By Leah Dolan, CNN
(CNN) — If the 1950s had red lipstick and pin curls, and the 1990s had brown gloss and “tightliner,” then the 2010s was all about fluffy brows and dewy skin. Between 2014 and 2019, many beauty enthusiasts’ preferences shifted: High coverage foundation was largely displaced by multi-step skincare routines, brow gel replaced heavy brow pomade and lips were delicately stained rather than boldly painted.
The barely-there look was surprisingly big business, too.
Glossier, a direct-to-consumer cosmetics company launched in 2014 by US businesswoman Emily Weiss, pioneered this new aesthetic. At Glossier, beauty marks were celebrated, freckles were lionized and makeup application became as free form as finger painting. The firm’s “skincare first, makeup second” mantra, fashion-forward millennial pink product design and early championing of new “It Girls,” like model Paloma Elsesser, catapulted it from cult favorite to industry mainstay.
The company reported 600% growth between 2015 and 2016. And over the years, it has launched best-selling products such as Boy Brow, Milky Jelly Cleanser and Glossier “You” — the brand’s first and only fragrance, which reportedly sold at a rate of one every 43 seconds in 2022.
Glossier also boasts significant star power. Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Reese Witherspoon have all been pictured wearing the makeup brand to red carpet events like the Oscars and The Grammys. Lila Moss, Sydney Sweeny, Gigi Hadid and SZA are also known to keep a product or two in their purse. In March 2019, Glossier was valued at $1 billion.
But by 2021, the brand’s US sales were down 26% compared to the previous year. Last year, Glossier laid off a third of its corporate staff, citing certain “missteps” in overhiring. The tale of the company’s recent decline is the subject of “Glossy,” a new book by New York-based journalist Marisa Meltzer.
“My guiding principle was to not simplify the story in any way,” Meltzer told CNN in a phone interview. “I wanted to show it in all its nuance and complexity.”
The book attributes Glossier’s current woes to a series of stumbles: from lax hiring decisions, scaling at break-neck speed and Weiss’ alleged fixation with establishing Glossier as a tech company, to lackluster product launches and even entirely discontinued product lines (remember Glossier “Play”?). For Meltzer, the brand fell victim to something that often trips up companies leading the zeitgeist: an evolving landscape.
Testimonies from anonymous Glossier employees also weave a familiar yarn of performative startups (where complimentary coconut waters were prioritized over competitive salaries), complete with allegations of racism and mistreatment. In 2020, the company and Emily Weiss apologized to former retail workers saying they had “failed to ensure that all voices are heard, and protected, within our internal community.” Glossier did not respond to CNN’s repeated request for comment about these historical allegations.
But “Glossy” isn’t just a beauty brand biography — it’s a forensic cross-examination of an era-defining company and how it embodied a moment in wider culture.
The book’s narrative addresses what it describes as the “cult” of the 2010s “girlboss,” symbolized by Weiss, as well as Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso, Manrepeller’s Leandra Medine and Audrey Gelman of The Wing — all of whom were celebrated for their female entrepreneurship, before facing allegations (and, in some cases, lawsuits) from former employees complaining of workplace discrimination. In 2015, a spokesperson for Sophia Amoruso and Nasty Gal denied these allegations, but on Recho Omondi’s “Cutting Room Floor” podcast in 2021, Manrepeller’s Leandra Medine admitted she “sucked as a leader” and said complaints came down to her being “an immature a**hole.” Audrey Gelman stepped down as CEO of The Wing in June 2020 after penning an opinion piece titled “Where I got it wrong,” in which she states: “We prioritized business growth over cultural growth.”
Meltzer unpacks the vaguely fetishized and infantilizing “girlboss” term without too much chastizing. “The phenomenon was a way for these women to be taken seriously, even if it was demeaning,” she told CNN in a video interview. “It was a vehicle for them to talk about themselves as businesswomen, rather than having to do the long profiles for women’s magazines talking about who they were dating.”
“Glossy” is also a fascinating portrait of one of the most prolific female CEOs of the last decade. Weiss began as an ambitious and accomplished intern at Teen Vogue, who made a cameo on the early 2000’s reality TV series “The Hills.” In Meltzer’s unabashed account, Weiss is depicted as whip-smart, charismatic and driven, as well as somewhat guarded and self-conscious.
“There’s no easy way to talk about the power dynamic of writing about someone, and they don’t necessarily want to be written about,” Meltzer told CNN. The book recounts how scheduled interviews became anodyne tours of retail locations or were forcibly switched to off-the-record last minute. “I wish she had been more open,” the author continued. “There was often a feeling of her trying to run out the clock until time was up, doing the absolute least.”
CNN reached out to Weiss, via Glossier, about her participation in the book, but the company did not respond to requests for comment.
By 2020, beauty’s needle had shifted again. Celebrities with Gen Z followings began crowding the market with wildly popular offerings — Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty or Hailey Bieber’s brand Rhode, for example — while young consumers became more interested in adorning their acne with yellow star-shaped stickers than masking zits with concealer. “Glossier defined the aesthetic of the 2010s” wrote Meltzer. “But as the ‘20s came about, it started to feel stale — all the sans serif font and #glossierpink.”
But Meltzer didn’t set out to write a company post-mortem. Nor could she — Glossier still generates millions of dollars in monthly revenue, is stocked by beauty giant Sephora and operates a dozen brick-and-mortar stores around the world. When the company opened a new location in SoHo, New York this past February, crowds queued around the block. In January, the brand released its “You” scented deodorant, and just last month launched its second ever foundation with 32 shades to much fanfare (the first in 2014 debuted with just five).
And although Weiss is no longer Glossier’s CEO, she continues to sit on the board as executive chairwoman.
“Everything has a lifespan,” Meltzer said. “I think it was the end of the wide-eyed youth of the company. It’s not the Glossier of 2018 or 2019, it has to prove itself as relevant but it also has so much potential to be rediscovered by new markets, new generations.”
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“Glossy,” published by Simon & Schuster, is out now.