These days, it’s hard to know what’s good for our skin. People obsess over berries and root extracts found in the deep, dark corners of the world, believing that scarcity translates to efficacy. Products list long catalogs of chemicals, labels boast their all-natural, green, organic, and mineral-based formulas … You get the idea. Our wallets end up a little emptier, and we’re peering into the mirror, trying to figure out whether the extract of the seed of that one plant did any good.
Truth is, we just want something that works.
For Sunday Riley, the obsession with skincare began at a young age. Riley remembers spending summers in her native Texas with her grandmother, who painstakingly educated Riley in the skin-enhancing qualities of an array of Native American botanicals. After earning her chemistry degree at the University of Texas, Riley finally turned her long-time passion for skincare into a profession – Sunday Riley Modern Skincare was formed in 2007, and officially launched in fall of 2009.
Accordingly, at the core of Riley’s empire is a firm belief that modern skincare should fuse biotechnology with botanicals, effectively combining her grandmother’s lessons with her science background. Everything that goes into her products has a purpose. Thus, when Riley decided to expand to makeup, the same philosophy was extended to the cosmetics line. This past October, at Paris Fashion Week, Riley debuted her cosmetics collection under particularly strenuous circumstances – on the runway, at the Maiyet and Vanessa Bruno shows – to rave reviews. Ever the multi-tasker, the married, mother of two young daughters, also busied herself doing skincare for the New York City Ballet’s Ocean’s Kingdom, alongside Stella McCartney, in charge of costume design, and Sir Paul McCartney, who scored the music.
We caught up with the skincare guru over breakfast at the Mondrian, before Riley headed off to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runway show at the Chateau Marmont, where she was sponsoring the skincare and makeup. Beyond bonding over a mutual love of Jewish men, lengthy discussions of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and wistfully observing the flawless European women a couple tables over, we chatted about Sunday Riley cosmetics, and what’s in store for the future.
So, tell me about your cosmetics line! Celia sent some samples over to me and I actually really liked the primer, because I like products that are somewhat idiot-proof, easy-to-wear. It holds really well. I know you have a color consultant who’s been working with you on the line.
Yes! Diane Kendal. I had always wanted to create a makeup line, it’s just that launching a makeup line takes 20 times the capital, and 20 times the amount of time. So, we’ve been looking into makeup for about 3 years, but we started off with skincare. It’s easier to launch, since you can do just 10 items. You can’t launch makeup with 10 items – you need at least 20 lipsticks. So, we went into skincare first, and it’s very easy to differentiate yourself with skincare. You just have to make something that works, you know what I mean? Makeup, you can make something that works, but it’s all about –
Exactly. It’s a little bit more difficult to differentiate yourself in makeup, because you can make a product that works better than the next person, like they can look pretty similar, they can be the same shade of pink, so you really have to convince them to switch, in a way. But with skincare, it’s always people trying to fix things. So the mindset, they’re always willing to try new things. It’s a lot easier to grab people, and get them to come over and try. As long as you create a product that’s superior and that works immediately, you’re going to win people over. I always wanted to create skincare that had ‘now and later’ results. Like some can take six months to a year to start working, and people aren’t going to put it on every day, so you better put in active ingredients that work on another level, like within an hour or two, so they can see immediate results. They write in, they call, and say ‘Oh my god, it’s only been a couple hours, I look better!’ That’s the idea with skincare, so it’s very easy to get them in like that. You can use active ingredients that transform.
With makeup, you can create a much better product, but people tend to say ‘No, no, no I like this brand’s lipstick.’ And what they’ll do is, if they get tired of it, they’ll just get a different shade. And makeup, it’s a little difficult, it’s a different market. With skincare, it’s very exploratory. Makeup, you can have some people that are very exploratory, but they’ll still stick with their brand. So, we decided to try to make a name for ourselves first with skincare, but before we became known as the ‘skincare only’ brand, we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to branch out.’ And so we did makeup.
Your makeup line complements the skincare line, because you hold true to integrating science with natural ingredients. Talk to me about the thought process behind that.
We really try and incorporate green technology, and have this marriage of botanicals and biotechnology. You know, from an R&D perspective, people would always come to me, or I would look at market research, or talk to my friends, and they would say ‘I use this eco-serum from Whole Foods at night, but then I put this Dr. So-and-so’s cream on top.’ And I’m thinking, that’s the same woman. All these brands are doing, like here’s my eco stuff, and here’s my high-tech stuff. I’m thinking, it’s the same consumer; she just likes both things, so why not give her both things? Why not marry them together? Why not just give her what she wants? So we always use that blend of botanicals and very natural things in there, with high-tech ingredients. So, the primer has RejuvenOx in it – which most primers contain silicone, which is a non-breathable chemical, I mean, everything’s a chemical [laughs]. It’s not a dangerous chemical, but you put it on your skin, and your skin doesn’t breathe. You get that beautiful porcelain look, but over time your skin’s going to start reacting, you might start to breakout or your skin might start to look dull. So we took the primer, put RejuvenOx in there, which basically create oxygen tunnels and ventilates the primer.
