A former Leeds United football hooligan is now heading one of the fastest growing make-up brands in the world. Catherine Scott met Julian Kynaston
At 6ft 6ins tall, dressed from head to foot in black with trowelfuls of black eye liner to match, Julian Kynaston makes heads turn, especially when he walks into his local, the George in Upper Denby.
“People do stop and stare, but funnily enough no one ever says anything,” he says. “I think they are getting used to me now. I’ve earned their respect by not taking off my make-up at the end of a day at work. They like me for what I am.”
And that is really the point of Illamasqua – the make-up industry’s new kid on the block founded by Kynaston three years ago. The brand has taken the industry by storm, using social media to garner supporters and create its cult status in a market that is notoriously difficult to break into.
In three years, Kynaston has succeeded in doing what it has taken the established beauty houses decades to achieve.
Selfridges on Oxford Street was the first store to stock Illamasqua, giving it a prime location in 2008 . Harvey Nichols followed as well as more mainstream department stores such as Debenhams. Illamasqua is now in 100 stores worldwide. It boasts its own flagship stores in London and Liverpool with a third opening in the Victoria Quarter in Leeds in a couple of weeks. It is taking off in America, Australia and the Middle East with further international expansion imminent and even its own make-up school in London.
Celebrity followers including Lady Gaga, Kelly Rowland, Emmerdale actress Sammy Winward and Princess Eugenie are queuing up to use its products. Kynaston declines to pay celebrities to wear his products, believing that Illamasqua speaks for itself.
“We have never placed an advert and never have and never will pay anyone for wearing our make-up,” says the plain speaking Yorkshireman who sits oddly and yet perfectly with his brand’s identity.
“Illamasqua is for the bolder person in all of us; no matter what their age or sex. It is about self expression and people exploring their alter ego.”
Kynaston is the joint managing director and founder of a Leeds-based ad agency called Propaganda and is used to breaking the rules and coming out on top.
At Shelley High School in West Yorkshire, he was bright but lacked the concentration to do well.
“I was creative but not in the traditional sense. My brain was just so full with ideas that I couldn’t focus on the stuff I was meant to focus on. But it didn’t seem to matter to me, I knew from quite a young age that my future lay in advertising.”
A school friend’s brother was a punk and the young Kynaston was mesmerised by the power of branding and knew that was where his future lay.
Leaving school with few qualifications, he started out on a Youth Training Scheme which involved sweeping the floors in a print company.
“I earned £17 a week. £15.50 of which I used to pay back the money I had borrowed each week and so I suppose I learnt to take risks. When you have nothing to lose, it is easy.”
At 18, he started to get involved in the football hooligan scene at Leeds United. “I was fascinated by the whole thing. How someone who was quite meek and mild could put on an Armani shirt and suddenly they could take on the world and start beating someone up. It was the power of the brand.
“But I was also into the subculture side of it. The clothes and the community of it. I got into a lot of trouble. Then when I was 24, I suddenly realised that everything was getting out of control. What had really started out as a cultural thing became very right wing and people perceived it as racist. I knew I had to get out but you couldn’t just walk away so I decided the only way to get out was to start Propaganda. They understood that I couldn’t very well go to a meeting with a client with a black eye and so I managed to leave.”
Knowing the importance of appearances, Kynaston rented swanky offices in a converted mill. “I had no idea how I was going to meet the rent.” For some time they had no clients until eventually they signed their first £30,000 contract and never looked back.
Over the last 20 years it became one of the UK’s most respected and successful marketing agencies outside London. In 2006, he sold a proportion of the business to the board in a £14m management buy-out although he still retains a major shareholding in the business. He’s also non executive director of Seabrook Crisps and marketing director of a hair beauty brand. He helped turn that into an international household name and the UK’s fastest growing private company in 2005.
Four years ago, he decided to branch out into make-up, despite knowing nothing about the industry. “People kept telling me that unless you had 25 years experience or £200m then you couldn’t do it. We didn’t have either.” But being told he can’t do something is the incentive the 44-year-old Yorkshireman needs to make him determined to succeed.
“Some may call it naivety. I suppose I decide to do something and don’t necessarily look at the pitfalls which might stop other people giving it a try. But I didn’t really have anything to lose.”
The beauty industry is dominated by the big French names such as Estée Lauder and L’Oreal who, Kynaston says, have such a hold that makes it hard for new names to get a break.
“I wanted to become a big player and a cult brand almost overnight in a sector they just said couldn’t be done. We did a lot of research and what we discovered was that people didn’t have an emotional attachment to a particular make-up brand. The big names brought out a ‘hero’ product and then build up their brand around that.
