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There are a lot of lipsticks and eye creams out there to spend your hard-earned pennies on. In our column "Behind the Beauty Brand," Racked aims to pull back the curtain and introduce you to the founders behind some of the industry’s most interesting brands.
"I’m not a very good cosmetics salesman," makeup artist Troy Surratt, 46, says on a recent phone call, laughing. The budding success of his three-year-old cosmetics company, Surratt Beauty, says otherwise, however.
If you’ve been to Sephora lately, perhaps you’ve noticed the sleek line on the shelves there. The range, which is produced in Japan, features customizable palettes, a new foundation with a built-in brush, refillable super precise eye liner pencils, and a cult favorite eyelash curler that threatens to knock the Shu Uemura classic off its pedestal. Surratt Beauty launched originally at Barneys, and is now carried at Net-a-Porter and Violet Grey in addition to Sephora. Prices range from $25 for a brow pomade to $65 for the foundation, so it’s definitely a bit of a financial commitment.
In this age of Instagram personalities who do collaborations with existing brands or even launch their own lines within a year of breaking onto the scene, it’s refreshing to meet someone who has been honing his craft for decades and who, over several years, created a line that goes against the many cookie cutter, trend-driven makeup brands that are popping up everywhere.
Surratt Beauty’s Instagram strategy is different from a lot of new and more established brands. While the page has about 17,000 followers, it’s modest by Instagram standards. You’re also much more likely to see images of Kate Moss or Elizabeth Taylor in the brand’s feed instead of the fully made-up gurus decked out in bronzer, fake lashes, and layers of matte lipstick.
While Surratt is happy that makeup is getting such a huge platform and he loves the self-expression, he has some feelings about the gurus.
"The analogy I give is you can masturbate, but that doesn’t make you a good lover. You can become really skilled and sit in your bedroom and do your own makeup over and over, but that doesn’t make you a makeup artist," he says. "A good makeup artist knows just as well what not to do as they know what to do. What is happening on Instagram is a disservice. It is so much artifice and it’s every beauty trick in the book being applied to one face and in a formulaic way." He also thinks that brands that associate themselves heavily with these so-called influencers may suffer some dilution in the marketplace as that one aesthetic permeates everything.
Surratt was a protégé of the late makeup maestro Kevyn Aucoin, and eventually became a makeup artist in his own right, working with celebrities like Adele, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and the Olsens.
Surratt grew up as a fish-out-of-water on a farm in Kansas and would accompany his mom into town once a week to meet his grandmother at the salon in town where she would go for a beehive. He’d watch the process with fascination. "I realized early on that [hair and makeup] was a medium for creative self expression as well as just a medium for reinvention. That the power of transformation was fun and exciting to me," Surratt says.
When MTV hit the scene in the ‘80s, the ever-changing looks in the videos of his favorite musical acts like Duran Duran and Culture Club inspired him to experiment on the only model he could find – his brother. "My little brother jokes that he’s responsible for all the success I’ve had in the beauty industry because I used to trick him into letting me do his makeup."
Surratt, who says he didn’t have many friends in high school and is a self-described "giraffe given to a family of cattle farmers," dabbled in theater costuming and makeup. After high school, he got a job in merchandising in a department store in Topeka. After designing the windows there for a Lancôme campaign when he was 19, an executive was so impressed that she offered to help Surratt get his makeup career off the ground. He became a freelance makeup artist for Lancôme and saved enough money to move to New York and start studying at FIT, where he hoped to become a fashion designer.
After graduating from FIT, he landed a job designing a private label collection for Henri Bendel in NYC with designer Randolph Duke. Eventually makeup called to him again, and he got a gig as a freelance makeup artist at Bendel. His experience there was the equivalent of makeup boot camp, including a dishonorable discharge.
"That counter time was invaluable," Surratt says. "We had to learn by trial and error. You learned how to match foundation and mix foundation because the color shades were far less global compared to what they are now and you had fewer shades to work with. You became a bit of a color chemist."
