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Uncovering the Beauty Tribes of Tomorrow with Humanoid Labs

Published October 31, 2023
Published October 31, 2023
Humanoid Labs

The most exciting innovation comes from an unexpected fusion of worlds previously left separate. In beauty, these examples include marrying stickers with anti-acne treatments, harnessing DNA technology for skincare products, or taking the previously taboo practice of tattoos above the neck for permanent makeup.

Sandra Soskic is no stranger to daring to think differently. The digital maverick and creative polymath has a long track record of pushing brands to take new approaches to their products and marketing. As the former Co-CEO at DBB and Tribal Worldwide, as well as Managing Director for Interactive Worldwide Marketing Communications at Apple, she has worked for some of the most influential Fortune 500 companies in the world.

But Soskic’s expertise was to find its further calling in the realms of entrepreneurship. Together with Creative Director Pia Hunter and Product Developer Kristina Brown, she founded the LA-based Humanoid in 2021. To date, the company has obtained $4 million in funding, with investments from, among others, True Ventures and UpHonest Capital. Humanoid’s debut range, Skinwear, is launching later this year, comprising a face/hair/body spray, a liquid pen product, and biodegradable stencils, ranging between $20 to $40.

If Humanoid’s TikTok teasers are anything to go by, the looks will range from ethereal watercolor creations on the lids to striking and sharp lilac blush streaks on the face. In short, something for the softest as well as boldest  looks. But rather than limit themselves to the physical spheres, the team at Humanoid has created an interconnected physical-digital-virtual interface containing NFC-connected products that are linked to an app that not only offers customers looks to recreate, but also will receive a further community/experience extension in 2024.

Beauty has been hot on the heels of the digital and virtual worlds—all aspects of our industry are being pushed and fueled by what we discover and wear online (as well as offline). As web3 unfolds, its potential for brands remains nebulous. While some brands have ventured into the metaverse, its adoption is still limited. What Humanoid is proposing isn’t just a marketing activation, but an entire rethink of how we engage with beauty as a whole, and the realm of creative possibilities. BeautyMatter sat down with Soskic to discuss the evolution of beauty as identity demarcation; creating a democratic and accessible identity platform; and merging the digital, virtual, and physical worlds.

Let's start with your own professional evolution from working in marketing strategy and communications to Silicon Valley to now founding Humanoid.

I always loved fashion and self-expression; it's been a big part of my identity. I had a fashion start-up with a business partner years ago, but I could not combine it with my agency job and the birth of my first child at the time. But, fashion and expression have always been part of my life and I've always wanted to start my own business. For many years I have been lucky enough to be in jobs that were inspiring and did not feel like work, so these kept me engaged for a very long time; much longer than I planned or expected.

My agency time in particular has been an incredible preparation for all the dimensions of building a company and brand. Being able to work across different consumer categories and business models, including the beauty and personal care industries, has been invaluable. This experience has left me with a great interest in what is happening in culture, the zeitgeist, and what is next. I feel that Humanoid is a natural culmination of all that came before.

What are the biggest influences that shaped your creative vision, whether it's the aesthetics of Humanoid or the concept of it?

People, planet, and everything culture, with a focus on fashion, music, and art; also a deep love for sci-fi and technology.

When I spoke with internationally renowed makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench, her influences were everything from sexy cyborgs to tribes in Africa. She said the more diverse your influence pool is, the better, even though she channels those influences into beauty. It’s not necessarily beauty specific because that can be such an echo chamber.

I couldn't agree more with Isamaya and the diversity of influences. In my case, I have always been very interested in subcultures. Probably something to do with the city I grew up in, Rotterdam. It was bombed in the second World War and had to be fully rebuilt and reinvented. The result has been an architectural, innovative, avant-garde city with many interesting scenes in music, art, fashion. As an example, it was the birthplace of the gabber scene, a subgenre of hardcore techno. Growing up in very different countries and cultures—the Netherlands, former Yugoslavia, and USA—has also been an influence, leaving me wanting to merge the industrial with the futuristic and the natural with the organic.

