BEAUTY’S REBELS WITH A CAUSE

Byline: Kerry Diamond

NEW YORK — Tony & Tina, the New Age cosmetics company with a rock ‘n’ roll edge, is looking to enlighten the world one lipstick at a time.
“This is fundamentally a conceptual art project,” explained co-founder Anthony Gill, better known as Tony. “We use the platform of cosmetics to spread awareness of the true nature of color and aroma and how their frequencies affect the human energy system.”
The beauty industry is going through a spiritual phase — seen the words ayurvedic, zen or chakra lately? — but Gill isn’t spouting the phrases that tested best with a focus group. The company truly is a reflection of its founders’ beliefs and interests, and as a result, Tony & Tina is not your standard-issue beauty brand.
Need proof? Gill and Cristina “Tina” Bornstein, another co-founder, are training to be healers, while creative director Yana Chupenko moonlights as the lead singer of Shiny Mama, a raucous hard rock band that just recorded its first CD.
The company’s spokesmodel is neither busty nor Brazilian. She’s a short, plain-looking East Village poet and performance artist named Rev. Jen who prefers wearing fake, pointy Mr. Spock ears to Manolo Blahniks.
And you’re more likely to find the staff singing karaoke at the Elbow Room in Greenwich Village than networking uptown at the Beauty Ball or C.E.W. lunches.
On Tuesday nights, the team works overtime, but they’re hunched over yoga mats — not their desks — during the weekly yoga class held in Tony & Tina’s loft-like SoHo office.
In other words, it’s not the kind of place that needs to institute casual Fridays.
But in today’s ultracompetitive climate — with hip new brands materializing almost daily and the major players snapping up one hot indie name after another — one has to wonder if business as unusual is working for Tony & Tina.
“I think it has worked for us,” said Andrew Auwerda, president of Tony & Tina, which was founded in 1997 as a nail polish brand. “This is who we are, and it’s one of our strongest points of difference.”
According to industry sources, Tony & Tina’s 1999 retail sales doubled over 1998’s and the company is poised to do more than $10 million at retail in 2000. Distribution has increased to more than 300 doors worldwide. As far as product is concerned, the company is outgrowing its reputation as a nail polish brand with dozens of new stockkeeping units and a fresh focus on skin care.
Andrew Knox, formerly with Donna Karan, has been hired to oversee the brand’s accounts on the West Coast, and Abby Miller handles the company’s Internet accounts. Also, Donna DiDonato, formerly of Bobbi Brown Essentials, is consulting for the company on domestic sales and marketing issues.
Despite this, there are some in the industry who question whether Tony & Tina will be around for the long haul.
“I feel that a radical relaunch would be necessary to revitalize interest in the line for my customers,” said one retailer who used to carry Tony & Tina. “But I think they are tremendously creative and talented, and I hope to see them emerge with a fresh direction and a cohesive statement.”
Auwerda doesn’t think there’s a need for a relaunch. If anything, he said, the company needs to do a better job of communicating Tony & Tina’s original message. “If people don’t know we’re about color therapy and aromatherapy, they won’t see a distinction between us and Stila and Hard Candy,” he said.
Since the company doesn’t advertise, it tries to communicate in other ways. For the past few months, Tony & Tina has sponsored Club Makeup, which Auwerda described as “a crazy wild transvestite glam rock party” held once a month in Los Angeles’s El Rey Theater. This summer, the company is launching its second catalog, which features everything from products to meditation tips. And Bornstein and Gill are writing a book about color therapy that will be published by Little, Brown in 2001.
The couple also makes personal appearances throughout the year. “I would say that 80 percent of our interactions with customers end in tears,” said Gill. “We talk about the fundamentals of creating your own reality. It’s such an emotional exchange. People tell us that housewives in the middle of America won’t get it, but they do because they’re not jaded.”
The company’s biggest problem right now, said Auwerda, is producing enough product. “We can’t make goods fast enough,” he said. “I’m trying to get the factories to respond faster to our growing needs.”
Auwerda said his ultimate goal is to have the company rank among the top five brands in the business. It’s a lofty dream, given the names that currently occupy those top slots. But Auwerda knows you can’t save the world when your company is ranked 42nd in the industry, according to NPD BeautyTrends.
Tony & Tina burst onto the beauty scene in the most unlikely way. It was 1997 and Bornstein and Gill were married artists living in New York and wondering what to do with their lives. As part of an exhibit of their work at a gallery in Chelsea, they decided to show seven nail polish bottles — each one relating to a specific chakra — as a commentary on color therapy and a dig at the cosmetics industry.
“The point was that these colors were more therapeutic than anything you could buy on the cosmetics floor,” explained Bornstein. “The beauty industry is all about color, but they don’t have any clue as to the true nature of color.”
