The global beauty industry is often referred to as "recession-proof", given man's never-ending yearning to unlock the fountain of youth.
But in Singapore, it also happens to be an industry that is competitive, dominated by international skincare and cosmetic juggernauts including Clinique from the United States, Japan's SK-II and Laneige from South Korea.
Despite the cut-throat environment, in the past four years, the local market has seen a gradual but definitive new wave of smaller home-grown entrants, all of whom are hoping to score in the big leagues like their uber-successful local predecessors - Skin Inc and Strip.
Local entrepreneur Sabrina Tan's Skin Inc became the first local skincare label to be stocked internationally at Sephora in 2013.
Home-grown waxing services brand Strip, which was started in 2002 and is under the Spa Esprit Group, today has a presence in 10 major capitals including London, New York and Beijing.
At least 15 local beauty and skincare brands have jumped into the fray in the past four years to varying levels of success. The appeal of starting their own label despite Singapore's competitive beauty scene stems from the industry being an untapped market for local beauty brands, the brands' founders say.
"It's undoubtedly an area that still has potential - especially for products that are being created to target Asian skin and our unique climate," says Mr Keith Codling, who is in his 40s and the co-founder of Alexiares & Ani, a botanical skincare label he launched with his wife Dawn in 2013. "We started our brand because we wanted to create products suited for the tropics which don't really exist despite there being so many brands on the market."
And indeed, it seems that personal quests for the right products pushed many local entrepreneurs onto the scene.
Ms Teresa Foo, 40, who founded natural skincare label Balm Kitchen in 2013, set out to create body balms to help her son who had childhood eczema.
Ms Tanny Kea, 46, founder of home spa line Javaglow, which was launched in 2014, started making her own coffee-based scrubs because hormonal tests five years ago showed her body age was years older than her real age.
It does not hurt that Singapore's beauty scene continues to be very lucrative. An analysis last year by consultancy RNCOS showed that the country's beauty industry is set to grow by a compounded annual rate of 5 per cent between last year and 2020. A study by market research company Euromonitor also found that with premium beauty gaining momentum, consumers were increasingly willing to spend on niche, luxury and bespoke beauty brands.
For Ms Caryn Lim, 29, co-founder of Coat nail polish, Singapore's first line of eight-free nail paint, which is formulated without many of the conventional chemicals found in nail polishes, the educated consumer is very much the reason for the success of her brand, which she launched in 2013.
"These days, consumers have access to the Internet and know about ingredients and formulations," she says. "They are more likely to be willing to spend money on products that are natural or organic and non-toxic - a niche area where many local beauty entrepreneurs are thriving."
Larger retailers are also taking notice. Five years ago, shoppers would be hard-pressed to find local beauty brands in big department stores, but today, local retailers such as Robinsons, Tangs and Isetan stock local beauty labels such as Faux Fayc, Katfood and DrGL.
Ms Eunice Kwan, senior merchandising manager at Robinsons, says it has been in partnership with DrGL since 2010 and has the brand's counters at its stores in The Heeren, Raffles City and Jem.
On their part, consumers also seem to be jumping on the buy- local bandwagon.
Ms Amanda Liew, 31, who is a big fan of the roll-on perfumes from local aromatherapy label Mmerci Encore, says: "I prefer to put my money towards products that are not chock-full of chemicals and synthetic substances. More local brands these days are coming in to fill that void with products that are natural and organic.
"The quality of the product is what is important to me. The fact that I am able to support local brands as a result of my purchases is just the icing on the cake."
Despite the inroads made in the past four years though, the path for the home-grown beauty entrepreneur continues to be an uphill one.
Ms Tay Yu Hui, 26, founder of local cruelty-free, synthetic make-up brush brand 13rushes, says: "The lack of factories near Singapore can make the production of beauty products very expensive and daunting. Also, Singaporeans continue to be slightly sceptical of brands that are made locally."
The challenge of coming up with the right formulation for products can also be difficult, adds Ms Foo of Balm Kitchen.
To get up to speed, the former graphic designer spent the whole of 2014 studying for an online diploma in skincare from Britain-based online school Formula Botanica, where she is now a tutor.
"Singapore does not require mandatory testing of cosmetic products before they are sold on the market, so it is important that local entrepreneurs creating new brands understand the science behind their formulations," she says.
