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Nerd Power, Make Up! A Look at the Amazing Women Who Make Geeky Cosmetics

She blended me with science!

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From Espionage Cosmetics’ Kickstarter campaign

Anybody who’s ever set foot in a giant makeup store like Sephora or MAC knows how complicated having an interest in makeup can be. In addition to having to know what all those brushes do and which ones you’re actually going to need on a regular basis, you also have to very mindful of what you’re putting both in and on your body, and sometimes you end up spending a lot of money.

Luckily for the true diehards, investing in independent makeup can land you a lot more blush for your buck. Unlike many of the big name cosmetics companies, these smaller places tend to offer products that are less expensive, hand-crafted, vegan-friendly, and cruelty-free. The colors also tend to be more interesting, more versatile, and more pigmented, so they’ll last longer and pop more against your skin when you apply them. And because many indie makeup companies know how annoying it is to try to evaluate cosmetics over the Internet, you can even get tiny samples sizes of some products delivered straight to your door, which definitely beats a day of getting bombarded by perfumes at the mall.

Oh, also, sometimes the makeup is named after phrases from Pokémon. Did we mention that?

Yup, just as nerds have quietly begun to infect other more “normal” hobbies with our favorite things (Like knitting? Make a Doctor Who scarf! Like sports? Sign up for a Quidditch league!), so too has the makeup world opened up and made room for those of us who want our eyelids to be the same blue as the TARDIS. But when it comes to indie creators, the process involves more than just slapping a reference onto a tin of eyeshadow. The women who run these companies truly care about the stories and characters which inspire their work—and now that the female arm of the nerd community is no longer satisfied with badly-fitted t-shirts from the men’s departments, they’re happy to oblige our demand for more.

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Part of the Super Effective Collection from Shiro Cosmetics

When Kristen Leigh Bell of Aromaleigh Cosmetics left her job in advertising to start her very first business in 1997, she wasn’t selling makeup like the gorgeous Hannibal and Sherlock themed eyeshadow collections which made her famous in some online circles. Instead she made grooming products for dogs (wouldn’t Will Graham be so proud?) and didn’t move on to products for humans until almost a year later. Back then, she says, she didn’t know of any indie makeup retailers other than herself, and there weren’t many places for her to advertise or even purchase supplies.

“A lot of early social networking way back then was done via bulletin boards and Delphi forums,” she added. “It’s definitely easier to reach customers now, and it’s infinitely easier to find and purchase the supplies needed to formulate. These only used to be available direct from manufacturers, some of which required very high minimums, so with every purchase, you were waging a huge amount of cash to make the purchase. Credit cards weren’t accepted a lot of the time, and now they are.”

Now there’s no shortage of cosmetics and skincare lines which derive their inspiration from the TV shows, movies, books, and games nerds love. Want a fragrance inspired by Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal? The perfumers at Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs have you covered. Can’t stand the fact that Dove doesn’t make bars of soap that you can roll for initiative? Lesley Karpiuk of Geeksoap‘s got just the D20 on a rope for you. And for nail polish enthusiasts who’ve always wondered what color the Ferengi Rules for Acquisition would be, Fanchromatic Nails will offer you exactly the lacquer you need, and at a much more affordable price then what the Ferengi would probably sell it to you for.

Odds are, if you can imagine it, some intrepid makeup designer is currently packaging it up in their living room and selling it on Etsy.

For most who create this kind of niche makeup, the emphasis on geek products isn’t just an easy way to attract buyers to a product. Rather, many of these small businesses—who, unlike some of the big companies marketing to women, are run overwhelmingly by women—are full of people who truly love the themes and franchises they’re working with, and use their cosmetics know-how to connect even more strongly with their own identities as nerds.

Espionage Cosmetics‘ Jaimie Cordero is a perfect example of someone whose nerdiness has only grown stronger through her work. “I’ve been a makeup artist longer than I allowed myself as an adult to be a nerd,” she told me. “I’m sure a lot of people know the feeling of growing up, loving things like video games, comic books—things that kind of ostracized you from the rest of the ‘normal kids.’  Then as you grow up, the world kind of tells you that‘s not okay to continue liking them, and so I listened.”

But after the sudden death of her brother, whom she describes as “the unabashed nerd” in her family, Cordero decided to stop worrying about what the world might think of her and and follow her passions without apologizing for them. She began Espionage Cosmetics out of her living room in 2011, and grew the business into a giant brand. Their very first Kickstarter to raise money for their Nailed It! decal sets earned just under $72,000 in 30 days, and their second Kickstarter’s at almost $60,000 (just $15K under their intended goal) with 24 days still left to go. And Espionage is now also beginning to work with licensers to create exclusive, officially licensed products as well.

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A sneak peak of the Gearbox-licensed Borderlands nail set that will launch with the Pre-Sequel in October (via Chloe Dykstra on Instagram)

Of course, as with any derivative fan work on the Internet, the makeup creators who don’t have access to licensers have to be very careful about how they market their products so they aren’t guilty of copyright infringement.

“With my newest collection I wasn’t thinking and I launched it as “The Avengers Collection” for short,” Caitlin Johnstone of Shiro Cosmetics said. She started her first Pokémon-inspired line in 2010 at the age of nineteen, and her company does makeup inspired by Game of ThronesFullmetal Alchemist, Miyazaki films, and even a series of lip glosses that depict Nicolas Cage in various period dresses. “Marvel let me know that wasn’t cool, and I felt properly ashamed and changed the name and URL as per their request. Other than that, no problems!”

