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Beauty Brands Going Au Naturel

Green-based beauty brands are booming as consumers seek products befitting their increasingly health-conscious lifestyles.

In 2013, two years into building her organic skin-care brand — S.W. Basics of Brooklyn — via the Web and in specialty boutiques that carry natural-beauty products, Adina Grigore decided it was time to pursue bigger retail fish. The problem was, the bigger retail fish weren’t exactly biting.

“I was getting told by buyer after buyer that natural is a trend that we think is ending. It was very much an uphill battle for me, and it was as if I was the only one that had this crazy idea that this was something worth pushing out to people,” she recalls. “I don’t blame those buyers because what they were saying to me is that, ‘When we add natural to our shelves, it doesn’t sell.’”

Not yet a full 24 months later, the landscape for S.W. Basics and other natural-beauty brands has shifted dramatically. S.W. Basics landed at Target stores in March and is on track to triple its sales this year. “When you get a call from Target, that’s another level. You are like ‘Oh, wow, this is really happening,’” Grigore says. “It was definitely a huge shock and not a specific plan. More like a dream come true.”

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And now, large retailers from mass to prestige are diving into the segment, where they are confronting mounting competition from retail upstarts combating the market’s crunchy reputation; hungry investors are licking their chops at the growth prospects of natural brands, and the newest generation of consumers is embracing better-for-you beauty brands corresponding with their healthy lifestyles. Celebrities are riding the natural-beauty wave, too. Gwyneth Paltrow has linked with Juice Beauty; Jessica Alba is spearheading Honest Beauty, and Miranda Kerr is working with skin-care brand Kora Organics.

According to research firm Kline & Co., natural personal care remains a small slice of the overall beauty industry — products filled with synthetics command nearly 75 percent market share — but it’s charging ahead rapidly. Global sales of natural personal-care products, which constitute about 25 percent of the market, climbed 10 percent last year, and Kline projects sales in the segment will increase at a compound annual growth rate of almost 10 percent through 2019. In contrast, research resource Research and Markets forecasts worldwide sales of beauty products — natural or not — will advance at an average rate of 4.5 percent annually, which is projected to amount to $461 billion by 2018.

The contemporary renaissance of the natural-beauty segment has historical antecedents. Brands like Dr. Bronner’s, which was founded in 1948; Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, which started in 1965 and arrived in the U.S. seven years later; Burt’s Bees, a later vintage in the segment beginning in 1984; and the personal-care consortium at natural food conglomerate The Hain Celestial of Alba Botanica, Jason, Avalon Organics, Queen Helene and Zia Natural Skincare became formidable by carving out shelf space initially at Whole Foods, mom-and-pop green grocers and small, eco-oriented beauty shops, and then thrusting mainstream. Origins, a prestige natural skin-care entrant from The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. that premiered in 1990, and The Body Shop, the retail chain established in 1976 and later bought by L’Oréal, took different routes but were buoyed by the same consumer interest in naturals that propelled the Whole Foods set. While that interest was deep in a class of concerned customers, it was limited by a perception that natural-beauty products were subpar versions of synthetic goods.

Today, stores devoted to natural beauty are sprouting up across the country communicating the message that natural-beauty brands no longer are ineffectual. These stores aren’t the granola sort. Instead, they’re being compared to conventional beauty retailers. “When we first started [in 2010], we could try to get into Space NK or bust,” says Suzanne LeRoux, founder of cosmetics company One Love Organics. “Now, it is not that way at all. All these stores are popping up like Credo [Beauty], Detox Market [a healthy food and beauty store in Los Angeles and Toronto] and CAP Beauty that are amazing and inspiring. They are featuring the brand as we think it should be, as a luxury experience as well as a healthy one.”

Credo Beauty in San Francisco has been called the Sephora of natural beauty, not a stretch given that its chief executive officer and founder Shashi Batra, and vice president of merchandising and planning Annie Jackson have Sephora bullet points on their résumés. Similar to Bluemercury, Credo and New York’s CAP Beauty have treatment rooms inside their stores. Credo’s spa is by Tata Harper. In the Boston area and Washington, D.C., Follain has been equated with Bluemercury due to its geographic proximity to where Bluemercury was established, although its tightly edited assortment makes it more akin to a Space NK for safe, U.S.-made beauty.

