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Sal Ali is the founder of Farsali, a beauty brand best known for two products that you dispense via dropper bottle: Rose Gold Elixir and Unicorn Essence. Rose Gold Elixir is a mixture of oils with bits of 24-karat gold floating in it. Unicorn Essence is a pearly Pepto-pink serum that the company markets as a makeup primer. They both cost $54 for 1 ounce.
When Ali was building his business, he challenged his wife, Farah Dhukai, then a successful beauty YouTuber, to a contest to see who could build a bigger following on Instagram; she didn’t have a very active account. She trounced him, while also refusing to use his products on camera. Her Instagram now has 5.8 million followers (to Farsali’s 1.2). In the process, Farsali became an unlikely success story.
The Toronto-based Dhukai, 29, and Ali, 35, have known each other for 13 years and have been married for the past six. Prior to Farsali, Ali had a search and optimization business, helping companies with brand awareness, social media strategies, and product development; he’s since “exited” the company, declining to give more details. During that time, Dhukai started a beauty YouTube channel.
On the surface, Dhukai looks like the standard “School of Kardashian Contouring” glam grad, but she has gained a large following thanks to her soft-spoken and endearing goofiness, as well as her unique and sometimes totally batshit DIY beauty tutorials. Her videos regularly prompt articles in the beauty and lifestyle media featuring incredulous experts telling readers to maybe think twice about trying wasabi as a lip plumper or waxing your baby hairs off. She recently earnestly sprayed whipped cream all over her face and hair, made potato-starch eye patches, and applied an aptly named “melting Ninja Turtle” face mask. While divisive, she’s also pretty entertaining.
Ali watched Dhukai while she was doing her more traditional makeup videos over the years, intrigued by the rituals and process. He started asking her a lot of questions about it. One day, she told him that it was annoying how her favorite full-coverage foundation would get dry and cakey over the course of the day. (“First-world problem,” she acknowledges.)
“I would try to be as attentive as I could and try to understand, because I was very fascinated by the whole beauty regimen that she does,” Ali says. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we create something? Why couldn’t there be something that would help with that and hydrate and moisturize the skin while you have your full-coverage foundation on?’ And that’s what sparked the Rose Gold Elixir.” He went to his local health-food store and started mixing up oils.
At this point you’re likely thinking, “Uh, isn’t that just moisturizer?” Yes, and it’s questionable whether the world needs another one. Sephora carries 523 products under the “moisturizers” category, including many face oils. And no professional makeup artist would ever work on a client without skin preparation first. But this step is not often shown in the world of makeup Instagram. So, yes, Farsali sort of reinvented the wheel, except it made that wheel a lot more sparkly and added an unconventional application technique, a key to the brand’s runaway success. It captured the imagination of Instagram in a way that more traditional skincare companies probably spent a lot of money on marketing trying to do.
Rose Gold Elixir launched in July 2015 under the Farsali brand, which is a combination of the couple’s names. It’s a fairly simple formula of rose hip seed oil, safflower seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, citrus peel, lemongrass oils to give it a nice citrus scent, and, of course, the 24-karat gold particles. (There are two gold-flecked primer products that pre-date Farsali’s — NYX Honey Dew Me Up primer [$19.99] and Guerlain L’Or Pure Radiance Primer [$74], but both of these are gel formulations. Dermatologist Carlos Charles notes he has “not found enough evidence to support claims of any anti-aging benefits from the topical application of gold to the skin.”) Ali networked with influencers at beauty events and conferences that he attended with Dhukai, which is how the Rose Gold Elixir originally got seeded onto YouTube and Instagram.
Dhukai, however, didn’t publicize the product, although she had mentioned it on a now defunct YouTube channel the pair had together. When Ali started growing the brand’s Instagram page, Dhukai wasn’t even on the platform much, but had started feeling disillusioned with YouTube. (She recently deleted a video explaining why she left YouTube, but there’s a Reddit thread summarizing it.) This is when Ali challenged her to the Instagram follower contest. At that time, she was using the Rose Gold Elixir during routines, but wouldn’t show it on Instagram.
“I used it in my daily life off camera, but on camera I didn’t want to give him that advantage,” says Dhukai.