Disappointed with the reaction to their show, the couple retreated to Florida to regroup and meditate on their future. Using creative visualization techniques, they imagined careers that would let them work together and travel; that would let them tap into their artistic and spiritual sides, and that would let them make a difference in the lives of others.
Enter Auwerda. An executive at J. Crew looking for “an entreprenurial adventure,” he saw Tony & Tina’s nail polish exhibit and felt they were on to something. “This was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the beauty industry,” he said. “I didn’t know what the word chakra meant, but I felt why make fun of the beauty industry when you can bring something to it.”
Auwerda, who had been following the career of Hard Candy founder Dineh Mohajer, knew the nail polish category was hot. Now he just had to convince Bornstein and Gill that the time was right to become indie makeup moguls.
“We hadn’t thought of having a cosmetics company,” admitted Gill, “but we were open to whatever the universe would bring us.”
Bornstein signed on immediately. “We instantly started making makeup,” she recalled. “It was just instinctual. I started having dreams with colors. We found our purpose. This was the way we were going to talk to the masses about human beings evolving.”
The first two doors to carry the new line were the Bliss Spa and Bloomingdale’s. Auwerda seems convinced that a higher power was watching over the fledgling company in those early days. “For some reason we are where we are,” he mused. “We launched with 21 nail colors and 17 of them were dogs. These colors were out there. There was Wisdom, an orange color that did the worst at retail. Another was called Balance. It was a matte hunter green. Think about that on your nails.”
The initial reception from customers was lukewarm, but the beauty press loved it. “Wisdom has shown up in more editorial than any other nail color of ours,” Auwerda said. “Soon after the nail polishes, we came out with our nail polish remover, and that got tons of editorial and retailed well. We owe a lot to the press.”
Today, the product line features more than 150 stockkeeping units, including lipstick, lip balm, lip gloss, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, hair mascara and glitter.
While some of the items are basic cosmetics — like the black mascara — most of them are meant to be more than makeup. All the nail polishes have a specific purpose. Manifestation, a sheer gold, is meant to awaken healing powers. Spiritual Sex is a mauve shade said to help balance the spiritual and the physical. The aromatherapy lipsticks, which contain St. John’s wort, have names like Empowered, Centered and Creative, while the eye shadow duos are described not by shade, but in consciousness-raising terms, like Faith & Surrender and Path & Purpose.
While the company remains passionate about color cosmetics, they have begun focusing on treatment products. So far, they have added aromatherapy bath and shower gels, makeup remover, facial cleanser and a nail-strengthening mask. In September, Tony & Tina will launch a foundation-like product called Herbal Environmental Rescue, a skin refiner, eye refiner and therapeutic eye base in a tube.
“I have always been a treatment junkie,” admitted Bornstein. “I was making my own face masks when I was 11 years old.”
Many retailers feel that Tony & Tina’s modern makeup with a message fits into their product mix. The company’s distribution includes 28 Nordstrom locations, 27 Sephoras, 12 Bloomingdale’s, Liberty’s and Harrods in London and the new beauty department in Bergdorf Goodman.
Thanks to a distribution deal the company signed with Shiseido in fall 1999, Tony & Tina is carried in 50 outlets in Japan. That number is expected to hit 200 by the end of the year. “Shiseido is excited about the results so far, and there’s talk of a freestanding store in Japan,” Auwerda noted.
Beauty’s online revolution has worked in Tony & Tina’s favor. The line is carried on a number of Web sites, including eve.com, beauty.com, ibeauty.com, gloss.com and sephora.com. So far, Web sales have been the equivalent of a healthy door, said Auwerda. “We’re happy with the business because it helps us reach customers we can’t otherwise reach, but we’d like it to move to flagship level by the end of the year.”
The company will relaunch its own site, tonytina.com, by June 15. (Don’t try tony&tina.com unless you want tickets for the Off-Broadway show “Tony & Tina’s Wedding.”) The site already has an e-commerce component. “We’re doing more on our own site than on the other sites,” said Auwerda. “For something that we don’t advertise, it’s not bad. It’s starting to show me that maybe somewhere down the line we can have a freestanding store in the U.S.”
One can’t talk about Tony & Tina without addressing the indie brand shopping spree of the past few years. Now that the top tier of independent names — like Kiehl’s, Stila and Hard Candy — have been snapped up by the likes of Cosmair, Estee Lauder Cos. and LVMH, is it Tony & Tina’s turn to be acquired?
“I don’t think that’s the direction that Tony, Tina and I personally want to go in,” said Auwerda. “But we are looking for partners, specifically a manufacturing partner or a capital partner. We can’t continue at the pace that we want in terms of new products without some money. That’s the bottom line.”
As for Bornstein, she’s senses that an acquisition is inevitable if Tony & Tina is to survive. But she isn’t looking forward to that day.
“I love our indie status,” she said. “I wish we could keep it forever, but I know that’s an unrealistic thought.”