was making pasta with shrimp in her apartment, and she said, “This is what you need to focus on.” She’s very business.
IMAN: He’s not just a makeup artist. The only person, in terms of a makeup artist, who comes close in terms of what he knows is Francois Nars. Francois takes pictures. [Jay] can take the picture. He can re-touch the picture, he can art direct the picture. When he came to me, I wanted somebody who knows their brand, because I wasn’t going to run the brand. I wanted somebody who has a good work ethic and under- stands what is required, because this is a business and a tough one.
How did the idea for the line come about? Had it been germinating for a while?
MANUEL: This has been 20 years in the making for me, but in terms of hard development time, just over two years. I’m not selling my technique or my brand. I’m bringing my understanding of formulation to a consumer level. As much fun as Iman and I have had throughout the years, we would always talk business and I learned a lot from her. When I felt it was time [to do something] and I felt the technology had come around to keep it at a price point that makes sense to the consumer, I spoke to Iman. I’ve learned so much from her that it seemed natural to come to her first.
IMAN: For me, it was the point of difference — not between Iman Cosmetics and Jay Manuel Beauty, but the point of difference between Jay Manuel Beauty and what’s in the marketplace. To bring something to market, I needed it to have a unique story, a unique brand and a unique personality behind it. Jay is his brand and his brand is his currency. I don’t speak for him. I am not hand-holding him. I wanted to be able to facilitate it, but it had to be about the product. If the product wasn’t something that’s missing in the marketplace, I don’t think we could have done much with it. But that actually gave me the force to launch this product, because it was unique.
How involved were you in the product-development process?
IMAN: Absolutely not at all! I was not involved in the product development. He is his currency. He knows everything about his product. What we were able to do is produce it and support the business side of it. I didn’t want to hand-hold a new line. God knows, I know how hard it is to launch a cosmetics brand nowadays.
MANUEL: I think a lot of the larger brands are still trying to market to their own objectives and fill what they think the white space is. Whereas, a lot of the differences that I have put into my products are born directly from the questions and concerns that women have given me, either by stopping me in the street or in an airport or if I’m shopping or even online, especially through social media. When I came to Iman I had the technologies and products that I thought really address what consumers are asking for.
Which is what?
MANUEL: A lot of women have told me they want this more-filtered illusion to the skin. A lot of makeup and foundation products show up on their face and they want to be able to have it not look like makeup. That is a big concern.
IMAN: The consumer filters everything now, she plays with everything, she is knowledgeable on how to do it. There are so many apps — a makeup artist showed me one the other day where you can literally adjust and rotate your face to any angle you want or elongate your neck. Customers are doing this on their iPhones.
MANUEL: That’s the key. It’s knowledge. Now that the consumer is armed with that kind of technology and knowledge, and as the beauty industry has evolved, she is more comfortable with doing more and understanding more, whereas 10 or 15 years ago, it was all about the basics. Now, everyone is talking about contouring and highlighting.
Is it primarily a younger consumer who’s comfortable with this level?
IMAN: Not necessarily. I think it’s across the board. I’m reaching 60 and I know about this, not just because I’m in the business, but because it’s available. When something is available, you play with it. If a 20-year-old is going to retouch her face when she takes a photo, you know a 50-year-old will be the first one to do it, because it is beneficial to her. At the end of the day, the younger generation lives through their pictures. What women over 30 want is how to look like their pictures in real life. If a [photo] filter can do that, why can’t my makeup do that? How can I simplify it so it looks natural, but at the same time, retouched?
MANUEL: For me, that brings up the whole question of “What is beauty?” The way I’ve always looked at it is that it’s the opportunity to realize your true self-image, the way you see yourself. Once you realize how you see yourself, your confidence level is boosted because you are living how you envision yourself, whatever that means to you.
Do you see the language of beauty changing?
IMAN: It has to. It is moved forward by the technology that is available, so it has to change. Especially for younger customers, it is important that you speak their language.
MANUEL: It’s not just younger customers. Our core is based around our Filter Finish collection and even my mom knows what a filter is. So when you say “filter finish,” it is really descriptive in today’s language. Look back at [Vogue’s] last September issue — the Instagirls. People knew what that meant.
What is your assessment of the industry right now? Where do you see the most opportunities and challenges?
IMAN: The biggest challenge, regardless of the business you are in, is our economy. It’s been getting good and then stopping, and people are not quite certain what they should invest in. Usually what happens is that as the economy improves, young brands have the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
What are other challenges?