I've never been to Rotterdam, only Amsterdam, but one of my favorite fashion designers, Iris van Herpen, is from there.

She’s one of our muses. We love everything she does. Artists like Iris van Herpen, Sevdaliza, Joep van Lieshout feel like natural products of Rotterdam.

What was the spark point for Humanoid? You were saying it was this perfect meeting point of your career trajectory thus far.

I met Pia [Hunter], who is on our founding team [alongside Kristina Brown] while at Apple. While working together on a large global Apple channel redesign program, we learned that we enjoyed working as a team and that we had similar interests and ambitions. After a few years at Apple, we decided it was time to venture out. The concept for Humanoid was born out of personal frustration with my own blandness. Why was it that I—who loved expression, fashion, color, makeup, and had been collecting cool makeup looks on Pinterest for years and was always the first to buy the next new makeup products—was not showing up every day looking more expressive and interesting? Why were all these cool makeup products ending up in my drawers, mostly unused? The more I thought about it, the more I started noticing that I was not alone in this. We all seemed to have been more expressive and authentic in previous decades—think of the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, etc. Why have we been moving towards conformity and blandness more and more?

There is this great article, The Age of Average, that tries to explain it. Architect Rem Koolhaas, also from Rotterdam, had already identified this development towards conformity back in 1995, so it has been going on for a while now. And it can be seen everywhere—buildings, cities, cars, what humans look like, bars, restaurants, Airbnbs, brands, logos. Everything has been moving to this universal conformity standard. Of course, there are individual exceptions, but the general trend has been towards more conformity, while I think we all get a lot of joy from experiencing authenticity in ourselves and in others. So, I wanted to do something about this development and celebrate the benefits of being bolder.

It started with looking at myself and my own conflicting behavior. What was it that was holding me back? Ultimately, it came down to these barriers: inspiration (quick, easy, relevant, accessible when and how I need it); time (looks that can be executed in 10 minutes or less); skills (products and looks that do not require skills); and permission (making space for authentic expression). With the Humanoid system you can go from finding the look for you to executing it in 10 minutes or less. With our connected products you can cut this time down even further.

Could you outline the mechanisms of Skinwear; what are the logistics of it?

The Humanoid Skinwear system consists of NFC-connected, easy-to-apply products for all of our body—not just our face, hence the name Skinwear—and an app that helps with finding relevant inspiration and easy-to-follow guides for executing the looks. The system has been designed to help you find and create your looks in 10 minutes or less. We design all the looks we feature in the app in collaboration with multidisciplinary creatives like makeup artists, tattoo artists, game designers, and our community. There are looks for all boldness levels, occasions, vibes, and aesthetics. We ensure these can be executed quickly and easily by providing easy-to-follow tutorials and additional “hack” tools like the biodegradable stencils to further reduce time and skills needed.

You can filter and find the looks in any way you want: how much time you have, what body part you’re interested in expressing, what vibe you’re going for, what colors you want to use. The more you use the app, the more custom the experience becomes, with personalized suggestions based on the products you own, your preferences, previous looks you created, and your behavior.

Tapping the app with one of our NFC-connected products immediately results in looks for you that feature that product and color, which further cuts down time to access looks relevant for you today. One-on-one personalized communication via the app allows us to nudge and inspire you to pick up your blue cartridge for two more looks as you have almost finished this color, which is great because e.g., next week we're dropping another color that you might like. Sometimes a reminder like this, or a notification that we have uploaded fresh new looks, is just the trigger you need to take those 10 minutes or less and have fun with color on your body.

The product exists in the offline as well as the online space, you mentioned you can also put it on your avatar. Is there any heavy weighting towards one or the other? How do those two worlds coexist?

We designed the system to be as accessible, democratic, and flexible as possible. You can use our whole system (physical products, app, virtual goods like the avatar, which are coming in 2024) or parts of the system.

Just like with Apple, there are benefits in opting into the full system—a frictionless and more personalized experience; but the choice is yours.

