Behind the Brand: Amy Doan of Sugarpill Cosmetics

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SUGARPILL COSMETICS has a reputation for being an expressive and playful cult favorite indie brand with a kaleidoscope of vivid hues. The company’s history is a bit more personal to me—I’ve been friends with founder Amy Doan for years. Before we had met, I heard word that this hilarious woman with Technicolor locks—known as Shrinkle all over the internet—wanted to send me some makeup from a brand she was trying to kickstart. I had no idea it was going to become the phenomenon that it is today. With Sugarpill’s reputation for highly saturated shadows and amazing payoff, there’s no denying that the story behind the brand had to be a lively one. From drag queens to her unadulterated love of cats, Amy shares her journey on what it’s like to launch a makeup brand so beloved online.

“I like that bold makeup creates a
placebo effect—which makes you
feel more daring and confident.”

Amy Doan

founder of Sugarpill Cosmetics

Q&A: Amy Doan

B: How did you build up your internet persona?

In 2000, as a broke college student, I began to sew my own clothes and sell them on eBay. To advertise my wares, I made little photo collages which I'd post to Livejournal fashion communities. At the time, the internet was just a side hobby which allowed me to earn some extra beer money, so I didn't spend much time promoting myself or trying to create an internet persona. I just focused on designing and sewing, and everything else fell into place on its own.

B: Was it blogging that made you want to venture into makeup?

Not really. My interest in makeup took off when I had to take pictures of myself in the clothes I made. I wanted my face to be as colorful as the clothes, but sadly my makeup was looking very washed out and dull on camera. Some drag queen friends tipped me off to the Kryolan theater makeup store in San Francisco, where they bought all their stage makeup for drag shows. Heaven! My first visit, I walked out with a 20-pound box filled to the brim with neon clown makeup, ridiculously huge costume eye lashes, and sparkly stuff to glue all over my face.

B: What led you to create Sugarpill and how long did it take?

When I started to post pictures of myself looking like I was running away with the circus, my inbox exploded with inquiries from fellow color lovers who were dying to know about the makeup. At the time, it was really difficult to get your hands on super-bright cosmetics unless you lived in a major city. So I decided to make it easily accessible to my internet friends by selling it alongside my clothing. It was a big hit and everyone loved it, but over time I found myself wishing I had control over the colors, formula, packaging, and brand image. I then realized that the only way I could have complete control was to start my own brand. It took four years from concept to our site's launch in 2010.

B: What's the story behind the name Sugarpill?

I like that bold makeup creates a placebo effect—which makes you feel more daring and confident. Combining the two words into one just looked cuter!

B: What does Sugarpill stand for in the beauty industry?

We cater to people who appreciate unnatural and over-the-top beauty. There are more than enough makeup brands selling products that enhance one's ‘natural’ beauty. While there's nothing wrong with that, we think experimenting with unnatural colors and shapes is way more fun! When I was nine, I watched an episode of Full House where Aunt Becky teaches DJ that the secret to wearing makeup is to look like you're not wearing any at all. What?! I remember feeling confused and slightly devastated because it was the '80s and I couldn't wait to grow up and try bright blue mascara and neon pink blush. I'm glad I didn't listen to Aunt Becky. If I'm going to spend an hour painting my face, I'd better look like I'm wearing makeup.

“Anyone who knows me knows how much I love cats! I try to sneak cats into everything I do.”

Amy Doan

founder of Sugarpill Cosmetics

B: Do you have a story behind the kitty in your graphics?

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love cats! I try to sneak cats into everything I do. Two of my colors are named after my cats: Tako, after my white cat, and Flamepoint, after my Flamepoint Siamese Creamsicle. When I go shopping, someone always has to stop me from buying everything that has a cat on it. I decorate my car, computer, and work space with cat stickers—not to mention other peoples’ cars, computers and work spaces.

B: Do you feel like the brand is a reflection of your style?

Definitely! I've always been very true to my style and am not easily influenced by passing trends. My friends and loved ones make lighthearted fun of me all the time for never changing! When my shoes fall apart, I replace them with an identical pair. I've experimented with every hair color imaginable but always run crying back to my hairdresser, begging her to make it blue again. I still wear the same vintage slips and lingerie I bought in high school. Everything I create for Sugarpill—the colors, packaging, website, and branding—is a direct reflection of who I am and what I'm truly passionate about. I'm very confident with my identity and vision, however tacky it may be!

