In the 2016 world, the buzz is all about natural. Organic. Locally sourced. Ethical buying. These are words and phrases that crop up so much more often than they did five or 10 years ago. While we still live in a mass-produced culture, it’s more trendy than ever to live naturally; in the way we eat, the things we buy and, perhaps, the makeup we wear.
DaLish, a cosmetic brand born and bred in Toronto, was part of that trend before it was a trend. In the last few years, the brand has gained attention from the likes of The Coveteur and The Globe and Mail for their natural, high-quality products. They even got a shout-out from Goop.
We sat down with creator and owner Melanie Cruickshank to discuss the finer points of running a beauty brand, learning to make your own makeup and why some brands still test on animals.
Natasha Grodzinski: Let’s start with DaLish. How did the brand begin?
Melaine Cruickshank: It began back in 2006, out of my kitchen here on King Street West. My whole life, I suffered from horrible acne, from 12 years on. I was put on different birth controls to try and control my acne. I was put on every kind of treatment, I ended up on Accutane, I went through the entire spectrum. I wanted to find products where I knew what was in them and wanted to determine what was harming my skin.
Fast forward to when I was 14. My first job was at Eaton’s. Good old Eaton’s at the Oshawa Centre. My favourite department was beauty, but I worked in menswear. When they went out of business, I got another job at the mall at a great Canadian company called Caryl Baker Visage. That’s where I really learned about proper skincare, beauty and everything to do with peels and that sort of stuff.
Flash forward again to my early twenties. I’m now working full-time in advertising and I happen to meet a woman from England named Jan Bayham. She had a school here in the city. I went there for two years and I learned the ins and outs of chemistry. I learned how to make all the products from skincare and body care, and I really began to understand how the products and also diet affect your body. It was a life-changing experience for me, and I started making things out of my kitchen. I made lipsticks for friends, masks, different things like that, and it grew into its own business to the point where, on weekends, I would be doing little shows. My first show was at the Drake Hotel, in the basements, for a TFI event. I grew my business from there, to the point where I started doing it full time.
NG: When you began to make your own products, what did you start with?
MC: So, I went back to school for chemistry. Chemistry is a lot like baking, and I love to bake. I started with your most basic lipgloss: just beeswax, coconut oil, castor oil, pigments and I melted it all together. I Started with very simple formulations and kept educating myself until I could get down to the textures. I would go to the Sephora, go to the Holt Renfrew and buy all of my top products: NARS, Bobbi Brown, and Laura Mercier. I would then spend that time in the kitchen trying to replicate that texture and coverage, but I would substitute all of the horrible ingredients for really good, natural ingredients.
NG: When the business was still small, did you find it difficult to produce larger quantities with that natural process?
MC: The reality is, when I first started my business, I didn’t know where it was going. I did everything backwards. I knew what I liked, what I wanted and what I needed in the market. It took me a really long time to find the voice of DaLish. There’s trial and error, you know? We’ve experienced a huge amount of success and we’ve also suffered. It’s been the last few years where the voice of DaLish has completely come out. We know exactly what the brand is and where we’re going, what we’re doing and what we represent in the market. At that time, natural beauty wasn’t something people were really interested in. We were a bit ahead of our time and it took people a while to catch up. When they did catch up, we had years of experience, so they could buy the brand with confidence.
NG: In the last few years, there’s really been a surge in the natural lifestyle, especially with the way people eat.
MC: One hundred percent. The last few years have obviously been the best for the business. People not only are people so educated, but what’s motivating this is people are getting illnesses and diseases that aren’t hereditary. I lost a classmate at 36 years old to colon cancer. Never ran in her family. They don’t start screening women until they’re 50. It’s mind-blowing to me, you know? What is this from? If you look at the symptoms it has a lot to do with diet. Genetics are the number one, but if it doesn’t run in your family, we have to look at other areas. It’s unbelievable how much you’re putting in your body can really affect it. Everything is so over-processed that your body doesn’t know how to handle it. We’re at this peak right now where terrible things are happening to people with health and they’re looking for other options. We’re going back to nature.
NG: On the flip-side, it is a tipping point. For example, there are still so many big makeup brands that have so many chemicals and test on animals. They’re still huge.
MC: At the end of the day, it’s all consumer-driven. If people are still spending money with them, they don’t need to change. It has to do with education. A lot of people don’t know that certain brands still test on animals. When people find out, they’re shocked. The companies definitely don’t advertise it and it’s their business practice. If people stop buying their products because they don’t like testing on animals, I guarantee they will end that practice very quickly.
NG: There are so many small brands that aren’t as established who don’t have the same practices and are cruelty-free.
MC: See, this is the difference. I am my brand. That’s a corporation. MAC started as a great Canadian company. Those founders were two incredible guys selling their products on Yonge Street. They sold their business. Those bigger companies, they hire supermodels to represent them and whatnot, but there is no real person behind it. This is my business, my beliefs and my lifestyle. You can choose to buy the products because you like what I’m doing or not. Women have a combination of everything in their makeup bags. They’re trying to make the switch.
Where we really stand out from other natural brands is performance. When you think of natural makeup from a couple of years back, it was very bland, didn’t last very long, the texture wasn’t that great. Women won’t switch their products if they can’t get the same longwear, and seeing is believing. I always say the best representation of my product is you trying it yourself. It sells itself.
