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Lights Lacquer Founder Kathleen Fuentes on the Beauty of Cuban Culture and Evolution of the Influencer Space

Published September 29, 2022
Published September 29, 2022
Lights Lacquer

A self-proclaimed “oddball Aquarius with a love for all things beauty,” Kathleen Fuentes, aka Kathleen Lights, launched her YouTube presence in January 2013. Fuentes was undoubtedly part of the golden era of the beauty YouTuber, when a select handful of content creators emerged in the space, experiencing explosive growth of their audiences, launching instantly sold-out collections and collaborations, and spearheading a movement of genuine audience-creator connections. Several years on with an influx of new creators, increasingly sponsored content, and media controversies, and many flocking to Instagram or TikTok for audience-building instead, the YouTube landscape has certainly changed.

But Fuentes’ followership is still going strong, with 4 million+ audience members on  YouTube, and 2 million+ on Instagram. After sold-out partnerships with brands like ColourPop, Morphe, and Ofra, she co-founded her nail polish brand KL in 2016, which generated more than $10 million in sales. Fuentes stepped away from KL Polish in 2019 to launch her independently owned, DTC vegan nail polish range Lights Lacquer, and an apparel and accessories line Lights the Label, marking an exciting new chapter in her entrepreneurial journey.

The Lights Lacquer range is 12-Free, meaning devoid of formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, camphor, formaldehyde resin, xylene, parabens, fragrances, phthalates, animal ingredients, ethyl tosylamide, and triphenyl phosphate. The brand also expanded into nail care products and Jelly Balm Lip Lacquers, color lip products with triple peptide, shea butter, and white-tea infused formulas whose color coordinate with the range’s polish color options. The brand also collaborated on themed collections with TV series Friends and Care Bears, bringing a pop-culture twist to the nail polish category.

The newest collection, Los Barrios, pays tribute to Fuentes’ hometown of Miami in cosmetic form, launching just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15. Three nail polishes build the centerpiece of the range: Cubana (a fiery crimson red), Meet Me at Space (a black polish awash in holographic glitter), and Spanglish (a chrome silver). Those craving further decoration can pick up an illustrated nail sticker sheet with animal, skull, and flame graphics.

BeautyMatter sat down with Fuentes amidst the launch to discuss the evolution of influencer culture, how trust and authenticity have been the key to her success, and the challenges of launching a brand as a content creator.

How have Cuban culture and your Miami roots informed your approach to beauty?

My Cuban culture and being raised as a first-generation Cuban in Miami—a city known for its Latin diversity—have played a huge role in my approach to beauty both from a content creation and brand perspective. 

I think the bold colors and the personality are things I draw inspiration from in my culture. My Cuban culture is such a big part of who I am, and I love bringing it into my channel and my work whenever I can! Whether I film my tutorials in Spanglish or throw my Cuban family into the content. 

For example, when I first launched Lights Lacquer back in November of 2019, my first collection, GRL PWR, was an ode to women’s empowerment, and my Cuban roots are seen throughout every facet of the collection. Colors like Jefa (the Latinx girl boss), HBIC (Head. B***h. In. Charge), Rosie (dedicated to my mother), GRL PWR (the campaign), Woman (the inspiration & embodiment that is the female), 11 (named after the strong female character from Stranger Things).

In addition, Lights the Label, my accessory and apparel merchandise line, was inspired by my Cuban culture and Miami roots. Lights the Label includes a fun and unique variety of accessories, home, and lifestyle items as well as a trendy apparel line, all in one place. This decision was made to build a unified brand that balances the pillars the brand is built on: artistry, culture, and nostalgia. 

One of our drops is an ode to Miami bodegas in Little Havana, but helming inspiration from Cuba’s classic La Bodeguita del Medio. Whether it’s a line inspired by the Cuban bodegas on the famed Calle 8 or incorporating the “Tranquilita Tropical” vibe into my collections, my experiences growing up helped shape my brands. 

Also inspired by my Cuban culture, I designed Libre—a clothing collection inspired by the Ellis Island of the south: Miami’s very own Freedom Tower. Built in 1925, the Freedom Tower is a symbol of hope and freedom to Cubans who sought asylum from 1962-1974. The collection is inspired by freedom, remembrance, family, love, and hope. Growing up as a Latina in Miami was—and is—definitely a unique experience. Miami is a melting pot for cultures, and I love bringing that into my products.  

What can you tell me about the process of creating the Los Barrios collection and how it represents the culture of Miami?

