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DIBS Beauty: The Power of Relatable Beauty in the Age of the Aspirational

Published May 9, 2023
Published May 9, 2023
DIBS Beauty

Popular terminology around covetable beauty products ranges far and wide: holy grail, must-have, essential item, can’t live without it. But something about Desert Island Beauty Status hits differently—just ask the brand’s co-founder Jeff Lee. Together with Austin-based beauty influencer Courtney Shields—who amassed a 945K-strong following on Instagram thanks to her relatable content for the everyday working mother who still wanted to be glamorous on the go—the former COO of A-Rod Corp (working in strategy across Alex Rodriguez’s health and wellness business ventures) started DIBS (short for Desert Island Beauty Status) Beauty in September 2021.

Thanks to backing from co-founders of Tula Skincare Ken Landis and Dan Reich, Lee and Shields were able to launch the DTC presence of the brand. Products are built on the premise of easy-to-use, multitasking products. Think Desert Island Duos, which contain a blendable bronzer stick on one side and dewy blush on the other, infused with mango seed butter and an antioxidant blend, which can also be used on eyes and lips, available in nine shades to suit all skin tones; and Status Stick highlighters that add a wearable sheen to the face and body while moisturizing skin with ingredients like shea butter, avocado oil, and niacinamide. Products built for the modern cosmetics shopper who needs effective products that work, no matter how busy their lifestyle.

It’s not just the formulas and sentiments that elevate DIBS Beauty above the influencer brand competition. A look inside the brand’s daily operations reveals a business built on authenticity and heart, on relatability and true customer engagement. Between Shields’ charismatic, engaging presence and strategies for audience-building success, as well as Lee’s business acumen and sharp corporate growth insights, the company demonstrates the power of listening to what the consumer truly wants instead of chasing industry trends.

DIBS Beauty is built on the premise of straightforward beauty for the everyday beauty consumer. That strategy landed. In its first year of business, the company sold out of its Duo product nine times, selling one product every three seconds. The Status Stick is sold at rates of 153 units a day, with a quadruple increase in sales month over month. In April 2023, the company received significant growth capital investment from L Catterton.

"DIBS Beauty is a highly distinctive brand that has quickly established a reputation for offering approachable, multifunctional makeup essentials that resonate with its customers," Jon Owsley, Co-Managing Partner of the L Catterton Growth Fund commented at the time of funding announcement. "We are thrilled to once again partner with Ken and Dan who are proven entrepreneurs in beauty as well as Courtney and Jeff, who are uniquely suited to drive growth in this digitally-native brand. We look forward to leveraging our expertise in beauty to support the company's ambitious expansion strategy."

BeautyMatter sat down with Lee to discuss the changing influencer landscape, building a brand for the long haul, and the parallels between coaching beauty pageant contestants and pitching your business concept to investors.

First of all, congratulations on the success that the brand has had. Especially given the engagement your brand has had on platforms such as TikTok, what's the key to having that viral moment with a product in this day and age?

The first thing is, color has a natural advantage on TikTok in particular, because it's highly visual. You see a lot of the younger brands, especially the ones appealing to the Gen Z demographic, with wild colors and combinations. We are much more of a natural-toned brands in terms of our palette choices.

Despite that, there's still an excitement, a wonder, that you can experience with color that is a little more difficult to achieve with other beauty products in the sense of accuracy. For a long time, brands have been preoccupied with making sure that they could get the customer an accurate, precise depiction of their color and the payoff that they're getting. They're using AI, multiple different platforms. The fact of the matter is, even having seen some of the most exciting technologies, you are never going to be able to replicate the true experience. At the end of the day, you're talking about an uphill battle where the product photographs differently between my phone and if I held it up to a camera, and I'm trying to convey that to a third party.

