In an age of double-digit shade ranges, most people would believe that finding the optimal foundation for your skin tone is an issue of bygone eras. For Yu-Chen Shih, this was a myth rather than reality. Frustrated with the lack of matching color options, even with Asian brands, she set out to create Orcé, a makeup range dedicated to the unique needs, be they undertone or skincare related, for Asian skin. The brand currently offers a serum foundation and setting powder in six uniquely curated shades.
Nonetheless, when Shih began her venture in 2017, the entrepreneur was met with unprecedented challenges. The very industry that championed diversity turned its back on her for making a brand that catered to an underserved market, claiming her brand was not inclusive enough. But with voices like Shih’s gaining reach, specialization could usher in a more authentic stage of diversity.
The founder sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss the unspoken challenges of shade formulation, the prevalence of skin tone-altering practices in the Asian cosmetics market, and her hopes for giving a voice to those who, until now, haven’t been heard.
Orcé speaks to the needs of Asian skin and undertones. Could you dive into that gap in the market you saw?
Even before I developed Orcé, from my experience as a consumer, there were only a few brands that did have shades with yellow undertones. However, I still felt like these shades weren't a good match for me because they were oftentimes too yellow, or would look orange on me, somehow were still very pink on my skin. Even these brands that have many different shades were kind of missing the mark for me.
I thought if I just went to Japan and Korea, countries where you would think they develop products for the Asian consumer, bought the top-selling foundation lines, and hand picked however many shades I want to make, there's my collection. But after testing the shades on myself and people around me, they still weren't hitting the nail on the head. Japanese beauty brands tend to oxidize a lot and love really pink and red tones on the skin. I later found out from speaking with a Japanese friend who's a makeup artist, there's this desire to correct one skin tone, they would use either a tinted primer or foundation that has a lot of red pigment to counteract the yellowness in their natural skin. Korean beauty brands on the other hand, besides having extremely limited shade ranges, look kind of ashy. It's this desire to appear more fair or porcelain. I ended up having to create each shade from scratch, based on myself and people around me. The lab I was working with thought I was crazy. The chemists came to me, dropped off the Pantone skin color book, and said, “Pick however many shades you like from this book. You don't have to do all of that work, it's going to take too long.” And then it hit me: I wonder how many brands out there with dozens and dozens of shades actually did the research based on real people. Are they like this chemist is suggesting, just taking pages out of Pantone ranges? If they are, then no wonder so many of us are not able to find the shades that actually match natural skin.
In previous years there's been a backlash against skin-whitening products. Do you think that practice fed into wanting to correct the yellow undertones?
I would like to preface this by saying, this trend is more prevalent in Asia, rather than in communities in the US and Western countries. But in general this desire to look more fair is why there are many Asian women and men using foundations that are several shades lighter. In Chinese we have this term for women who let themselves go after they get married and have children. We call them the woman with the yellow face. People want to wash away that yellow pigment. So for those of us who don't necessarily subscribe to that trend, it's very hard to find foundations that actually blend into the rest of our bodies.
What was that shade development process like?
I started with all these shades from different brands, so I identified the spectrum from light to deep as much as we could cover with our financial constraints at the time. Each shade we would try on a group of people who are around the same tone, and would ask them for feedback. Then we expanded into sending out this survey to over 100 people who identify as Asian women, or are of mixed descent. We would ask them, what foundation are you currently using, what are your complaints about it? Then we would work on that feedback, refine the shade and send it back to them, and ask them: what do you think about this now, do you know anybody else in your circle that you can test on?
How long did that take?
The whole product development process, from formulation to shade development, took us about a year. There were a lot of very unhappy people, such as the chemists, but it was a process that I felt very strongly about that needed to happen. In order to fix the problem that a lot of people are not able to find a shade that truly works for them. The solution is to develop it based on real people.
What are the specific needs for Asian skin that are often overlooked in other products?
A lot of the way we do things is based on my experience as a consumer. For a long time, I have given up on foundation because I was never able to find a shade that matched me, and a lot of these top-selling foundations would cause reactions on my skin. I have combination skin, oily and sensitive, which I later found out were fairly common traits of Asian skin. For the longest time I just thought, maybe foundation isn't for me. It's when I use certain formulations, especially those that have fragrance, that it causes my skin to be really irritated or it's a guaranteed breakout the next day. As I was playing with this idea of what you can do to make the foundation that wouldn't cause these issues, I started talking to some friends who also happened to be Asian about it. One after another, they echoed the same frustrations. It made me realize that perhaps the formulations aren't compatible with our skin type. I learned from a dermatologist who's also Asian and has a special interest in studying Asian skin, that it is structurally different from other ethnicities. We have an extremely thin stratum corneum, which is the topmost layer of our skin. Some people also call it the barrier of your skin. Because ours is really thin, it makes us very vulnerable to harsh ingredients and environmental stressors. At the same time, because the barrier is thin, it allows moisture to escape the skin throughout the day, transepidermal water loss. That's why, coupled with very active sebum production mixed with dehydration, a lot of us are breaking out and having adverse reactions.