Almost like pores within your makeup?
Right. So you get that beautiful, silicone primer look that you want, but it has breathable oxygen tunnels in it. Our liquid foundation has Vitamin C in it, so it brightens your skin. There are different forms of Vitamin C, like alascorbic acid is the cheapest form of it, and it’s amazing at night, but when you go out in the sunlight, it radically converts with the heat. It has a chemical reaction and changes from an antioxidant into a free radical, which is an obstinate, which means that you go out with Vitamin C during the day …
And Vitamin C lightens your skin?
It brightens your skin. It will never bleach. Now, wrinkles? See Vitamin C, you put it on and go out into the sun, and if it’s alascorbic acid the chemical reaction – it’s like you go out with this army ready to fight the free radicals, and the army turns on you and starts shooting you. It will age you, if you use the wrong form during the sunlight hours. So, we use photostable Vitamin C in our liquid foundation. It’s going to brighten. We use magnolia extract, which I love. It’s so cool! It has this natural, anti-redness ingredient. When people use foundation, they try to cover up unevenness. This naturally tones down the pigment, and it’s anti-inflammatory. We all have telomeres, they’re these rods [attached to the end of human chromosomes], and you don’t know how long mine are, I don’t know how long yours are, they’re with you from birth. Some people age at 85, some people age at 50. You age according to how long your telomeres are. Every time you replicate your cells, your telomeres shorten. So if you have telomeres that are a mile long, you could be 105 and they’ll still be half a mile long, you’re still going to look great. If your telomeres are short to begin with, you may age at 40. It’s also about your heart, your brain, your everything. Now this is part of 2009 Nobel Prize-winning research, telomerase helps slow the decreasing state of the telomeres and extends your cellular lifespan. You age slower. It’s a really neat ingredient, and we put that in there too. So we’ve got the green – the magnolia extract, the Vitamin C – but we have the high-tech as well, and put it all into a really amazing makeup which is water-resistant, so it’s great for humid climates, and that reflects light, which makes it great for fashion shows. It makes the skin look really great.
We were just at the Vanessa Bruno show in Paris, and Stella McCartney for resort and summer, and they were amazed at the foundations, the primers… Like for lipstick, you know how people eat their lipstick?
I read somewhere that you eat something like five pounds of lipstick in your lifetime. Not sure if that’s true or not, but that’s a little scary.
[laughs] Right? So, you want to put great ingredients in there, you want to make sure that if you eat it, it’s not going to harm you! I wanted to put things in that are very nourishing for lips, that would last a long time, and is safe for consumption. There’s a hefty dose of Vitamin C in there, which helps prevent lip lines. As we get older, our lips become thinner because your lips are plump with collagen, and as we lose that collagen we see it not only as wrinkles in our face, but in more deflated lips. Some of these actresses have these gorgeous full lips as teenagers, then you see them at 60 and their lips are much thinner, and they start injecting them because they want that plumper face. People don’t think about sun hitting their whole bodies, accelerating collagen loss, and aging your lips, so with that healthy dose of Vitamin C in the lipstick you actually have a great anti-aging ingredient. We also then created these advanced color molecules that, it’s a bit complicated [laughs], but basically it’s attaching the color pigment to a different molecule on the lipstick, so the lipstick wears for more hours. Usually a long-wearing lipstick is drying, since the way you create a longer wearing lipstick is you put stain in it. Stain is a very drying ingredient. You get 20 hours of wear, 8 hours of wear, but your lips look like crap. We had the time to sit there and think about every category, like we haven’t entered liquid liner yet, we haven’t entered every category. The ones we did enter, we look at well, what’s going on in this category, who’s the best, why do people like it and how can we beat it.
You’re very well versed on all these chemical matters.
I have a B.A. in Chemistry [from the University of Texas], and then I got involved in R&D and the product development side of things, but what’s really helped me out is that I’ve literally done every role – product development, marketing, you name it. I designed all of our boxes; I do all the design work myself. So, being able to put all those hats on really gives me an organic idea of how things work.
So, you’re covering the basics right now. You have foundation, primer, lipstick, mascara … Actually, I’m very picky about mascara, and yours is quite good! Strong brush, it has a little glossy feel, doesn’t flake at all.
Yes! It absolutely doesn’t flake. What’s really cool about the mascara is the brush. There’s very few people in the world who make mascara brushes, since most are patented. There’s this one brushmaker in Italy, who makes for Dior, all the Lancôme, a lot of the huge volumizing brushes. I approached him and said, ‘Look I need you to make me a brush,’ and they said, ‘We just made a brush, it’s new, it’s not on the market yet. Would you be interested?’ It’s actually plant-based, instead of being plastic-based, and it’s made from the castor oil plant. It grips the eyelashes better, and if you were to see it in its natural state, without the mascara on it, it’s actually this beautiful blue color. The formula I love as well. But, [for the line] we have three tinted primers, foundations in 12 shades, in liquid and cream, pot concealer, pressed powder, loose powder, blush, eyeshadow, lipstick, lip gloss, and eye pencil.