Our success on social selling—because we are only direct-to-consumer right now, which won’t always be the case—is that we're not preoccupied with precision. We're more preoccupied with taking away the intimidation factor from the customer. A tagline of the brand and major philosophy is that you can't mess it up, which is true. It is really hard to find a color that you can’t use in some way; some colors are more suited for certain skin tones for sure, but we're not selling you foundation or concealer. We’re selling you color to enrich your life however you choose to make it. What you are seeing is the experience, the joy, the ease of use, the blendability, the creaminess, all that can be accurately conveyed through video in a very short-form video.

The second overarching piece to our success is that ironically, despite being very happy with where we are with TikTok—we can always be doing better as I think every brand could be—we aren't a trend-chasing brand. We're not ignorant of trends; we often think of how our multipurpose products can fit a trend. But this is a team of largely Gen Xers and we're speaking to women across that whole kind of age spectrum. One of the challenges that we have is that customer might not be as representative in the raw numbers on the TikTok platform. But when you're selling a very classic message, which is ease of use and accessibility, and you're not trying to chase the latest makeup application trend or even trying to generate it, you can actually create a moment on your own.

When we went viral with the Status Stick, our face and body highlighter, it wasn't on the basis of a selling video. It was Courtney, my co-founder, sitting in a car just giving relationship advice, and people zoomed into the product she was applying on her shoulders. We didn't plan it and haven't planned for virality since. I admire the brands that can make that a center of their business strategy, because we're certainly not going that way.

Virality is this unicorn that everyone's trying to catch, but you can't predict it to a certain extent. Therein lies the tricky nature of it. How do you think the influencer brand has evolved? Originally, a name would sell a product, and now the competition has gotten a lot more challenging and the customer a lot more discerning.

I came from [the world of] celebrity brands, so I hear you completely. You used to be able to just slap someone's name on something and sell it, especially in fragrance. Now you see this backlash against celebrity skincare in particular. It's funny because we sit at a really interesting crossroads in the beauty industry. You have celebrity and influencer brands sitting over here that have the unfair advantage coming in from a business standpoint, of being able to draw eyeballs over. Then you have founder brands that don't have the name or exposure but are struggling more than ever to gain traction. Before, the playing field was leveled because they could easily blow up on social media, and that's no longer possible due to all of the back-end reconfigurations.

You have the customer sitting here, looking at a crossroads: I don't know that I want to buy into this lifestyle over and over again, I’m willing to buy it once as merch and try it out for my favorite singer or actress, etc., but I also don't know how to access, be informed about, or distinguish among all of these younger brands that are coming out by people that are more anonymous, like myself. That's where beauty is struggling. We see this in the major retailers too, because on the one hand, they understand it better than anyone else. If you are a Sephora, an Ulta, a Boots, a Mecca, you know that you have to stand at the forefront of trends and deliver products that are high impact and stand the test of time. But you're also under pressure to deliver performance, especially if you’re a public company, and you're going to go with what you know.

From our perspective, the brands that will last the test of time are the ones that are equipped to build themselves in the right way over a probably very grueling haul. We were always built for a five-to-six-year game, just to get ourselves off the ground. Where we have our unfair advantage is that Courtney is not just a name and a face and has a following that can launch us like any other influencer celebrity, but that there's an authentic relationship between her and her followers in this specific space that has been built over 12 to 13 years. Her fans have always seen themselves in her.

If you look at it, there are several tiers. There's a celebrity with no nexus with what they're selling to you, probably an A-list–level person that can just move the product once. Then there's a celebrity who used to be a makeup artist or has been obsessed with skincare all their life, and they’re selling that to you. Okay, maybe that person can build a recurring stream. Then there's an influencer who is close enough to you that when you look at that person, you can relate to them. If that influencer is someone who has credibility with the product and you've watched her test the product, that's really key.

One thing we do really unusually is that we have not only allowed but encouraged Courtney and all of our other partners to endorse other brands. We actually say from day one, “Look, we're not a foundation brand right now. Go out and tell everybody how you feel about the latest foundation release.” All of our partners are currently reviewing it and giving Makeup By Mario publicity. We're secure enough with what we're doing, we think it benefits us, because if Courtney were to suddenly come out with a line with me and say, “Oh, here's all I use,” that's not true. There's that authenticity piece, and it’s also not how the customer shops anymore.