I always incorporate my culture and my city into my brand. This year, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we will launch Los Barrios—a capsule collection inspired by the neighborhoods in Miami. This was my open love letter to the “Magic City” of Miami that I love and truly inspires me. No matter the “barrio,” Miami’s culture, artistry, and lifestyle live on. The “otra noche en Miami” collection includes three new lacquer shades titled Cubana, Meet me at Space (a popular nightclub), and Spanglish, as well as tattoo-inspired nail stickers, two graphic tees, and three phone cases inspired by the neighborhoods and iconic spots that encompass Miami.

As a beauty influencer, what made you want to launch with nail products rather than makeup or skincare?

My platform grew tremendously and thrived based on reviewing skincare and makeup products on YouTube since I launched in 2013, a process that I love so much!  Working so closely with major brands through partnerships through my YouTube and other channels made me fall in love with the product development process. That’s when I decided I wanted to create something of my own. Because my YouTube focuses on makeup reviews, I decided to stay away from developing a makeup brand, so I could continue to review different brands.

I decided to go with nail polish because ever since I was a little girl, I was obsessed with painting my nails! I wanted to follow a passion I never really brought to my channel that often (polish)!

"Being honest & authentic is my #1 priority and it always has been that way and I believe it has been the key to my success."
By Kathleen Fuentes, Founder, Lights Lacquer

What are the challenges of funding and launching your own brand? 

There are so many challenges from the product development process to supply chain issues and ensuring your customers are receiving a product that you are proud of and that they will love. My social media (and especially YouTube) fans have always been so supportive when I launched Lights Lacquer and I am so eternally grateful for them—I would not be where I am without their support and for that reason, I strive to make sure that every product we develop is something unique with a primary focus on quality. I also feel lucky to have an incredible team that helps bring my dream to life, every day.

Were any of these challenges unique to being a beauty influencer entering the space, as opposed to a regular brand founder?

The challenges I faced are the same challenges anyone starting a new product brand from the ground up would face, with the only difference being that yes, I had a platform with an existing audience that was supportive—but that could have gone either way honestly, and the pressure to make something incredible was even harder, because of the audience: millions of people were watching and counting on me to develop a quality product. But I never let my fear of failure keep me from moving forward.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the beauty YouTuber space?

YouTube is in a constant state of evolution and while new platforms like Instagram and TikTok are moving the needle in the beauty space, I think YouTube still has a strong hold on the industry. OG YouTube fans still enjoy long-form content and YouTube allows for that. It’s a sense of escape and entertainment for many people. 

In recent years there has been a lot of controversy around YouTube beauty gurus, and the rise of cancel culture seems to only be adding to this. What has been your key to continue thriving professionally amidst these changing tides?

Being honest and authentic is my #1 priority, and it always has been that way and I believe it has been the key to my success. I continue to stay active on my platforms and engage with my community, but more importantly, I stay true to who  I am—and that is relatable, and when people can relate to you, that’s how you succeed as a content creator.

People will always see through what’s not authentic, and that is why my integrity is everything! I won’t work with a brand unless I truly love, use, and recommend their products. Otherwise, I’d lose trust in my audience—and trust is what keeps them coming back.

What is your experience of the interplay between the TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube platforms as a place of beauty engagement? Is one surpassing the other?

I think there’s been this huge shift in the industry as social platforms have also matured and evolved. There is a lot more production involved on channels like YouTube, whereas Instagram is more fluid and organic in the way audiences connect with their favorite people, so depending on the goal of the brand or influencer, they’ll use their different channels for different purposes.

TikTok is truly dominating a lot of content creation in the beauty industry and helping brands get discovered by newer and wider audiences. But I think each platform brings a unique approach to the beauty industry and I truly believe YouTube will continue to play a vital role in the beauty industry—its reach is unmatched.

What projects are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to see from you in the future?

We just expanded to our newest collection, Lacquer, Lips & Tips, which is a new launch that combines three new nail polish shades, with matching nail shades, lip glosses, and nail tips. Earlier this year, we unveiled completely redesigned product packaging and bottles, plus the release of brand-new and innovative products beyond the polish offering, which truly excites me. We added tools like cuticle oil, polish remover, mattifying topcoats, and a variety of stickers.

I’m so excited to share our newest product categories with our Lights Lacquer family—we will continue to expand our product offerings beyond polish and, of course, stay tuned for a few new fun collaborations next year.


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