From left: Poppy King; a few of Poppy’s inspirations
Girl meets boy. Boy falls for girl’s best friend. Girl embraces her unique beauty and starts a world-renowned cosmetics company. It might not be the most conventional story in the book—or the makeup world, for that matter—which makes it a particularly interesting one. In 1992 at the age of 18, after a futile search for the perfect matte lipstick, Australian Poppy King launched her own line: Poppy. The brand received nearly instant renown, having intuitively tapped into the up-and-coming international market for specialized beauty products with personality.
Ten years after its launch, following a roller coaster ride of high highs and dark lows, King closed Poppy and headed to New York to work for the Estée Lauder corporation as the Vice President of Creative Marketing for Prescriptives, a position she held for three years before sitting down to share her accrued business insight in Lessons of a Lipstick Queen, an impartial-as-possible, down-to-earth book that King describes as “a guide and a memoir at the same time: a how you can be unconventional in your career.” She peppers her story with unflinchingly honest examples and anecdotes—from the terror of picking up her first batch of lipstick to surviving a flogging in the nation’s tabloids—that characterize an increasingly savvy but still green business woman who had the courage, character and blessing to pursue her dreams before she was old enough to know better.
About a year ago, King took her own advice and launched Lipstick Queen, a “take two” of Poppy, featuring innovative lip products, including: Medieval, a sheer lipstick that recreates the rosy lips women in the Middle Ages achieved by plumping their pouts with lemon juice; Black Tie Optional, a black lipgloss that goes from noir in the jar to the most flattering shade of nude; and the new for F/W10 Jean Queen, a pink shade that perfectly offsets denim and suits any skin tone. And King promises there’s much more to come. Meeting with Dossier in her lower Manhattan office, she explained her past follies, present passions and future plans with the same witty wisdom and low-key charm that infuse each of her products.
Erin Dixon: At such a young age, you really put a plan it into action, which is impressive. Do you come from a family of risk takers or is it just your nature?
Poppy King: It’s a combination of nature and nurture. It’s always been that I’m more scared of not trying something than I am of failing… I’m lucky, and I’ve also nurtured that part of me. If something really makes sense to me, I will give it a go and I can wear the consequences. I’m not paralyzed by the consequences. That’s something that came much easier to me when I was younger, and it’s something I’ve had to make sure I continue to foster as I get older. It’s not so much wiser as you start feeling the battle wounds, so you’ve got to keep on fostering it.
Erin: Is that why you decided to base your new company in New York, rather than return to Australia?
Poppy: Australia’s beautiful and a great place to grow up, but New York’s values are similar to mine in this sense. New York, as a city, understands the nature of risk and reward. When you take risks, sometimes there are rewards and sometimes there aren’t, but you just keep on trying. There’s something about all these skyscrapers that you can’t help but keep on trying—keep trying to reach somewhere. For me, that somewhere is not about anything external. I keep trying to reach inside myself, my highest self.
Erin: Tell us a little about that progression, from shutting down Poppy to launching Lipstick Queen.
Poppy: Well, Poppy ran for ten years exactly, always based in Australia and I’d always wanted to live in the US, but it was sort of hard to get the business going up here to justify the move. So when I got offered the chance to be relocated to the US and work for the Estée Lauder corporation designing lip products and trend spotting, etc., I decided it was a job opportunity I wanted to take. Poppy shut down in Australia so that I could move to New York and take up that role in 2002, which I did for three years exactly.
During that time, I found myself… I never really intended to be in the corporate cosmetic world. I felt like it wasn’t what I got into the industry to do, so I decided to leave that position and write a book [Lessons of a a Lipstick Queen]. It was in the process of writing it in 2006 that I decided I definitely wanted to do my own lipstick brand again, which is when I set about starting up Lipstick Queen, going through the same process that I outline in the book—finding business partners, finding manufacturers, figuring out what the marketing is going to be…all that kind of stuff. So Lipstick Queen is really an extension of what I was always doing, with the exception of those three years. It’s sort of my brand take two and who knows, there might have to be a third. I will keep on doing lipstick brands because I really feel like it’s an area of cosmetics that has become misunderstood. There’s a lot of product out there that you can tell is coming from market research and marketing executives versus customer needs.