That's where we are able to straddle the line between the two worlds, but how people choose to build brands and how the customer chooses to relate to them, that's still evolving. As we look at our influencers, especially Courtney herself, we are looking at them as people that have true input into the brand. One benefit of being a small brand is we can take the feedback in as actionable real-time insights. That’s very different from other relationships where it’s typically pay-to-play—you get a sale, and you move on.

People are a lot more aware of, what it means when someone has an affiliate code with a brand, their video is being sponsored by them, or it's their own brand. There’s a much higher discernment of authenticity, and how much a product actually fits into that influencer’s lifestyle and their ethos.

What was shocking to me, I was approached by an MBA student who tells me she’s a huge fan of my business partner. I asked her why she liked Courtney so much and she goes, “Because she feels so real, with whatever she puts out.” She specifically said to your point, even when she puts out sponsored posts, she distinguishes between that and stuff she just happens to like, and it makes her like and trust everything that she puts out more.

If you think about the way that effective leaders in our society are, no matter what you think of their policies, they're the ones that make people feel like they're in a true and authentic conversation and that the customer is actually being heard, rather than being pushed to a product that they don't want. For us, it's the same, you look at all these brands, we all have the same “playbook,” but the execution is totally different in many ways. It’s because we've chosen to do things very differently. It may seem minor, but other brands are not okay with their founder going out there and plugging competing brands. It doesn't happen.

"From our perspective, the brands that will last the test of time are the ones that are equipped to build themselves in the right way over a probably very grueling haul."
By Jeff Lee, co-founder, DIBS Beauty

In a previous interview, you said you'd rather invest in community building than paid advertising, and also how you're not running to get into a Sephora or an Ulta. Both of those viewpoints are quite different to the traditional mode. How does that speak to the changing landscape of beauty, marketing, and retail?

When you are talking about where the retailers are and where a DTC brand sits, the challenge is always in the execution. Obviously, some retailers just reported monster results, they really are crushing it, they've reconfigured themselves to talk to the customer in a great way, but customers are always looking to be surprised and delighted.

Go into an Ulta or a Sephora, you’re still being assaulted by a lot of different brands competing for your attention. If you're a customer, you need a space to feel like you are the number-one person, and that is something we do uniquely well. It flows from the fact that Courtney answers as many messages as she can and our team will answer as many as they can. In fact, she is our number-one customer service rep. People go to her if their shipment is late because the carrier was delayed. She forwards everything to me. This is a woman who gets thousands of messages a day, so the fact that she has made herself so accessible flows through the rest of the brand. I’m easily accessible on social media, people come to me with their order problems. I spend about an hour of my day on customer service, both positive and negative. I'm proud of that and I expect every member of the team to do that.

That flows into the brand ethos. We do these community-building exercises and events, because first of all, we are, in American parlance, intending to be a 50-state brand.There are many parts that feel very underrepresented. You think of beauty in America coming solely from New York and LA, and not even from those towns properly, but from SoHo. We're big believers—and I experienced this traveling the country—that beauty should speak to all 50 states. There are glamorous, exciting things to discover in all corners of the country and from our customers there. We have done a lot of events in geographically underserved areas, places like Indiana and Nashville, where we actually have very strong customer bases.

The second piece of it is that it’s an adventure, not just fancy influencer trips. There's always a community component where we invite our audience along. Even when we did an anniversary trip for the company and for our influencers to Puerto Rico, the fans were invited to participate throughout the trips. They had incentives like free prizes. But the most important part of that is when you walk into an event—the feedback I got from our Dallas event just a few weeks ago was that our events make anyone feel comfortable. People came into our holiday party dressed in pajamas. People don’t want anything more than what makes them comfortable.