You need these specific undertones and formulations, the concept of being everything to everyone is great, but the reality is that’s not plausible. Yet you were met with criticism from investors and editors for being too niche.
I studied marketing and advertising, and rule number one that we were taught is that you cannot serve everybody. My contribution to inclusivity and the beauty industry is that I am able to serve this demographic group of people who have been overlooked for a long time. It's kind of a slap in the face, that when I actually develop a brand that seeks to do that, I'm being punished for not being inclusive enough.
How will diversity in the industry develop in the post-Fenty era?
As a small brand, I find it very challenging. My approach as a small brand to diversity is very different from that which is expected by retailers and the beauty industry at large. Their idea of diversity and inclusivity is having mega brands come up with like 40-50 different SKUs of shades, which leaves very little room for indie brands like myself that are privately funded, because we cannot afford the 40-50 SKUs. My approach to diversity is specializing in a demographic that has been overlooked, but we've also received backlash from the beauty industry—from editors, from retailers, from investors—that we're not being inclusive because we're serving a specific demographic.
I love Fenty, it's an amazing brand. But a brand like that has also made it very difficult for smaller brands, because now consumers have very unrealistic expectations. One of the comments I got pretty recently from a consumer online was: “Six shades, you might as well not launch at all.” It really hit me that consumers have been trained to expect brands to launch out of the gate with 40-50 different shades.
I don't know if this is how the industry is going to develop, but my hope is that many more indie brands can emerge, each specialized in their own group of people. I believe that a huge brand, that is trying to be everything to everybody, wouldn't understand my target market as well as I do, because I've invested in the research and product development specifically to solve the problems that this group of people have. Perhaps we can get to the point of inclusivity faster or in a more holistic way if we encourage more brands that have a special interest in a specific group to create solutions that actually work because they are part of and have a dialogue with that community. They actually care about the unique needs that this community has instead of just playing a numbers game in the office.
Social media has been a powerful tool in terms of calling out companies, but there needs to be a bit more nuance. Cancel culture does have its drawbacks, where people will be quick to demonize without actually looking at the finer details. Have you had consumer feedback that has been encouraging you in the fact that this is the right brand mission?
Absolutely. The one thing that pushes me forward in this journey is people letting me know that this is the first brand that makes them feel seen, like their needs matter. A lot of us who are from minority groups have been taught to settle for what's out there because we know we're not the target consumer of the beauty industry.
In terms of brand offerings, do you have any other products in the works?
Besides foundation, last year we launched a setting powder which is a perfect complement to our foundation, because we recognize that not everybody prefers that dewy texture. Some people, maybe with oilier skin, like something a little bit more matte. The setting powder helps you absorb additional shine, oil, and moisture. It works very well on all skin tones because it is pretty much a translucent powder. It is also formulated just like our foundation, in the sense that it is non-comedogenic, can be used on sensitive skin, and contains those three signature ingredients that we have in our products: hyaluronic acid for hydrating and balancing oils; Tahitian Pearl extract that helps with hyperpigmentation, brightening, repairing; and the evodia fruit, which is a Chinese herb that helps boost radiance and improve skin texture.
Our next goal is to launch a shade extension to our foundation line, so instead of having six shades by Q1 of next year, we will have 12. Hopefully we can continue building from there. I would love to establish our brand as a complexion expert that then can build into other color products. A lot of our customers have been requesting bronzer and blush, because with yellow and olive undertone skin it is difficult to find bronzers and blush that work well with your complexion. A bronzer and blush that works well on a white person may look ashy or orange on Asian skin or olive tone skin. So I am thinking about different products down the road.
In terms of trying to grow our reach, even though we have garnered a following, I don't think we fully penetrated the Asian community. It's very hard for us to reach these people as a digital brand, because Facebook has disabled the ability for brands to target based on ethnicity or cultural background. That's been tough for me because, let's say we try to target as well as an Asian brand trying to serve the Asian community, sometimes we accidentally target people outside of the demographic. Sometimes these people check us out, try our products, and become customers even though they weren’t looking for an Asian brand. But a lot of times people will get very upset. They will say, “Why are you targeting me, I'm not Asian?” and say you're racist, elitist. My goal with creating this company is so people who have unfortunately been discriminated against can have a brand that serves them. If people think that's racist, I don't know what to say.
I’m thinking that inclusivity in the future is coming more from an authentic rather than performative space. With retail, we have had the 13% Pledge, but is DTC going to be the main way to do that?
