Some of the most dominant beauty trends of the 2010s were first featured on Glossier’s Instagram grid, from a subtle dark brow to the quest for “glowy, dewy skin.”
The brand launched in 2014 as an offshoot of beauty blog Into The Gloss, forever altering the meaning of millennial pink, DTC e-commerce, and what a makeup company could be for both investors and to customers who looked to Glossier not just for products, but an entire aesthetic philosophy. It was a steady rise for Glossier, from investor windfall to flagship store ribbon-cutting, as they raced to stay ahead of copycats and scandals as people started to poke holes in its business.
A decade later, while Glossier remains one of the most influential brands in beauty, its following has plateaued. It remains to be seen if fresh products and new leadership can turn things around.
Out of the Vogue’s stuffy fashion closet and Into The Gloss
Glossier CEO Emily Weiss was an assistant, stylist and beauty writer for W Magazine, Vogue and Ralph Lauren (and appeared on The Hills as an ambitious Teen Vogue intern) before launching Into The Gloss, the makeup blog that would eventually spawn Glossier, in 2010. Her beauty origin story involves an anecdote about asking supermodel Doutzen Kroes what self-tanner she used at a Vogue photoshoot, then writing the product up for the magazine.
Parlaying her fashion world connections, Weiss was able to interview and photograph the medicine cabinets of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Karlie Kloss for Into The Gloss (her star-studded “Top Shelf” column was one of the blog’s biggest attractions). Within a few years, she was drawing a million monthly readers, and hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. By 2013, Weiss quit her job to run Into The Gloss full time, hired an editorial director, and began shopping a millennial-focused spinoff makeup brand to venture capital firms. She famously received 11 "no’s” from before getting a “yes” from Kristen Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures, which was interested in women-led brands. She scored the million dollars she needed to build a new website, rent an office and hire a chemist to create Glossier’s first four products. The Soothing Face Mist, Priming Moisturizer, Balm Dotcom lip gloss and Perfecting Skin Tint foundation went live on Glossier.com in October of 2014.
Minimalist makeup and the millennial aesthetic boom
While working in fashion, Weiss saw first-hand how brands were failing to reach millennial women with their heavily made-up, overtly glamorous ideal. So, in addition to the fact that she was launching a beauty brand in a way no one ever had before — online, directly to her one million blog readers — Weiss tried to differentiate herself in other ways. “What I don’t think is fun is editing yourself and aspiring to finally arrive at some idea or picture of perfect, untouchable “glamour?” she wrote in the Into The Gloss blog post announcing Glossier.com. She continued: “Glossier begins with YOU, which is why our first products are all about letting your personality shine through…glowy, dewy skin.”
This body positive, feminist lite, celebrate-your-flaws messaging is commonplace now, but seven years ago, it was fresh and intriguing to customers. As was Glossier’s pared back, raw yet beautiful, effortless cool-girl visual language. Glossier products were designed to be invisible. Rather than painting yourself with sparkly shadow, blue eyeliner or a bold lip, the emphasis was on covering up irregularities and accenting natural pigments. Such is the function of Glossier’s now-infamous “Boy Brow” pomade, “Cloud Paint” rouge, “Balm Dot Com” lip gloss, and “Lidstar” eye shadow. As The Cut describes, the only colors on a face of Glossier makeup were “flesh and a spot of pink.” The products were complemented by Glossier’s minimalist, whimsical pink-and-white packaging. Orders arrived in resealable pink bubble-wrap pouches and packed with sheets of Glossier stickers. Both the pouches and the stickers quickly became instantly recognizable, reused as makeup bags and documented in millions of early #glossier Instagram posts.
Glossier fever hit hard and fast. Just a month after launching, the brand picked up a fresh $8.4 million more in a funding round led by Thrive Capital, the same firm that helped jumpstart Warby Parker and Harry’s. People waited months to buy the products off long waitlists (at one point, Glossier had 60,000 names on a waitlist for their nine products), though the scarcity only increased the appeal. Although the middle-price products, ranging from $10 to $40, meant teenagers and millennials could afford them, they were also used by hip celebrities from Beyoncé to Timothée Chalamet to Michelle Obama. In 2018 — the year Glossier sold a tube of Boy Brow every 32 seconds — the company doubled its revenue, hitting $100 million. Their website traffic hit their first major holiday traffic spike in November of 2017 — a spike that’s been repeated every holiday season since then.
A new way of selling beauty
Glossier didn’t invent “no makeup makeup" or “the millennial aesthetic,” but it was among the first to package and market it for the digital-first, direct-to-consumer era of retail. Besides its many pop-ups and the two flagship stores in New York City and Los Angeles, Glossier products are only available on its website.