That's really difficult to do as a beauty brand, because by definition, beauty is often intimidating. We have that ethos: it doesn't matter if you are someone with 8 million followers or you are a busy mom who doesn't have social media at all, you should feel welcome at our events. If you were just walking in off the street and we didn’t know who you were, which has happened many times, Courtney will be the first one to come and shake your hand, I would follow right after. We would ask you if we can show you the products and introduce you to other people in the room. Our ethos about everything that we do is approachability.

I like that you mentioned the Midwest or middle states, because to your point, beauty always gets pigeonholed to New York and LA, but the middle of the country obviously has huge spending power as well. Have you noticed any difference in terms of how someone say from Illinois or Kansas engages with the brand versus someone from the coastal cities?

Oh yes, absolutely. Way deeper. It starts from a place of respect because the brand respects them. With all due respect to Hermès and some of these high-end labels that are now moving to Midwestern cities, they've always referred to them in business parlance as tier-two cities. That’s a term we use with mainland China. Okay, but we're an Austin-headquartered brand, Texas and Chicago are two of our top five markets, and the Midwest completely follows right behind. We also are randomly seeing corners of the country, like in Alaska where we have a huge pocket of customers. I don't know how they're getting our makeup, but I'm glad that it's reaching them.

My attitude towards that is, first of all, customers in the Midwest have a different relationship with a lot of our brand partners and influencers. They’re much closer to them, they view them as very much trusted big sisters. Courtney is viewed in that way. I will contrast her with a lot of our cultural influencers and partners, where, for example, here in New York, you have a bunch of major models and fashion influencers who you don't follow because you relate to them, or are all that much interested in what they're cooking or doing with their kids. You follow them because, “Oh, that’s really pretty. That's style inspo.”

There's a real difference in the relationship that flows through to conversion, and then the second piece of it is the actual use of the makeup. We do see certain trends, patterns of usage, especially in the Midwest, that we don't see on the coast as much. Ironically, a lot of our Texan customers in particular are willing to experiment with multiple uses a little more than customers on the East and West coasts. That might be because if you are a highly beauty-savvy person living in a beauty-centric world, you're inundated with a lot of new brands that are coming through and they're all telling you, “This is the value prop, go.”

Now, if you are in a market that isn't exposed to thousands of new brands every day, you have more attention span, more time to concentrate, and more time to form a deeper relationship with us. That's what's required to really explore a multipurpose product. If you think about it this way, everyone wants to be multipurpose, but you only get the customer to adopt it if it's designed properly. I always say you'd never want to be the Chinese restaurant that sells Thai food, and I say that as a Chinese person. The second piece of it is, you need to have enough of the customer's attention that they're willing to say, “I love this product so much, I'm going to try this as a bronzer, eyeshadow, lip color,” versus “I've got 14 different things I'm trying today, so we'll just do the contour and move on.”

When it came to formulating that product and its accessibility no matter what the skin tone or undertone, how did you tweak the formulas to make sure that there’s an ease of application and everyday-wear potential to it?

First of all, we are a clean, vegan, cruelty-free brand. We're very proud of all the ingredients [we use]. We're very proud of the standards that we adhere to because we start from the place that Courtney is the mother of a young child who gets into her makeup and rubs it up against her face all day. That's our fundamental standard: we want you, and especially because many of our customers are mothers, to be comfortable with our makeup being all over your child.

We are fundamentally easy to use and multipurpose and mistake-proof because of two things. One is the product is blendable. All of these products are sticks right now; they're meant to be picked up with your finger if you're on the go, and you can blend and apply it very quickly. The second piece of it is that the product is buildable, and all the products are formulated to sequence on top of each other so that you can layer and blend. In fact, our highlighter and our blush/bronzer duos contain complementary skincare ingredients, so you are getting both your niacinamide and hyaluronic acid in one go. They both also share mango butter, you can never get enough of that.