We mostly focused on direct-to-consumer so far, because the industry isn't catching on yet to this idea. There is a lot of performative diversity going on. As a small brand with very limited resources, we are limited by the lack of large retailer distribution. The good news is that Neiman Marcus launched us in August, so I am regaining a little bit of hope. I am very happy that we found a retailer who sees the value in a brand like Orcé, rather than writing us off. I don’t want to name names, but I have spoken to a very prominent retailer, who knocked on our door twice asking for products, and was interested in perhaps representing the brand. Each time I would send product, and then radio silence. I wanted to find out what was the issue so maybe we can work on it. I received an email from the person who worked in this company, saying: “Because your brand serves Asians, we find that polarizing, and ethnic brands traditionally have not done well for us.” This happened right before COVID, so, I'm sure they wouldn't make a statement like that now after BLM and Asian hate. But that's the reality for a lot of beauty retailers unfortunately. I've also learned that they will bash your brand for not having 50 shades, but they're not going to order all 50 shades, only the top-selling ones. I am hoping that, with Neiman Marcus showing faith in our brand, other retailers will also reconsider their positioning on ethnic brands.
If you don't have that representation in the boardroom, how are you going to be able to genuinely be inclusive? That's an even bigger portion of it, at that C-suite level.
You mentioned some retailers dedicating a certain percentage to Black-owned brands. I feel like, as an Asian person, we've been left out of this conversation about diversity. We are also people of color, but you never hear retailers saying let's dedicate a certain percentage to Asian-owned brands. It's so easy for people to come up to me and say, “You serve Asian people, you're racist, or are not being inclusive.” I wonder how many would go up to a Black-owned brand and say that. I don't know the answer, but I wonder how much of it is the fact that as a community, we're not very loud about our needs and frustrations. I really respect the Black community for being vocal about what they're not getting and what they deserve. I wish that we as a community could speak out more, so the industry knows that we have unmet needs and need brands that are able to fulfill that. . Inclusivity doesn't mean we're going to be inclusive for this one demographic. There needs to be more nuance in that conversation too.
We talk a lot about the numbers game in the start-up world. The fact that we are minority groups, we're already not winning the numbers game, because we're never going to be the big piece of pie. It's problematic that the beauty industry’s approach to diversity is making it exclusive for these very large brands with so much backing to be able to be everything to everybody, rather than uplifting smaller indie brands. Imagine a world where, no matter what your background is, you walk into a Sephora and there's going to be a brand that meets your needs. You don't have to go through a million of these giant brands and comb through 40-50 shades to maybe find one that suits you. What if there's a huge variety of different brands for different people? What if that is the true definition of inclusivity, that there's something for everybody.
This colorism aspect, this idea that only fair is beautiful, we talk about that a lot with the brand. Instead of having three shades from light to medium, like a lot of K-beauty brands, we tried to have as many shades as we can within our limitations. More brands need to be having these conversations. Growing up, I looked up to beauty brands, magazines, TV, and movies that taught me I wasn't beautiful. When I saw brands with very limited shades, 90% of the time these J-beauty brands are represented by one model with extremely light skin and jet black hair, I was taught that that's the definition of what's beautiful. Because I looked nothing like that, for a lot of my life, I thought I was ugly. I thought that I was ugly because I didn't see representation out there of people who look like me. So when I first launched the brand, I made sure to cast models that accurately represented shades one through six. I was casting over a month prior to the photo shoot in New York City, a city with one of the highest concentrations of models, and was not able to find a model for shade number six. We found a model all the way in Indonesia and flew her over. It was an awakening for me, because I realized how many gorgeous-looking people are sitting at home thinking, “I can never have a career in front of the camera because my skin is dark, and if I'm dark, I'm ugly. I'm not fair, I'm not beautiful.” Representation is so important, and a lot of Southeast Asians and South Asians aren't being represented by the brands that are coming from Asia, or even the brands in the United States. There is usually one token Asian model in the shot, and I guarantee you, 90% of the time, that one Asian model is extremely fair.
It's like a curated image of diversity.
Today, if you have a one-size-fits-all solution, you're gonna make it in the beauty industry because you're going to win the numbers game. As much as people say that you can achieve anything because it's a social media era, nobody wants to do organic stuff anymore. Any influencer worth their salt, before you even send them a free product, they would sometimes send you their rate card. For small brands, on top of product development, we're also limited in our ability to create brand awareness because it takes tools. Even Facebook and Instagram advertising has gotten very expensive. We're competing with brands that maybe have a $50,000 ad budget, when we maybe have $3,000 per month. It's very hard for us to break through that noise and compete with these big players. Retailers have the power to spotlight brands that may not have those resources on their platform. They can really make or break a brand. I would love to encourage more retailers to work with smaller, indie brands that maybe won't represent a big piece of the pie, but for some people this might make a difference in their life.
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