Sunday, August 19, 2012

History of a Brand: Urban Decay

Deluxe Shadow Box

Here are a few things you may not know about Urban Decay:

  • Their Naked eyeshadow palettes are currently the top selling makeup palettes in the US.
  • Revlon once created a short-lived knockoff brand called Streetwear (I posted about this line in one of my first blogposts—here's the link.)

A brief history
The brand was created in 1996 by a group of visionary entrepreneurs including Sandy Lerner and the current Executive Creative Director Wende Zomnir. The mission: to offer edgy, street-inspired shades of nail polish and lipstick that were not readily available from conventional brands. The theme of urban decay was played to the hilt. Shade names included Uzi, ABC Gum and Stray Dog. Eyeshadow singles were encased in silver manhole-cover shaped tins and lipsticks were bullet-shaped.

Along with the brand Hard Candy which was introduced a year earlier, UD catered to a niche market that the big brands had not identified; high-end quality makeup in youthful, non-traditional shades for the tween-to-early-twenties market. The brands were not identical—UD was more grungy and goth (think Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites) and HC was more pink and girly (think Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.)

I definitely fit the target market and I eagerly bought shades that simply did not exist anyplace else. I was especially drawn to two shades of eye shadow that UD still offers: Asphyxia (a brilliant holographic purple) and Oil Slick (a glittery black) as well as Gash lipstick (a shimmery blood red) and a metallic gray nail polish shade called Gunmetal.

The Early Years
Having worked as a Sales Associate at Sephora from 1999-2000, I can attest to the fact that UD products were red hot and there were always a few sold-out items on our waitlist. Here's my favorite story from that time: a woman came in to shop for makeup with her elderly mother. They were both new to the store and the daughter wanted an SA to show her the hot brands she had been hearing about such as NARS and Club Monaco. As she was led away she looked over her shoulder at me and said, "Oh, and can you help my mother find an eyeshadow?".

I turned my attention to the older woman who was eager to tell her story. She reached into her purse and pulled out a worn, ancient eyeshadow pan with only a tiny bit of product left in it. "I want a bright blue eyeshadow just like this one. I've been to every makeup counter at the department stores and they have nothing even close." In an apologetic tone she continued, "Now I know it's out of style, but I don't care, I've been wearing this shade for 30 years and I love it. Can you please help me?"

Well she was in luck, I thought to myself—that shade was so out it was back in. I immediately led her to UD and showed her a bright, 70's powdery blue (I only wish I could remember the shade name!) To say she was thrilled was an understatement. "Why that is just as bright blue as a robin's egg!" she exclaimed. She walked out of that store a very happy customer.

The fact that the brand name and its hard-edged theme were lost on this woman was part of an important lesson I learned as an SA at Sephora—product was king. Like other niche brands with a growing cult following, customers were not so swayed by the uniqueness and cache of UD that they would buy something they didn't like, or would keep something that had looked better in the store than in harsh outdoor light. For UD and other up-and-coming brands, there were specific shades and products that we could not keep on the shelves (hello Midnight Cowboy), while others languished in excess, gathering dust.

Then and Now
UD gets this, and they have managed to evolve over the years. They admit they have shaken their grunge roots and outgrown their original name. But their inventive, creative, out-of-the-box spirit has remained. Their current initiatives include vegan products and a cruelty-free policy of no animal testing.

Ownership History
UD founders must have made a small fortune when they were bought in 2000 by LVMH (the French conglomerate which owns Sephora had bought Hard Candy a year earlier.) The brand was sold two years later to the Falic Group. Currently the private equity firm Castanea Partners owns a majority stake. However Wall Street Journal has recently hinted the company may currently be amenable to a buyout (link).

Long Running Bestsellers
  • Midnight Cowboy eye shadow. Best described as a glittery nude/pink, this one product has been so successful that it's spawned an entire subline of "Midnight" eyeliners, lipstick, lipgloss and similar shades of eye shadow.
  • Primer Potion. This shadow primer was another product for which we struggled to keep up with demand while I was at Sephora.
  • The Naked palettes. Matte, subdued and neutral shades of eye shadow. These epitomize the new softer side of UD—less edgy, more on trend for a wider demographic. The first palette was such a blockbuster that UD quickly followed it with Naked 2.

My Vintage Stash
Below are a few vintage UD pieces from my makeup collection. 

Top: Shadow Box eyeshadow palette. I bought this about ten years ago.

Bottom: a well-worn Stalker in the original design of eyeshadow tin.

Comments welcome! Feel free to share your UD experiences, favorite products and memories of the original line of products.


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