So, definitely a solid foundation, with room to grow then. Now you recently debuted the makeup collection during Paris fashion week [at Vanessa Bruno], how did that go?
I was really scared [laughs]. First of all, it was the first time we had transported everything internationally, so we had to make sure everything was up to par, did anything break. The thing is, when you work the fashion shows, the show is on a Monday. They may do their makeup test on a Friday, and they don’t know what the makeup look is going to be. So, if they’re doing something, like with feathers, or a very natural look … You don’t know what they’re going to do. You have to send everything. It’s like, okay, are you doing natural? Then I have to send my natural palette. You don’t know what they’re doing. You just have to send everything, put these huge makeup kits together for all of them. It’s production. You have to sponsor the show, you have to sponsor the artists, you have to have the complete brush sets, have 25 to 30 brushes made per person. You just hope to God they’re not looking to do some special effect or something. And, she’s huge in Paris, very French look, very natural. I knew we’d be fine. It’s not something like Costume National where you don’t know what the hell they’re going to be doing! It ran incredibly smooth, the girls looked fantastic, the makeup artists were raving about the makeup, which, I was like, thank god, because they’re out there trying it. That’s the biggest test in the world, ‘do they like it?’
The makeup artists are the biggest, and best critics because they know exactly what they’re looking for.
Absolutely. They’re doing these women back to back to back, and we were getting really great feedback, so it was really good. It was hot there, that’s my only complaint. Usually, Paris fashion week, it’s really brisk, usually in the 50s, and it was in the 80s, 90s, just this unusual heat wave. It was so hot, and they didn’t have air conditioning because they weren’t prepared for it, no fans or anything. This reporter from Net-a-Porter came up for an interview, and I was sweating, and like ‘Ahh! Hold on!’ She told me, ‘Go in the bathroom, throw yourself on the marble wall, and come back.’ And I did! Oh, it was really good [laughs]. I could barely breathe; it was so uncharacteristically hot. They ran out of water backstage! They had all the hot tea and coffee, but they ran out of fluid!
At least your makeup is meant to hold up through sweat and humidity…?
Oh, I know! The models were sweating, but the foundation is water-resistant, so the makeup didn’t run. People wear their makeup in a lot of ways, and you have to accommodate them, think about where they’re wearing it. A lot of people need makeup that they can sweat with and still look good. You can be outdoors, you can work out, and it will stay put. So, it was really helpful, because it was so hot at that show, and the models still looked fantastic.
So, really, that heat wave actually turned into a fantastic piece of PR for you.
It worked out perfectly!
And you recently worked with the New York City Ballet, on Ocean’s Kingdom, with Stella McCartney [who designed the costumes]. Tell me about that.
We had sponsored Stella’s resort show in the summer, and it went really well! That was a really cool show. It was a garden party at St. Luke’s church, just amazing. Stella’s team said that Paul McCartney and Stella were involved with Ocean’s Kingdom ballet – Paul did the music, Stella did the costumes – and did we want to sponsor [the skincare] with the McCartneys?
And how do you say no to the McCartneys?
And to the New York City ballet! So we sponsored it, and we got the dancers ready. It was absolutely fabulous. It was interesting, because these people, they’re real athletes, and they have totally different skin issues. They’re working out nine hours a day. They don’t have time to wash their face. It was a different situation, coming in to talk to them about where they’re at, what they need. It was an amazing experience. Plus, I love the ballet. It’s the music, it’s magical, the lights go down, and all the costumes … Very magical. You sit down and kind of say, ‘Okay, take me where you’re going to take me.’ It’s telling a story through movement, and if you don’t know the story, it’s interesting to watch them try to communicate it to you the way they are.
Did you try any of your makeup line, or did you just handle the dancers’ skincare?
We tried some of the makeup, but a lot of it was stage makeup, so more skincare than makeup. It was just fun though. It was definitely a good time.
So where to from here? You have skincare, now foraying into cosmetics, is there anything else you would like to try out?
Well, we’ll keep expanding cosmetics. We’re expanding skincare. There’s a lot of things we don’t offer yet that we’re going to offer. There’s a full production schedule in place to keep us busy. Next year, we’re going to push out four or five new skincare products, to make sure we don’t abandon that, because that’s really our base. It’s so strong for us. There aren’t that many companies that are equally strong in skincare and makeup, and that’s what we want to do. And we’ll continue to do spring and color stories with Diane Kendal since she has such an incredible fashion tie-in. She’s working all the shows, she says these are the colors for spring, so we have an insider that’s really beyond compare, and we make sure we’re really relevant. Beyond expanding our architecture, we’ll expand into eyeliners … Really, there’s so many areas to expand to – spas, hotels. We’ve had an incredible amount of interest from hotel groups. And then since we had such a huge response in Europe, that’ll be our area to push into. In New York, Bergdorf’s is going to carry us in December. We’re really excited.
We’re going to be efficient. We’re going to grow. We’re going to be relevant. It’s not just about being cool, because if you’re not relevant, you’re not going to sell anything.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Written by Caroline Pham