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Bkr Sells Beauty One Empty $40 Bottle at a Time

A $55 Sephora exclusive is one of their best-sellers.

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An oft-repeated mantra in the beauty world, and one uttered in many a celebrity interview, is that drinking a lot of water improves your skin. Water is a substance that we literally cannot live without, so it makes sense that enough will keep your skin looking healthy, although there aren’t many concrete studies proving how it does it. But let’s just accept that yes, water is good for you.

Now, how to drink it? Plastic water bottles are incredibly wasteful. We are now buying them at a rate of 1 million a minute, according to Forbes. There are obviously plenty of reusable bottles out there, but none that are quite as recognizable as Bkr (pronounced “beaker”).

You’ve likely seen these squat, glass, silicone sleeve-covered bottles in your local hot yoga class or on the pages of your favorite celebrity magazine, hanging nonchalantly from the fingers of Victoria’s Secret models and former Gossip Girls, as they leave their hot yoga classes. Or maybe you’ve seen them at Sephora, which just started selling the bottles. They range in price from $28 for a “teeny” version to $55 for a 1-liter studded bottle to, as of last week, $185 for one with over 500 Swarovski crystals in the lid. Bkr has sold more than 1.5 million bottles since the brand launched.

Photo: Bkr

When Bkr started out in 2011, the bottles were sold in some small design stores and museum shops. But the founders, Tal Winter and Kate Cutler, decided early on that the bottles should be marketed as beauty products, capitalizing on the truism that water makes you beautiful. This was how their customers said they were using them: as a way to drink more water via a cute vessel.

Once a picture of Gisele toting the bottle popped up online, they were able to get a foot in the door at Neiman Marcus, their first big retailer, who wanted to send it to the home buyer. Eventually the founders convinced Neiman to sell it in the beauty department instead. Bkr is now sold there and at Nordstrom, Saks, Dermstore, Urban Outfitters, and Amazon, among other places. The brand is in 24 Sephora stores and online, and will be in all US stores in January of next year. Bkr is sold in 23 countries.

Winter and Cutler met in law school; they worked as lawyers in San Francisco for over 10 years each. In 2006, Winter said she started thinking about bottles and waste. “I bought every bottle that was out there, and in my mind, drinking out of metal was just never an option,” she says. (She’s referring to Sigg and Klean Kanteen bottles, though the metal S’well bottle, which launched a year prior to Bkr, is arguably its biggest competitor now, at least from aesthetic, ubiquity-in-hot-yoga-classes, and price-point perspectives.)

The women really thought that most reusable water bottles were just ugly. They agreed that once they started earning money they’d treat themselves to a nice bag, but “then you're carrying around this clunky camping equipment that's rolling around in the car. It didn't make sense. We wanted something cuter,” Winter says. She suspected other people would feel the same way. “We used to go to Sports Club/LA in San Francisco, and all the women had the cutest outfits on and they were all drinking from plastic.”

They definitely wanted it to be glass, though it took a while to come up with a prototype they liked. The narrow bottle opening is intentional; it’s meant to have the familiar feeling of drinking out of a plastic bottle. Bkr is not without its challenges, though. You can wash the sleeve in the dishwasher, though it’s a bit tricky to get off. So many people were asking about it that Winter had to record a how-to video. You also can’t put the glass bottle in the freezer because it will crack, and traditional ice cubes don’t fit in it. Bkr now makes a custom ice cube tray that produces long, narrow ice cubes that fit through the opening.

The bottle’s silicone sleeve, which has the practical purpose of protecting the glass, became Bkr’s signature design element and is what gives each its personality. And each bottle has a literal personality. Winter anthropomorphized them early on by writing whimsical descriptions. For example, Lala, a soft lavender, is “inspired by dainty pixie khaleesis with fawn eyes and a steel will who seem both distinctly alien and more human than human, tissue-y Isabel Marant T-shirts, white blazers and wrists encircled by Louis Vuitton bangles, a sweet dominatrix energy that makes everyone assume you have fire breathing dragon babies somewhere nearby, the cloud-soft offer of a warm glass of anything in a well-brought-up accent that isn’t fake. Soft but strong, she was hennessy in a teacup.”

