Amy Doan, founder of the cosmetics company Sugarpill, gets a lot of emails from customers seeking advice. They want to know which of her eyeshadows go best with their own hair and eye color. Doan, however, doesn't give recommendations. "It's whatever you want, whatever you think is fun, whatever makes you happy," she says.
Doan's attitude runs contrary to the articles that have kept beauty magazines in business for years. With Sugarpill, there's none of the condescension that comes from traditional beauty marketing campaigns. Her products aren't designed to make you appear prettier, or younger or more appealing to a man. Instead, they are cosmetics designed purely for self-expression. Her collection of eyeshadows come in sparkling metallics, intense neons and bold primary shades. Then there are the fake eyelashes — long, thick and sometimes decorated with rhinestones or cut into unusual shapes.
"It's more about fun and creating a persona and transforming yourself into— this sounds really cheesy— but the fantasy version of yourself," says Doan. The makeup maven learned that lesson from the drag queens she met during her formative years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Back in the 1990s, finding makeup in non-traditional colors was hard, but the cool kids had secrets. Doan, then a fake-ID-toting teenager, learned the tricks while hitting up San Francisco nightclubs. She tried mixing clear nail polish with MAC pigments and used a mixture of lipstick and glitter on her eyes. The results, she says, weren't that great, but you did what you had to do to get those funky colors. During the Halloween season, she would stock up on cheap black lipstick and glitter. At Trannyshack, the legendary drag club, she learned about Kryolan, theater-thick makeup in bright colors that had long been popular with drag queens.
Doan laughs as she thinks about how makeup has changed. "Kids these days, they're so spoiled," she says jokingly. Today, finding lime green eyeshadow and glittery fake eyelashes can be as easy as a Google search. She's part of the reason for that.
While studying journalism at California State University Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), Doan launched her own clothing line, called Shrinkle. It did well enough where she didn't have to get a day job after graduation. Doan's colorful fashions gained a cult following of young women who were inspired by Japanese street fashion. Beyond the clothes, though, her customers often asked where she got her makeup. She thought that starting a cosmetics company might be a good idea.
Doan wasn't a makeup artist and she never worked at a makeup counter, but she threw herself into research. "I got a cosmetics dictionary and started studying names," she says. Then she contacted some labs and asked them how the products were made. It took five years to develop Sugarpill. "It was hard because I didn't know what I was doing," she says. But, Doan found cruelty free labs and a chemist with whom she could closely work. She brought in her favorite cosmetics to learn how some eyeshadows go on more smoothly than others. She got paint swatches from Home Depot in colors that she loved so that the chemist could try to mimic those hues in the lab. She asked a lot of questions.
It was a slow-moving process, with one color eyeshadow taking about a year to develop. The first Sugarpill shadow, a deep turquoise called Afterparty, remains one of Doan's favorites.
The brand was an immediate hit. In 2009, shortly before their launch, Sugarpill was named the official makeup line for Hello Kitty's 35th anniversary party. Through that, Doan hooked up with Melrose Avenue boutique JapanLA, which now stocks her products. She later collaborated with Japanese brands 6%DOKIDOKI and Spank! on fashion events in California. Two years ago, she moved the company from Berkeley to Los Angeles, making it easier to check in on the cosmetic labs and attend trade shows.
In the five years since Sugarpill's debut, the brand has become popular with people who like to get creative with makeup. Lolitas, cosplayers, club kids and drag queens are amongst Doan's group of customers. Popular shades are the metallics Goldilux and Grand Tiara. Sugarpill's Supreme false eyelashes are hot sellers too. Doan says they're easy to cut and layer to create unique looks.
Some artists have take a cue from the club kids of the past and repurposed Sugarpill's eyeshadows for use on the lips and cheeks. Makeup bloggers frequently incorporate Sugarpill cosmetics into looks inspired by fantasy characters and even Doan herself. Undoubtedly, Doan is as much of a style inspiration as the makeup she sells. Her cute-punk look— short bangs, minidresses with a lingerie influence and lots of fun jewelry— racks up the likes on Instagram. She's also the subject of fan art, much of it capturing Doan in her rainbow hair period. (She currently keeps her hair a pale shade of blonde.)
While Sugarpill has become a favorite for eyeshadow fanatics, Doan isn't stopping there. In April — an exact date hasn't been fixed yet — the company will launch a nail polish collection. Doan says that the 10 colors of polish will come in "glittery, heaven-themed shades." Soon, Sugarpill fans will be having as much fun painting nails as they do shadowing their eyes.
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