Beauty Boss: How Urban Decay's Founder Created Her Unique Beauty Brand

Wende Urban Decay Beauty Boss
Photo: Courtesy

Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.

Wende Zomnir was onto something in the 90’s when she created a line of lipsticks and nail enamels inspired by seedier facets of the urban landscape. Now, Urban Decay has become one of the most buzzed-about beauty brands on the market, positioning themselves as “beauty with an edge.” We chat with the gorgeous founder about how the unique brand came to be.

How did you fall into the beauty space?

I was into beauty before I actually got into the beauty space. I’m from Texas and makeup is a thing there, and I always loved jumping into my mom’s makeup drawer and experimenting. I would steal her makeup! I always felt like makeup was a way to express myself. And when I was 13 my mom gave me one of those giant blockbuster makeup sets and I spent all my afternoons trying to recreate the looks I would see on supermodels in magazines. I loved beauty so much I even got sent home from school in 8th grade for wearing too much makeup. So that was where my love of beauty started.

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How did you come up with the concept for Urban Decay?

I was working in marketing and advertising and I loved it, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. I knew I wanted to start a business of my own and through a friend of a friend, I met a woman named Sandy Lerner. Sandy had started a huge company called Cisco Systems, but she was also ready, like me, to get creative. She’s a serial entrepreneur so she was ready to start her next venture. We met and we agreed that beauty in the mid-90s was really boring. Now it’s sort of a technicolor dream, but back then it was this boring sea of pink and beige and red. Sandy had the idea to create high quality nail polish in shades that were really different and unusual. I suggested that we package it in a medicine bottle. There wasn’t Sephora, there wasn’t ULTA, there wasn’t really a venue for buying interesting alternative beauty. We saw what some people call white space in the beauty market, and we decided to fill it. Beauty was really all about trying to look classically beautiful instead of expressing your own true beauty. Back in 1996, our first brand statement said “makeup for girls and boys who want to show the world who they really are.” I think that was a really different approach to beauty and it was really the basis for Urban Decay. It was about self-expression and alternative colors.

How have you changed the landscape when it comes to beauty?

I think going out there with really different colors and this brand mantra that we were a makeup brand for everyone. It wasn’t just for women, it wasn’t just for women who wanted to look perfectly pretty, it was really more about this whole idea of self-expression through makeup, and makeup as artistry. I think I realized we had changed the direction of the beauty landscape when I walked into a Nordstrom and noticed that one of the big classic beauty brands was selling black nail polish and iridescent eyeshadow. That’s when I knew we had made our mark on the beauty space and things were never going to be the same, that all of these big brands were going to start chasing what we were doing. I think we’ve really changed the landscape because beauty is now more inclusive. It’s not just about that pretty blonde woman that has a perfect smile, beauty is really about anyone and it’s about finding individual beauty and expressing it in your own personal way.

What’s the best compliment you ever received?

The best compliment I ever received was probably when I finally met my beauty muse. I always thought Gabby Reese was one of the most amazing beautiful powerful women. When I finally got to meet her and she told me she owned a Naked2 palette and was a huge fan, it was probably the best compliment I’ve ever received.

What’s your skincare routine?

In the morning, I like to spray on the Urban Decay Quickfix Prep Spray because it’s really hydrating and perks up my skin, it makes it look instantly better. And then I add a few drops of Skinceuticals C E Ferulic because it’s a great antioxidant to get the day started. On most days, I then use the Urban Decay Hot Springs Hydrating Gel. I love this gel because it is super lightweight and just adds moisture directly into the skin. On days when I’m feeling dry, I add a couple of drops of the Urban Decay Dropshot Oil. It’s an amazing oil that really hydrates the skin from the inside out. Then I throw on a sunscreen, I love the Skinceuticals SPF 50 mineral one with just a little bit of tint to it.