When it comes to the importance of the physical, digital, and virtual parts of the experience, we recognize the value of all. In our current age, our identities are expressed in all three of these worlds and you decide what is most important for you. The humanoid system provides an integrated experience across all three. We aspire to bridge these worlds in either direction, i.e., making physical products that allow for aesthetics that are inspired by digital and virtual worlds, as well as showing up in digital and virtual worlds wearing the looks we wear IRL.

What are the realities of manufacturing and creating those products and technologies?

We had our challenges, and things took more time than we would have liked. When we started, especially with the spray, chemists told us it could not be done. We were hell-bent on making a spray that was clean, opaque; that felt like a second skin, had longevity but could be taken off easily when it was time to remove the look. We were told that we’d have to use cyclic silicones—which we did not want—to achieve what we were looking to do. It can be done, but it took two hard years of development to get there and overcoming many challenges, some of which we definitely did not see coming. We met some incredible people and partners on the way and overall, the journey has been an exciting and creative one. Knowing the industry a little better now, two years seems to be the norm for innovations on ingredients, formula, and delivery system level.

Building an integrated system consisting of physical, digital, and virtual products offered its own challenges. Investors would wonder why not just do one or the other? When we started two years ago, investors were mostly interested in the digital and virtual sides of the proposition and were hesitant around physical products. Our vision has always been that we live and express our identities in all these three realities and that in order to deliver on the promise of bold looks in 10 minutes or less, we need great products as well as inspiration, guidance, and permission which we deliver with our app.

Do you want to elaborate on the web3 part?

The web3 part is coming at the end of 2024, and it’s too early to reveal too much detail about this. Suffice it to say that we see Humanoid as a platform for self-expression in the physical, digital, and virtual worlds and that we believe there are three parts to self-expression: who am I, how do I express myself, how do I connect with others? Web3 plays a role in all three of these aspects of self expression. We partnered with Dr. Lisa Brown (a Professor of Psychology at Stanford) to develop a fun way to explore and express your identity, and we leverage web3 technologies in the process.

With Skinwear, how does that physical product interplay with the app?

Our physical products are connected to our app through NFCs. When you tap your phone with the Humanoid app on it, you will get suggestions for looks that fit the product and color that you’ve tapped your phone with. Once you select your look, you can first try it on in AR, check the products that were used for the look, order them if you do not have them yet, check how other members of the community made the look their own, start the easy-to-follow tutorial, and when finished, save your IRL look in your app journal and/or share with the community. From our conversations with customers we know that many feel intimidated by makeup and therefore never try or only make an effort for special occasions, or often "wear the same face," think it’s not for them, think they don’t have the skills or precision, etc. Our connected system not only makes finding and executing looks easy, it also lowers the barrier to try and play. Seeing how other community members take the original look as inspiration and make it their own invites you to be creative too.

"When it comes to the importance of the physical, digital, and virtual parts of the experience, we recognize the value of all. In our current age, our identities are expressed in all three of these worlds and you decide what is most important for you."
By Sandra Soskic, Founder, Humanoid Labs

How do you develop that technology in terms of making sure it's as inclusive as possible?

The whole premise of Humanoid Skinwear and the system is to be as inclusive and democratic as possible and take down the existing barriers for expression with color, so we can all enjoy the benefits of being bolder. With the looks in our app, we want to make sure there are relevant looks for all boldness and skill levels. Humanoid is about expression with color, and we work hard on colors that look amazing on all skin tones. Our biodegradable stencils are designed to work with different face and body shapes. Down the line, we will also offer custom stencil designs to allow for even more personalization.

That space between the virtual, digital, and physical is such an interesting intersection, and also one that beauty has been trying to crack for a while. How do you manage to connect those in an organic way? What is the key to unlocking that?

We started with an integrated proposition from the get go; connected products and an app that together deliver on the promise of bold looks in 10 minutes or less, rather than adding digital and virtual layers to a primarily physical experience or coming at it from a virtual experience and adding products to it. The ecosystem is flexible and the user decides whether they use all parts of the system or just the products,  the app, or the virtual goods. By leaving  users in control and allowing them to discover and experience parts or all of the ecosystem at their own pace and comfort levels, we hope the experience will be an organic and personal one. We wanted to deliver a true utility in finding and executing relevant looks for you in the time and skill level that you have, and to do so, we needed products, inspiration, guidance, and support.