What's really important to us too is you get the payoff but the ability to blend out. That's an important case specifically when you're talking about someone who might be intimidated by a dark color. You can always blend it out if you're on the go or build it up, layer it, and customize it. Most of our customers actually buy multiples of our duo sticks. They mix and match the blushes and contours, depending on the season, because your skin tone changes across seasons, and to create the custom colors that they want for themselves.

Another piece is that this extends through even more intimidating parts of the collection. Eyeliner is really intimidating for people. I can say it was, because I test out every one of our products and I have never worn eyeliner. I did it in front of the team, and the brand director goes, “Great job, now do a cat eye.” But the thing about our eyeliner is that it's not a sharp liner, so if you're looking for a super-precision liner, don't come to us. What we are is very simple, on-the-go liner you can easily blend out if it didn't go on perfectly. That's been built into the brand: easy to put on, easy to build up, easy to take off. That doesn't mean it's not long wearing or long lasting, it just means that it's layerable and believable.

What gets positioned or sold on social media are often these intense, makeup artistry looks with bold colors and techniques, but when you look at what the average woman, whoever is using the products, is doing, that's not the reality. The everyday application of makeup versus how it's presented online are very different realities.

One of the things that people are always pressed for is more time. I understand if this is your job; I come from a beauty pageant world where we have three hours to have the girls sit in the chair and just do their makeup. But we like to joke that on top of standing for “Desert Island Beauty Status,” makeup you would take with you to a desert island, it stands for “Ditch the BS” internally. The BS being a $120 no-makeup makeup routine that makes you feel like “Okay, what was the point?” Or feeling like you've been cyberbullied by someone telling you “Master this way with four products on your eye, you're somehow now going to be ready to face your day.”

What I'm very proud of is that these products are usable for people with very advanced makeup knowledge and what I like to call makeup bravery, but they're also perfectly accessible for people like my mom. I teach at a lot of academic institutions, a lot of the faculty and students at these places have less makeup courage; because they've been intimidated, they only knew how to put on red lipstick. That's what we're building for, which is, “Guys, it's fast. It's easy. You can do this very quickly.” One of my best friends is a federal prosecutor, is in court all day, [when it comes to her makeup] she’s like, “It’s on, let’s go.” I get it, because how else would you do your makeup? You don’t have time before the judge is calling you to do the full face.

"As a business, we look at our data very closely, but our data does not control our decision-making."
By Jeff Lee, co-founder, DIBS Beauty

There's also the reality of if you work in a certain type of corporate setting, you wouldn't be able to walk in with wild makeup.

I just flew in from Chicago where I teach a class called Women as CEOs and Business Leaders. It’s very ironic because I tell this whole group of women, “I’m literally going to be mansplaining to you all.” But the reason I bring it up is it's very near and dear to my heart, because I used to be a political scientist, and one of the things that we found was, until 2007, there was no woman elected to a presidency or prime minister around the world who did not have short hair, Margaret Thatcher style, tied-back hair, or wore a hijab.

It was like that until 2007 when the Argentine president was elected and she had very long glamorous hair—you actually very rarely saw a woman with shorter-length hair leading countries. That opened up the permission structure, because for a very long time, it was really Thatcher, Theresa May, Liz Truss—they all wore very short, kind of conservative hair. Right after Cristina Kirchner is elected, you see the whole wave shift. Now look at the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand, they have, very frankly, glamorous-looking hair. You open up the permission structure in the US. For example, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is very famous for wearing purple wigs. She walks into the most conservative chamber of American government. She was sworn in by Mike Pence, an evangelist from the Midwest, wearing wild hair. It was her way of saying “I'm an iconoclast.”

I agree with you, having come from a conservative Wall Street background, that yes, it could raise an eyebrow, but the permission structure has never been more open towards saying, “Hey, you know what, I'm going to look past this.” That’s one of the benefits of where we are, despite the turmoil that Western civilization is facing right now. We've never been more open to things that might have been disqualifying before. That's also my attitude towards makeup. We’re trying to build on that permission structure. Our message is, “Hey, you might be a Midwest mom and have thought before that you needed pageant makeup to go out and feel good about yourself when really, we're telling you, you do you.” That's our bestselling [Desert Island Duo] shade, You Do You.

