Urban legend: how Wende Zomnir left computers to become a make-up mogul
When the co-founder of computer giant Cisco wanted to start a make-up company, a friend hooked her up with a pageant princess. That former beauty queen, Wende Zomnir, is now a make-up mogul. Our beauty expert met her to talk about her cult brand Urban Decay, her new shop in Dublin and how she keeps in such tip-top shape - beach volleyball, weight-lifting and clean eating, seeing as you ask
Warning to the make-up disinterested - if there are any out there - you might find the following a bit, well, WTF! But bear with me, because, well, we're a nation of beauty junkies, we truly are. We are just mad about make-up and skincare, haircare and tan. Basically anything that makes us less pale, and a bit brighter and tighter.
How about this for an achievement - we, the people of Ireland, are the highest users of fake tan, per capita, in the world. Yes. In the whole, wide, world.
Urban Decay, the global beauty brand, reported the highest volume of sales, worldwide, at Christmas from - yes, you guessed it -Ireland. From their little counter in Debenhams on Henry St in Dublin.
So no surprise, just sheer delight, that, in a few short months, they will be opening a flagship store at the top of Grafton Street in Dublin, and I, Queen Beauty Junkie of the Beauty Junkie People of Ireland am very, repeat very, excited.
So much so that I got on a flight to Paris to sit down and chat with Wende Zomnir, co-founder and chief creative officer of Urban Decay. I wanted to find out why, not just the Irish, but the whole world, seems to be so taken with this innovative beauty brand, born in the US in 1996.
Urban Decay and I have history. Little-known fact: my background is fashion as well as beauty. So nearly 20 years ago now - I know, I know - I was a buyer for a boutique in Dublin, and took on Urban Decay after the Irish fashion agent John Hegarty came across it in LA and brought it to me.
I was hooked when I saw the gunmetal packaging on the lipsticks and nail polishes - which had brazen names such as Roach, Smog and Acid Rain - and instantly placed an order. I couldn't get enough of the stuff, and neither could the customers who travelled from all over Ireland to get their hands on this new cosmetics line. If memory serves me correctly, Enya, Sinead O'Connor and The Corrs all bought bits.
You have to remember this was the 1990s, when make-up was all pink and beige and, well, ladylike. This range shook up the industry and, yes, I do feel partially responsible for creating this nation of beauty nuts!
So on meeting the woman who instigated this revolution in make-up, in the Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris - readers, you'll understand why I went a little fan-girly. Wende is the epitome of #girlboss. She exudes confidence and cool from her Alexander McQueen perspex-heeled boots to her volumised caramel waves.
Dressed head-to-toe in black, she tells me about what she's wearing - a Barbara Bui peekaboo top and Frame Denims. "I actually got it [the top] in Paris a couple of visits ago, and I'm obsessed with these jeans, Forever Karlie. They have a 40-inch in-seam, which I'm really excited about as I can wear heels with my jeans, finally."
Not that she needs the height: She's a former model, and towers over me. Even though I was ready to start picking her brains about all things beauty, Wende and I started talking about parenting. She has two children, Crash and Cruz, with her hubby Doug Collier, former Volcom CFO. Wende noticed my notebook covered in crayon scribbles from my budding Picassos, so she told me how she would put a big sheet of paper outside on the wall of her house when her kids were little and let them go colouring-in crazy.
Colouring-in is exactly what Wende has built her career on. Dig around in any make-up artist, beauty editor or celebrity's handbag and you will find some Urban Decay products. The brand is known for its intensely pigmented, experimental shades, as well as the cult Naked palettes that had waiting lists in every territory the world over.
In fact, a Naked palette is sold every five seconds around the world. One of the brand's eyeshadows is sold every four seconds, while every ten seconds, an Urban Decay eyeliner is sold. Those are some serious stats there, folks!
The brand's recent collaboration with Gwen Stefani and the announcement of Ruby Rose, the gender-fluid model, as the new face of Urban Decay, keeps the crazy-loyal fans clamouring for more. It also keeps the brand relevant and revolutionary in a very saturated make-up market.
I wanted to know how this sassy lassie who was raised in Texas and Belgium, and is a former pageant princess, became, quite literally, a beauty queen.
"I have always been a make-up junkie. I can't take credit for the actual concept, but I was definitely one of those people that didn't buy prestige make-up, because I didn't feel that there was anything there for me," explains Wende. "You know it was really a sea of pink, beige and red when you walked into a traditional department store make-up area; Sephora [French cosmetic-store chain] didn't exist back then."
"I was working at a promotions agency in California, and I got a call from my friend Tara's then partner. He was business manager for a woman who wanted to start a make-up company. My friend told him to call me.
"His boss was Sandy Lerner, who founded Cisco. I had ideas about starting a make-up company, but couldn't see how it could be done. But for Sandy, she had already been through this and saw anything was possible. Like, 'A make-up company? That's nothing. I invented a router'. She really wanted to do this, and I completely saw the vision behind it and jumped right in."
The name Urban Decay was such an odd choice for a make-up brand back in the day; how did that came about?
"It was [for] a couple of reasons. One was that we felt like . . . I think if we had thought Urban Decay was going to be around in 20 years, I don't think we would have had the guts to name it Urban Decay, right? I think we were thinking that this was just going to be this cool project that we were going to do with nail polish and some incrediblly cool lipsticks, and maybe we will like ride this for two years and it will be really fun. I don't know what we really thought the endgame was going to be."
