Sunday Riley still feels as if she’s just starting out, despite the fact she founded her eponymous beauty brand 11 years ago. Back then, the industry was dominated with conglomerates and a handful of umbrella companies, but Riley was different. It was nimble, unique and skin-first — and really defined the now-burgeoning niche beauty category. While now a household name and Mecca bestseller (we dare you to find a beauty editor without a bottle of Good Genes in their vanity) the journey to get here has been anything but linear.
Here, GRAZIA speaks exclusively with Riley on the tribulations of being a brand founder, the formulation process, her own unique skincare habits, and the lessons she carries in her back pocket.
Keep reading for the interview.
GRAZIA: What was your original vision for Sunday Riley as a beauty brand, and what’s the evolution been like?
Sunday: We’re actually 11 years old now, but Sunday Riley still feels brand new! When you start a brand from nothing, you’re kind of always in survival mode. You live to fight another day because you’re up against mega brands — particularly in beauty.
So initially all I was focused on was staying alive, but now the vision is global visibility. I don’t think it’s gotten easier…if anything it’s more complex. We’re constantly trying to innovate, think outside the box, show up against new competitors.
But the passion is still there. I never have this feeling of ‘we’ve made it’. I’m always in entrepreneurial mode and looking ahead. I did actually receive a customer email a few weeks ago where they had compared us to a huge brand with 50 years experience. I had to pause for a second because not only was it beyond flattering, but it served as a reminder that our customers have high expectations and we need to be consistently levelling up. It’s scary but rewarding.
GRAZIA: Exactly, and Sunday Riley was really one of the first indie beauty brands. What do you think was your point of difference early on that set you apart?
Sunday Riley: I think when you don’t have a huge team or any preconceived notions, you get to innovate and be who you want to be. We were really able to shape the brand in a different way. Even now, we don’t have a board. Internally as a team we just decided to go for something — our ethos has always been that we won’t learn unless we try.
A great example is our start at New York Fashion Week. It was early on and they had never really worked with skincare sponsors before, but we called them up and incredibly they said yes. We created an opportunity out of nothing, and that really set the precedence for Sunday Riley as a brand. This speed and innovation is truly one of our biggest advantages over all the legacy beauty brands that dominate the market.
Don’t get me wrong! We fail all the time, but I believe in the process. For every three products we launch a year, there are hundreds of failed ideas behind the scenes. And it’s like every single day, but we should never be afraid to try — I’m a big believer in not walking in fear. And when you do have a win, it makes all the difference!
GRAZIA: What do you think is the secret sauce when it comes to creating one of those iconic, crazy-successful products like Good Genes! Is there a formula, or is it luck?
Sunday Riley: I think one thing that’s important is not to overproduce things. That’s been one of my theories building this brand. If I’m right or wrong, who knows? Like, I don’t know! It’s just my thought process.
Even now 12 years in, there’s so many categories we don’t have. Sunday Riley only has one mask, one spot treatment, two cleansers… zero toners! There’s so many products that we haven’t put out on the market, but that’s because I want everything to feel fresh and exciting. That’s been a product development strategy. And when it comes to the actual product itself, it has to work. Customers have to be able to see results. I think that’s all part of creating a cult product, like Good Genes!
GRAZIA: What some people may not know is that you actually formulate the Sunday Riley ranging yourself. What sort of ingredients do you gravitate towards?
Sunday Riley: We have good relationships with our ingredient manufacturers, so if they have something new or innovative, they’ll send us a sample right away. I’m also really focused on texture and where it fits into someone’s routine. Do I want a product that’s thin and fresh, or rich and nourishing?
From there I look at ingredients. I have a database that’s broken down by botanicals and actives, and what they can do for the skin. From this point, I’ll start pulling everything together to suit the skin concern we’re working with, look at emulsifiers, and reassess the texture… it’s a lengthy process! I’m a big believer that all our products have to be a blend of biotechnology, science and botanicals. I take a 360 degree approach when looking at skin health.
GRAZIA: There’s this interesting dichotomy in beauty at the moment where we’re trying to find a balance between exciting innovation and excess. How do you navigate that?
Sunday: I usually start by trying to figure out what the product is going to do. What it’s inspired by, and what its purpose is.