“We looked at the make-up bags of 1,100 women and found that the vast majority had no brand loyalty. They would use a lipstick from one brand and a foundation from another. I wanted people to become emotionally attached to Illamasqua; I wanted them to want to be part of the brand. We have no hero product, we want people to buy into the whole concept.” Having decided on make-up as his next challenge, Kynaston immersed himself in his new project.
“I bought a flat in Lindley near Huddersfield and turned it into a shrine. If I commit to something I have to become part of it.”
It was a visit to the Gothic festival in Whitby that provided the inspiration. “I was in this pub in Whitby sitting next to a 6ft7 tranny (transvestite) called Alison. I looked around the room and saw men and women and the real connection wasn’t the music and the clothes, it was the make-up and how people were using it to access their alter egos and having a great time. I wanted to bring that to the High Street.”
As he was immersed himself in the task a news item made him stop and think. Two young people who styled themselves as Goths – Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend Rob Maltby from Todmorden – were attacked because of the way they looked. Sophie, aged 20, died from her injuries in 2007.
“I suddenly thought that what we were planning to do could be irresponsible. We were encouraging people to show self-expression, to be themselves just at a time when a girl was killed and a boy seriously injured for doing just that.
“The judge at the trial of the attackers said that this was a hate crime for the way someone whose to look. I felt that we had to do something.” So he went to see Sophie’s mother Sylvia, who was setting up a charity called SOPHIE – Stamp Out Hatred and Intolerence Everywhere. “It was the hardest meeting I have ever had.”
He and his businesses now support the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. He has funded two films highlighting the attack and £3 from an eye-liner dedicated in Sophie’s memory goes to the charity .
He also believes that the dark days of his football hooliganism might also have led to him be so passionate about the charity.
“When I turned my back on that side of my life, I suppose I killed off the person I was. It was a dark time and now I want to do something positive.”
Kynaston discovered that professional make-up had its roots in the theatre and club scene of 1920s Berlin and that one of the companies that met the demand for high quality sustainable theatrical make-up was called Kryolan.
“I went to them and explained that I wanted to take their products and introduce them to the High Street. No one had ever asked them before. We didn’t just want to take their brand, we wanted to match their integrity with our own.” He joined forces with Alex Box, one of the brightest new make-up artists of the time.
“Alex worked with Kryolan’s men in white coats in the labs to create a super strain of 60 to 70 years of professional make-up for now.”
Celebrities such as Russell Brand were already using Kyrolan’s make-up, which was sold through a little shop in Covent Garden.
“People were already rejecting the established High Street make-up brands. They didn’t want to be told how to wear make-up any more and were seeking out alternatives as were the cool kids and the Goths.”
In homage to 1920s Berlin, Kynaston brought an art deco theme to his make-up counters which he took to the “big three” department stores. The first opened on November 1, 2008 in in Selfridges in Oxford Street and they are now in 100 stores across the world.
Who is the typical Illamasqua customer? “My mum is a great example. She is 60 and she is blown away by the products’ quality. Of course there are the cool kids and the celebrities who buy our products, but then there are the middle-aged women who love the return to glamour and self-expression.”
Then there are the men. Kynaston is on something of a mission to get men wearing make-up again.
“The question shouldn’t be, why should men wear make-up? It should be, why did they stop? Before the wars ,men wore make-up and not just gay men. In Scotland, make-up was worn when the men went to war.
“When I’m chatting to the blokes in the pub about men wearing make-up it makes me laugh that they are their sitting covered in permanent tattoos yet wouldn’t wear make-up. We have to change perceptions.”
The day before we meet at the launch of the Illamasqua counter in Debenhams at Meadowhall, he was at the Ritz in Paris. But he hates being away from Yorkshire.
“I could never live anywhere else, I would miss Yorkshire too much. I think I get it from my grandfather. He loved Yorkshire and never saw any need to travel. He also was a believer in doing a job you love and I have tried to follow his ethos.”
He lives in Upper Denby with his wife-to-be Jo and her two children, Alexander and Francesca.
“Alexander is 10 and he loves the fact that Adam Ant drops into the office all the time.”
He is learning to ride and does enjoy stays at top spa hotels, but he loves nothing more than a pint at the George and a trip to his cottage in Robin Hood’s Bay.
“We know that we have been made by the rise in social media and we know that can break us just as quickly. We had a batch of eye shadow that was pressed too hard and word soon started on Twitter.
“I made the decision that we just had to tell people the truth. You will be found out soon enough and I really think people appreciate your honesty so we explained what went wrong and people seemed to understand.”
Last year, he joined forces with Joe Corre, the son of Malcolm McClaren and Vivien Westwood and the man behind the Agent Provocateur brand.
“It is ironic that I have ended up in business with the son of the man behind punk when punk and subcultures like it have had such a big influence on my life.”
Illamasqua opens at the Victoria Quarter Leeds on December 8.