Bkr founders Kate Cutler and Tal Winter
Photo: Bkr

Devotees love it. “Some of our superfans have written in and said ‘I bought that Bkr because of the story and also, I'm thinking I might tattoo it on me,’” says Winter. “More than once, people have written in and said that.”

Fans often purchase in multiples. You can buy extra bottles and lids, but Bkr doesn’t sell the sleeves separately. “People write to us and say, "If I buy one more, my husband may divorce me. What are you guys doing to me?’" says Winter. Speaking of guys, they love Bkr too, Winter reports, even if fragile masculinity sometimes makes them second-guess it. “We get a lot of messages that are like, ‘I’m a dude, and I love my Bkr. Is that okay?’” laughs Winter. There’s a new army green shade called Cash that they joke about sending to men’s offices with a note: “We thought we’d bring you a box of cash.”

The most popular color in the line is Tutu (“Inspired by warrior women crisscrossing the globe in the name of fashion, slinking around London in trusty pink ballet flats, wearing them until they look like dirty Band-Aids…”), known in some circles as millennial pink. Naked is also popular, although it took two years to get there, selling “terribly” at first. Some team members thought the color was ugly in the beginning, but Winter was vindicated in her conviction that it would do well when Rachel Zoe put it in her “Box of Style” and called it a “haute hydrator.” Color preferences differ by geography, though. In Sweden, pastels are popular, and in Germany they love brights. In New York, pale pink was a consistent bestseller, but not in San Francisco, where gray rules.

There are limited-edition prints on some of the sleeves, like hearts and toast, but no design has caused a commotion the way the Spiked collection has. This design features three-dimensional (soft) spikes protruding from and completely covering the sleeve. “I'm a child of the ’80s, and I used to walk Melrose Avenue when I was a kid. That was the time of spikes and Doc Martens, Culture Club, and all that,” says Winter. The specific design was ultimately inspired by a $5,000 Dafne Balatsos Stud Ball handbag. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to be able to afford it.’ So in my mind, this is accessible spikes. You can own a bunch of these. You don't have to be filthy rich, and then you can look like a million bucks in jeans and a T-shirt and a spiked Bkr.”

The $185 Swarovski Bkrs.
Photo: Bkr

The spiked Tutu version has sold out several times since its launch during the 2016 holiday season. Most recently, it sold out again early this summer on Bkr’s site. The $55 big Naked version, exclusive to Sephora, has been the brand’s best-seller since it launched.

And now, there is the 500 Collection, which launched late last week. Each bottle costs $185 and features hundreds of loose Swarovski crystals in the lid — the founders were inspired after they bought Swarovski pens that look like a tube of crystals. They did not want something “bedazzled,” which is why the crystals are loose in a dome and not glued on. The limited-edition collection is available at Saks, Sephora, Nordstrom, Revolve, and Bkr’s website. The rose gold Tutu style sold out on the site the first hour. It’s been restocked, and the founders say they’ve sold through about half of their entire inventory of the bottle. There’s a charity component: 100 percent of the net profits will be donated to Water for People, a nonprofit working toward making high-quality drinking water accessible to all.

As for what’s next, the founders are taking a wait-and-see approach. The two have bootstrapped the company since the beginning since an initial $200,000 friends and family investment. Winter says they’ve received offers, but are wary of taking on outside investors now. And despite limiting their options by turning down offers to carry Bkr at big-box stores and smaller, cool design shops because they want to concentrate on telling the story of Bkr as a beauty product, the company has been profitable since the first year. “We don't want to be forced to do anything we don't want to do,” says Winter, “and also, the niche that we've been building and growing in — luxury — takes time.”

Perhaps there’s a bit of Jet in them: “If a girl looks stunning when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late?”

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