It’s a process of conflict, and I never nail it the first time around. But I try and follow a skin-first approach, producing something that feels great, has a point of difference and has a positive effect on skin health. I also never consider product cost until the final stages, because I don’t want that to influence the process.
GRAZIA: Let’s switch gears to business and the pandemic. What has the last 18 months been like for you as a founder? Have you seen changes in the way people are shopping for skincare?
Sunday: Masks are an obvious one and have caused so many people to experience acne again, so skin clarity has been a huge focus. Also, the fact we’re paying more attention to the top halves of each other’s face. We’ve been wanting to innovate the eye category for years, and now feels like the right time.
And I think there’s been a slight shift in that skincare once felt like a chore, whereas now it’s a little luxury, or a moment you can take for yourself. While makeup is more about transformation, skincare is about stripping it right back. It’s about being comfortable with yourself, or feeling empowered enough to solve issues that bother you.
GRAZIA: What’s your take on upcoming trends? What can we expect to see in the next year or so?
Sunday: Oh wow, who really knows! Ha ha! I do think sustainability is going to continue to grow, and so it should. It’s one of our biggest brand pillars and it extends way beyond packaging. I think all industries are going to have to work in this way in order to be successful, honestly.
GRAZIA: I have to ask you, what does your own skincare routine look like?
Sunday: I definitely switch it up depending on what we’re making but my core routine is pretty consistent. I wake up and wash my face with Ceramic Slip. I always cleanse because I apply a lot of skincare at night and believe there’s a lot of pollution indoors.
After I cleanse, I spritz with Pink Drink which helps to support the microbiome because when we cleanse, we’re disrupting our microbiome diversity. So I take probiotics, but I also use Pink Drink. After that, I mix about two to three pumps of CEO Serum with about two to three drops of CEO Glow and apply it all over. I’ll go make a coffee, do my thing, come back and add a little Good Genes. But if I applied it at night, I’ll skip that step.
Next up is moisturiser, usually Tidal Brightening Water Cream in the morning. I like to add in Auto Correct eye cream — I like to look awake — and heaps of sunscreen.
At night (and this is when things get weird) I’ll use Ceramic Slip, I do Paint, and then the A+ Retinoid Serum. I might apply some Good Genes too, and then I take my contacts out, maybe listen to an audio book for a minute. Then I add my CEO Serum again, so twice a day, followed with Luna and moisturiser.
GRAZIA: Wow! Okay so obviously this is working for you, but you’re layering ingredients people normally wouldn’t layer. Can you talk us through that?
Sunday: Personally, I think there’s a lot of misconception about vitamins and retinoids. But as long as I leave them plenty of time between applications, they do play really well together. And I love using, say, an alpha hydroxy acid with my retinoid because it will reduce flakiness. I’m also always thinking about my moisture barrier, and always thinking about my microbiome.
I totally get this is intense! But it’s just me and it works. I’m just not a one serum person. I’m all in.
GRAZIA: So you’ve always been open about the mistakes that come with being a brand founder. What’s been your biggest takeaway so far?
Sunday: I love the Walt Disney quote, “Keep Moving Forward”. I have it printed on a lot of things. It’s easy to over analyse, but at the end of the day people are counting on me and I just have to keep moving.
Mistakes and failures happen. We’ve launched products I’ve wholeheartedly believed in, and they just haven’t resonated. You just have to drop your ego and keep going, even if it comes at a cost.
GRAZIA: How do you handle online criticism, especially given the brand identity is inextricably linked to your own?
Sunday: There’s elements of negativity you just have to disconnect from. A good friend of mine once told me in life and business there’s builders and destroyers — listen to the builders and ignore the destroyers.
Also, when it gets loud I just remember I’m alive, I’m learning. Everyone is just doing their best.
GRAZIA: What would your parting piece of advice be for those looking to build something of their own?
Sunday: Have some sort of understanding about how much it’s going to cost. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but it’s a piece of practical advice that’s often missed. Not having the money for inventory really hindered our growth in the early stages.
And know you are going to have to work so, so hard. You don’t get the same luxuries as others when it comes to weekends and time off. If someone needs me at 11 p.m. I’m there. That’s my job and it’s what I signed up for. I also have a family — I have four kids! It requires a lot and many people aren’t prepared for it. I chose this path and I love it. I live and breathe my work, but I would urge others to consider if that’s what they really, truly want.
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