Consumers in today’s color cosmetic-obsessed market have access to an endless array of lipsticks and eyeshadows that come in every color known to man. But such was not the case for beauty junkies of the 1990s, a time when store shelves were primarily stocked with a sea of pink, red and beige hues—that is, until the brand Urban Decay came along.
Founded in 1996, Urban Decay debuted with 22 SKUs, 10 lipsticks and 12 nail enamels. Featuring unique colors with edgy names like Roach, Oil Slick, Smog and Acid Rain, the brand touted itself, and still does, for catering to the consumer who is not afraid to stand out in a crowd. Though this is nothing new in today’s vast and varied world, the industry had a radically different landscape two decades ago, and Urban Decay’s empowering message of daring self-expression resonated with makeup lovers everywhere.
“Urban Decay came about during the grunge era of the mid ’90s,” founding partner and chief creative officer Wende Zomnir says of the once-indie brand acquired by L’Oréal for an estimated $350 million in 2012. “We were inspired by the urban landscape that surrounded us; it was all about finding beauty in things that were unconventionally beautiful, like the iridescent rainbow found in an oil slick. We were of the idea that there are a lot of other ways to be beautiful instead of subjecting yourself to stereotypes. Life is too short, wear blue lipstick! You don’t have to be afraid of anything you can wash off.” Here we take a look at how a brand with humble beginnings morphed into the cult-favorite industry behemoth fans know and love today.
For Zomnir, a career in the beauty industry was more happenstance than intentional. While working for ad agency Leo Burnett, based in Chicago, Zomnir says she moved to California in search of better weather.
“I became a scuba instructor and had plans to write and travel the world,” she says. “Instead, I met [cofounder] Sandy Lerner a few months later, and we started a business together.”
That business was run out of Zomnir’s Laguna Beach bungalow, where the nail polishes were hand-mixed and where press kits were assembled. Zomnir hired unemployed surfer girls she met on the beach, who she enlisted to hand-paint the company’s first nail polish displays. True to its California roots, Urban Decay’s headquarters (shown throughout) and flagship store are located in Newport Beach.
“I may or may not have stolen a Nordstrom buyer contact sheet from my friend’s boyfriend’s briefcase, while he was busy showering at my place after a surf session,” Zomnir says of how the company got its first big break. “I called the cosmetics buyer and said he had recommended I call her, and she asked if I could present the collection to her the next day. After meeting with her, they placed our very first order immediately.”
Fun and feminine yet gutsy and bold, Urban Decay, much like Zomnir, has stayed true to its mantra since the beginning— which has also played an integral role in its success. “Urban Decay has a clear point of view and is all about the fun of self-expression through makeup. We create high-quality beauty products with innovative packaging and incredible colors. We aren’t afraid to change and evolve, and we are always working on ways to make our products better,” Zomnir says.
Not only did the seedier aspects of urban cities influence the colors of the cosmetics line, but this philosophy was integrated into the packaging as well. Urban Decay’s single eyeshadows once depicted a manhole cover and later a pothole, and now feature its iconic Revamped Subway Token design.
“We like to look at what’s going on with fashion, art and design to get inspiration for packaging. We also like to check out new fabrics, patterns and motifs. And, of course, we meet with packaging people from all over the world to learn about new technology and what can be accomplished now in manufacturing—what new materials are available and how they can be combined. Sometimes something you’ve seen at a movie or museum will click with something a pack- aging manufacturer has shown you and voilà! There’s your idea,” Zomnir says.
BEAUTY WITH A PURPOSE
“Makeup is a means of self-expression. It’s not about covering your flaws, but showing the world who you are,” Zomnir says.
In line with the brand’s powerful message of self-acceptance, Urban Decay created The Ultraviolet Edge, a global initiative that funds women’s rights organizations around the world. Since it was founded in 2015, Urban Decay has donated $1.28 million to various nonprofits, with the goal of donating another $1 mil- lion this year. Should they succeed, the company will, ahead of schedule, reach its target goal of $3 million in five years. To help the cause, 100 percent of the purchase price for Urban Decay’s limited- edition Eyeshadow Primer Potion will benefit women’s empowerment organizations through The Ultraviolet Edge, which include the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, Equality Now and Her Justice.
“Makeup is a means of self-expression. It’s not about covering your flaws, but showing the world who you are.”
For a brand with such an authoritative presence, Urban Decay has chosen equally strong and inspiring women to serve as its brand ambassadors. At the end of 2015, Urban Decay did a makeup collaboration with fellow Orange County native and “Just a Girl” singer Gwen Stefani, someone Zomnir had wanted to work with since the company was created.
For its recent Vice Lipstick Collection, Orange Is the New Black actor Ruby Rose was a natural fit to represent the brand. “We always say that the Urban Decay girl is the coolest person in the room, and also the nicest,” Zomnir says. “When I first saw Ruby Rose, I thought she was an amazing fit for us. She embodies beauty with an edge. She’s dangerous. She’s fun. And she is an animal lover. We sort of developed a girl crush on her and were beyond excited when she wanted to work with us to launch the Vice Lipstick Collection.”
MORE IN STORE
While the industry has seen its fair share of changes with the rise of millenials and Gen Z’ers looking for brands that have a distinct message and an open mind, Urban Decay prides itself on being one of the original brands to offer vivid colors before they were cool.
“If you wanted color, you had to go to the drugstore, and back then the quality of the lines with edgy colors was low,” Zomnir says. “People looked at me like I was crazy when I wore blue lipstick every day. Now, women (and men!) are more open to experimenting with their makeup and having fun with it.”
By not following trends, Urban Decay became one of the most influential trend- setting and fashion-forward cosmetics companies in the industry. “Through our hardcore passion for the brand and an unwavering devotion not to follow trends, we’ve managed to continue producing quality products that women want and need,” Zomnir says. “Initially, we were known for producing high-pigment colors like blues, purples, greens, and our crazy shade names. Now we are known for our dedica- tion to quality, design and innovation.”
Offering cruelty-free products for the lips, eyes and face as well as makeup removers, setting sprays and brushes, the sky’s the limit for a brand that has already cemented itself as a tour de force and household name.
Though Zomnir remains tightlipped about when products will be released in the near future, she admits that her team is always working on something new. “As far as what’s next for Urban Decay, all I can say is we’re even more focused than ever on creating high-quality makeup inside beautiful packaging.”