"It can be a lucrative industry, but getting the foundation right is key. After all, good products by local entrepreneurs will help the industry succeed as a whole."
Activist creates cruelty-free brushes
Ms Tay Yu Hui is very much a self-confessed make-up junkie.
But it was chancing on a disturbing YouTube video a few years ago that showed animals being skinned to make animal-hair make-up brushes that spurred her to create 13rushes - a line of synthetic, cruelty-free brushes.
"I, like most other people, never realised the link between fur and make-up brushes," says the 26-yearold.
"But to be honest, a lot of animal cruelty can be involved in sourcing bristles of hair from animals and that was a practice I wanted to be an activist against."
A lot of animal cruelty can be involved in sourcing bristles of hair from animals and that was a practice I wanted to be an activist against.
13RUSHES FOUNDER TAY YU HUI, who started her line of synthetic brushes after chancing on a video showing animals being skinned to make brushes
Realising that there was a gap in the local market for high-quality synthetic make-up brushes, the Nanyang Technological University accountancy and marketing graduate began a year and a half of research to find suppliers and factories that would be able to create her product.
"At first, I had to deal with various dud manufacturers - especially because I was just trying my luck and ordering from manufacturers off websites such as Alibaba," she says with a laugh.
But realising that they were not able to provide the quality she wanted, she decided to visit the factories herself, making numerous trips to trade fairs and factories in Japan and China, where she tested and felt the bristles of "hundreds of different types of brushes".
In the end, it was the technique of dipping brush heads in a special alkaline solution to make them softer and similar to real-hair bristles that she found was the key to giving her brushes the texture and density she wanted.
Feedback from focus groups comprising local and international make-up artists also helped her make the necessary revisions to improve the quality of her brushes.
In November 2013, after a low five-figure investment, she produced her first line of 20 brushes, ranging in price between $14 and $29.
Given positive feedback from well-known local make-up artists such as Larry Yeo, sales of the brushes from her online site took off almost immediately - allowing her to recoup her initial investment in just six months.
Three years on, she now has more than 60 types of brushes that she manufactures in China and Japan. And even though the cost of her bristles - which she imports from Germany and Japan - is quite high, she has kept the prices of her brushes the same over the years by doing all the packaging in Singapore by herself.
Her production quantity has also increased by leaps and bounds, going from just over 7,000 pieces for her first batch of brushes to more than 70,000 pieces annually today.
Besides being sold locally and internationally through her site, her brand is also sold to retailers in the Middle East, Brunei and Taiwan.
"It can be daunting to start in the local beauty industry because we don't have the factories for production available here and our population size is also rather small.
"But that being said, it has been great to see more entrepreneurs coming in and owning this space," she says.
"I still think there is a lot of potential in this industry for local entrepreneurs - especially if you are able to spot gaps and create products suited for the Asian market."
Quest for perfect mascara leads to make-up label
It was the quest for the perfect fibre mascara that set the founders of local beauty brand Faux Fayc, Ms Eileen Poh and Ms Yuan Ng, on the path of entrepreneurship.
"Back in 2014, fibre mascaras (mascaras that have fibres added to make lashes look longer and more volumised) were on trend. But because they were being created by brands from the West, the fibres were often of a light or white colour," says 25-year-old Ms Poh, who is behind the brand's first product launch. "What I wanted to create was a mascara with black fibres as those would blend better with Asian eyelashes."
Contacting laboratories in the United States, she spent six months creating a volumising and lengthening fibre mascara that was smudgeproof for Singapore's hot weather, while still being easy to remove with lukewarm water.
She gave her finalised formula to Ms Ng, her friend of 10 years, to test. The 30-year-old was sold and decided to come on board as a partner. Their investment of $10,000 for their first 600-piece sample in November 2014 was something the two decided to take a gamble on.
"We thought we would just see if it sold and, if it didn't, we would just try to recoup our costs by selling the mascara at flea markets," Ms Poh says with a laugh.
But as it turns out, they had a winner. Within two months, they had not only turned profitable, but also had to put in repeat orders for more tubes of mascara.
"It was at that point that we decided, why stop at just one product? We wanted to create a brand that was designed for the Asian woman - with colours and formulations to suit our skin colours and climate," says Ms Ng, adding that Faux Fayc (pronounced Faux Face) is a subtle dig at putting on a full-face of make-up. "There aren't that many local make-up labels and we wanted to create something bold and daring for women who love make-up."
