These days, the casual cosmetics buyer can wander into any Sephora and, somewhere between the Dior lipsticks and Fenty contour palettes, find a display section backlit with a now-ubiquitous shade of light pink: Glossier pink. Or “millennial pink,” in some circles.
Marisa Meltzer, a longtime culture journalist and the author of Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier, out this week, describes the hue popularized by the paradigm-shifting beauty brand as “not quite as dusty a shade as a ballet slipper and more washed-out than a rose… it was a shade engineered to signify femininity with an arched eyebrow—not just feminine but feminist.”
Glossier’s journey from brilliant concept to pop culture phenomenon to faltering tech unicorn is the subject of Glossy, a thoroughly reported, entertaining whirlwind that takes this utterly unique beauty business saga as seriously as it deserves.
Glossier and Glossy both begin and end with founder Emily Weiss, a statuesque cypher of a CEO whom Meltzer has interviewed many times over the years, yet who remains somewhat elusive both to the author and the book’s readers.
Weiss, raised in upper-class Connecticut, has always had a talent for asking frankly for what she wants, Meltzer explains. A memorable anecdote has it that while babysitting for a neighbor in high school, Weiss told one parent that she really enjoyed looking after his children, but what she really wanted was an internship at his workplace: Ralph Lauren.
Weiss’ alarming competence was evident to her early employers at upscale fashion companies and magazines—so much so that she wound up as a bit character on the MTV reality show The Hills, where she acted as a diligent foil to her blonde, more hapless counterparts Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port.
But Weiss doesn’t like to talk about The Hills or herself much at all. She earned raves for her savvy website Into the Gloss, which she launched in 2011 and which featured intimate interviews with prominent figures in fashion and culture about their beauty routines. The site became a cult hit and a profitable media platform in its own right, Meltzer reports.
Weiss leveraged her intuitive understanding of beauty’s appeal—it’s impossible to define, but you know it when you see it—and the marketing power of a well-placed peer review into the launch of Glossier and the company’s first four products: a moisturizer, a face mist, a lip balm, and a barely-there skin tint.
As Meltzer observes, whereas Weiss was the sort of untouchable, model-slash-AP student girl who seems born to give people inferiority complexes, Glossier’s vibes were inclusive and welcoming from the beginning—and that alchemy hit the American beauty market like an atom bomb.
Despite, as she tells Meltzer, not really knowing what she was doing, Weiss raised $2 million in seed funding and released her core products to the world. One year later, Glossier was selling nearly a year’s worth of product within the span of three months.
Many brands strive for minimalist, everyday ubiquity, hoping to become a staple in your medicine cabinet, but when they first hit, Glossier’s cutely packaged products felt like true palette-cleansers; they were feminine, easygoing, and made you feel pretty without even trying.
“I appreciated that Glossier was offering makeup that you could kind of smudge on, and look a little glowy and pretty,” Meltzer said. “But also I don’t think Glossier was saying, ‘You have to only be this way.’ Because you could still want contour or a full face or whatever. Glossier was saying that women could choose both, and the decision didn’t have to have this big psychic weight.”
How did Weiss and her team pull off this feat? Melzter packs Glossy with fascinating chapters on lab-based product development and the dovetailing of the brand’s launch with Instagram’s explosion. Indeed, Glossier’s cultish online popularity and constant communication with consumers was crucial to its success, but the founder and ex-CEO herself was reluctant to show Meltzer her cards.
“I think she was trying so hard to be relatable, because that’s what women are supposed to be, and that was the branding of Glossier,” Meltzer told The Daily Beast. “But that relatability is a bit of a trap, because she’s not relatable. She was so determined, and often got what she wanted, but then at the same time, she’s fond of saying things like, ‘Oh, this is kind of just like my art project.’”
“That’s not necessarily the best way to communicate to people about how hard things really are, or how success happens,” and her deflection “probably made sense to [Weiss], but it doesn’t really add up,” Melzter added.
Many deep dives into Glossier’s trajectory have explored whether Weiss’ preoccupation with transforming her makeup brand into a tech company led to the company’s decline. After its U.S. sales reportedly decreased 26 percent from the previous year in 2021, and a rocky 2022 in which one-third of its corporate workforce was laid off, Glossier’s “no makeup-makeup” products eventually popped up at Sephora in February 2023 as part of a seismic shift from the direct-to-consumer model Glossier had been committed to since its launch in 2014.
Glossier, previously a universe unto itself defined by a valuation of nearly $2 billion, immersive flagship stores, and once-total dominance over the “Instagram aesthetic,” has now, in some ways, become just like any other cosmetics brand.
After the 2022 layoffs, Weiss wrote a company-wide email saying that Glossier had become “distracted” by “certain strategic projects.” Indeed, Glossy describes how Weiss came to gradually adopt the sleek, buzzword-heavy vernacular favored by Silicon Valley darlings; at TechCrunch Disrupt SF in 2018, she promised that a “social commerce-meets-social media network” was forthcoming from Glossier, but it never materialized.
“As the company was getting big, there were all sorts of ideas about what Glossier should be doing,” Meltzer told The Daily Beast. “Is it a tech company? Are they developing apps, or point of sale stuff? They went in all of these directions and all of them seemed like they were chaotic.”
It’s true that Glossier, due to any number of internal missteps or factors beyond its control, is no longer as white-hot as it was in the halcyon days of the late 2010s. But Glossy convincingly argues that the brand has earned itself a permanent spot in the cultural lexicon via its alchemical combination of marketing genius and pleasant, deceptively simple products.
“Why was Supreme so popular?” Melzter offers. “It’s all these little things that connote influence and cool and the way you wanna show yourself to the world, and all of that. Glossier was ‘girl Supreme.’”
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