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Halima Aden, Uoma
Image courtesy of Uoma

How Sharon Chuter’s beauty brand Uoma is taking diversity to the next step

Uoma, which means “beautiful” in the Nigerian language Igbo, was born out of frustrations Chuter was having while working in the industry

What does beauty look like post-Fenty? It’s a question the industry has been pondering over the last few years. When Rihanna’s game-changing brand burst onto the scene in 2017 with the now-famous 40 shades of foundations, it caused a seismic shift in the industry, a defining moment that we won’t look back from. But where do brands go from there? What was the next step? For many, it was releasing increasingly larger ranges of foundation shades – a shade range war which, although not in itself a bad thing, boiled diversity and inclusivity down to a single-issue topic. But inclusivity is about more than just how many colours of foundation you have. And Sharon Chuter knows it. That’s why she is going beyond that with her new beauty brand Uoma

Uoma, which means “beautiful” in the Nigerian language Igbo, was born out of frustrations Chuter was having while working in the industry. A beauty veteran, who has spent her career working with some of the biggest companies in the industry including at LVMH as Head of Corporations for Benefit, Chuter became increasingly dissatisfied working to build brands that didn’t care for nor cater to her as a woman of colour. “I was working with companies and I couldn't use 85% of the products,” she says. “I understood the impact that has on people. Even for me sitting there, it’s only a while before you think something is wrong with you. Why can’t I use those products?”

Eventually, Chuter decided enough was enough and broke out to launch her own brand inspired by the rich cultural history of her home country, Nigeria, and with an expansive product lineup that accommodates all skin tones going beyond just foundation – although her foundations are something special. In the world of beauty today, it isn’t easy to bring out something truly new – it’s all been done before. Chuter, however, has done it with Uoma’s foundations which combine cosmetics and skincare to create a product tailor-made for your skin and your skin concerns. The 51 shades of foundations are grouped into collections with different formulas that address issues women across that range profile share. The fair-toned foundations, for example, are formulated with microalgae extract, which helps soothes redness and hypersensitivity. Olive shades contain rose hybrid extracts to stimulate elastin induction and reduce sebum production since olive skin tones are commonly oily, while the darker foundations contain ingredients to address hyperpigmentation and skin dullness. 

Showing no signs of slowing down, here Chuter shares her incredible story. 

You’ve been in the beauty industry your whole career. Why did you decide to break out and start your own brand
Sharon Chuter: When I got to the later part of my career, it just got really frustrating. I was working with companies and I couldn't use 85% of the products. For women of colour, everywhere you go you are constantly reminded that there is no place here for you. Including in the beauty world. How complicated can it be to just walk in and want to buy something as basic as a lipstick? We’re not even talking about foundation which this industry is obsessed about when it comes to diversity. We’re talking about lipstick. My lips are two-toned. My sister’s lips are black. So if she puts on a lipstick it changes the colour unless it’s super pigmented. So imagine just being a woman, a normal person, walking into a beauty hall and every single counter you go to has nothing for you. I understand the experience because I’ve lived that. And I just didn’t want that to continue. 

After Fenty came out there was all this buzz around it, I was so excited but also really tired when I saw how companies responded to it. They responded with this shade range war. They just didn’t get it. This is not just about shades. So I decided to break out and stop being part of the problem and be part of the solution. The beauty industry has to wake up and cater to differences and celebrate uniqueness, not in a shallow way, but in a deep and meaningful way. Start with your own team. How diverse is your team? How can you know people when you don’t have them around you?  How can you cater to those people when you have never met them before? 

It’s hard to do something innovative and new with make-up because so much has already been done but I’ve never seen a brand where different shades cater to specific issues that the shades themselves have. Where did the idea come from?
Sharon Chuter: Just talking to real people. Instead of just focusing on pandering to the idea of inclusivity, trying to talk to the people behind those shades – they will tell you exactly what they want. I started to notice that every time I talk to a woman in a different skin spectrum or different skin colour group, they have very different needs. I don’t know why we go out there and make the one formula to rule them all. I wanted to make something customized to what we were seeing in the similarities of skin tones and customize the skincare benefits. And also, there are nuances of skin colour. In the darkest profile in my black skin range, I am not going to put in titanium dioxide. Because titanium dioxide is a white sheet. And it tends to make the colour a little bit ashy, which is why a lot of titanium dioxide is still a little bit grey. So it was then challenging the norm, and saying instead of titanium dioxide, I am going to replace it with powders and minerals. So for each of the ranges, we’ve tweaked it. We are always thinking about, who is in this spectrum and what do they tend to like? It’s not a one size fits all. We are all different, we all have different needs and we try and bring that into our foundation. 

