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Glossier-Brand Campaign 2019 Campbell Addy
Glossier campaign, photography Campbell Addy

Glossier made beauty cool... and then the vibe shift came

Marisa Meltzer’s new book about Emily Weiss’s billion-dollar beauty brand charts the culture-defining rise of Glossier. Here, Naomi Attwood gives you a glimpse into the exposé

I remember the launch of the first ever Glossier products in 2014. I was the beauty editor of ASOS Magazine at the time and happened to be in New York, so attended the pop-up with my co-workers. Once there, having shelled out the obligatory $80 for a set of four products, the sales assistant snapped my picture and, in a surreal moment, Emily Weiss stepped onto the shop floor and photobombed me. Despite having paid through the nose for branded Vaseline and a spray that made my face instantly red – alongside a pretty good moisturiser and tinted moisturiser (unless you had skin any darker than a lightly tanned Caucasian) – I’d temporarily entered the lauded, aspirational world of Into the Gloss, and now had the Instagram post to prove it.

At its height, Glossier could command a crowd in numbers usually reserved for pop stars and cult leaders. Glossier didn’t just create beauty products, it built a lifestyle around itself and ushered in what we would now call a “vibe shift” in beauty. After years of the full-face YouTube guru make-up look reigning supreme, Glossier harnessed the myth of the ‘cool girl’ to bring us the my-face-but-dewier, no-make-up make-up look packaged in millennial pink pouches that became hot accessories in their own right.

By 2019, the brand’s NYC flagship store was averaging 50,000 visitors per month with a perpetual queue. A pop-up in Seattle saw people waiting for hours to get in. “It’s a full city block long,” Weiss said to her team in a meeting at the time, showing them pictures on her phone. Marisa Meltzer was in that meeting with Weiss and some of the brand’s top executives. “At least I think it was a meeting,” she writes. “I couldn’t shake the feeling it was a pantomime of a meeting for a journalist’s sake.”

In her new book coming out this October, Meltzer shines a UV flashlight on the brand and its famous girlboss founder. Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier charts the rise of Glossier, following Weiss as she leverages an internship at Teen Vogue into an industry-disrupting blog and then culture-defining beauty brand. Of course, after the rise comes a fall and the book also delves into the subsequent backlash against girl bosses and the plateauing of the brand as the industry eventually catches up and trends inevitably move on.

It’s easy to forget now how ground-breaking Into the Gloss and Glossier felt at the time. Into the Gloss shook up beauty writing and its importance – making narratives out of showing people’s habits, so much more intimate and immediate than the boring magazine pages showcasing advertisers’ products. Glossier was the first start-up beauty brand of the social media age. Its distinctive branding of pastel pink and sans serif fonts ended up defining an era in design. The beauty boom followed Glossier’s success: Net-a-Porter launched beauty in 2013, ASOS magnified its beauty spend in 2017, and celebrity brands followed in what feels like their millions.

At the time of peak Into the Gloss, I was reading it daily and would quiz my US hair, make-up and nail contacts on what Weiss was like. The answer was usually: “She’s super nice WHEN she wants to be!” – an assessment Meltzer backs up in Glossy. “Weiss was preternaturally good at reading people,” she writes. “She knew when to intimidate and when to wield her big smile.” Weiss was just an assistant when she started approaching celebrities to be on her blog. Flouting the fashion magazine hierarchy entirely, she would meet them on set and then badger them endlessly until they agreed to be interviewed for her blog. Interns and assistants rarely get more access than fetching a beverage for big names, and to contact them asking to be part of your personal project could easily detonate your employment should they tip off your boss but Weiss was fearless.

Weiss approached her beauty brand with the same determination and persistence, winning over venture capitalists to raise enough to get Glossier off the ground. Over the years, she pulled in $266m (£213m) to scale the brand. At times, it felt like the hype and the lifestyle of the brand was overshadowing the products themselves. “Glossier was the ultimate brand,” a former staffer is quoted in the book saying. “We were selling Vaseline for $12 per half an ounce – so it’s all about the brand. Weiss knew that to some degree and thought – I need to be inspired by people who are cool and interesting and that’s how I’m going to find that sparkly magic dust.”

Throughout the book, Meltzer is hyper-aware of the need to reveal a profound truth about Weiss’s character and works hard to pull this off. Simultaneously, Weiss herself, who initially agreed to be interviewed for the project, knows this and in an attempt to shield her private life, becomes increasingly recalcitrant, withdrawing access. Glossy still brings us great snippets. Parts of the book make Weiss sound like an Instagram feed personified: her habit of answering interview questions with inspirational quotes from entrepreneur biographies; that her apartment’s décor mirrors the pink and red themes of Glossier branding and store interiors; her obsession with astrology that led some of her colleagues to suspect she was making business decisions based on planetary alignments; and a proclivity for blowing the budget on floral arrangements for Glossier’s HQ – which was resented by employees on less than presidential salaries.

None of this is irreparably damning, and indeed, not even the worst charges against her – most of them to be found on a whistle-blowing Instagram account called @outtathegloss created by disillusioned former staffers – proved to be fatal. Outta the Gloss alleged that retail staff were underpaid and subjected to racial microaggressions from customers and occasionally managers, complaints which the company took on board, without 100 per cent fulfilling the collective’s demands.

At the end of the story, Glossier’s growth has plateaued and Weiss steps down as CEO, though remains on the board and actively involved. In 2022 they laid off a third of their workforce. As a writer for an audience of young women, I’d been quite invested in the girl boss movement and the cancellation of so many of them didn’t necessarily feel progressive to me. Not because they didn’t do anything wrong, but because they were held to much higher standards than male business leaders.

We can’t ignore that Instagram, the platform that undeniably fuelled Glossier’s meteoric rise, launched, peaked and began to dwindle at almost the exact moments Glossier did. Whether the brand can reinvent itself as the go-to for Gen Z, the TikTok generation, remains to be seen. Its cool factor – the design and packaging – is indelibly linked to Millennials, particularly “Millennial Pink”. It’s not particularly inclusive, and doesn’t even pretend to be sustainable.  

I still miss reading ITG and look back fondly on the days of Instagramming beauty products next to vases of flowers. I enjoyed my Glossier products but never repurchased them. For a nostalgic look at this time, or for anyone interested in fashion, beauty and business culture, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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