Independent, female-owned, and female-operated. Emilie Hoyt, founder of Lather, built a DTC clean beauty brand decades before both concepts went from trend to mainstream. The sleeping giant has silently dominated clean beauty since 1999.
Just to put things into a bit of context, this brand was built the “old school” way before the wide adoption of online search and e-commerce, which has put information not limited by language or location at our fingertips. This context is important for two reasons. The first achievement to highlight is the fact that Lather brought a clean brand to market 21 years ago. The brand has been independently owned and profitable since year one, and Hoyt has skillfully evolved the brand, keeping it as relevant and fresh as the day it launched.
BeautyMatter caught up with Emilie for a download on her playbook for pioneering whitespace through organic and profitable growth with six branded stores and 400 hospitality partners.
To say you were early on the clean beauty trend would be an understatement. The concept of “clean” didn’t exist two decades ago. Can you share what the beauty landscape looked like in 1999, and the opportunity you saw?
Having suffered from migraines that specialists were unable to remedy, I made the decision at a young age to take my health into my own hands. On a hunch that my skincare was partly to blame, I began looking for alternative, plant-based solutions. Of course, at the time, “clean” beauty was not yet trendy, and where it was available, I found it to be overpriced, hard to acquire, and simply unapproachable. It was at this crux that I decided to start exploring the world. I would gather natural, unique ingredients to make my own products—all with zero synthetic fragrance.
While my mission from the start was to make safe natural products available at a fair price, I also saw an opportunity to empower people by sharing otherwise protected industry secrets. For example, the fragrance industry is entirely self-regulated. It undergoes absolutely zero federal regulation. So when a brand lists the blanket term “fragrance” on a product, it is legally protected from having to disclose the ingredients. I wanted to share hard facts like these and let people decide for themselves which ingredients they were willing to put on their bodies.
I rolled up my sleeves and started manufacturing a very basic line of personal care products, officially launching Lather in 1999. Twenty-one years later, we now offer a wide collection of head-to-toe natural skin and body care, formulated to help our customers feel like the best, most authentic version of themselves.
What was the vision for the brand when you launched and how has it evolved?
Initially, I was simply driven to offer people unique, natural, effective, and safe skincare alternatives to the mainstream, synthetic chemical-based products that were on the market, and I wanted to do this in a contemporary, approachable, and relatable way. I unwrapped my lifelong passion for aromatherapy and channeled it into making feel-good products. At the time, parabens, sulfates, and artificial color weren’t yet on brands’ “no” lists. I was proud to be a part of that initial movement.
Today, so many brands have adopted the practice of avoiding these ingredients—something I’m very happy to see. Though one major message has not yet found its stride—eliminating synthetic fragrance. The dangers and harmful effects of these chemical compounds were the reason I first became inspired by natural products. In a very saturated market, I want to share my message on synthetic fragrance, educate consumers on the fragrance industry’s alarming secrets, and altogether eliminate synthetic fragrance. That’s our core focus today.
When you set out to create the initial range of products, what was the formulation philosophy and how difficult was the development process?
When I first sought out to make natural products, there wasn’t a process in place or precedent to follow. While today “clean beauty” is trendy and manufacturing such products has become more streamlined, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I found myself networking the old-fashioned way. I read books to conduct my own research, traveled to meet chemists in labs, and sat on the phone with manufacturers around the clock in hopes of finding partners who were aligned with my mission and philosophy, and who were also willing to work with my chosen natural ingredients. It was a trying experience, but also an enlightening one.
You launched the brand with a retail location in October of 1999. Why did you decide to open a retail store rather than launch as a traditional wholesale business?
With limited resources and a big mission to eliminate synthetic fragrance, I knew I had to start small and work my way up. I also knew from the get-go that I wanted to do things a bit unconventionally. Instead of fighting to have my products sit on someone else’s shelf and competing with synthetic mainstream brands, I wanted to spend my time sharing my knowledge and providing healthier self-care options for my community.
Initially, I aimed to open just one small store, a hub for people to learn about natural products, made with real ingredients. Here, I was determined to educate consumers on the dangers of synthetic fragrance and the protected secrets of the beauty industry.