It’s also pricing and it depends on how conscious the customer is. The women who buy our product, they’re educated, they’re self-aware, or they’ve had an unfortunate illness and are now aware of what’s in their products. We advertise that we’re gluten free. When you think back a few years ago, you think, what a silly thing to advertise. If you’re celiac, and you wear lipstick, you eat 10 pounds of lip product in your lifetime. 10 pounds. Think of 10 bricks of butter. No wonder you’d feel sick all the time.
NG: What’s the testing process like now that you’re producing higher quantities?
MC: I’m the number one tester on everything. Because I’ve been doing it for so long, my formulas that are tested are tried and true. I only do five matte lipsticks. I do collaborations and special editions, but I have my formulations down. As for creating new products, I worked on my mascara for a year before I launched it. It’s probably been one of the most successful products. We can never keep it in stock. We have clients in the U.S. who order our mascaras 15 units at a time.
NG: I’m getting that there’s a real perfectionism with the products.
MC: Absolutely. And everything stands on its own. I do five lip and cheeks, which you can also use for your eyes. I do five matte lipsticks. I do five glosses. I do five metallic eyeshadows. I have a mascara, a highlighter and three foundations and concealers. We have more foundations we’re expanding on in darker shades, but everything takes a very long time. It’s agonizing to go through it, but I don’t want to have only one good product.
NG: There are brands that have that one “holy grail” item.
MC:I don’t believe in that.
NG: So, it was more about building the brand as a whole.
MC: Yes! Everyone has that “desert island” product. For me, it’s a lip-cheek balm. Obviously, mascara and highlighter would help, too. Laughs. There are other women who love their foundation. Everyone has their something, and we ship our products all over the world.
NG: When did the international recognition start?
MC: You know, it’s crazy. Two years ago, we signed on with a company in Singapore, and that was through a celebrity makeup artist who loved our product and tagged our product. The company reached out and said, we have to carry your line. The rest is history. We get so much support from so many different people.
NG: Do you still get excited every time you see that international support?
MC: It’s always so surprising. We email every client that places an order, saying, thank you so much for ordering, and then often, when they’re from out of country, we’ll ask, how did you come across DaLish? Sure enough, it’ll be through social media, or they’ll have seen it in a blog post.
NG: Social media is an international word of mouth.
MC: We’ll see people on Instagram saying, I love this lipstick! And I’ll want to ask, where did you get it? I have such a personal connection to every product. We have retailers now, so they’re not buying it directly from us, but when I see a woman with it, I have to ask, where did you get it from?
NG: You have such a personal touch on the brand, but do you worry about losing that if it continues to grow?
MC: Unless we sell our company, I feel like it’s something we’ll maintain, no matter how big we get. If we keep growing at the pace we are, we’ll just have to hire more people, so we have more people emailing clients about their orders. The protocol is there. Everybody gets a handwritten card. If you think about bigger companies like Net-A-Porter, they do all of those beautiful personal touches. We’re a small company, why wouldn’t we as well?
NG: Personal touches can really make an impression.
MC: And it’s because we’re such a small company as well. I feel like it’s my child, so I have this personal connection. For me, everything you buy of mine, I want you to know how much I appreciate it.
NG: Something that’s interesting about your products is they’re naturally made, but you also say that they’ll be beneficial towards skin in the long run. How does that work?
MC: They’re not one hundred percent natural because they are stable. They’re not going to go mouldy or give you a bacterial infection. We’re still chemical free, but stability is a big factor, especially with Health Canada. We always send everything out to a third-party lab to get tested, so everything is double-checked.
Our foundation actually started as a moisturizer. We have clients who have acne or suffer from skin irritations and over time, they’ve done nothing but change their foundation and have had great improvements, because it’s good for anti-aging and skin irritation. It’s also a good protector from the sun. Not only are you eliminating the pollutants from the sun, but you’re also allowing your skin to breathe.
NG: Why do you think more companies don’t produce more natural products?
MC: This is what it comes down to, is money. It’s a lot more expensive to make natural products, especially when they’re being made overseas. I have everything made here in Toronto because I want to know the quality of the ingredients. I see where everything comes from and I buy Canadian more than anything else. Anything bring in from overseas is certified organic. We’re a local supporting local.
NG: When we look at pricing, natural brands can often be more expensive for the consumer. In terms of a younger customer, who doesn’t have the funds, how can natural products become more accessible for them?
MC: This is the thing: I’m not sold in a major retailer, like Sephora or The Bay, and that makes a big difference in pricing. When you see to companies like that, you have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to be listed with them. They’re putting that cost into the retail prices. I’ve avoided that because I want to make my products more affordable. We definitely attract that crowd. We get a lot of mothers buying makeup for their daughters and so on. At this point in the economy, and because we bring in packaging elements from the States, it would be difficult to make the cost lower. Let me tell you: my lipsticks are $24. For my next competitor, they’re $38.
It’s like buying less is more. We have this new attitude where, if we really want a leather jacket, instead of buying multiple knock-offs, we’ll save for the real thing.
It comes down to affordability. I run my business like I run my life. My goal when I started my business wasn’t to become a multi-gazillionaire. It was to help women who are suffering the same problem I am. That was everything, and still is.
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