These emerging retail concepts — additional stores are in their plans — aren’t separating natural beauty stylistically from its conventional counterparts. Credo intentionally located on Fillmore Street near Nars, Benefit, Le Labo, Kiehl’s and MAC to be in the mix with leading beauty retailers. “It’s a beautiful store with beautiful brands that also just happen to be natural,” Jackson says. Adds Batra, “We are at the point now where natural beauty is delivering conventional beauty aesthetics.”

Tara Foley, founder of Follain, was thinking of a bathroom when she conceived the retailer’s store design; but not just any bathroom. “I wanted people to recognize that these products would look beautiful in their bathrooms,” she explains. “I wanted it to feel beautiful, luxurious and still rustic enough to be a reminder that the stuff in the stores is oftentimes plant-based and from the earth.”

These stores and the brands within them speak less to hippie or alternative lifestyles and more to healthy ones, opening the natural-beauty segment to a broader and younger demographic. “A lot of people are seeking wellness,” says Cindy DiPrima, cofounder of CAP Beauty. “They have gotten their diets and exercise regimes [clean], and natural beauty is the next progression. People are spending a lot of money on organic food and then they are going into their bathrooms and putting on carcinogenic products. That doesn’t make sense. They are bringing their beauty routines in step with the rest of their lives.”

Opened in a 1,300-square-foot space on Fillmore Street in June, Batra declares Credo — which sells around 75 brands primarily priced from $15 to $150 across skin care, makeup, hair care, men’s, and bath and body — is lifting off as conscientious buying and transitioning to becoming more mainstream in beauty. It can do so, continues Batra, because natural beauty is both as beautiful and, critically, as effective, as conventional beauty. “What natural beauty has done is to deliver now on looking good as well as feeling good. It has efficacy, aesthetics, packaging, branding, scent, all that,” he says. Among the brands carried by Credo are Tata Harper, Vapour Beauty, Lily Lolo Mineral Cosmetics, Kjaer Weis, Fig + Yarrow, One Love Organics, Marie Veronique Advanced, Kari Gran and W3ll People.

The quality and performance of makeup products has improved markedly, factors causing natural cosmetic sales to jump. At Credo, Jackson says color cosmetics are “exploding.” “What’s changed is labs are becoming more nimble, and they are finding ingredients that allow them to make [natural cosmetics] that are more like conventional makeup products, which is what women really want,” she says. Jackson singled out the natural-beauty brand W3ll People’s Expressionist Mascara as meeting women’s expectations for conventional mascaras. Skin care is Credo’s largest category, but she suggests color could catch up or perhaps surpass skin care, especially in stores where customers can test out the products.

Traditional beauty retailers have even given their stamp of approval to certain natural-beauty items. In August, W3ll People’s Expressionist Mascara is hitting Sephora, and the brand’s full line will launch on before rolling out to Target stores the first quarter of next year. The mascara “is our number-one selling sku [stockkeeping unit] by leaps and bounds,” says Shirley Pinkson, the makeup artist cofounder of W3ll People. Pinkson wouldn’t switch to natural mascara until Expressionist Mascara. “I tried all the natural ones, and they weren’t doing the job for me. It took me a long time to let go of my L’Oréal Voluminous,” she explains. “We all know if it doesn’t work, women are not going to go there. Our mascara took us five years to formulate and create. It was super imperative that we created a mascara that worked.”

W3ll People and S.W. Basics are not the only natural-beauty brands breaking into conventional retail. Once siloed in natural-food and beauty merchandisers, natural-beauty brands are being inserted into every nook and cranny of the retail universe. Premium plant-based skin-care brand Earth Tu Face is creating a subbrand for a large, mass-market retailer, a development Sarah Buscho proclaims would have never happened when she and Marina Storm unveiled Earth Tu Face in 2012. “Things are changing so fast that [it] is making the heads spin of some people in the beauty industry who weren’t prepared for the change. They are trying to keep up desperately,” Buscho says.

Movement toward natural at upscale specialty retailers and department stores is slower, but is inching forward. Brands like natural and organic skin-care purveyor Tata Harper — which is also available at Nordstrom, Sephora, Neiman Marcus and Space NK — have demonstrated prestige natural-beauty products can be lucrative outside of the natural retail niche. Tata Harper’s first-quarter sales surged at select accounts. “It wasn’t necessarily one particular product [driving sales]. Everything sold more,” says the brand’s namesake founder and co-ceo.