As customer satisfaction and brand loyalty grew, unique opportunities beyond our four walls came to us. Boutique hotels looking to create more curated experiences for their guests found their way to our products. And from word-of-mouth and relationships established at the store, we opened our prospects to wholesale.
Was there a defining point or milestone in the business when you knew you had achieved real traction?
There were several small wins that culminated into big defining moments for Lather.
In 2000, Jennifer Lopez unknowingly shined a spotlight on Lather. While she was operating a restaurant in Pasadena, her visiting sister, a makeup artist, found her way into the Lather store and purchased a number of items. Soon after, those products were shown on an MTV show, starring Jennifer Lopez. Lather found its footing and hasn’t looked back since.
In the early 2000s, Lather began partnerships with several well-known wholesale partners. We then opened new brick-and-mortar locations in places I hold dear. With additional cash flow, we were able to get even more creative with our ingredients. Yuzu. Lemongrass. Bamboo. I kept my mind open to any natural ingredient that promised nourishing benefits to people’s skin health.
I filled the next several years with philanthropic ventures. We launched Lather Lends A Hand—an initiative to leave this world a better place than how we found it. We joined forces with international nonprofit organizations, like Sundara and the Baobab Foundation, to help local Indian and South African women, respectively, lift out of poverty with steady work and fair wages.
In 2018, Beautycon showcased Lather for the first time ever, shining a bright spotlight on our small company and our mission. Then in 2019, we celebrated 20 successful years as an independent, female-owned, female-operated business with seven bustling store locations.
The brand remains primarily DTC, but partnerships in the hospitality industry have been an integral part of your business. Can you share a little about this strategy?
Initially, there was no plan to ever move into the hospitality industry, or beyond our retail store at all. It truly was about creating a place where I could share my findings on synthetic fragrance and offer people a more natural way. Though I had the resources to start with just one store, it was at this special store that hospitality discovered us.
At this juncture, many boutique hotels began looking to curate their hospitality experience with more thoughtful and artisanal amenities. With a strong footing beneath us, we were prepared to venture into wholesale when they came knocking in the early 2000s. Then, when Mrs. Wynn of Wynn Las Vegas asked if we would consider working with her to develop a collection for her new hotel, we jumped in with both feet, setting us into motion for significant hospitality partnerships ahead.
Though it hadn’t been what I had originally sought out to do, it quickly became clear that hospitality would allow us to share natural products with so many more people than we could from our store. Our partnerships in the hospitality industry became an important vehicle to spread the word on synthetic fragrance with people all over the country.
As clean formulations, transparency, and a focus on DTC have become mainstream and greenwashing is rampant, how have you broken through the noise to remain relevant and differentiated?
I started Lather as a solution to a serious problem. When nontoxic skincare and wellness products significantly improved the quality of my life, I felt moved to not only provide a natural, alternative solution to other people suffering from similar sensitivities but also to educate my community on the harmful toxins that are permitted to be used in most personal care products. I think that we work to educate our consumers rather than sell them an idea of an ideal lifestyle, helping us break through the noise.
Also, like I mentioned, while many brands today have jumped onto the “clean beauty” train, the message on eliminating synthetic fragrance has been left behind. As the fragrance industry remains self-regulated and legally protected from having to disclose specific ingredients in “fragrance,” most people don’t know how dangerous these chemical compounds can really be. Not only is synthetic fragrance made of toxic, petroleum-based chemicals, it’s also used in an overwhelming number of beauty products. Facts like these drive me and the brand to date.
You remain a private company and have scaled the business from indie brand roots to an omnichannel business achieving profitability very early with no outside funding. Can you share how you accomplished this? Have you ever contemplated outside investment?
From the beginning, we wanted to do things on our terms. We kept focus on our niche, our customers, and our philosophy. The quality in our product and personal service kept customers coming back. In fact, we still see people in our Pasadena store who we met 20 years ago. That’s, of course, not to say that our growth was without challenges. We simply stayed our course, even as we ventured into hospitality, with natural, premium products, made with real ingredients that make people feel really good in their own skin.
Recent years have given rise to an explosion of indie beauty brands. What advice would you share with these founders?
