Makeup Makers: Blake Karamazov of Swagger Cosmetics


These days, starting a makeup line is not an uncommon venture. In fact, today there are more independent makeup lines popping up than ever before! As recently as five years ago, many of our favorite products were simply dreams and ideas waiting to be created, manufactured, and applied to our lips, cheeks, and eyelids. Thank goodness for the entrepreneurs who decided to take the plunge into the sometimes rocky but always colorful world of makeup creation, for they are the driving force behind your Lip Tars, Paint Pots, and Magic Dusts!

But how does one break into the makeup world? Between working with uncommon ingredients and balancing a sometimes nonexistent budget, it would seem that starting a successful makeup line requires a long list of skills from the brains of a chemist to the number-crunching know-how of an accountant, not to mention a keen artistic eye. Or maybe all it takes is a little confidence and determination?

Meet Blake Karamazov. A recent San Francisco transplant known for her eccentric personal style and sometimes provocative take on beauty. Blake's makeup line Swagger grabbed our attention with its loud colors and equally loud product names (the Young Rich and Flashy gold duo caught our eye, plus a few more provocative shades we won’t name here). Though Blake is hard to miss with her exotic features and rotating hairstyles, what really stuck out to us was her dedication to her baby brand. Every independent company must start somewhere and Swagger's beginning is now. Like any small business, Blake is developing and creating her products right in her very own home, and DIYing her way through the hoops and over the hurdles that come with the territory. Watching Blake's journey through building a makeup business from the ground up is fascinating—whether she's working to develop new products, creating custom colors for clients, or directing thought-provoking photo shoots. We caught up with Blake to discover how she’s taking on the makeup industry.

B: What inspired you to start a makeup line?

It really began as a hobby. When I was in college, I started to experiment with formulating my own cosmetics because I wanted shades that I couldn't find anywhere else—like super-bright and pigmented eye shadows, and weird things like green lipstick. I eventually started giving away the products I was making to friends for birthdays and holidays. They were always super impressed and wanted more so I thought, why not start a brand and sell my products? I was so broke when I was in college and I couldn't justify spending a lot of money on makeup—making it myself was just more cost effective. These days there are a lot more affordable brands that offer quality products in unusual colors, but back then on my budget it was either make it myself or settle for clown makeup.

B: How has having a background in makeup artistry played a role in developing your products?

Because I was working on and off as a freelance makeup artist, I needed a lot more products than a normal person would. If you're just buying makeup for yourself, 20 or 30 dollars is a perfectly reasonable amount to be spending on a product, because one pan of eye shadow or one tube of lipstick is going to last you a really long time. However, if you're using a lipstick on clients every day, it runs out really fast. A popular item like black eye liner barely lasts two weeks. I needed to build a huge kit on a budget, and mixing my own colors not only helped me make that possible, it helped me control the quality. When I make my own products, I'm in full control of the outcome.

B: Do you think collecting cosmetics has helped you form opinions on how to create a quality product?

Definitely. It sucks when you spend money on a product that looks beautiful in the pan but barely shows up or fades when you apply it. Personally, I feel like there are few things worse than bad makeup. Around the time I started making my own products, I got in the habit of reading everything I could find about makeup. I read ingredients lists, but I also checked out chemistry websites and makeup blogs to study facts and opinions about common ingredients. I'd look up the different ingredients and learn how they affect the outcome of the products as well as the wearer. It was intimidating at first—a lot of the time it feels like reading labels on processed food, there's just so many items. You don't even know where to start, and I feel like most of them are pretty unnecessary. I find that products with longer labels can often look better in the pan than on your face because of the overuse of binder or filler. It's often just taking up space. When I make eye shadows, I use a minimum amount of fillers because it helps the color bind and stick to your skin. Using minimal ingredients also allows me to keep my products affordable. I feel like it should be affordable to be fabulous.

B: What are some of the biggest challenges you're facing with this venture?

Since I do everything myself I find challenges pretty much everywhere. Aside from creating my own makeup formulas, I had to set up my web shop. I take my own product photos in this little light box I put together and edit them myself. And then there’s getting labels made, and ordering packaging. I’ve had to learn how to run every aspect of my business and sometimes it's really hard. I don't have any other friends who make makeup so I really have to hunt to find answers to questions, and I don't know anyone who can relate to what I'm doing on a certain level. I know most established companies have their own production team or get their final products made for them in a lab but I know they all started out like me—cooking up new formulas at home in their kitchens.

It's really been difficult learning how ingredients work together and finding ways to improve my formulas. It not only takes a lot of time but it results in a lot of wasted product. When I first started out making eye shadows, they looked pretty, but didn’t have the right ingredients to make them stick—so I had to keep reformulating. Right now I'm working on a lipstick and you wouldn't believe how much wax I've thrown away. It's crazy.

B: You relocated to San Francisco recently. How has the move affected your brand?

After I get settled here I think the move will definitely benefit my line. There is a lot of drag queen and party kid culture here which gives me no reason to think it won't do well. It's intimidating though. I moved from Seattle where I had this huge word-of-mouth thing going with a lot friends in the club and performance worlds where people would call me and come over to shop my products. I don't have that community here yet, but I'm excited to build up a new network.

B: What companies have been the biggest inspiration in developing your own?

I remember reading about brands like MAC or Max Factor that were started by one makeup artist who built them into the huge empires they are today. I find stories like that to be the most inspiring because they start out like me—people liked the products they were making and then they just grew. I especially admire Max Factor—he practically invented modern makeup after he quit working freelance for a company who didn't treat him well. He started making his own cosmetics, which the models he worked with liked better than other products. His brand became more popular, the other company died out, and Max Factor became what it is today. So cool.

B: Do you have any goals within the makeup industry?

I secretly want to be Justin Bieber's makeup artist. So he can look 16 forever.

B: What advice do you have for people looking to start their own cosmetics lines?

Do your research. Find out what pigments are eye safe, lip safe, or not safe at all! Experiment. Maybe something that works great for one company doesn't work for you. I had to reformulate my lip glosses after I made them with castor oil as a base because I couldn't stand the smell, even though they wore beautifully. Because of that, I feel like product development is always an ongoing process. Don't be afraid to try new things. When you make a new product wear it all day so you can get to know it. It's also important to set aside time and space for what you're doing. In the beginning it's hard to balance everything on your agenda with your day job. I try to devote a certain amount of hours every week to working on Swagger. I have to remember that even though it's fun, it is a job and I need to take it seriously.

Mainly though, it's important to be yourself. Though I know some people view my line or my personality as loud or provocative, in the end I simply like what I like, and that's what's going to come across in my brand. I have an unconventional idea of beauty but it comes very naturally to me and in the end, it's what my line is going to represent. It's pretty awesome that even though I'm doing something different people seem to like it and respond well to it.