'I'm making the beauty market fairer for women - taking the power back'
Selling her company for £50m was just the beginning and now Marcia Kilgore is revolutionising the entire billion-pound beauty industry. She talks drive, disruption and making a mint out of mascara. By Charlotte Edwardes
Marcia Kilgore is a pixie-ish character with a voice like candy floss and what she describes as a "Tweetie Pie" forehead. So to look at she's perhaps not the most obvious person to "drive a truck through" the luxury cosmetic industry.
But that is precisely what the founder of global brands Bliss Spa and FitFlop wants to do - disrupt. She has launched a website called Beauty Pie, where members can buy mascara, lipstick and foundation worth, say, £30 in a department store for the £2 factory cost.
"It's my best idea yet," she says, excitement audible as she swipes through the site pages. Already 3,000 subscribers have signed up (it's £10 a month to join, or £120 for the year), although Kilgore admits they still have a few glitches to iron out.
At the upper end, make-up is said to cost more in weight than gold, which means - depending how you look at it - that either global brands have been applying a cynical tax on women or executing a brilliant and lucrative business. In the UK, cosmetics and skincare is a billion-pound industry. Mark-ups on famous brands, according to Kilgore, are "10 times, sometimes 20 times higher than cost" and skincare is "as much as 300 times. Crazy".
When I arrive at her suite in Claridge's, Kilgore is still having her own make-up applied. Green bottles of Soaper Duper shower gel (her new brand, which has completely biodegradable packaging) are lined up on a sideboard and assistants buzz around in FitFlop boots, the ergonomic footwear she launched in 2007 to keep you toned as you go about your daily business.
"I'm making the market fairer for women," she argues softly. "It's a leap for women. I really don't want to get all preachy but we are taking the power back. Why shouldn't everyone be able to afford the best eye shadow or mascara?" The industry was ripe for disruption, she says, "because anything that's better for the customer is going to win."
She argues that - not unlike the unveiling of the Wizard of Oz - customers need to be exposed to the mechanics of the industry. Brands are often made in the same laboratories (Kilgore uses a number - in Italy, Germany and Switzerland as well as the US, Japan and Korea).
"When you visit they show you their ranges: the less expensive, the medium expensive, the best. And you pick. Then the suppliers present you with a pretty much finished formula, which you colour-match to suit your own brand."
The laboratories are, she says: "Like going to a make-up version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Banks and banks of powders up the walls. Mascaras, lip gloss... You feel like a kid in the candy store. I left with a bag of samples thinking: 'Oh my God if I had to buy this stuff it would cost me thousands'.
"And then I thought: 'God, women walk into retail, and for something that costs three pounds they are paying £45."
Kilgore foresees a time when the big department store beauty halls, with their sale-savvy assistants, are gone. "People still like to see the colours and try things on, but there will be a big shift."
She cites other websites that have disrupted, from Netflix to Spotify. "I used to go to buy 20 CDs in Tower Records and only really like two tracks, so Spotify was incredible. Now I can listen and also find new music. It costs me nothing but better things win," she says.
She'll be threatening some powerful businesses. Should she expect a backlash? "I was expecting it but I haven't heard anything."
So what about tax? Many global website-based brands have come under attack for not paying UK tax. "We will pay tax in the UK because we're a UK-based company. We're not in Rotterdam or the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg," she adds, a nod to the criticisms of Uber and Amazon.
Kilgore says she's getting the hang of tech "fast". "It's hard to keep up with. The shelf-life of these things is so quick now."
Although Kilgore is now settled in London with her French husband and two "totally messy" sons (10 and 12), she was born in Saskatchewan, Canada. She moved with her parents and two older sisters to Calgary when she was two. "And we lived there until I was 11 and my father died of brain cancer." It was at that point - with "the feeling of fear" in her pit - that she took on part-time jobs to earn money, from babysitting to teaching gymnastics. By 16 she'd saved enough to buy a car and won the praise of her bank manager.
Because her sisters were rebellious, she says: "I was the one who wanted to shore up the boat. I always had my homework done. I played on every sports team, I won a lot of academic awards."
Her mother was the ninth of nine children by Polish immigrants and her father she remembers as "a cool guy", if not demonstratively affectionate. During the week, she says: "He worked, he watched hockey. At weekends he would lasso cattle. He was sort of a cowboy."
He gave all three of his girls, boy nicknames. "I'm Mike, my sister Kim is Pete, and my older sister Carolyn is Joe," says Kilgore. "So possibly he wanted a son to hunt and fish with."
She doesn't feel in anyway unprivileged. "You could say, 'Oh I had a terrible childhood, my mother didn't do anything and my father died'. Actually I should be thankful to them - it taught me drive."
At 18, Kilgore got a scholarship to Columbia in New York but missed out due to lack of financial aid. Instead she lived with her sister, a model in Manhattan, and started working first as a fitness trainer, then beautician, doing facials for her sister's friends.
As these stories invariably go, Kilgore soon found she was extracting blackheads and shaping eyebrows for people like Madonna and Uma Thurman.
"In a nutshell, it worked out," she says. "Sometimes I think, 'Gee, I should go back to university and get that education'."
That said, she believes she would not have been as successful if she'd done an MBA.
"Not going to business school probably allows me to have ideas that are truly entrepreneurial. I've sat with a lot of business school graduates. Their idea of being entrepreneurial is all based on numbers. They'll say, 'We worked out this business plan.'
"I never approach it from: 'okay if I get 10 dollars a month…' You can't start there, you have to start with: 'What's the problem. How do we solve this? Is this hitting somebody's heart? And then you look at the trends. And then you win.
"I get a lot of ideas. Some you park, but the ones that keep coming back, that make you terrified, those are the good ones. If you think 'Whoa, that's a scary idea', it's a great one. Beauty Pie was one of those - shocking, anxiety-provoking.
She never wants to retire. "When you retire you die."
She can only remember losing her temper at work once - 15 years ago. Apparently no one else in the room has forgotten it either. "Oh yes, the massage therapist," says one of her colleagues, ominously.
Kilgore enlightens me in a couple of snappy sentences that reveal a core of steel. "He needed to get a grip," she says. "His ego was out of control. He'd worked for a month and he was telling me what to do and being Angry Man. I just shut it down."