Always take the high road. Both experience and intuition have taught me to never indulge in short cuts. This includes everything from the quality of ingredients we use to the deep-seated values that remain the cornerstones of Lather. Simply put, there is no overnight success that lasts, and slow and steady will almost always win the race.
What’s been your North Star as an entrepreneur and leader that has helped you navigate the ups and downs of building a business?
I always tell myself, nothing is ever as good or bad as it seems. Keep taking small steps. It’s ultimately these minute forward movements—which are very easy to overlook—that define progress.
The past six months have forced us to navigate the confluence of health, economic, and cultural crises. Can you share a few of the challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve addressed them?
As is the situation with many people, COVID-19 drove my work out of the office and into the home space. While it is wonderful to be at home with my family, there have been a new set of challenges to navigate. Mainly, it’s been difficult to be so physically close to my kids but not have the time to really connect with them. This has perhaps been even more exacerbated in this uncertain health climate.
What really helps me is focusing on how lucky we are as a family. We are healthy, fed, and safe. I have also chosen to address the pandemic quite pointedly with my kids, rather than brush past it. I told them early in this that they may see me upset, frustrated, and irritable—that they may even see me cry. I told them they may feel these things too, and that it may get uncomfortable to be under one roof with many distinct emotions circulating. I have explained and repeat daily that this is a hard situation. I tell them that while I don’t know when this will end, when they will see their friends, or if this situation will change our lives moving forward, I do know that we are strong as individuals, and even stronger as a unit, and that we will show resilience to anything that happens.
And as a business owner, it’s been a particularly stressful time. Early in this, I had to furlough many of my wonderful team and also had to apply for loans. These are things I’ve never done before. Truthfully, it was a humbling experience to see my business drop so suddenly. It was as emotional as it was trying, as I have spent more than 20 years working to build this truly special business. There were definitely moments in which I considered the harsh reality that parts of my company could dwindle overnight. However, like I asked of my kids, my team showed resilience, and I believe that we will come out of all this stronger in many ways than before.
It appears that we may have a long way to go before we reach a post-COVID reality. What steps are you taking to future-proof your business and/or what opportunities do you think this reality will present?
From the beginning, honest and conscious skincare and wellness products have been the cornerstones of Lather. This will never change.
We are not interested in selling a 20-product, excessive skincare regimen to customers. Just the same, it is not in our philosophy to promote obsession with beauty. Lather has always strived to deliver daily natural products that help our customers feel real as they go out and live their lives. Today, amid an uncertain health climate, we are more focused on doing this than ever before.
As a company that has always tried to provide value to our customers—from products of integrity to approachable costs—we plan to stay our course. We will continue to offer nontoxic, natural products in an honest way.
That being said, as the retail landscape changes and e-commerce grows, we have energized our online subscription services. Though customers are able to experience minor “savings” via these subscriptions, we chose to lean into this format to provide more of a convenience to our customers, not so much economic savings. In times where people are cautious of brick-and-mortar stores and shipping delays and cost surges are frequent, we found subscription offers to be mindful—of time, costs, and even packaging waste.
We’ve also recently started offering a new feature, through which our consumers may buy online and pick up their order in-store, as just another way to help people shop within the parameters that they deem safe.
What’s next for Lather? What new challenges are you tackling?
As previously mentioned, the skincare industry carries with it some dark secrets, and, alarmingly, remains entirely self-regulated. Over the course of decades, I have watched artfully marketed companies trick customers into believing their products are safe and exorbitantly priced for good reason. At the risk of making a gross generalization, I have to say, there’s far more than what meets the eye.
Down the pipeline, I hope to increase our marketing initiatives, content streaming, and possibly even a podcast to reach customers with natural, high-performing products that are good for them. This would allow us to connect with our community, expose the protected toxic practices of the beauty industry, and promote safe skincare and ingredient knowledge.
In a climate that can thoughtlessly take advantage of the vulnerable, I want Lather to be a brand of safe, effective, and helpful products. We will focus on expanding our new Conscious Care category to include tried-and-true personal protective products, made with real ingredients for real purposes.
I built Lather as a solution to a problem. So long as I am able, I will continue to use my platform to solve problems with care, transparency, and curiosity.
Photo: via Lather