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Urban Decay co-founder Wende Zomnir did not expect brand’s success and longevity

From the names to the colours of its products, make-up label Urban Decay gained a following for its bold aesthetic

When American cosmetics label Urban Decay launched in 1996, not only did it brighten up the beauty market - awash in a sea of pink, red and beige - with louder and edgier colours, but it also shocked with product names such as Peroxide, Bruise and Roach.

Who would have thought that an eyeshadow called Acid Rain or one named Mildew would sell? But they did. And so did the lipsticks Road Stripe and Gash.

The variety of colours and the unusual names made people take notice.

Today, Urban Decay is sold in 39 countries such as France and Australia and was bought by French beauty giant L'Oreal for a reported US$350 million in 2012.

Before it came under the L'Oreal umbrella, it was bought and sold by three companies, including French luxury group Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.


Alice In Wonderland Book Of Shadows eyeshadow palette (above).

"It reflects our ideas about how beauty can be different, unexpected and unusual... It's a little bit high-spirited and doesn't fit with other beauty industry notions."

WENDE ZOMNIR on how the catchy name Urban Decay came about

The brand, a make-up artist favourite, is available in Sephora outlets in Singapore and has two stand-alone stores - a 530 sq ft flagship store in VivoCity and another in Bugis Junction.

Despite the ownership changes, co-founder Wende Zomnir has remained with the brand as its chief creative officer, taking charge of the label's creative direction and coming up with new ideas for make-up.

Even as the brand celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, she says she did not think it would last this long. "When we started, I thought this would be a fun project for two or three years. I didn't ever imagine that it would be as big as it is, but it has been a very fun ride," says the 48-year-old in a telephone interview with The Straits Times.

That "fun ride" has seen Urban Decay rise from a start-up lipstick and nail polish brand to a recognised label every beauty junkie must own. Prices range from $30 for a pot of eyeshadow to $83 for the popular Naked eyeshadow palette.

Ms Zomnir and co-founder Sandy Lerner started Urban Decay because they felt that the beauty market then offered only the standard beige, pink and red shades. They wanted edgier and bolder colours.

"What we wanted to do was create purples and blues and these beautiful colours that were not available in the prestige beauty market. And we wanted them in the same luxury high-quality formulas with great performance," Ms Zomnir says.

Before Urban Decay, she was in advertising and Ms Lerner was with technology company Cisco Systems, which she co-founded.

Though Ms Lerner has left Urban Decay and is now a philanthropist who supports animal rights and women's issues, Ms Zomnir says they still keep in touch.

Ms Zomnir admits she might have been "a bit tricky" about how the brand came to snag its first order from noted American fashion retailer Nordstrom. "I may or may not have stolen a Nordstrom buyer's contact information from a friend's briefcase. I did what I had to do to get Urban Decay off the ground."

The buyer placed Urban Decay's very first order immediately after viewing its collection. Now, Urban Decay is available in more than 2,800 locations worldwide, including department stores, Sephora outlets and its own free-standing stores.

On how the name came about, Ms Zomnir says Ms Lerner knew it had to be "Urban something" and Urban Decay resonated with them because it was a shocking yet catchy name for a make-up brand.

"It reflects our ideas about how beauty can be different, unexpected and unusual, like finding inspiration in the iridescent rainbow sheen of an oil slick or in the myriad red- orange-brown tones in rust. People love that it's a little bit high-spirited and doesn't fit with other beauty industry notions."

Over the years, the name of the brand is not the only thing people have loved. The brand's first big lipstick and nail polish hit was Gash, a bright red lip colour and a deep crimson shimmery nail lacquer released in late 1996.

In 1998, Urban Decay produced Midnight Cowboy, a pink champagne eyeshadow with silver glitter. Though the shade was not the most edgy, Ms Zomnir says it helped people see that the label offered something for everyone.

Another product milestone was the Alice In Wonderland Book Of Shadows launched in early 2010.

The limited-edition eyeshadow palette, which contained 16 existing and popular shades, sold out even before it was on the shelves. Its packaging depicted a scene inspired by the 2010 Disney film starring Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska in a pop-up book style. It also came with a small tube of Eyeshadow Primer Potion and two mini eye pencils.

"Customers knew the palette was coming. People would ask for it and Sephora was selling it out of the back storeroom. So it was sold out even before the merchandising display was put up."

Shrewd packaging helped in the successful launch of the brand's famous Naked palette in late 2010, a collection of 12 neutral shades that complemented almost every skin tone. Four more Naked palettes, with varying shades and tones, were soon released. At one point, the brand claimed that a Naked palette was sold every five seconds.

The bestseller also led to an entire Naked collection of foundations, beauty balms, blushers, eyeliners and lipglosses.

On how the label manages to keep things fresh today, Ms Zomnir says it tries to be the first to look for new ingredients and textures.

Being part of a bigger company means there are others to look after aspects such as operations and finances, allowing her to focus on being creative with make-up concepts to help Urban Decay stay on the cutting edge.

The mother of two, who takes an active role in creating new products for the brand, says she spent the entire day prior to this interview looking at new shades, testing formulas and coming up with new ideas for packaging and marketing.

When asked about her thoughts on the rise of South Korean cosmetics, Ms Zomnir acknowledges the competition, but says there are no rules when it comes to make-up.

"Asia is such a dynamic market with many emerging trends. Korean beauty brands have been on a steady rise for years and we see this happening in the US too.

"When creating new products, we don't necessarily follow trends, but we see what is relevant to each market and come up with new products from our point of view."

In view of keeping things fresh, the brand recently entered into its first celebrity collaboration, working with American singer-songwriter Gwen Stefani for a collection late last year that included an eyeshadow palette, a blush palette, lipsticks, lip pencils and an eyebrow kit.

On her choice of Stefani, Ms Zomnir reveals that though the UDxGwen Collection took 11/2 years to create, it was really a collaboration almost 20 years in the making.

"When Urban Decay started, No Doubt - which Stefani fronts - released their first single Just A Girl and I remember thinking, 'That girl is amazing. She's exactly the Urban Decay girl'.

"I just thought she would always be the perfect spokesman for us. She got really huge and, finally last year, we were able to work with her because we got big enough too."

Earlier this month, the brand also announced that the heavily tattooed Australian model, DJ and actress Ruby Rose would be its new face.

Asked what she thinks the brand's biggest accomplishment is and Ms Zomnir says Urban Decay has helped make the beauty industry more diverse.

"We were this indie brand doing really different things, putting alternative colours out there, and I think we made the big cosmetics companies sit up, take notice and realise they couldn't rest on their laurels and be satisfied with the same pink and mauve shades every season."

Certainly, for Urban Decay, the combination of variety and quality has accounted for its longevity in the fickle beauty industry.

Administrative assistant and avid make-up fan Nadia Oon, 24, says Urban Decay has always had good quality products and that its branding and range are also attractive.

"I think its variety also appeals to a wide range of people - from those who want an edgier look to those who want something more mellow."

A make-up junkie herself, Ms Zomnir says many customers have written to the label about how its make-up has impacted their lives.

"It's not cancer research and we're not saving lives, but I think it's nice when people can go to one of our stores and leave feeling really good about themselves. I think that's what beauty is about. It is about feeling confident and expressing yourself to the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Bright, loud and edgy'. Print Edition | Subscribe