Cover photo of Aretha Sack and Janine Lee of Floss Gloss by Mike Koozmin.
When she was a kid, Aretha Sack hated the color red. Her mom would take her to the grocery store to pick out nail polish, but she'd be disappointed by the monochromatic display of little glass bottles. "I've always been really picky about what colors I like and I'd go through phases," she says. "I hated red, but that was all there was."
On a recent morning, Sack and her company co-founder, Janine Lee, meet at their rented office space in an Excelsior Victorian that serves as the headquarters of their nail polish company, Floss Gloss. The two twenty-somethings clatter away on their laptops while lounging in plastic beach chairs, surrounded by the remnants of photo shoots: a rubber set of bloody Halloween hands, a vase of fake daisies, yards of fabric printed with the WWE logo, paper pineapples from the party store — and of course, hundreds of bottles of nail polish.
The local company celebrated its first birthday in April, and it's already doing surprisingly well. Floss Gloss is distributed internationally, both in boutiques and by online retailers like Urban Outfitters and Karmaloop. It has also earned nods in beauty magazines such as Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Lucky, and Nylon — despite employing PR help for only four months, and running just two ads in a Chicago-based nail art zine. Instead of a more traditional promotion blitz, the two art-school grads paint nails at rap parties in Oakland and promote their glosses — many of which are named after music references or corner-store snacks, like BritBrit2000, an ode to the glittering nude costume Britney Spears performed in at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, or Neon Nacho, a visual ode to push-button, gas station cheese — on Instagram and Twitter. The marketing strategy-as-lifestyle has paid off, earning Floss Gloss a strong following, both in the Bay Area and beyond.
"We all wish we could be them, you know?" says Sherri Ziesche, owner of Beauty Company, a Russian Hill beauty supply store and salon that stocks Floss Gloss' unusual shades of polish. "I think they nailed it, because they can really fit into the natural category." (Floss Gloss is "three-free," which means it doesn't contain harmful chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde or formaldehyde resin.)
"But at the same time," Ziesche continues, "they're rock 'n' roll, doing their thing — eating their Doritos, smoking their cigarettes, and drinking their Pabst Blue Ribbon."
The pairing of hippie formula with hipster branding is a lucrative blend of San Francisco subcultures — one that mainstream beauty companies have yet to tap into.
Floss Gloss' marketing, like Pabst Blue Ribbon's, has almost as much to do with lifestyle as it does with the product itself. Part of the success of the beer company has been that it manages the hat trick of advertising its product while appearing to be above or at least indifferent to such things: It doesn't run quirky commercials on television, taking instead a below-the-radar approach and spending its advertizing cash on promoting bike and skateboard events. It wants to speak to its audience as directly as possible.
Likewise, you won't find a Floss Gloss advertisement splashed inside a beauty magazine. Instead, Floss Gloss promotes itself with wild digital collages — a recent example featured tacos, Doritos bags, kittens, daisies, and a polish color called Blood, Suede & Tears — and hashtags on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. They also blog nail-art tutorials on Urban Outfitters' website.
The unorthodox marketing aesthetic may be directly descended from Sack and Lee's art-school roots — Sack studied painting and Lee studied fashion design — but their marketing strategy was a product of just being American twentysomethings. As Lee points out, the pair's alma mater, San Francisco's California College of the Arts, never taught its students how to promote themselves, but social media was a natural part of their generational skill set. The direct contact with fans, and the DIY sensibility of promoting a brand entirely through social media, lends Floss Gloss hipster credibility in the same way PBR rebuilt its brand through word-of-mouth among its fan-base of skaters, snowboarders, and bike messengers.
Lee and Sack met shortly after both moved to the Bay Area to attend CCA (Lee, a self-described "military brat," came by way of Southern California and Connecticut, while Sack hails from Austin, Texas). Lee's a quick talker with a trendy ombre hairstyle; Sack's a more reserved, tattooed bleach-blonde.
Sack has been blending polish colors since her childhood aversion to red sparked a personal need for them — she eventually managed to track down white, blue, and yellow polishes to create her own turquoise — and, despite a lengthy tomboy phase, she never stopped. When Lee met her in 2008, Sack was selling bottles of remixed polish out of her painting studio for five dollars apiece — and nail art was on the cusp of a national resurgence.
Young women were hungry for new shades of polish, Lee says. "Chicks would just be mobbing me in the café," she says. "I didn't even know them. They'd be like, 'Where'd you get your nail polish?'" Ever a hustler, she'd point them to Sack's studio.
"This was before this huge trend — before American Apparel even had nail polish!" she continues. The clothing manufacturer launched its nail polish line in December 2009, a year after Lee started promoting Sack's colors on campus. Although they started with just 18 colors, American Apparel now produces a collection of more than 70 that range from a classic red named Downtown L.A., to a faded grass-stain green named Macarthur Park.
Lee notes that the release of American Apparel's new line after the recession hit was part of what's called "The Lipstick Effect." A paper released last year by researchers at Texas Christian University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Arizona State University proposed that women are more likely to seek out beauty products during recessions. When their budgets are tight, it's easier to freshen up their look with a $6 bottle of nail polish than a $25 T-shirt — and companies like American Apparel were eager to convince women to open their wallets for smaller splurges.