"It was very much of-the-moment, and the idea was to be very controversial. Our whole thing was that we didn't want to knock on the door, we wanted to knock the door down. I just really felt like we had to push the envelope. The other thing to me that was really missing in beauty was that everything was so perfect and beautiful, and I wanted a make-up range that any woman could [use, and] feel like she could express her individuality.
"It wasn't really about covering the flaws and making everything perfect; it was really about self-expression, because to me make-up is like paints, right, so you can do whatever you want with your face. And I think that's the whole idea of, like, self-expression. It's really when you think 'urban decay', you look at a building and it's maybe crumbling a little bit, but it's actually more beautiful because it's got more character. And so that was really kind of the inspiration behind the name, not just like it's in-your-face. It was kind of badass, but also, like, if you dig a little deeper, you see the beauty in things that aren't traditionally beautiful, so it had this sort of double meaning."
A make-up brand that is perfect but eschews perfection: no wonder I love it.
Can you still wear now what you wore back then, I ask the make-up mogul.
"So I used to wear blue lipstick all the time, and I cannot pull it off any more. Although I think what's really cool now versus 20 years ago, is that 20 years ago, the make-up market was ripe for an infusion of colour.
"We tried to do some products that, to me, were a little more artistry-oriented, like cream shadows, loose pigments, things like that, and I feel like the customer wasn't really ready for that yet. I think what's amazing now, compared to then, is we can sell things for colour-correcting and contouring and all these really sophisticated make-up techniques that a regular customer would never have known about before, but because of the whole YouTube-video thing, it's exploded our ability to bring really interesting products to market. Because before, if the customer didn't feel comfortable, it wasn't really a marketable product."
Tell me about it, I say. I have seen such a change in the beauty world because of social media, and especially YouTube tutorials. In fact, before its launch last summer, I featured a sneak peak of the Naked Smoky Eyeshadow Palette on TV3's Xpose and on my Instagram, and there was hysteria. In fact, the palette broke all kinds of records with 8,000 on the waiting list in Ireland alone.
The Urban Decay Gwen Stefani collection was also huge, with Gwen herself and Wende, a long-time No Doubt fan, designing the collection.
"I always watched Gwen and knew her, but [we were] not super-close. We'd just run into one another at different things, and I'd always wanted to work with her. From the moment I saw her on MTV. I was like, 'Oh my god, that girl is perfect'. Gwen has such a distinctive look, memorable every time from how she uses make-up.
When we went to her house to work on the products with her, I asked her to show me the products she loved. She showed me this little shoebox of her favourite things."
"It was really fun to say to her, 'Let's make that into a beautiful palette for you,' and that's really where the inspiration for products came from. We went through all her chosen products, with Gwen saying why she loved it or what would make it even better. 'I love this but I wish it was a little more matted out.' Or, 'I love this but I wish it had a little more of a golden shine to it.' Or, 'I mix these two together.' So taking everything she did, because she is such a make-up girl, and really customising it for her was really fun."
I wanted to know about Ruby Rose, a star of Orange Is The New Black and Urban Decay's Most Addictive New Vice. How's that for a job title?
"We're really excited to be working with Ruby and having her as the face of the brand. She's just my dream girl; she's such a perfect fit for Urban Decay. We both love dogs; we both love fitness; we're both into boxing. So we have a lot in common. I feel like I'm her big sister or her mom."
At the mention of fitness, I had to get the lowdown on her rockin' bod, Wende's that is. Having creeped on her Instagram - @udwende - I had a serious case of abs envy.
"I was always into sports and I always loved the water, but it wasn't until I lived in California that I was actually, like, 'OK, you can buy yourself a surfboard; you can live near the beach; you can figure this out. You can learn to do it'."
She regularly does yoga, loves CrossFit, and plays a lot of beach volleyball, but doesn't do endless crunches to keep trim. She puts her abs down to lifting weights or 'cleaning', as she calls the Olympic standard weight-lifting move 'The Clean' (I'll race you to Google).
"I like to eat clean, so I try not to eat a lot of processed food. Vegetables are super-important, obviously, and only when I am in France, do I eat bread. I save it, and it's a total treat when you're in a good spot. I don't drink a lot of alcohol, although again, when in France, I do. All the bad things happen here.
"On Friday, I'm flying to Alaska to go helicopter snowboarding." But it is not all play, as Wende tells me, "I actually test out the products out there and see do my lips get dry; does the product freeze? I had one product and one formula . . . I loved it, but it froze in my pocket. Froze! And I thought, 'In cold climates, this is probably not a good thing'."
Throughout our meeting, Wende showed me Urban Decay's forthcoming launches for this year, which you can see for yourself on Grafton St, when the store opens in October.
Here's my top tip - if you only buy one new lipstick this year, make it one of the new Urban Decay Vice Lipsticks. There's a lipstick to suit everyone in this particular range, as there are one hundred shades and six different finishes, from shimmer to matte, to choose from,
The new make-up Mecca in Dublin will be split over two floors to keep Urban Decay fans sated. UD fans will be giving the One Direction fans a run for their money with the hysteria this opening is going to cause. And honestly . . . I swear, I won't be the worst!
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