When she started to beat Farsali’s follower count, Ali says, “I was like, ‘I know you used the Rose Gold there!’ and I would get so annoyed that she cropped it out.” She is arguably now the brand’s best marketing, even though she and Ali both emphasize that she purposely doesn’t talk about it much on Instagram in order to not seem inauthentic. Dhukai says she no longer does any outside sponsored content at all, vlogging just “as a hobby.” While she doesn’t often openly acknowledge that the brand was started by her husband, she is presumably benefiting from its sales since she’s married to the founder. She demos a Farsali product in almost every post.
Feeds started filling up with Instagrammers shooting close-ups of the swirly gold bits dripping out of a glass dropper onto their lips, Beautyblenders, and brushes, and into products. The act of dripping here is key. Early on, Ali and Dhukai made applying skincare performative by making the products visually appealing and filming the application step. Hardcore skincare, the kind that delivers active ingredients into your skin via a boring white or clear potion, is not that fun to watch. As a result, a lot of makeup vloggers don’t really demo their skincare routines, if they even have skincare routines. While there are plenty of Instagram-famous makeup lines out there (most notably ColourPop and Kylie Cosmetics), there aren’t many Insta-native skincare lines. Ali wanted Farsali to be skincare for makeup lovers.
A big turning point for the brand came in December 2016, when it released what was supposed to be a limited run of a product called Unicorn Tears, which is a non-oil-based mixture of antioxidants that the brand markets as a serum with primer capabilities. Most crucial to its success, however, is the fact that it’s bright pink and launched during the height of unicorn madness. “[It is] a combination of people genuinely loving the product — impactful people, influencers — and also having that visual element to grab attention,” says Ali. “When you see this pink sparkling product, you’re intrigued by it.”
The proper way to apply this product, which is now called Unicorn Essence to avoid confusion with other Unicorn Tears on the market, is to hold up the dropper and let it drip directly onto your cheekbones. A true skincare aficionado is likely horrified by this inelegant application approach, but Instagram audiences ate it up. (Glossier used this type of face-dripping imagery when it launched its serums in 2016, too.)
When Farsali’s Instagram follower count was just about to break 1 million, Sephora came calling. Ali says he had declined offers to wholesale at other places because he was holding out for the holy grail retailer, since selling there gives a brand legitimacy. Sephora launched both products on its website in February of this year, where the Rose Gold Elixir sold out in 24 hours. It hit Sephora stores in April.
While a Sephora representative declined to comment on how well it’s selling, it did acknowledge that Farsali has “some of the best-selling oil SKUs” at the retailer. Farsali just launched into 17 countries via Sephora EU, Australia, and five countries in southeast Asia. It will launch in five Middle Eastern countries soon, and by the end of 2017, the company expects to have distribution across over 30 countries globally.
Potential investors have approached Ali, but he’s not interested yet. “I’ve had a few conversations with private equity people who have reached out. I’m all about meeting people, because it’s all about relationships,” he says. “I do feel like there’s a lot of interest in it, but it’s not something I’ve explored because I don’t want it to be something that distracts from our vision and direction of the brand.” The company is currently self-funded.
Farsali also sells a face cleanser, eyelash “enhancing elixir,” and an oil called Volcanic Elixir. Those products are pretty under the radar at this point, and they are not sold at Sephora, though a Farsali rep says to expect to see more of the Volcanic Elixir in 2018. It also just announced that it’s launching Jelly Beam, a highlighter with a gel consistency that dries to a powder finish. It will be available November 1st on Farsali’s site. Like the other Farsali products, it also touts skincare benefits, containing hyaluronic acid and seaweed extract. In an Instagram video, Ali says he was inspired to launch it after watching his wife use three different products to get the finish she wanted.
Just don’t call Sal Ali an Instagram husband, a term he doesn’t seem to like. “Our journeys have always been a life partner type of relationship, where Farah’s always done her thing on YouTube and I’ve always been the encouraging cheerleader, that first fan,” he says.
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Correction: October 26, 2017
A previous version of this story did not mention that Ali and Dhukai had a YouTube channel together where they mentioned Farsali when it was being developed.