Erin: Which is interesting because you were trend spotting at Estée Lauder, whereas Poppy was based on timeless looks….
Poppy: Poppy and Lipstick Queen are both based on different moods. I’m not a big believer in trends. I always tend to have something in the line that is right on trend, but it’s not my main focus. That’s something that corporations get obsessed with much more than customers do. Especially when it comes to lips, [customers] know what suits them. They have a zone around that where they are willing to go, but the idea that women are going to totally drop their look for that latest trend, that’s something corporations wish would happen. It’s not really true,
Erin: However on the second go-round, you’ve expanded the line a lot. You’ve even included a matte lipgloss, which—as its name, Oxymoron, indicates—seems like a contradiction.
Poppy: I wanted to start with just lipstick because I felt like what I could offer was—instead of hundreds or thousands of colors—a highly edited collection, the best of the classic colors. There are two formulas: the sheer and the opaque. I always intended to then branch from that into other lip stories and lip moods, but I wanted to start with something that, to me, had become much more confusing than it needed to be, which was lipstick.
Erin: Where do you get inspiration for your lipstick? The names and packaging are quite clever [the Fifteen Minutes of Fame pop art lipglosses, etc.].
Fifteen Minutes of Fame lipgloss collection
Poppy: I’m very influenced by the art and film worlds: movies, literature and stuff—not in a snobby way, just in a way that is where I find my inspiration. Things that are very reflective of human nature are expressed through art and film and literature, and bringing that into the context of beauty, of what woman do with their lip color, is very impactful in terms of sense of self.
Erin: Is there any particular genre of art that you seek out or that particularly inspires you?
Poppy: I go right across the gamut. There is some really contemporary art I love and also classical art—anything from still life to abstract. I love all the art movements for different reasons.
Erin: So how is the cosmetics world different and/or similar to other creative fields?
From left: Black Tie Optional lipstick and lipgloss; inspired packaging from Medieval tinted lip treatment
Poppy: It is similar in that all creative fields have an unknown “magic” factor as to what works and what doesn’t. No amount of money can guarantee the consumer will like the product because it is more esoteric than that. It is different in that it has to live up to a promise in order for it to work… There is accountability when someone is putting something on their face.
Erin: Getting back into your past and Poppy [the brand]… Is there anything you would change?
Poppy: The only thing I would do differently would be to understand that I don’t need men to legitimize me in business. I think even in this day and age it’s really hard… It takes a long time as a woman in business to get through the propaganda that somehow you still need a man somewhere in your business to legitimize it. I’ve fallen prey to that line of thinking,
Erin: Touching on female empowerment, profits from your Fired Up lipgloss go to support women entrepreneurs. Do you think of lipstick and makeup as tools of empowerment?
Poppy: I think makeup can be a tool of enslavement or a tool of empowerment, depending on whether you are using it to enjoy being yourself or whether you are using it to conform to an unreachable standard of perfection. When used as affirmation of inner power and connection, it is a wonderful way to enjoy the experience of being female.
Erin: How has the sensation or significance of applying lipstick changed for you from the age of 19 to now?
Poppy: Believe it or not, it is exactly the same. It still gives me the same surge of female empowerment and ritual.
Erin: And how has being a woman affected your business decisions or philosophy?
Poppy: It means that I measure my success differently. Men tend to have a very outward idea of success whilst women go more in towards themselves to find success. It means we can be much harder on ourselves in business than men and much less able to just conquer without thinking about consequences.
Erin: Apart from work, what are some passions?
Poppy: In my downtime it is the quiet things I enjoy most: yoga, knitting, reading and of course friends, but some of mine are quite raucous.
Fired Up lipgloss