And though they admit that it was an uphill battle researching chemical ingredients and learning about the right formulations to produce their products, they say finding the right laboratories to partner has been a big contributor to their success.
"Our labs guided us through the process and we've been able to learn more about the science of this industry with each new product we put out," says Ms Poh.
Since moving on to liquid matt lipsticks in May 2015, the pair have been rapidly expanding their paraben- and lead-free make-up range every few months - which now includes concealers, foundations, eyeshadows, blushers and make-up brushes which are produced by laboratories in the US and Canada.
Their products range from $15 for a make-up bag to $58 for a mattifying mousse foundation.
Their best-selling matt liquid lipstick line already has more than 20 colours, which they plan to expand to more than 50 by the end of the year.
In June last year, the women also cracked the competitive Orchard Road belt with their first 150 sq ft brick-and-mortar store at Plaza Singapura, designed in their signature dark and bold branding.
They were also approached by local department store Tangs in October last year and, following successful pop-up stores at Tangs in VivoCity, the brand will have a permanent counter there from May.
Ms Ng says of their journey as beauty entrepreneurs: "One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the scepticism that many Singaporeans have about local brands. When it comes to make-up, many still assume that international brands are better, but we hope local brands like Faux Fayc will one day also compete with the big boys."
Going global with just three products
Local skincare brand Allies of Skin was launched 10 months ago, but it has already made more than $540,000 in revenue.
Its founder Nicolas Travis puts this down to unrelenting efforts spent "repeatedly cold-calling international stockists". The brand is now stocked on well-known online retailers such as farfetch.com and cultbeauty.com
The 29-year-old Singaporean's label has also become the first local beauty brand to be stocked at the physical stores of luxury retailers such as Space NK and Bloomingdale's in the United States, Canada and Britain.
It will also launch in Oh My Cream! stores in Paris this month and in Barneys in the US by March.
Next month, following a more than US$22,000 (S$31,200) order from luxury e-tailers Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, it will become the first Singaporean brand on the highend e-commerce sites - joining the ranks of luxury beauty brands.
Mr Travis puts his success down to the unique selling points of his products - which he formulated himself.
The three in his line - the 1A All-Day Mask ($99), Molecular Saviour Toner Mist ($79) and 1A Overnight Mask ($129) - were launched last March and quickly became cult favourites.
His day mask is a blend of concentrated antioxidants light enough to wear under make-up and sunblock. The alcohol-free mist, in turn, is designed to cling to skin cells to provide restorative properties for a longer time.
Mr Travis says of the brand's exponential growth: "I think it is a testament that good products know no borders.
"There has, for a long time, been a focus on products from the West, but I hope to prove that Singapore is just as capable of creating products that sell - and sell well."
I feel that there is a lot of unnecessary gendering in the beauty industry. I want not only women to enjoy using these products, but also for men to feel comfortable pulling them out of their gym bags.
ALLIES OF SKIN FOUNDER NICOLAS TRAVIS on the unisex packaging of his products
His company broke even in nine months.
For the young entrepreneur, going on this path meant leaving his job in social media at Ogilvy & Mather, but Mr Travis says he would have it no other way.
"As someone who has suffered bad spates of teenage acne, starting a skincare line was always my dream," says the bachelor.
He wrote a detailed business plan for a skincare line as part of his master's thesis at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France.
"And even though I took on a job in social media because I needed to pay the bills, I wasn't feeling fulfilled. That's when I decided to bootstrap six figures in financing through savings and loans from my siblings to give Allies of Skin a shot."
Relying on extensive research into ingredients, international laboratories and financing that he had done while coming up with his business plan, Mr Travis - who also has a degree in pharmaceutical management - formulated his products using a concentrated blend of antioxidants including moringa seed extract and hyaluronic acid.
His products are made and tested by third-party testing laboratories in the US.
The deep-violet, unisex packaging on his products is a detail that is important to him.
"I feel that there is a lot of unnecessary gendering in the beauty industry when, in fact, the fundamental needs of our skin are very similar," he says.
"I want not only women to enjoy using these products, but also for men to feel comfortable pulling them out of their gym bags."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Budding beauty brands bloom'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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