This Clean Beauty Brand's Cult-Favorite Mascara Took 5 Years to Get Just Right

It was a lot of old fashioned trial and error.

BEAUTY BOSS: James Walker
Photo: Courtesy/InStyle

When James Walker first launched W3LL People with co-founders Shirley Pinkson and Dr. Reneé Synder in 2008, he says he had to beg beauty editors and influencers to try the clean beauty brand's products.

Today, 12 years later, W3LL People's products have won beauty industry awards, are now stocked at national retailers like Ulta and Target, and the brand was recently acquired by e.l.f. Beauty, a partnership that will help the line expand.

"It's exciting because the tables have turned and now I'm getting calls from writers and editors challenging us about our products," he tells InStyle. "One of the first questions we get asked is our ingredient standards and how we approach our formulas. I'm so proud to have been a part of the conversation that has moved the needle towards clean beauty."

Here, Walker shares what inspired him to start the pioneer clean beauty brand, why making a clean mascara is so difficult, along with how he thinks the category is going to evolve.

Tell me about your background and how it led to co-founding W3LL People.

My background is in business and marketing. Whole Foods was one of my accounts at the startup agency I worked for in Austin, TX. When we were mapping out the strategy for their Whole Body department, I thought everything seemed a little limited in terms of performance and not that interesting from a brand perspective. When we were conducting our market research, I also noticed a disconnect between people caring about the source of their food, but not what was going into their beauty products. While I certainly respect and understand the role the brands in Whole Foods at that time had in moving the needle towards clean beauty, I thought there was an opportunity to create something disruptive that's fun, but also performs. After experiencing that aha moment, I turned to my two best friends from college, Shirley Pinkson, a celebrity makeup artist, and Dr. Reneé Synder, a board-certified dermatologist. I thought the three of us could come together and create something that's responsible, ethical, and delivers a smile to boot.

What's your brand's approach to choosing the ingredients included in your products?

When we started W3LL People, we knew we wanted to be as clean as it gets and the brand that doesn't cheat or take shortcuts to maintain the relationship and respect we have with our customers. We elected really early on to exclude petrochemicals, along with other ingredients commonly found in conventional beauty products. One of the tools we used in the early days — and we still look to, is the EU Cosmetics Regulation. We also read a lot of books and literature on natural beauty and related topics. As an entrepreneur, I don't see problems, I see opportunities, and I don't see challenges, I see solutions. But it was tough because there were no real peers or mentors to turn to for support.

The Expressionist Mascara is a cult-favorite clean mascara. What was it like developing it at a time when there weren't many clean mascaras on the market?

It was a long hard road, I won't lie. We finally launched the beloved Expressionist Mascara in 2013, five years into the brand. It wasn't for lack of wanting to launch it sooner, but due to the fact that it was such a challenging product to formulate. It was just good old fashioned trial and error for five years. We really started from scratch, excluding petrochemicals and things like nylon fibers (which are commonly used in mascaras), and we finally landed on plant fibers. What I will say, is that to Shirley's credit, we weren't willing to do it half-assed. We knew the consumers, retail partners, influencers, and editors were hungry for it, but we held firm. When we launched it, the gates opened up and we could not keep up with that SKU.

Why was 2020 the right year to give W3LL People a brand refresh?

We've been at this for 12 years now, but the core of the brand hasn't been tinkered with or touched. We started in the luxury category with Fred Segal in LA being the first first retailer to pick us up. We produce this amazing product that's game-changing in the sense of the word, but from the price perspective, it wasn't available to so many individuals across the country and that didn't sit right. We felt like we had an opportunity to take the idea of clean beauty — which was considered an expensive category at the time — to a wider audience, so we pivoted to partner with retailers like Target and Ulta. Now, I think the brand's a bit edgier, but still true to our holistic beauty roots. Thanks to our friends at e.l.f. Beauty, we're able to better execute this lofty goal.

How do you think the clean beauty space is going to evolve?

Packaging and sustainability will be a focus. It's always been an important pillar of the brand. You see some brands that have petrochemicals in them but their packaging is more sustainable. We started off focusing on what I call "the goo" and now we're looking at taking it even further by designing innovative packaging that lives up to the formulas themselves. In many instances we're there. For example, we use FSC certified paper, which is the gold standard from a renewability perspective. The mascara is in an aluminum cylinder and we use PCR plastics when possible, and at the bare minimum, everything we produce is recyclable 1 and 2. We look forward to more innovation at that front. I think is going to be more innovation in dehydrated formulas, like powders, too.

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Shop W3LL People's Fan-Favorite Products

Expressionist Mascara

Best W3ll People Products

The mineral pigments in W3LL People's cult-favorite mascara deliver conditioned, defined, and of course, dark lashes. The award-winning formula is applied with its rubber bristle brush, designed to separate and coat each lash for a clump-free finish.

To shop: $19;

Optimist Semi-Matte Lipstick

Best W3ll People Products

This plant-based satin-finish lipstick offers color payoff with a side of hydration. The organic shea butter, jojoba oil, and silk creates a smooth, featherweight texture that wears comfortably all day. It comes in eight gorgeous shades, ranging from mauvey-nude to wine red.

To shop: $15;

Bio Correct Multi-Action Concealer

Best W3ll People Products

This concealer is infused with skincare ingredients to provide additional benefits, including extra hydration, firmness, and de-puffing and brightening the under-eye area.

To shop: $20;

Expressionist Brow Gel

Best W3ll People Products

Great lashes aren't complete without brows on the same playing field, and that's where the Expressionist Brow Gel comes in. The brush can be used to groom brows or brush them up for a bold look. A blend of plant-based ingredients give the gel a creamy, waxy texture that doesn't get stiff or crunchy with wear.

To shop: $15;

Nudist Multi-Use Cream Stick

Best W3ll People Products

These creamy multi-sticks can be used for a sheer wash of color on the lips and cheeks, or built up for a bolder look.

To shop: $20;

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Beauty Boss profiles the brains behind the brands making waves in the beauty industry. From the ideas that first inspire brands to how best-selling hair, makeup, and skincare products are made, find out how these leaders get it done.

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