"Young black girls are still having the same experiences I did as a teenager buying make-up"

Beauty entrepreneur Florence Adepoju helped revolutionise lipsticks with her inclusive line, MDM Flow – now, she's taking on foundations...

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By Yomi Adegoke on

“My dream is that in the next 10 years, the beauty industry will be so transformed that anyone from anywhere can walk into a store and anything that is available, they can find a version of it that works for them,” says Florence Adepoju, founder of the flourishing make-up line MDMflow.

And, at just 27, the beauty entrepreneur has helped spearhead the ongoing transformation she’s so fixed on seeing. Five years ago, she started a hip-hop inspired lipstick line which she created by hand in her parents shed in Rainham, Essex. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength – in 2015, MDMflow was stocked in Topshop and Nasty Gal followed suit soon after. Before its closure, Parisian it-boutique Colette picked it up, too. Last year, she secured bigwigs Boots, Pretty Little Thing and Harvey Nichols as retailers. Lena Dunham used Instagram to spread the gospel and put in a “massive” order of the brand's legendary blue shade Mas Marina. And her Greater Than Mascara, which she developed with the chemist who worked on YSL's iconic formula, continues to regularly sell out.

But, like many children of immigrant parents, Florence initially suppressed her creative ambitions in favour of a more clear-cut route to success, hoping at first to go into pharmacy. Her pharmaceutical aspirations were soon interrupted, however, by a chance hiring at a Benefit make-up counter, which made her fall in love with the beauty industry – as well as realise it’s limitations.

“As much as I loved working there, black and Asian women would come up to me and be like ‘What foundation are you wearing, because I want my complexion to look xyz’ and I would have to say, we don’t stock a colour suitable for you,” Adepoju recalls.

Before long, she started to think of how she could improve things if she were in charge of the company and, eventually, what she’d do at the helm of a company of her own. She says a visit to the company's head office on a one-day training session was the first time it properly occurred to her she could get a job in beauty outside of sales.

“The penny dropped that the same way medicine is made, make-up is made!” she laughs.

There began her dream of creating a brand to rival the one she was currently representing. She went home and says she started from the very basics, googling the search term “how to make make-up”. It led her to a video of cosmetic-science students at the London College of Fashion formulating foundations and, despite having already been accepted elsewhere to study pharmacy, she filled out a last-minute application for cosmetic science at the university, which was quickly accepted. During the four-year course, she learnt about the inner workings of make-up – and, most importantly, formulation. She says it finally demystified the continued complaints she met when women of colour came to her counter.

I wanted to create a different conversation from beauty just being about dictating ‘this is what you need to do to look good

“Seeing black women say ‘I can’t wear red lipsticks’, ‘I can’t wear bright colours, they don’t look good on me, they don’t suit me’ and I knew, because I was studying it, that the only reason you can’t wear that colour is because it hasn’t been formulated with you in mind,” she says.

“The only reason your foundation looks grey or ashy is because they haven’t tested that product on a black person. The variation when it comes to tones hasn’t been considered – the chemistry is available to make this happen but what is possible is being dictated by the industry as opposed to people’s individual needs.”

So, she dedicated her final year project to doing just that; addressing the individual needs of consumers and formulating products in a way that ensured they look good on all skin types and tones. Despite foundation being her initial priority, she says she chose to produce lipsticks as they were slightly easier to make. Her approach to inclusion wasn’t creating several different shades of lipstick to compliment several skin tones, but rather single, staple colours that everyone could use.   

“Someone who is super pale and someone who is super dark can wear the same shade, because I took away the ingredients that make it look bad on either end of the spectrum,” she tells me, beaming with pride.

Her lipsticks soon began to receive amazing feedback from her university professors and peers – so much so, people began stealing her test samples, which she says was “annoying at the time but validating.” Adepoju took the finished products of her final project and made it the beginnings of her now five-year-old business. And now, with high-profile nods and critical acclaim for her lipsticks under her belt, Florence has come full circle and landed back at her first passion: foundations.

MDMflow is working on launching Flawless Base Foundation – a serum-based formula, formulated to work on all skin types, which gives “light yet buildable coverage”. It comes in 16 shades and, to ensure inclusion, Adepoju is running focus groups in London to fill any potential gaps in the collection. This focus on consumer feedback is characteristic of MDMflow; just as she had listened to queries and complaints on shop floors, Adepoju continues to hold the opinions of her “community” in high esteem and builds them into her product development. Now, the conversations have moved from the counters into online safe spaces filled with committed consumers, in Facebook groups, Instagram and online customer surveys. She compares it to brands such as Glossier and Goop, whose community-based approach subverts the old system of “chemists and marketeers sitting in an office and forcing people into thinking they need things”.

“I wanted to create a different conversation from beauty just being about dictating ‘this is what you need to do to look good,’ ‘here are five things that make you look amazing, make you looks sexy’ – no, what are the actual things that make you look good? How are you actually empowered? I wanted my customers to have that individual decision as opposed to it coming from the industry. Because the industry only shows one generic form of beauty which means that if you don’t conform to that, you’re almost not allowed to feel beautiful. Having a brand that celebrates different types of beauty means that whatever makes you individually feel confident and good, becomes your standard.”

In line with consumer-led focus, Adepoju has perhaps unsurprisingly taken to crowdfunding, not only to raise the funds for the production of the foundation range, but also to crowdsource names for it – supporters who pledge £250 have the opportunity to choose the name of a shade. And, in the spirit of personalisation, every backer will be sent a sample kit to ensure that customers can colour match the products before making a purchase, too – an opportunity greatly appreciated by women of colour, who are so often expected to make do with foundations that aren’t the right colour for them.

Florence tells me that one her biggest missions is to combat the lack of inclusion on British high streets, the apparently more accessible alternative to high-end, high-price brands. She says she hopes to challenge Rimmel’s eminent London Look, which has remained rigid as the city has continually diversified. But as well as ethnic diversity, a focal point of her products, specifically her foundation, is accessibility. Adepoju says an element of diversity that is often overlooked is “price point” and, in order to ensure it’s as inclusive as possible, her foundations cost 10 pounds and still prioritise quality.

“Every other week a brand is releasing five more dark shades. But it’s still at an unattainable price point. Young black, young Asian girls still aren’t able to access products and are having the same experiences I did as a teenager. Also, when it comes to affordable cosmetics, the formulations still aren’t great. In my formula it’s not just about shade variation, it’s about having good ingredients – there are antioxidants, it’s hydrating. In the best case scenario, it will make your skin feel more hydrated, but it's never going to be something that just fills your pores. In the beauty industry until this point, accessible beauty has just meant low quality.

Florence makes it clear that she hopes to one day become a global brand. But she is happy for world domination to take a temporary back seat while a lack of beauty diversity still lingers closer to home. Despite masses of support from overseas and a continued demand for her to take her brand to the US, Florence is determined to make her mark here, in Britain, and solve the issues that affect women of colour here, specifically. 

“The problems I’ve faced as a consumer have been based on my experiences here,” she tells me. “In America, they have issues, it’s not perfect, but even their affordable brands have options and bigger ranges. I don’t want to take the easy route. I want to create something of standard that uniquely solves the problem customers in the UK face. And by doing that, solve the problem globally.”

You can back Florence's MDM Flow Flawless Base Foundation by clicking here.

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