A decade ago, launching an online-only, direct-to-consumer makeup brand seemed like a radical move. There was skepticism as to whether people would want to buy products without trying them. But then again, as Weiss has pointed out, the beauty industry is still dominated by a few massive brands founded around World War II. Most “boutique” brands that got off the ground, from Essie to MAC, were quickly bought up by giants like L’Oréal or Estée Lauder, losing some of their character in the process.
Perhaps customers would have been more hesitant without the unpaid, organic Glossier endorsements and advertisements that littered newsfeeds everywhere, spotted on both your friends’ and favorite celebrities Instagram pages. Glossier had a million built-in customers and fans from the start, thanks to Into The Gloss. The blog’s readers became Glossier’s first customers, then its unofficial sales reps, as Glossier-made looks and products proliferated on social media. The company also organized official sales reps — the Avon ladies of Instagram — trading them product credit and commission to distribute their personal Glossier.com pages and sale codes to their friends, coworkers and classmates. Glossier’s Twitter and Facebook followings each increased over 200% between April of 2017 and January of 2020, from 30,000 to 99,000 and 100,000 to 308,000 respectively.
Crowdsourced, fan-created social media marketing allowed Glossier to spend the money it was raising and earning on other pursuits, like expanding its range of products and opening its flagships. Visiting the Glossier stores and pop-ups feels like being inside Instagram itself, flooded with attractive, pink jumpsuited employees and mirrors emblazoned with slogans like “You look good” and “Objects in mirror are dewier than they appear.” Posting your visit to the millennial beauty mecca became an Instagram right of passage that fed back into Glossier’s friend-to-friend, follower-to-follower business model.
Being a digital-only brand served Glossier in a number of ways. Weiss used years of comments and feedback from Into The Gloss to inform her products. Glossier’s direct-to-consumer business model — without intermediaries or third parties — gave Glossier direct access to first-party customer data and feedback, which they used to track emerging trends, inform marketing campaigns, and tweak or pursue certain products.
Who gets to be a Glossier girl?
Within four years of launching, by December of 2019, Glossier was valued at $1.2 billion, officially reaching unicorn status after a $100 million funding round led by Sequoia capital. At the time, it had 200 employees with operations in seven countries. Its annual revenue was doubling as the brand added a million new customers per year. That’s when the trouble started.
Skeptical reviews had circulated for years, which is to be expected with any highly hyped brand. In a 2016 FADER article, one woman interviewed admitted she found the products mediocre, but continued to buy them because: “They’re so well-marketed that you want to believe, because the idea of minimalist makeup that encourages you to be in your own skin is so appealing.” A 2017 Insider article titled “Why I Don’t Love Glossier,” by a writer who found the darkest foundation shade still too pale for her skin, pointed out that despite the diverse models featured on Glossier’s Instagram, they had limited offerings for people of color.
Overall, the most dominant criticism is centered on the fact that Glossier sold a great aesthetic, but not necessarily great products, which worked best for people with high, naturally accented cheekbones and no skin discoloration, texture, acne, scars or rosacea. The satirical site Reductress distilled it with a headline in 2017: “Glossier Announces New Line of Makeup For Women Not Already Beautiful.” Glossier seemed to do just this in 2019 when they announced Glossier Play — a line of sparkly, jewel-toned products.
Still, the criticisms grew harsher. “Glossier skincare is Instagram-worthy but it sucks,” argued a 2020 Mashable review. ‘Glossier is the Cool Girl Brand. I, unfortunately, do not have Cool Girl Skin,” the author wrote, “ the [skincare] line feels like it's designed by and for forest nymphs whose genetic makeup consists of morning dew and golden hour.”
Who wants to be a Glosser girl?
When a company markets itself as inclusive and progressive, charges of hypocrisy sting. Fatigue and frustration with products and marketing had already created a bubble of anti-Glossier sentiment. It burst during the George Floyd protests.
Although Weiss once told Buzzfeed that, “our company couldn’t be further from the fashion magazine environment” depicted in movies like Devil Wears Prada, on August 13, 2020, a group former Glossier “editors” (their nickname for retail employees) calling themselves “Outta The Gloss” accused the billion-dollar beauty brand in an open letter of inhumane workplace practices, mishandling racist incidents between staff and customers, and fostering a culture that blocked BIPOC employees from moving up. The letter concluded that Glossier is an optics-based “propaganda machine,” which courts a “diverse customer base at the expense of those who actually sell their products.” The letter was inspired both by Glossier’s abrupt pandemic layoffs, and their commitment to a grant for Black-owned beauty businesses,
Among the specific allegations were arbitrary pay gaps among employees with the same job, dirty or dangerous working conditions in the flagship stores, managers turning a blind eye to racist or sexist incidents with customers (including a group of white teens putting on dark shades of foundation amounting to black face) and having a mostly-white executive team, while using their largely POC and LGBTQ retail staff for both product advice and the company’s image and campaigns without adequate compensation.
