When W3LL People opened a year ago, the skincare and cosmetics company’s three partners had a clear goal in mind: change the way men and women think about what they put on their skin. Seems simple enough. But in an already saturated industry, W3LL People had to set itself apart with bold innovation. It wasn’t enough that the new products were good for the customer, the overall concept had to be eye-catching.
Luckily, for the trio behind W3LL People, thinking outside the box is second nature. Shirley Pinkson spent years working for some of the best cosmetics companies in the industry, learning the fundamentals of the beauty-making business. In 2007, she joined with longtime friend and advertising executive James Walker and local dermatologist Dr. Renee Snyder – both masters at their craft – to create W3LL, each bringing their unique expertise to the endeavor. The target was a line of products and a company culture that would make going all natural cool.
As Pinkson playfully explains the dynamic: “Renee is our science; James is our branding and I’m the make up Guru”
Though the partners are attacking W3LL with profuse joie de vivre, the rationale behind the company is a bit sobering. Consider that there are roughly 75,000 ingredients available to the largely unregulated cosmetics industry. According to Pinkson, only nine of those ingredients have been banned due to toxicity and sdvertise reactions. Other potentially dangerous components remain in the mix.
“The idea was to take the problem out of the equation: let’s start making our world better and us better by creating products that we don’t have to worry about at all,” says Pinkson.
Enter Dr. Snyder who helped Pinkson develop W3LL’s branded makeup line. While the cosmetics guru combined the right colors and textures, the doctor vetted the ingredients, coming up with a precise set of natural components that could do double duty – looking good while being good for you. Snyder has also evaluated and vetted all of the outside skincare products W3LL People carries to ensure the shop stays true to its mission.
With her bright, constant smile and rosy cheeks, Pinkson looks every bit the part of makeup artist. Her passion for cosmetics is eclipsed only by her enthusiasm for W3LL – listening to her, that enthusiasm becomes infectious.
The lines created and carried by W3LL People fulfill the needs of various skin types and personal preferences. With this “something for everyone” approach, there are multi-step systems for those who want to target specific problem areas. And there are simpler, less time-intensive items for those on the go.
It was while earning her degree in psychology at the University of Texas that Pinkson began dabbling in the makeup industry to pay for school. It stuck. She climbed the corporate ladder with M.A.C. and later spent 13 years at NARS Cosmetics – avant garde cosmetic companies both. She traveled the country, running with the likes of designer Marc Jacobs and actress Naomi Campbell. It was an active, fast-paced life that she loved. “But something my mom had told me was starting to sink in: ‘If you’re going to work hard you should be doing it for yourself.’”
And that’s when W3LL People began to percolate. In reality, the partners could have launched the concept anywhere. They chose Austin, not just because the three have a shared history through UT, but because Austin – an ecoconscious city that thrives on the natural – gets what W3LL People is about, says Pinkson.
The team was originally eyeing space in the Second Street District downtown, but the vibe wasn’t right. When their broker showed them Bridges on the Park – a mixed-use project just steps from the south shore of Lady Bird Lake on South Lamar – the synergy quickly became clear.
“This store is geared toward someone who wants to take care of themselves inside and outside,” says Pinkson. “We get a lot of foot traffic from people headed to the lake. It just absolutely felt right.”
Finding the space was just the start. The partners wanted to extend the natural concept beyond their products to how they operate. The store itself is a study in sustainability, a modern, urban-chic space that would make the staunchest tree-hugger proud. Furniture like the reclaimed Eames Chairs and Kirei Cabinetry (made from a byproduct of the cattle feed industry), insulation comprised of recycled denim, tree bark wall panels – it all combines to make W3LL carbon-neutral yet stylish. The space is light-filled and playful, colorful and distinctive, with a spinning disco ball for effect.
Though the recession was already in full swing when W3LL People opened, that hasn’t derailed sales. Pinkson says the partners went in with modest expectations and have been pleased by the response. “Our clients are so loyal, and that touches me. People become return clients very quickly when you have something they want and you’re a customer-service based operation like we are,” she says.
Figures from the naturals segment of retail show that it’s not suffering nearly as much as other parts of the industry, she says. “What that tells you is that with the current economic situation, people may not purpose a $500 handbag or pair of shoes, what they are doing is spending money to feel better. They’re investing in taking care of themselves.”
Pinkson is also investing in herself, making time for her girlfriend and a relationship years in the making. She first met Medea Lee in San Antonio in 1993. The two lost tocuh for years, but they reconnected last fall when she moved to Austin. “She has been incredibly supportive,” Pinkson says of Lee. “She’s helped me with so much in this process.”
Pinkson says W3LL People has a significant gay clientele. Perhaps that’s at least partly because both she and Walker are gay. They enjoy catering catering to the broad spectrum of clients at W3LL People.
Where does Pinkson expect the company will be in five years? Here’s a hint: There’s a reason they call W3LL People’s store the flagship. The company is already selling W3LL’s makeup in a major Dallas hair salon and is launching Web-based sales in May. There are also plans in the works to open a store in Los Angeles and continue expanding with more locations as the brand builds momentum.
“We’re doing it with a little bit of sass,” says Pinkson.
After all, it takes a lot of work to live up to the slogan “hippie tested, diva approved.”