Natural and organic makeup brand RMS Beauty recently entered seven Bluemercury stores and will soon travel to the European department stores Le Bon Marché and Harrods, where it will be at Urban Retreat, but has yet to crack American department stores. “Europe is ahead of the market. Department stores in America are scared,” reasons founder Rose-Marie Swift. She believes whatever fear exists is bound to ebb. Within five years, she says, “Hopefully, I will be sitting in big department stores in equal respect to some of the big cosmetics brands.”

Department stores may have to up their natural-beauty game if they want to win over younger consumers. These consumers’ acceptance of natural beauty is crucial to the segment’s momentum today and into the future. “The younger generation is definitely more convinced that you can get results without toxins. They are much more reverent of the power of nutritive natural ingredients. With the older generation, it takes a little more to convince them that you can positively get results without toxins,” says Hillary Peterson, founder and ceo of skin-care brand True Nature Botanicals. “I’m 53, and I’m in the heart of that group that grew up seeing the massive marketing campaigns that [were linked with] the power of science. What we are working on is helping people understand that science can leverage the power of nature.”

A proliferation of brands across the price spectrum has allowed younger consumers without the wealth of their parents to access natural beauty. “My strategy has been to offer good, better and best,” outlines Tiana Ukleja, category manager for health and beauty at the integrative pharmacy chain Pharmaca. “If you are new to natural, we want to have what I would deem good. These are the brands that you see in Whole Foods and local natural grocers, such as Burt’s Bees, Alba and Avalon. Then, there is a better selection where you would start to look at Weleda, Acure [Organics] and Andalou [Naturals]. They are a little bit higher [in price], but the ingredients are better. Then, for our customer who is ready for the next level and has income to afford the other brands, we offer what would be the best. These are brands that are being used by spa professionals in treatment rooms and include Jurlique.”

Budding categories within the natural-beauty segment, notably aromatherapy and color cosmetics, show the influence of younger shoppers. Speaking about aromatherapy, Maren Giuliano, executive global Whole Body coordinator at Whole Foods, credits its growth to DIY, a mushrooming Millennial pastime. She says, “A lot of people are making their own products and essential oils are a big part of that. And there’s been a lot more awareness around the connection between aromatherapy and being able to enhance moods. People are under a lot of stress, so we sell a ton of blends that are geared toward making you more relaxed.”

Whole Body has expanded its aromatherapy areas at several Whole Foods stores, and has scheduled more in-store workshops and demonstrations dedicated to it. Likewise, Whole Body is bringing color cosmetics more to the fore. Giuliano says, “They [customers] are looking for makeup that to them feels safer. They also appreciate the natural look.”

Where there’s growth, there are plenty of people angling to make money from it. Investors are circling natural-beauty brands. The list of brands they are curious about is long, but contains W3ll People, One Love Organics, S.W. Basics, RMS Beauty, Coola, Indie Lee, Acure and Tata Harper, which has received a minority equity investment from private equity firm Alliance Consumer Growth. Swift reveals she’s fielding investor calls “like crazy. You name it, big investors. Everybody wants in.” So far, she’s fended off suitors. Swift says, “If I was obsessed with money, I would have sold a long time ago. I have integrity and, honestly, we don’t need an investor. I’m very smart with my money.”

S.W. Basics’ Grigore, who stresses her brand isn’t currently looking to get acquired, indicated partnerships can be complicated for a natural-beauty brand. “It’s going to have to feel really, really right, not just for me, but for the brand, in order for me to be interested in it. Otherwise, it is as severe as becoming the problem you are fighting in the first place,” she says.

Some caution that hype about the natural-beauty segment can get overheated. Discussing the spread of natural-beauty stores, Dara Kennedy, who inaugurated Ayla Beauty as an e-commerce site in 2011 and introduced a physical location two years later, says, “It reminds me a little bit of back in ’99, 2000. I worked for a dot-com, and it feels like a very similar moment just in that there are so many players. In a lot of people’s minds back then, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, there’s this alternative universe and all these players can prosper,’ which is never going to be the case. There’s going to be some weeding out.”

Even Grigore is cautious to temper expectations about S.W. Basics’ rise. “We are not a Burt’s Bee’s yet. We are still very much in the growth stages where we are finding our audience,” she says. “I don’t want to give you an impression that now everything is magically better.”