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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023


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LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter

Ozone. Acid Rain. Oil Slick. Ultra Violence.

No, this is not a catalogue of plague and pestilence in the late-20th Century.

It’s a list of some of the trendiest shades of nail polish and lipstick, all of which can be purchased at department store cosmetic counters in L.A. and across the country.

For those outside of the teen fashion loop, “Ultra Violence” is a popular shade of iridescent purple made by West Los Angeles-based nail polish company, Ripe.

“Oil Slick,” meanwhile, is a flat black with a subtle rainbow sheen available for nails, lips or eyes concocted by Urban Decay in Costa Mesa.

Make-up has gone grunge. And while that may be the stuff of nightmares for the parents of teenage girls who can’t seem to get enough of the new, extreme colors, it’s a dream for the young entrepreneurs who have sparked this season’s most unlikely fashion trend.

The past two years certainly have been dreamlike for Dineh Mohajer, the 24-year-old founder of Beverly Hills-based Hard Candy Inc., the first of the so-called “alternative” cosmetic lines to hit the market.

Mohajer was a pre-med student and self-described fashion junkie at USC when she began mixing her own pastel-hued toenail polish, in an effort to find a shade to match a new pair of pale blue sandals she had recently purchased.

Mohajer, who was studying to be a plastic surgeon, never dreamed of starting a company. But one day at the shopping mall with her sister, she was approached by dozens of young women fascinated by her pale blue toenails.

“My sister said, ‘Why don’t you sell it? You could make money at this,'” she recalled.

On a whim, Mohajer went home that night and mixed four bottles at her kitchen table. The next day, she brought them to Fred Segal, the ultra-trendy boutique in Beverly Hills. The bottles weren’t even on the shelves yet when a young shopper spied them and decided she had to have all four, at $18 dollars apiece.

Store owner Sharon Segal ordered 200 more bottles on the spot.

“I went home and cooked all night,” Mohajer said. “She sold out of them as quickly as I could make them. It was overwhelming.”

It was also a lot more fun than the prospect of spending the next four years poking around cadavers. Mohajer put med school on hold and dove head-first into fashion.

Since then, Hard Candy has blossomed into a full-fledged cosmetics company, with 27 employees, 35 distributors around the world, and projected sales of $25 million in 1997.

Lipsticks and nail polish in colors with names like “Trailer Trash” (metallic silver) and “Playmate” (non-metallic coral pink) are available at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. This spring, Mohajer will launch a line of eye shadow and eye-liner. A line of nail polish for men, Candy Man, already is on the market and accounts for about 10 percent of the company’s sales, Mohajer said.

Hard Candy’s success paved the way for other young, so-called “alternative” cosmetic companies, such as Ripe and Urban Decay. Nor has it escaped the eyes of the world’s largest make-up manufacturers. Chanel and Estee Lauder have made tentative forays into blues, greens and blacks. Cosmetics giant Revlon, meanwhile, introduced a funky line of colors called Street Wear.

“The major cosmetic lines are definitely jumping on that boat,” said Terri Lamster, the cosmetics buyer for Nordstrom’s six L.A.-area stores.

The question is how long the boat will remain afloat. Fashion is notoriously fickle and shoppers are always on the lookout for the next trend on the horizon.

“They’ve got to have a little more behind them than just wild colors,” Brenda Landry, an analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. said of the young upstart firms. “Could some of these companies become real cosmetic companies? The answer is yes. Will most of them? Probably not.

“They’ll be gone like the hula hoop,” Landry predicted.

That thought already has occurred to Anna and Sarah Levinson, two West L.A. sisters who followed Hard Candy on the market with their own line of unusually colored nail polish, Ripe.

“We’re trying to get more classic colors, that grandmas could wear, that everyone could enjoy, not just a small group of people,” said Anna, 20.

“We try to be more feminine,” added Sarah, a 17-year-old senior at University High School.

Like Mohajer, the Levinsons got their start in 1995, frantically mixing colors at the kitchen table and selling their wares in Melrose Avenue boutiques such as Wasteland.

Since then, the two have contracted with a New Jersey manufacturer who mixes the polishes and sends it along to an L.A. fulfillment house, which bottles and boxes the product. From there, it ends up stacked in Mom’s garage, though the pair plans on renting a warehouse and office.

Last year, the two had about $300,000 in sales. This year, they expect more than $1 million. The company recently inked a deal to get their goods into West Coast Macy’s stores and is negotiating with other department stores around the country.

“We’re trying to go mainstream,” said Anna.

“I mean, if it’s green, it’s going to be, like, soft green with a nice blue sheen to it,” added Sarah.

“Your lips won’t look like you’ve been in a snowstorm or something,” her sister said.

Orange County’s Urban Decay has no such concerns. With colors such as “frostbite,” “bruise” and “asphyxia,” it’s probably the most extreme cosmetic company on the market and it aims to stay that way.

Consider one of Urban Decay’s recents ads, which earned the company a cease-and-desist order from Mattel Inc.: “Burn, Barbie, Burn,” the copy read.

Ironically, Urban Decay also is the only one of the three founded by a bona fide businesswoman Sandy Lerner, who, along with her husband, Leonard Bossack, founded the Silicon Valley computer networking giant Cisco Systems in 1984.

Lerner was not available to be interviewed. But the company’s Chief Operating Officer Wende Zomnir (her actual job title at the company is “Ms. Decay”) said, “We’ve also made a decision to not be as massive. We want to sell product but we don’t want to sell out.”

Hard Candy’s Mohajer expressed a similar ethos.

Regardless of whether women are still interested in wearing silver, blue or purple lipstick and nail polish a year from now, Mohajer said she’ll never go back to the dull old days of brown, beige and red.

“Why would anyone want to go back to being limited?” she asked. “Why not be able to express themselves with everything?”

Besides, she added, “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go to medical school. Med school will always be there.”

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