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When she was a kid, Aretha Sack hated the color red. Her mom would take her to the grocery store to pick out nail polish, but she'd be disappointed by the monochromatic display of little glass bottles. "I've always been really picky about what colors I like and I'd go through phases," she says. "I hated red, but that was all there was."
On a recent morning, Sack and her company co-founder, Janine Lee, meet at their rented office space in an Excelsior Victorian that serves as the headquarters of their nail polish company, Floss Gloss. The two twenty-somethings clatter away on their laptops while lounging in plastic beach chairs, surrounded by the remnants of photo shoots: a rubber set of bloody Halloween hands, a vase of fake daisies, yards of fabric printed with the WWE logo, paper pineapples from the party store — and of course, hundreds of bottles of nail polish.
The local company celebrated its first birthday in April, and it's already doing surprisingly well. Floss Gloss is distributed internationally, both in boutiques and by online retailers like Urban Outfitters and Karmaloop. It has also earned nods in beauty magazines such as Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Lucky, and Nylon — despite employing PR help for only four months, and running just two ads in a Chicago-based nail art zine. Instead of a more traditional promotion blitz, the two art-school grads paint nails at rap parties in Oakland and promote their glosses — many of which are named after music references or corner-store snacks, like BritBrit2000, an ode to the glittering nude costume Britney Spears performed in at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, or Neon Nacho, a visual ode to push-button, gas station cheese — on Instagram and Twitter. The marketing strategy-as-lifestyle has paid off, earning Floss Gloss a strong following, both in the Bay Area and beyond.
"We all wish we could be them, you know?" says Sherri Ziesche, owner of Beauty Company, a Russian Hill beauty supply store and salon that stocks Floss Gloss' unusual shades of polish. "I think they nailed it, because they can really fit into the natural category." (Floss Gloss is "three-free," which means it doesn't contain harmful chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde or formaldehyde resin.)
The pairing of hippie formula with hipster branding is a lucrative blend of San Francisco subcultures — one that mainstream beauty companies have yet to tap into.
Floss Gloss' marketing, like Pabst Blue Ribbon's, has almost as much to do with lifestyle as it does with the product itself. Part of the success of the beer company has been that it manages the hat trick of advertising its product while appearing to be above or at least indifferent to such things: It doesn't run quirky commercials on television, taking instead a below-the-radar approach and spending its advertizing cash on promoting bike and skateboard events. It wants to speak to its audience as directly as possible.
Likewise, you won't find a Floss Gloss advertisement splashed inside a beauty magazine. Instead, Floss Gloss promotes itself with wild digital collages — a recent example featured tacos, Doritos bags, kittens, daisies, and a polish color called Blood, Suede & Tears — and hashtags on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. They also blog nail-art tutorials on Urban Outfitters' website.
The unorthodox marketing aesthetic may be directly descended from Sack and Lee's art-school roots — Sack studied painting and Lee studied fashion design — but their marketing strategy was a product of just being American twentysomethings. As Lee points out, the pair's alma mater, San Francisco's California College of the Arts, never taught its students how to promote themselves, but social media was a natural part of their generational skill set. The direct contact with fans, and the DIY sensibility of promoting a brand entirely through social media, lends Floss Gloss hipster credibility in the same way PBR rebuilt its brand through word-of-mouth among its fan-base of skaters, snowboarders, and bike messengers.
Lee and Sack met shortly after both moved to the Bay Area to attend CCA (Lee, a self-described "military brat," came by way of Southern California and Connecticut, while Sack hails from Austin, Texas). Lee's a quick talker with a trendy ombre hairstyle; Sack's a more reserved, tattooed bleach-blonde.
Sack has been blending polish colors since her childhood aversion to red sparked a personal need for them — she eventually managed to track down white, blue, and yellow polishes to create her own turquoise — and, despite a lengthy tomboy phase, she never stopped. When Lee met her in 2008, Sack was selling bottles of remixed polish out of her painting studio for five dollars apiece — and nail art was on the cusp of a national resurgence.
Young women were hungry for new shades of polish, Lee says. "Chicks would just be mobbing me in the café," she says. "I didn't even know them. They'd be like, 'Where'd you get your nail polish?'" Ever a hustler, she'd point them to Sack's studio.
"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.
"We definitely had to give ourselves fake business school," Sack says, laughing. "We wrote a business plan and a financial plan and a strategic plan. We went around it properly."
The careful strategizing is a departure from Floss Gloss' haphazard roots. Lee, whose mind never seems to stray from business, points out that in the beginning, Sack's profit margin probably wasn't enough to keep her in the black.
Sack agrees. "I probably wasn't breaking even because I had so much fucking nail polish that I was buying and I wasn't even selling that much."
The planning appears to have paid off. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 49 percent of new businesses survive for more than five years, and although Floss Gloss has only just celebrated its first birthday, it has released several new colors since the original collection, and now ships about 500 bottles of polish a week. Its product is manufactured in the East Bay; proud of their formula, the women are tight-lipped about exactly where it's made. But they run every other aspect of their business, from design to marketing to customer service to order fulfillment, out of their Excelsior office.
"We should probably have at least five employees," Lee says. Instead, Sack adds, "You name it, we gotta do it."