It’s also important because this web3 space has been so intimidating to most people. They are just buzzwords that get thrown around; nobody really knows what they mean. That point of having access to connect with Humanoid at whatever level you want feels right.

The web3 part doesn't have to be for everyone. We're just looking at it as different doors into the ecosystem. Some people may come through the web3 door because they see us in a game and think it's cool. Maybe they discover the rest of it, or maybe they don't. Or the other way around, you come through the physical products or maybe download the app and figure out if I had the Humanoid spray that would make it even easier to recreate a Humanoid look that I like. It's very much whatever works for you to experience the joy of expressing yourself with color.

The point about the identity platform ties beautifully back into subcultures as well. Our visual identity or how we choose to present ourselves is such a key point of connection, and it almost goes back to tribal mechanisms, using that as a cue to find your own community. Online communities have made that so much more complex and diverse.

Also to your point about why everyone looks the same,  I wonder if the incubation possibilities of when things were offline are very different than online. We have access to so many imagesthis endless library of ideas and conceptsbut  those channels of information do get determined by certain algorithms, and then sometimes you can end up?

... in the echo chamber. I think it's super interesting that in a time where there's so much access to all the niche subcultures, we tend to be more conformist. The same for architecture. I was in Tuscany years ago, traveling in these beautiful medieval villages and towns where humanity was so much more ambitious, we didn't even have the technology to build those amazing buildings. Then you go into a town that was built in the ’60s and it's all prefab, grey, and square. What is going on? We now have the technology and access, and we choose to go fully function over form and completely drop the aesthetic and the ambition. I love function, but can we combine it? We have the means, we have the technology.

That's what we're trying to do with Humanoid: take care of the utility side and be the catalyst for self-expression. We want everyone to experience the benefits of being bolder, of being and expressing their authentic selves.

Obviously, it's still the very beginning stages of building the company, but what potential do you see for expanding and scaling the business?

Our ambition is that this is a system that appeals to everybody, all ages, all genders. We've put a lot of thought into making it as democratic as possible and taking away certain biases around makeup. This is Skinware, it is tapping into our most basic universal human need, as you mentioned, back to the tribal cultures, where the whole body is the canvas. We have an exciting roadmap of products and app features that we will be rolling out.

In terms of building and funding the business, how has that been thus far?

Every day is filled with exciting and inspiring moments as well as challenges and puzzles to solve. We get recognition and validation from investors, customer panels, and partners, and we also get questioned about whether what we are  building may be too ambitious, too innovative, too big, too multidimensional. The financial markets have certainly changed in the past two years, and investment companies are stricter in sticking to their focus areas, which makes it harder to fit in with a proposition that is across multiple categories.

Innovation takes time and we do not always have that as an early stage company, so that has been an interesting challenge and puzzle since the start, and I wonder if that will ever be different with the evolution of the company. We do count ourselves lucky when it comes to the customer readiness and the zeitgeist, as well as the readiness of technologies like AI, AR, avatars, etc. that we are utilizing in our proposition. We could not have built Humanoid at any other time than now.

It’s such an exciting concept and also so complex. I’m so excited to see where it will go.

Ultimately it is a very simple proposition: bold looks in 10 minutes or less, delivered by a combination of easy-to-use connected products and an app. And we want it to be as inclusive as possible, inviting diverse creatives to contribute to our looks, guides, and catalog—makeup artists, but also tattoo artists, graphic novel illustrators, movie creators, game designers, and the community. As an example, when you're in our looks catalog, you can see a game character and recreate their look, which is exciting and pulls in aesthetics from virtual worlds into the real world. It opens up our ideas around aesthetics. Do they need to look human?

Maybe some of us just want to look like cyborg fairies.

That’s what’s so fun about the virtual worlds where the normal rules don't apply. You can express yourself in infinite ways.


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