You have a background in coaching beauty pageant contestants. There's an interesting parallel between presenting as a pageant contestant in front of a panel of judges and an investor meeting, selling your vision. Obviously, the brand has gotten some incredible investors on board, I was wondering if you could walk me through that process.

I fully acknowledge that a contest like Miss Universe can be fundamentally viewed as sexist and objectifying a woman. You can slice it any number of ways—it’s Miss Universe, Miss World, Beauty with a Purpose—but whenever you ask someone to parade in front of you in a swimsuit or an evening gown, answer some inane questions, and then be scored for it, no matter how you fudge the terminology, you're fundamentally saying, “I'm going to rate and judge that person based off of a 22-second perception of that person.” I understand fully how problematic that could be.

But that same exact thing happens—whether you're a man, female, or other gender identity—when you go into an investor meeting or presentation. Malcolm Gladwell had the phrase “thin slice”—we make judgments about each other within the first five seconds of meeting each other. Where I do think there is a great lens of positivity, a big reason why I do this on the side—and my candidate Miss Peru is in her second day at Miss Universe right now, we're very proud of her—I do believe that once you have had the experience of walking in a swimsuit, I don't care what gender you are, in front of a billion people, you can do anything. If you've watched it, you know.

The fact of the matter is the most beautiful woman never made Miss Universe, maybe twice in 25 years I've seen that happen. It’s always the one that on the first night of competition you just know, she comes in a winner. She comes out with a mindset; she's played the entire competition correctly in the sense of strategy and focus. People just exude that confidence. I can always pick the winner out right before she goes on stage, you just know. That winner could change if the pageant were held an hour or two hours later.

Similarly, when you're pitching to investors—and this is something that really matters to me enormously from the perspective that women have a much harder time than men getting funding, I’m very proud that my co-founder is a woman and that our company is entirely women, other than myself—we are picking them from a standpoint of absolute confidence. That's what you have to do.

I went to school with Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos fame, and she was famous for doing so many things, altering her appearance, lowering her voice. The lesson though was that a lot of women look at that, and say, "Oh my God, is that what I have to do to go in and get funding? Do I have to transform myself and get myself into a mold?” My attitude towards it is, even for myself, coming in as a minority, as someone from outside of the traditional halls of venture capital, anything that detracts from your own confidence, focus, and ability to deliver the results you're promising isn't worth worrying about.

I always say you can't control what you can't control. I have no idea whether or not my background or ethnicity or the timbre of my voice make people discredit me subconsciously or consciously. All I can do is put the inputs I can in. There's two things: one is to be extraordinarily prepared, and then the second piece of it is to be definitive and decisive from the first moment. That applies to Miss Universe, pitching and meetings with investors, and with the press like yourself. I know very much what we stand for. If you met with Courtney or any member of our team, you’d receive the absolute same from their own perspectives of what we stand for and what our success has represented.

Reflecting on the growth figures with the company, where are you hoping to take things? What's on the horizon?

We're always looking at things with the idea of a) we don't look at our competitors, b) we don't create false senses of expectation. Being a corporate lawyer, my investment partners find it aggravating, but I refuse to inflate things. I look back at the numbers I promised our initial investors and we have blown way past them, but next year could be terrible. We're always planning for the worst. That's not a sexy topic that comes up a lot. When you talk to young brands, they always want to tell you, “We're ready to double and triple. We're ready to become the number one.” Are we aiming for all that? Absolutely. We do in our mission of being multipurpose and accessible, not only to women in the US, but eventually around the world. But we also have to plan.