B: Why the decision to focus on eye products vs. face and lip?

It was never our intention to focus on eyes only. We're still a baby company—two years old—and each new product takes time to formulate and perfect since we don’t repackage private label stock formulas. We are working hard on branching out into different product lines in the very near future, but I am very particular about what I put out. Slow and steady wins the race!

B: What goes into the process of creating a Sugarpill color?

I find color inspiration everywhere I go—fabric stores, Home Depot paint samples, you name it. I keep a giant collection of powdered pigments in my warehouse. When I see a color that inspires me, I try to recreate it with my pigments. Once I'm satisfied with the color, I send it off to the lab and have them try to match it in our eye shadow formula. The next three to six months are spent communicating with the lab to make desired changes until it's perfect—make it more pigmented, tweak the hue, more matte, more shimmer, less chalky, whatever. I test the lab samples on myself and my friends. A single eye shadow color usually goes through about three to four friends and five to ten revisions before I finally approve it.

“Our extreme love of animals plays a huge role not only in our brand, but in our personal lives as well. ‘Cruelty-free’ isn't just a marketing gimmick.”

Amy Doan

founder of Sugarpill Cosmetics

B: What challenges did you face being an indie brand?

I was naive and thought I could start small, do everything myself, and grow at a slow and comfortable pace. I wasn't thinking big enough and did not prepare myself for the massive avalanche that hit me the minute we launched. I was receiving over five hundred emails a day, all directed to my personal email address. I would spend the first six hours of each day just answering emails. Once I finished, my inbox would be full again because the five hundred people I had just finished replying to replied back already. I once read that it takes so long to paint the Golden Gate bridge that once they finish, they have to immediately start all over from the beginning. That's what my inbox felt like. After answering emails, I would spend about ten hours a day packing orders. I had no employees because between working sixteen-plus hours a day, seven days a week, I just didn't have time to find, screen, interview, and train potential employees. I was drowning. Luckily, my partner/co-founder Kevin quit his job and helped get things sorted out. Within a year of launch, we moved Sugarpill into a warehouse and filled it with an amazing team. Things are running a lot more smoothly now. I love everyone I work with and don't know how I ever lived without them.

B: Did any special opportunities arise for you because of Sugarpill?

We get to be involved in some pretty awesome fashion shows and meet lots of talented, creative people at the events we work. We were the official makeup brand for Hello Kitty's 35th anniversary fashion show and are the official brand for Harajuku fashion label 6%DOKIDOKI. We do the makeup for 6%DOKIDOKI's U.S. tours, including their last one with adorable Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. It's really amazing to work alongside artists and brands I'm a fan of.

B: Does cruelty-free and vegan makeup play a huge role in your universe?

Yes! Our extreme love of animals plays a huge role not only in our brand, but in our personal lives as well. ‘Cruelty-free’ isn't just a marketing gimmick. We are all crazy animal people here at Sugarpill headquarters! We all have rescue kitty companions and know the unconditional love, joy and affection animals bring into our lives. Kevin and I are both vegetarians, and most of our team are vegetarian or vegan. We do not wear fur or purchase cosmetics from companies that test on animals. By offering a beautiful selection of cruelty-free cosmetics and supporting other cruelty-free brands, such as Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics and Inglot, we hope to show people how fun and easy it is to make animal-friendly choices without being preachy.

“We have a bunch of other projects up our sleeves, but I don't want to give too much away!”

Amy Doan

founder of Sugarpill Cosmetics

B: Do you have any new and upcoming projects for Sugarpill?

We are launching two new eyeshadow palettes this fall: Cold Chemistry and Sparkle Baby. Cold Chemistry is a dark, smoky, sexy collaboration with makeup artist and designer Amelia Arsenic, whose aesthetic is much, much darker than what people normally expect from Sugarpill. When people think of Sugarpill, they envision happy, bright, primary colors. So we thought it'd be fun to have Amelia mix things up a bit. Sparkle Baby will be the complete opposite—super sweet, shiny pastels for the girliest of girlie-girls. Think lace, rhinestones, and ruffle socks. We have a bunch of other projects up our sleeves, but I don't want to give too much away!