IMAN: Distribution. The department stores are in flux and people are more comfortable going to Ulta than going to a department store nowadays. The [dis- tribution] challenge is how to find the right place and be at the right price point but at the same time not lose your shirt over it. A lot of the time brands cannot get to department stores because it’s a money eater. You end up losing your company by just being in there. The department stores are rethinking how to do certain things better so that they’ll have customers coming in to the stores.
Whereas Ulta is the fastest-growing retailer in the U.S.
IMAN: And there is a very good reason for that. The brands they have are really diverse and at the same time, the sales associates are very good at what they do. That’s what department stores used to be known for. That is not there anymore. Department stores feel like, “The customer will come to me.” The customer doesn’t have to come to you anymore. Look at Amazon. I’m a big Amazon fan. My brand is not on Amazon because I’m in the mass market, but I’d love to have something special later on for Jay on Amazon because it is worldwide, you can get it anywhere and now it is special delivery.
Is mass as…
IMAN: Outdated? Yes, it is outdated. There are places like Walgreens that are trying to do their own stores that are more geared towards the customer base but that is at its start. If I walk in any mass-market door, I still see [multicultural lines] segregated. You still see the brands only for black customers at the back. They still have those issues.
Is it getting any better?
IMAN: In the stores themselves it is not. But what’s really changed is their dot-com sites. It has become a point of purchase for a lot of customers. When I started 10 years ago in the mass market, they didn’t believe their customers were buying on dot-coms. They were so surprised.
MANUEL: Especially in beauty and the world we live in today, it is about being inclusive. This idea of still separating the brands out on the floor, it’s a little antiquated. It’s very dated.
Iman, how do you see your company growing? What is the strategic vision for Impala? Are you creating a beauty empire?
IMAN: There was a beauty empire already! There was actually no plan that I wanted to take over a new brand, it just happened that this is a close friend of mine. This is someone who I really, truly believe in. If the products looked like every other upscale product out there, there is no reason for me to do it, because I wouldn’t know how to market it, how to put it out there. For me, it’s always about the product, the product, the product. The product is god because the product will outlast all of us. In terms of the company, Jay Manuel Beauty will be on the department-store level and Iman Cosmetics will be in the mass market. It’s perfect. We have tested it on HSN and it completely sold out in record time. For September, we’re talking about orders of over 30,000 units.
MANUEL: We went 200 percent over projection.
IMAN: That’s what keeps me awake! [Laughs] It’s like, all of a sudden, can we have that grouping in 30,000!
Where do you see the most opportunity in the business?
IMAN: I think for Jay Manuel it is to get into a brick-and-mortar. It is not what I expected, but it is a good problem to have. I expected that this year would be the growth year and I’m already in the growth year and it’s been only one time out.
You’re personally good friends and professional partners. What happens when conflict arises?
MANUEL: Iman’s biggest conflict was when I was stolen from her years ago by Tyra [Banks] and TV. That was our biggest conflict.
IMAN: I’d say to him, “Go and explore young man, but don’t disappear.” There is less conflict because he came fully branded. He is his own currency. And I have a very good work ethic, but his is even better, so that makes life much easier.
MANUEL: That is actually the biggest compliment because Iman knows if I have deadlines that I’ll sit up until 2 or 3 in the morning.
IMAN: At HSN, he spent three hours setting the lighting.
MANUEL: We did a custom set. We were there the day before, and I said, “Let’s light it.” They said a lot of people don’t want to take the time to do that, so they’ll just throw up generic lighting and then they’ll complain about it. I said, “But we’re selling beauty!” I will take the time and go the extra distance.
IMAN: Neither of us believes in winging it. There is no winging it.
What are some of the toughest business lessons you’ve learned and biggest mistakes you’ve made?
IMAN: The biggest mistake I’ve made is when I go off course and try to do something that is trend-driven. You should never go off course. But if you do, it should never be for a trend. Because the big boys, who have the money, can do the trends. A trend needs major advertising. That is the biggest mistake I’ve made. Twice I’ve done it and twice I’ve regretted it and I’m never repeating it again. The lessons I’ve learned—numerous, numerous, numerous. Overproject. Be prepared. That’s why I can turn around and do this big quantity for September.
MANUEL: Forecasting is key.
IMAN: That’s a big deal. In all honesty, we don’t wing it. We prepare.