I wouldn't be a good CEO or responsible manager if I didn’t plan for the possible worst. We're heading into a global recession, there’s the whole lipstick effect, but how much can we hang our hat on that? We could be a hot thing today, gone tomorrow. Look at the trajectory of many TikTok stars. So the question is: are we really nurturing the customers? We already are continuing to excite, delight, and listen to them, having a conversation with them.

One of the great things I've heard about customer service is that true brands actually form a relationship. We've done that, we have people that come to us for relationship advice. My brand director frequently goes into the DMs on top of our customer service, and she's having a six-month-long chat now about one woman’s days. That's fantastic, because you know what? That's what we're here for—if you choose to plan that outlet with us, we're here to have a conversation with you. That's what we're planning for, which is deepening our relationships with customers we have while continuing to broaden. It's not a very sexy answer, but it is the true one.

Another area that we're preoccupied with is product development. How do we continue to bring easier solutions to people? Makeup has gone in these crazy cycles, where there's less and then there's more. We’re always going to be guided with the idea that fundamentally people have been using certain things in certain ways since Cleopatra and figuring out ways to deliver to them that are exciting, but also not intimidating.

There's always something to be said as well to the enduring power of neutral shades and easy-to-work-with formulations. No matter how busy your day is, everybody has five minutes to do something. You don't have 20 or 30 minutes every day. Beauty has been built on this idea of fantasy, but we’re coming into more of a point of reality with it that asks what your everyday consumer is using and doing.

You touched on something I think that applies to fashion as well. I have some really wild statement pieces I wear but I find myself reaching for the basics. Even for creatives, it's more exhausting when you are putting out boldness and transgressing the norm. Everyone has days when you want to reach for something that's comforting and simple. I don't think that market will ever go out of style.

One of my favorite discussions to have with people is this idea of beauty as a power and cultural capital. Depending on how you look at it, it can be empowering, and the opportunities that are granted to someone who wins a Miss Universe, you can't look past that, even if you maybe think we're judging someone based on appearance and these answers. What does beauty mean in 2023—how we interpret it, how we apply it, how can it be this challenging medium?

For starters, I always have to preface this with Miss Universe and Miss World in the US is a joke; where it matters are places like Venezuela or in the Philippines. These women run for president, and you don't even have to win. In Venezuela, it's understood that if you want any public-facing career—newscaster, model, actress, TV host, even businesswoman and politician—you go to Miss Venezuela. There are so many beautiful women competing that if you went through the school where they trained you 24/7 for a year on how to walk a runway, how you answer any kind of question, you're ready for anything, any kind of public-facing career.

That’s where the beauty comes in, because beauty is inherently an unfair thing. It’s like the Instagram jealousy that we all get, when I see people having better vacations and bodies than me in my New York apartment. I always do comparison, but what I tell all my Miss Universe and Miss World winners is, "Guess what, next year, there's another one, and she’s going to be more famous and more powerful than you, so what are you going to do about it?” The fact is whether or not Alessia, my Miss Peru, wins or not, she's already famous in Peru for her acting and singing career. Now she's become famous for her nonprofit work. The fact that she's a very public advocate for children's education, has gone to rural communities to use it to build infrastructure, she’s actually used that power to make a difference. Now she's able to answer questions like, how do you feel about negotiating with terrorists? This is her favorite question. I asked her that the first time I met her, right before we sent her to the competition.

A beauty pageant arouses emotion, it inspires people. Men and women watch when Miss Peru, Miss Colombia, Miss Venezuela, Miss Philippines go up on stage and wears her country sash. That’s the only time outside of the Olympics and the World Cup that they're going to do that. Does kicking a ball around a field for three hours really do anything for us? No, but look at how effective Morocco and Argentina were—it brought whole countries together.

Here you're explicitly required and encouraged that you won't win unless you use this great God-given attribute of yourself for a better purpose. My energy towards it is, everyone does have a superpower. We always say when you look at Miss Universe, think of it not as "Oh, she's so hot. I wish I could be that.” Think of it as this: an 18-year-old girl who has everything [weighing] on five seconds of her walking out in heels in front of a judge. She chooses to do this on her own choice and make her career choices. I can do that for myself in anything I choose to do, and that’s where I believe there's value.