Kristen Leigh Bell of Aromaleigh expressed similar concerns, citing her own problems with other independent makeup creators  infringing off of her work as well, including her color names, ideas, and even photos from her websites. Because of this, she takes the idea of avoiding copyright infringement and coming up with original ideas very seriously—but she’s found ways to get incredibly creative with the fandom-derived makeup that she does. To create her This is My Design line, for example, Bell works very closely with Hannibal fandom heavyweights Cleolinda Jones and Tattle Crime, who meticulously analyze scenes from each episode of the series for possible colors and name meanings to add to the collection.

“A lot of the ideas we came up with were derived from art, music, painting, mythology, religion, psychology, and philosophy,” Bell said. “It was an incredible experience to work on a collection in that way. I felt like it took the idea of a fandom collection to a much deeper level than I had ever worked in. It was amazing.”

The full collection as of July 2014.
(Click to embiggen.)

But Bell’s initial attempts to do fandom-themed lines—including a lovely Harry Potter set inspired by her son’s interest in the books—didn’t always work out as well for her.

“I think my definition of ‘geek themed’ is much more than just fandom-based popular culture themes,” Bell pointed out. Other lines in her store are inspired by Shakespeare, Egyptian deities, botany, Dante’s Inferno, Steampunk/Victoriana, and Autism acceptance (she herself was diagnosed in 2011 and is now a committee member on the Autism Women’s Network’s DIVERgent initiative). “It’s only in the last year that I’ve revisited fandom-inspired collections, and my reason for this is because I’ve received criticism in the past for using fandom-related themes as a sales gimmick.”

Other creators I spoke to, like Caitlin, were more optimistic of fandom-inspired makeup—even the stuff that’s made by bigger name brands, like the recent Giver-theme China Glaze nail polish collection, which are often assumed to be much more gimmicky then the stuff that independent sellers do. “I’m only ever bothered when companies, regardless of their size, put out collections that do not at all mesh with what they’re supposed to represent,” she admitted. “It’s like, did you even read the book?”

Jaimie Cordero agreed, noting that the conventions she attends on behalf of Espionage Cosmetics are definitely changing to include women “who aren’t being dragged there by guys.” Nowadays she figures that on average, more than 40% of attendees at these conventions are female (which the numbers from San Diego Comc-Con and New York Comic-Con corroborate), and notes the Espionage team doesn’t tend to get very much flak from people who don’t think they’re supposed to be there—save for the guys who see them away from the booth and assume they’re waiting on boyfriends.

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The Espionage team at the Mountain of Erebor Emerald City Comic Con, 2013.

Seeing all of these fantastic women who can make a living doing what they love is incredibly inspiring, and thanks to the Internet it’s easier than ever to follow in their footsteps and open up your own shop. But if you’re going to take your passion for makeup, knitting, graphic design, or whatever medium you’re into from a fun hobby into a legitimate business, you’ll need to be willing to put in a lot of time and effort—which Jaimie knows all too well.

“It’s going to be really scary and you’re gonna have to work until your hair hurts, and if you want it badly enough, it won’t even feel like you’re working that much,” she said. “When I had a normal job and it was 40 hours a week, I have never been so tired and angry in my entire life. And now I work 90 hours a week, and it doesn’t feel like that at all. There’s a difference between working for somebody else and working for something that is your dream. It’s a very big difference and it’s worth every second.”

At the same time, other creators told me it’s best not to let yourself get overwhelmed. “Most of the indies that I’ve seen fail have been because they consistently accepted more orders than they were able to ship, then slowly spiraled into longer and longer turnaround times with less and less communication until they finally just gave up,” Caitlin said. She suggests sellers who have trouble keeping up should only list items which are ready to ship rather than making things to order. “If you need to close down your shop to get caught up, do it, and post an announcement so people know what’s happening. Open communication with customers goes so very far. And answer your emails at least once a day!”

Ultimately it’s that open line of communication that’s key for so many independent companies. Networking and marketing especially can make or break a budding business—particularly on the Internet and in geek culture, where there are so many different niches and products to explore that you can get lost in all the hubbub.

“When I started Espionage,” Jaimie added, “I thought that the main portion of what I was going to be doing is creating products. That is not true at all. What I spend most of my time doing is letting people know we’re here,  that we love what we’re doing and trying to express to them why they should join us on this journey.”

And join her, we have. After all, the demand for nerdy merchandise marketed towards women has only gotten bigger over the past couple of years. And some intellectual property holders are starting to recognize the benefits of creating these kinds products—with a little bit of prodding, of course.

“I was just in a licensing conversation with a pretty big property and one of the things they said to me is, ‘Only ten percent of our buying market are girls,'” Jaimie said. “And my response to them was, ‘That’s because you’re training the girls that you’re not going to really provide anything for them that’s not just  an afterthought to what you created for the boys.’ I feel like the more that we build it, the more that they will buy it. If we show girls that we’re gonna make t-shirts that are specifically made for them instead of just printed on smaller sizes that was made for a boy, maybe they would react better to it and the whole industry would grow a lot more.”

In the meantime, female fans have learned how to support one another—and know how to look great doing it.

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Shiro Cosmetics‘ “Red in My Ledger” gloss

Previously in Makeup

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