From the cosmetics giants to the independent hobbyists, the San Francisco beauty aesthetic — as portrayed on everything from packaging to shop windows to social media — is fairly consistent: fresh-faced girl-next-door who just waltzed out of a Gil Elvgren pinup painting. There are elements of clean, bright, retro design that appear from brand to brand. In a city molded on hippie culture, an emphasis on health is also prevalent: Bare Escentuals touts its foundation as being so good for customers' skin, they can sleep in it. There are touches of glam as well: Benefit proudly proclaims that one of its products, Benetint, was originally created as a rosy nipple stain for a San Francisco stripper. The cute qualities of the corporations are often shared by the San Francisco-based artists on Etsy, hawking their campy, girly products.
Floss Gloss doesn't fit the San Francisco mold. From the brand name to the towering gold lids on its bottles to the vast assortment of neons in the collection, the company's vibe is much more freestyle rap battle than it is burlesque show. Rather than innocent Elvgren girls caught in the act, Lee says, "People know we're the bad girls."
Ziesche says Floss Gloss sells really well at her Beauty Company. "Even in the nail lounge, it's the number one go-to brand. The colors are totally on trend. The girls really know what they're doing. It dries fast; it's a superior product. It's not just all fun and fluff."
But etching out a foothold in the beauty industry — even with a laid-back marketing strategy — means sacrificing some artistic pursuits. Sack says she still paints, although her materials come from work — "I've been painting with damaged nail polish, because it's like, 'What am I going to do with this?' And it's fun," she says. But it can't distract from the business: "This is our chance out of food service."
"We have so much business stuff to do that drawing something for 10 minutes, unrelated to Floss Gloss, seems really fun right now," Lee adds.
Lee still finds time to sew every once in a while, too. "I'm the Tina Knowles of the nail game," she jokes, referencing the matching outfits Beyoncé's mother used to design for Destiny's Child. "Aretha's like, 'I've been dying for this red flame miniskirt. Please make this for me!' So I'll be slaving at the sewing machine, making her miniskirt."
Sack's obsession with color continues to propel her company. "If we had money, we'd release 20 colors every weekend," she says.
Recent additions to the Floss Gloss lineup include a navy color called Faded, inspired by Sack's copious tattoos, which cover her arms and trickle onto her hands. "I didn't like wearing black nail polish because it didn't match," she says, "so I made one that did."
The pair has also danced around producing a true red — over the summer, they released Blood, Suede & Tears, a vampy, rusty shade. "I love vamp. But why not one that's super-warm-heavy? Instead of having any cool, why not just make it completely orange-based?" Sack says, revealing her painter's training. "Cut the cool out of the mix. I couldn't find that color and I wanted that color, and now I have that color. It's tight."
Floss Gloss' newest polish color, which comes out this month, is a collaboration with Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia notoriety (although the Memphis-based rappers released their Academy Award-winning "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" after Gangsta Boo had departed from the group). It's their first classic red: a bright, traditional cherry shade.
"I went to her show, and I slipped the photographer one of our stickers and a bottle of nail polish and was like, 'Give this to Gangsta Boo, she's my hero, I just want her to have this,'" Sack says. After the show, Lee tweeted at Gangsta Boo about the polish. The rapper responded, asking if they'd like to collaborate on a color.
To make a classic red might have seemed too pedestrian when Lee and Sack conceived of Floss Gloss' original lineup, but that they finally made a classic red because one of the rare women to build a career in rap asked them to — this made sense for a company feeding on its own culture. "It was whatever she wants, you know?" Sack says. And Gangsta Boo, who refers to herself as the devil's daughter on songs, wanted a rich, devilish red.
"She's one of my favorite rappers. She called me and I cried on the phone because I'm a very big fan. I was very starstruck. We've been talking on the phone ever since," she says. This month, Gangsta Boo flew to San Francisco to meet with Floss Gloss' founders and shoot promo photos for the new polish.
"We were listening to her mixtape in the car, with her in the car. Very surreal," Lee says.
The creation of the new color — which is called, naturally, Gangsta Boo — is representative of the duo's approach to business. Rather than charting a traditional route through business school and into the beauty industry, Floss Gloss has happened more organically, a byproduct of Lee and Sack's lifestyle. Similarly, the mainstay red that's normally a staple of any nail polish line couldn't exist simply because it's expected to — it had to be generated by a nonchalant Twitter exchange with a rap star.
It's also the next step in Floss Gloss' quiet, artist's approach to marketing. Rather than spend revenue on an ad campaign, connecting with Gangsta Boo's fans will bring fresh exposure to the brand. It's another nod to the undercurrent of girl power that flows through the company; whether they're named for pop divas like Britney Spears or rappers like Gangsta Boo, the polishes are meant to be as iconic as the women who inspire them. As a brand, or a lifestyle, Floss Gloss is the feminine counterpoint to PBR's mustache-and-flannel city boy.
And it's no surprise that Lee and Sack draw inspiration from women who've managed to eke out decades-long careers in artistic industries — after all, it's what they aim to do themselves.
With classic red out of the way, what's next on the Floss Gloss palette? The question, Sack says, is, "What do we need? Because we are the market."