To answer your question about what beauty stands for in 2023, I truly think we will never ever lose the great icons of beauty because they are built into our pillars. We choose these icons as a society. We also have them chosen for us by people like Anna Wintour. I don't think people will ever lose sight of a Naomi Campbell or an Elle Macpherson, whatever the standard, Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn. There's a standard of beauty, a hero of beauty, and icons of beauty for everyone on a personal level that you will always have, because they represent something so beautiful and aspirational.

What I love right now about day-to-day beauty is finding beauty among what we would previously have considered ordinary. That’s so exciting because it has never been harder to be a traditional model. Most brands are looking for normal-looking women to relate to customers, but at the same time people are still fascinated by all these celebrities and people in Vogue. That standard of beauty will continue in parallel. What's great is, before we only looked to the top; now we're looking at this broader message that will open up and broaden the category.

We have our team members on all of our shoots. We make that conscientious choice, you have a mix. We won't abandon traditional models, because we want there to be aspiration, but you're going to see a big campaign coming from us this year which is emphasizing the duality of the brand. You will see models, everyday people, team members, and that's really what we speak to.

What else is in the future of DIBS Beauty?

It’s still growing and we’re grateful for the success. I wanted to touch on AI and whether or not it will displace what we do as beauty formulators and creators. All these big industry trendsetters are acknowledging it, and we feel that pressure too as a color cosmetics brand with a heavy investment from digital players to behind-the-scenes focus on AI in some way.

It's very sexy for the investment set when we say we've got AI-powered color matching, AI-powered departments, we use big data, we scrape our customer base. I truly don't believe that's how you build a brand. I know everyone I went to business school with would rip their eyeballs out if I said that in an investment meeting. But I do think a lot of that is, at the end of the day, slapping the name on. It’s like when Bitcoin was a big thing. AI is becoming better and better for sure, look at ChatGPT. It can ultimately render our jobs obsolete.

Where I believe AI will factor into our company and our industry specifically is this: it will definitely improve a lot of how we develop our products, but humans have always been faster and more innovative in certain ways, and we're also very reactive. What we're very good at doing is layering in our innovation on top of whatever is being produced.

That's going to become a conversation where, okay, I might have a better understanding of the range of skin tones and a computer-optimized mapping of how I should be developing the ingredients, formulation, and colors to match that customer, but then my mind is going to go into different directions on top of that and surprise and delight the person that is having human contact with me. If I have a strong-enough relationship to my customer as a brand, then that's going to make me stronger. That's why I also believe that great fragrance brands will never go out of style. A nose is a nose, and the really great ones, they can actually have their work improved by iteration. The same goes for us.

AI as a tool or a helping hand, but not as the whole thing. Also to your point, there is that “it” factor that you can't predict. A machine is cold in that sense, it goes off of the data. But then if I look at the immense successes, it's almost about predicting what people want before they want it.

As a business, we look at our data very closely, but our data does not control our decision-making. By the same token, when we do our product development, we are very forward-looking. We look at all the industry trends, what our customer has been asking for, but it's incumbent on us to, first of all, predict what the customer will want down the road and guide them there.

The fact of the matter is you can forge your own destiny. If you know your customer has a certain level of comfort and expectation, you can build a product that is exciting, innovative, that doesn't violate any of these pillars and then guide the customer throughout your conversation. That's our superpower as a brand.

Courtney is there in her kitchen showing people stuff that we're releasing later this year, so people already know we have something coming up. That's exciting, it’s a really fun product and doesn't violate any of the pillars or familiarity that we have with our products already. That’s something we can do that no AI can do. If you had put this into our inventory-planning projection model, which is very advanced actually, you would not have gotten this product. But I do think it will be a huge hit.


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