Right on time, Weiss responded in an Into The Gloss blog post called “The Glossier Retail Employee Experience,” vowing to make changes.
The future of Glossier
Glossier customers looked to the brand not just for makeup but an aspirational archetype. This phenomenon made Glossier rich and a cult phenomenon, but also made them vulnerable. Few would aspire to the image of the Glossier girl that Outta the Gloss painted — one of privilege, ignorance and cruelty — their Instagram following took a sizable hit. The Glossier ‘gram lost 60,000 followers in just five days after the open letter was published. Not only did it never bounce back, it’s still shrinking. Glossier has since lost a total of 110,000 followers, or 3% of its following since its peak in 2020 at 2.86 million followers. 20,000 followers absconded just in the last month.
Glossier is a much smaller operation in the last year. They laid off their entire retail staff on August 7, and still haven’t staffed back up, as their two flagship stores remain shuttered. Given that retail has largely opened back up in New York City and Los Angeles, it’s unclear if Glossier’s decision to keep them closed is still a result of pandemic regulations, or an attempt to continue laying low, as most of the Outta the Gloss allegations were targeted at the culture and leadership of the flagship stores.
Few brands that get “cancelled” stay that way. Case in point: two million people stuck around on Instagram, and in addition, Glossier’s Facebook and Twitter followings remained steady. Slightly less than a year later, Glossier is launching new products. Lifestyle and beauty outlets are, once again, writing breathlessly positive reviews, reporting on Glossier's celebrity customers, and running round-ups like “The 10 Best Glossier Products of 2021.”
Outta the Gloss’ allegations may have sped up this process, but Glossier also simply no longer holds the novelty or sheen it once did. Many of the signature strategies that made Glossier special — their DTC, digital-first business model, robust social media, diverse models, chic packaging, concept stores — are now commonplace in fashion and beauty, especially as the pandemic pushed DTC and e-commerce forward. Dozens of DTC, millennial-focused beauty brands offer seamless online shopping and “no makeup makeup,” from Drunk Elephant to Glow Recipe, Milk, Lilah B, RMS Makeup, Make, Versed and Pixi. Glossier is also far from the only beauty unicorn. In 2018, a third of female-owned unicorns were in beauty, including Pat McGrath Labs, Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics, Pat McGrath Fatigue and Huda Kattan’s Huda Beauty.
Many people are tired of the Glossier trends, like the minimalist aesthetic now used by brands to sell everything from furniture to toothpaste. “Will the millennial aesthetic ever end?” bemoaned a New York Magazine article last month.
No-makeup makeup was already starting to seem outdated, too, as it became understood that Gen-Z rejected their forebearers’ obsession with minimalism. Euphoria, an HBO show about teenagers starring Zendaya and Hunter Schafer, became a sensation for its over-the-top, rhinestone-encrusted, colorful beauty looks. E.l.f. Cosmetics (which offers a variety of colorful products to meet Gen-Z kaleidoscopic needs) achieved a similar status on TikTok to what Glossier has on Instagram, after going viral for its “Eyes, lips, face” challenge. Not to mention, a new generation of influencers like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio are starting beauty brands themselves, as well as starring in their campaigns. (Rae was the face of YouTuber Michelle Phan’s Ipsy beauty before starting her own line, Item Beauty).
The pandemic seemed to accelerate the yearning for maximalism and indulgence. “Minimalism is dead. Meet maximalism,” wrote Vox in October, tracing the aspirational minimalism of the 2010s as a recession-era skepticism of decadence and wealth-flaunting, and arguing that within home design, art and architecture, the trend is shifting towards ornamentation, color and clutter. Post-pandemic predictions are betting that fashion and beauty will pivot in the same directions as a correction to our year in sweats — colors, sequins, tulle, psychedelia and fairytale looks are coming, say Vogue and WSJ.
It remains to be seen if Glossier will be able adapt to the maximalism of the roaring 20s, let alone its vigilant standards for diversity and inclusivity. Their first attempt at the former failed miserably. After lackluster reviews, Glossier Play was discontinued in February.
But, the brand is transparently trying to keep up with the times and to win back the trust of customers. Earlier this month, the “disruptor” brand hired legacy beauty industry veteran, April Mack, formerly vice president of Corporate Strategic Marketing alum of L’Oréal, to be their new VP of brand. She’ll oversee Glossier’s marketing strategy, consumer insights, and social media — and end the brand’s all-white C-suite. Glossier admitted in their blog post announcing a grant for Black-owned beauty businesses, that no Black people held leadership roles in the company.
Did Glossier miss its chance to IPO? The brand was once seen to be on the same path as its DTC juggernaut peers like Allbirds and Warby Parker. But while these brands are both predicted to go public this year, Glossier has gone silent, apparently taking time to see if it can regain its footing before taking big next steps.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.