Tell me a bit about your lipsticks. Because you’re right, there is so much attention on foundation and the shade range but nobody really talks lipsticks and pigmentation.
Sharon Chuter: We are a brand that celebrates and are fiercely proud of our Afropolitan heritage and a hallmark of an Afropolitan beauty is an omnipresence of colour. I love our colour products because that’s really where we get to play, that’s really where we get to show our afro DNA. You have the Badass Icon Lipsticks which are inspired by a cacophony of the most amazing and badass women, and the lipsticks themselves are super pigmented. They are one stroke application, because what do we know? It is better to make a lipstick super pigmented than less pigmented. Because when you make it less pigmented, you have excluded all women of colour from your lipsticks. We cannot use it anymore, because, like I said, two toned lips. Darker lips. We need a lot of pigment to go and glide onto it. While if you make it very pigmented, one stroke is good for a woman with fair skin. So nobody loses out. Everybody is still able to use the product and love the product. We’ve created a really great assortment of nudes, which is amazing because I never found the nude colour as a woman of colour until I made one for myself. Then we have the black magic collection, which is amazing, it’s a collection that is just so hypnotic. I say it’s where myth meets surrealism. It’s inspired by three mythical goddesses from West Africa, I’m from West Africa, so I told their stories through it. And it is just surreal. 

So it’s a lovely assortment of products, there’s something for everybody. I wanted to come up with a big range because I really wanted everyone to find something in the range that they identified with. The last thing I want to do is give anyone the experience I’ve had my whole life. Which is going to a counter, and getting turned away because there is nothing there for you. 

The campaign was shot in Nigeria, in your hometown Lagos, and stars Halima Aden. Can you tell us a bit about that? 
Sharon Chuter: I had sat there and said, who are the people I really want to work with on this campaign. She was one. So we met up and we had lunch on a Sunday in London. We started the lunch at about 2pm and finally left at 9:30pm. It felt right. It was organic. It was authentic. We chatted about everything. We talked about experiences as women of colour – what’s she going through, how it mirrored my experience. I remember walking in and she said, ‘Oh my god I didn’t think you were going to be a black woman, I just got told that this woman that owns this beauty range. And instinctively I just assumed… I had just never seen a black woman who owns a beauty brand that is going to launch in Ulta and Selfridges.’ And there was that bonding moment. We talked about representation and why representation matters. And she was like, ‘I am inspired to do more because now I am seeing it is possible to do more. Because you are doing this.’

You have been in the beauty industry your whole career and you have seen it evolve. What can be improved, what still needs work? 
Sharon Chuter: I think the industry has a very long way to go, especially when it comes to inclusivity. Even at a basic level, just providing shades of foundation. Even if you don’t want to go into lipsticks or highlighters or eyeshadows, at a base level, you should cater to people through your foundation. But true inclusivity goes beyond just shade range. In the industry, if you know how to do make-up on people of colour, you get classified for a make-up artist for people of colour. Which means you don’t get called for all the other gigs. You only get called when there is a woman of colour around and you get put as a specialist make-up artist. How many make-up artists of colour are doing makeup for non-people of colour? 

The other thing is the industry is ignorance. People just don’t know because there is not enough diverse voices talking about these issues. A lot of companies and all their innovation teams are the same people. So until companies embrace diversity from within the company, they will never be able to output true diversity. Until the teams are diverse, we will not have true diversity reflected in the product, it is always going to be shallow. It’s always going to be someone trying to think for somebody else. I don’t know what it feels like to be a caucasian woman. I will never know what it feels like. I have a lot of friends that are, my husband is. But I will never know. I think that’s what really needs to happen. Bringing people who are actually from that experience to tell their own stories. Opposed to, let’s just hear my husband trying to create something for women of colour because he lives with a woman of colour. How ridiculous would that be. And that is what the industry does. Bring people of colour to do a panel study for one hour and then they write an article, yes now we know. Now we are going to fix all your problems. So I think we have a long way to go. I think the industry has a long way to go in becoming truly reflective of the world we live in. Which is a very cosmopolitan existence and a truly racially diverse existence.