By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
"This was before this huge trend — before American Apparel even had nail polish!" she continues. The clothing manufacturer launched its nail polish line in December 2009, a year after Lee started promoting Sack's colors on campus. Although they started with just 18 colors, American Apparel now produces a collection of more than 70 that range from a classic red named Downtown L.A., to a faded grass-stain green named Macarthur Park.
Lee notes that the release of American Apparel's new line after the recession hit was part of what's called "The Lipstick Effect." A paper released last year by researchers at Texas Christian University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Arizona State University proposed that women are more likely to seek out beauty products during recessions. When their budgets are tight, it's easier to freshen up their look with a $6 bottle of nail polish than a $25 T-shirt — and companies like American Apparel were eager to convince women to open their wallets for smaller splurges.
Nail art was poised for a comeback. As clothing retailers rolled out their new nail polish collections, polish companies expanded their palettes. (This August, nail salon mainstay O.P.I. debuted a San Francisco-inspired collection of colors: a group of Golden Gate Bridge reds and foggy blueish-silvers.) Several salon brands have started manufacturing gel polish — a long-lasting formula that dries under UV light and lasts for roughly two weeks — and drugstore brands have quickly followed suit. The #nails hashtag on Instagram, which Lee and Sack use to promote their brand, links to more than 14 million posts.
Nail art has even started to enter the highbrow realm: Chicago artist Carlos "Dzine" Rolon's installation and performance artwork, titled "Imperial Nail Salon (my parents' living room)," has appeared in New York's New Museum and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The installation re-created his parents' at-home nail salon; visitors could get manicures with the price of museum admission.
But despite the nationwide nail craze and their colors' on-campus popularity, neither Sack nor Lee ever imagined that their future might be in the beauty industry. "Looking back on it now, people would always say, 'I see a career,'" Lee says, scooping coconut flakes the same color as her extra-long tip set out of a bag and popping them into her mouth. "I was like, 'Whatever.'"
In art school, the emphasis was never on making a living after graduation, but rather on creativity. "There's really no preparation," Lee says. "As far as running a business and surviving, it's all based on intuition and mistakes, drive and passion."
Appropriately enough, the company began as an art project. In the spring of 2010, Lee, Sack, and several other friends opened a show at a campus gallery titled "Touch My Box, Paint My Nails." Along with her paintings, Sack displayed several bottles of custom-mixed nail polish in an acrylic box Lee built for them. The pair plastered one wall of the gallery with photos snapped mostly with Apple's PhotoBooth app of their nail art, which ranges from geometric patterns to stick-on gemstones.
"That kind of solidified that we were Floss Gloss and we were a crew; this was our crew putting up artwork," Lee says. So it's fitting that the Floss Gloss office looks more like an artist's studio than a business, because in a sense it is.
It would be more than a year before Floss Gloss transformed from girl gang to beauty company. It launched its first collection of 11 shades, called Year of the Female, in August 2012. Although one was a neon orangey-red, there was not a true red in the palette.
It's rare enough to hear an artist success story in a city where rampant rent inflation has been pricing out artists and others. It's similarly strange to hear of a small beauty company finding its niche in San Francisco, instead of the usual makeup meccas where independent brands often flourish — Los Angeles and New York City.
"It's a blessing and a curse, because being far away, we're kind of off the grid," Lee says. "No one really knows what we're doing; it's not like we're competing right next to other girls or entrepreneurs. But there's just more opportunity [in other cities]."
Started as an art-school hobby and grown into a successful business venture, Floss Gloss is an anomaly on the San Francisco beauty scene. A few notable companies call the city home — Benefit and Bare Escentuals are two large cosmetics companies based in San Francisco, but neither remains independent; Benefit was purchased by luxury holding company Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton in 1999; Bare Escentuals sold to Japanese beauty corporation Shiseido in 2010.
Both companies rely heavily on makeup staples like rosy shades of lipstick and blush: Benefit's packaging and marketing tends to incorporate retro, pinup imagery, while Bare Escentuals uses a clean, spa-like aesthetic.
At the other end of the business spectrum, hundreds of local indie entrepreneurs package soaps, glitters, and nail polishes to sell on the online handicraft and fashion megastore, Etsy.
Floss Gloss falls somewhere in between, maintaining the DIY values of the craft community while also approaching big-time sales. "We were really trying to start a business and be respected as an actual company, not just on Etsy," Lee says.