He ended up at the Trish McEvoy counter, where he was eventually fired for his lack of salesmanship. "They said, ‘Your makeup is beautiful but your sales suck,’" he says. "I don’t want to sell someone something they don’t need. It’s a Midwestern practicality I still have." It’s a quality he says he still can’t shake, even when talking to customers about his own line, and perhaps explains why he hasn’t launched dozens of products like some brands have.
After getting fired, he landed at the famed Alcone, a theatrical makeup store in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Pretty much every single makeup luminary walked through its doors at some point in the ‘90s. Pat McGrath, Kevyn Aucoin, Laura Mercier, and Dick Page were all customers. Surratt really wanted to do makeup seriously at that point. Since he was a teenager, he says he had dreamed of assisting Kevyn Aucoin, whose now-classic book Making Faces had just been released.
"I would read Allure from cover to cover and see this name over and over that I couldn’t pronounce. I would see [makeup looks] that Kevyn would credit to MAC," he says. "At that time, MAC was out of Canada and they had an 800 number. The only way I could get products in Kansas City was to order them from this 800 number. That was my first exposure to Kevyn."
After several encounters in the store, he finally got up the courage to call Aucoin’s business manager to offer to do whatever it took to assist him. Aucoin looked at Surratt’s "feeble" portfolio, which featured some bra catalog clippings, but apparently the makeup artist saw talent there.
Surratt’s first job with Aucoin was working on an album cover shoot with Jennifer Lopez. "No one really knew who J. Lo was. It was more exciting for me to be on set with Kevyn and [hairdresser] Oribe," he says. "Jennifer was kind of a new girl at that point."
After Aucoin died in 2002, Surratt got an agent and started working with celebrity clients of his own. He’s worked with Charlize Theron, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Hilary Swank, and the Olsens, to name just a few. He also landed a gig as the global consulting makeup artist for Maybelline, which lasted for five years.
Before all that, though, Surratt took the trip that ended up being a turning point in his career. He visited Japan, on what he calls a "pilgrimage," shortly after his mentor died. Aucoin had done a makeup collection for Shiseido in Japan called Inoui, which took on an almost mythical quality for Surratt. The trip did not disappoint and set him on the path to creating his own makeup line.
"It was like Pandora’s box was opened. I was obsessed," he says. "I would well up with tears at the beauty of the products and the things they thought of." He continued to visit the country annually. "I would have been the biggest Instagram star if it had existed, because I would do these beauty hauls and get all these products," he says.
After he left Maybelline, he started planning to launch his brand, knowing that he wanted to produce it in Japanese labs, which proved tricky at first. (Surratt actually had some experience with makeup launches, helping Maureen Kelly launch Tarte Cosmetics in 1999.)
"The Japanese beauty industry is very elusive, so we tried to figure out what labs and manufacturers to use. We started going way more often and peeling back the layers of the onion," Surratt explains. "It’s a very gift-giving culture so you exchange gifts. Many gifts and many sushi dinners later, we launched the brand."
One of the hallmarks of Surratt Beauty is that a lot of the products are customizable and refillable. You can choose individual eye shadow and blush colors and put them into an empty magnetized palette. He kept reading that customers want to "interact" with their products before they buy. "They want to be a part of the creative process of the product, whether that is choosing the fabric for your bespoke suit or the monograms on your Goyard luggage," Surratt says. "I asked myself how I could do that in beauty. It’s something makeup artists have done forever, but for the consumer it hasn’t been as popular. We’ve had great success with it."
In addition to the palettes, Surratt’s Relevee mascara and eyeliners, which were inspired by Japanese calligraphy brushes, are standouts. He also launched a smoky eye stick, a concept that inspired other brands to do the same.
Surratt only works with celebrity clients once in a while now, and is focusing full time on his brand. "I have come to think of myself as a real product man. I’ve always loved product. I love boxes. I love the primary packaging, the secondary packaging, the labels. I’m obsessed with it," he says. "I can say everything I want to say as an artist through my products and my imagery. I still feel fulfilled."