In the evening, I start by taking all my eye makeup off and spraying my face with the Urban Decay Meltdown Dissolving Makeup Remover Spray. I love this product. It’s super clean and simple and just takes everything off. Then I double cleanse. I start with the Shu Uemura Cleansing Oil and I get that to dissolve all the extra little grime, anything that’s gotten into my pores. I rinse that away and then I usually clean with the Skinceuticals Gentle Cream Cleanser. Sometimes I will use their Purifying Cleanser if I’m feeling like I really need a soapy experience. But regardless, I always double cleanse whether it’s a cream cleanser, or a foaming cleanser. Then I do some sort of treatment. It’s either a dose of Retin-A right on my skin, or a resurfacing treatment -- I like the Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator. Or, I use a micro-needle roller from Rodan + Fields. If my skin is still thirsty or dull, I smooth on some Skinceuticals H. A. Activator. Then, I use the A.G.E. Eye Cream from Skinceuticals and follow that with Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Cream Night Moisturizer all over my face. I love this because it’s super hydrating. Then I finish it up with Urban Decay Lip Love Lip Balm and go to bed. If I’ve got any super extra dry spots, I use the Skinceuticals Hydra Balm. It’s a really great super deep, deep, deep hydrating balm that’s not greasy.

You travel a ton, what do you pack in your makeup bag?

I like to keep the same sort of routine both for makeup and skincare and hair no matter where I go, so I am big on minis. I use a lot of Oribe, and Drybar haircare and I love their spray-on hair products. Fortunately, they come in minis! So I take a lot of minis. I also love little containers. I take my skincare and put it into tiny little containers so I have a prepacked little makeup bag of minis and I have them all labeled with lime green P-touch labels (not OCD, I swear!). I’ll usually pick just one treatment to bring with me for a trip to save space. As far as makeup goes, I take the whole routine. If I’m trying to pack light, I have some pre-made palettes…since I have access to empty palettes, I pre-make some of my own custom color combos that I love to travel with. I do the same thing with blush. I don’t shortchange anything when I travel, I take all the same makeup (unless I’m going on a family beach holiday and then it’s about half the size). I still take a lot though.

Does beauty start from within? Do you follow this in your diet and how?

I do think beauty does start from within. I think diet is a big part of how you feel and how you look. Obviously, I try and eat some kale or some broccoli every single day. That’s really important, to eat really clean. You hear it all the time: avoid sugar, avoid carbs. I try to do that, but of course, last night I snuck ice cream out of my kids' bowl and had a little square of dark chocolate! When I’m eating clean, I don’t deny myself a treat here and there. But when I’m traveling, and I get off the clean eating program, I can feel it in my body. I also don’t drink very much, only on special occasions. Avoiding alcohol really keeps your calorie count down, it keeps your sugar down and your skin looks healthier. If I’m ever feeling like I need a “drink”, I like to crack a Kombucha because it has the same type of fizz as a beer!

What’s one mistake most women make when it comes to skincare or makeup that they could easily fix?

I think that a lot of women don’t hydrate their face properly and this affects both their skin health and how their makeup goes on. Most women feel like they are either too greasy, and avoid moisturizer, or too dry so they put on a super heavy moisturizer that then makes their makeup slide off. Finding the right way to add moisturize is important because your makeup looks better when your skin is hydrated and healthy. And it’s the one thing most women can easily fix. You can work on it internally by drinking a lot of water and making sure you’re hydrated from within. Externally you can use something like our Japanese Hot Springs Hydrating Gel because it adds hydration without adding weight or greasiness, for both oily and drier skins. If your skin is very dry, I do love taking a couple of drops of oil and patting that right into the skin. When you do that, wait and let your skin drink it in before you apply primer or makeup. Go find something else to do, go choose your underwear, or find your socks for the day. Once it’s sort of become one with your skin, you don’t see the shininess anymore, then you can go ahead and finish your makeup routine and start your day with a hydrated beautiful complexion.

What one makeup product do you never leave home without?

I never leave home without two things: I always take a lip product and I always have powder. I think that matting out a little bit of shine really adds refinement to your face. When you minimize shininess, your skin looks more perfected, and your features stand out! And I’m not talking about highlight, but just the shininess. The other thing I always bring with me is lip color. I love the feel of having fresh lip color on. I think it makes me look more pulled together when my lip color looks good. I also love having a worn down little tiny black 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil (Zero) with me because I feel like whenever I’m looking a little tired, if I line the upper inner rim of my eyes, it instantly perks me up and makes my eyes look more wide-awake.

What’s next for the brand?
I feel like in 2018 we have such an exciting line up of products coming. We’ve always got new collaborations, new creative, and one of the things I love about Urban Decay is that it’s never the same day and our products are always evolving and they always look a little bit different. For me what’s next for the brand is really that journey of continuing to evolve it and look at it in a new way, keeping it fresh and modern.

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