Episode 135: Kirsten Kjaer Weis, Founder of Kjaer Weis

It truly bothered Kirsten Kjaer Weis when, as a professional makeup artist, models would point to the conventional brands in her makeup kit and say, “Oh don’t use that, it makes me break out,” or “That one is so drying.” She also knew that women crave beautiful packaging. In the early 2000s, there were virtually no makeup lines that combined healthy formulas with stylish colors and luxurious packaging that also spoke to sustainability. So she made one. Her eponymous, refillable makeup line is creating lots of buzz as it accomplishes what so many brands could not.

Listen in for the details of how this of-the-moment line came to be.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Monet EverettHey, it's Monet Everett, celebrity and editorial hairstylist, and you're listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®. This is the podcast that I tune into when I want Jodi Katz to tell me all about what's going on in the beauty industry, what I need to look out for, and who I need to listen to. She's got all of the insights. Tune in to learn more.
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Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. I'm so excited that you tuned in today. This is our first episode of 2020 and this is actually the start of our third year of the podcast. So we're super excited to have another phenomenal year. This week's episode features Kirsten Kjaer Weis. She's the founder of Kjaer Weis. The last episode of 2019 featured John Costanza. He's the CEO of Beauty Quest Group. I hope you enjoy the shows.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to the show. I am happy to be sitting with Kirsten Kjaer Weis. She is the founder of Kjaer Weis. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThank you so much for having me.
Jodi KatzThis is our first episode of 2020.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah, I love that.
Jodi KatzThis is so cool.
Kristen Kjaer WeisStepping into a new decade. I couldn't be more pleased. Thank you.
Jodi KatzAnd I've been excited to have you on the show for quite some time. We shared a copywriter in common, a freelance copywriter, Julie.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYes.
Jodi KatzThank you Julia for making this connection.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYes. Love Julie.
Jodi KatzI can't wait to dive into your story because you have so many fans. I mean, almost everywhere I go people talk about your brand, but I want to start with one of my favorite questions, which is how will you be spending your day today?
Kristen Kjaer WeisSo today, Tuesday's are actually our meeting sort of day in the office where we try and have not all our meetings but most of them meetings sort of back to back so that it leaves the rest of the week some time to actually just focus on your personal stuff. So this is a nice break popping up here and talking to you. But then I'll go back to the office and dive straight into meetings again.
Jodi KatzAnd have you found that system of one day meetings super efficient?
Kristen Kjaer WeisI do think it is. It sort of sets you up for the day, and as I said, it doesn't exclude having meetings the rest of the week. But this is really where we try and cover the bases. Then the rest is more we have to do this, we have to cover this type of stuff and really just allowing people some space and time to work on their own things.
Jodi KatzI do love this idea because I'm sure our listeners find themselves in meetings all the time, all week long. There's actually not enough time to do the work, just keep meeting about the work.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah, exactly. It's a balance and we still juggle it, believe me. But it's sort of a good step that seems to work for us in terms of solidifying a day where this is our goal to get through the sort of key things of the week and then just try and fill in as little as possible for the rest of the week.
Jodi KatzI think I want to adopt this idea because we have some status meetings for some of our clients on Mondays and then some on Tuesdays and some on Wednesdays. And maybe if we just make Wednesday the day and then the rest of the week is for connecting with clients and doing all external things in the work. So I'm going to try this. I'll let you know how this works.
Kristen Kjaer WeisLet me know how it goes.
Jodi KatzThat's a good idea. So the first time I met your brand, I was at Space NK. Is that one of your first retailers?
Kristen Kjaer WeisYes, it was way back in the days, like literally in 2010 when I first launched the brand. I launched with Space NK back then, and eventually we split ways. I think there was a mutual understanding of that it was too early for both of us. Certainly on my end having that size of you and that type of volume right from the beginning when it's a one woman show proved to be too big of a mouthful. I think, I don't want to speak for Space NK, but I think it's safe to say that they also felt the category that the brand sort of fits into, which is the merging of two sort of sides in the beauty, which is the all natural with the luxury. They didn't quite feel that it was the right fit. Like where do we put you? Are you green? Are you luxury? And by the brand actually being both, it was just hard to position it. So yeah. I was with them for about a year, year and a half. Then we sort of amicably split, but I still think it's a beautiful store. Absolutely.
Jodi KatzI was so taken by your packaging and still I am.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThank you.
Jodi KatzAnd as somebody on the business side of designing, making packaging and brands come to life, I was so taken with the investment. When I see these things, I think about their beauty. But then I think about, "Oh my God, somebody has invested in this." Right? So I know that's a lot of stuff that we talked about in the intake call around your vision. I think it's such a great story to talk about your vision and your goals and how you went after them. Because a lot of people who are listening, who are either thinking of becoming entrepreneurs or who are in their journey and are in a moment of struggle, you kind of lose sight of the fact that you can just ask for what you want. Sometimes things happen. So take us on this journey of starting the brand and wanting to be really distinctive in your packaging.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah, I mean, I from the get go really wanted to have something that was unique. I love design. It just feeds me, and I think it has purpose in life. I think it matters what we surround ourselves with, not necessarily just from a superficial sort of standpoint but really there's a reason why you might invest in a bouquet of flowers every week because that feeds you. Somebody invest in a beautiful watch, and I think it has purpose. So why wouldn't that translate into beauty products? And certainly at the time when I started working on the brand, which was in the early 2000s, the natural sort of lines out there weren't known for the luxury packaging. It was very basic. Why couldn't they have that luxury aspect? So it was more just like questioning the status quo if you will.

But then the goal is still was to have something that was sustainable. So a lot of times that is what you would find in the packaging for the natural brands back then. It was more like recycled paper, et cetera. But it also just looked very recycled. So I just had this dream that I would love to create something that really read luxury, eliminating all compromises in this product, whether it was for the inside product, the actual product or for the packaging or the secondary packaging. So that was the goal. Then still have it be a combination of luxe and sustainability. So that was my proposition for the outside packaging, if you will.

I started just working on it with a dear friend of mine in Copenhagen where I'm from. He is an art director and also knows product packaging, et cetera. We started doing a bunch of prototypes in materials that were still sustainable. Maybe you could recycle it. But the problem was that wasn't really a material that truly read luxury that was recyclable. We got close I think in terms of that what was a beautiful look, but I had always obsessed specifically about the work of a gentleman called Marc Atlan and he's done Comme des Garçons perfume bottles. He's done tons of work for Helmut Lang, et cetera.

I thought if I don't go to the source and see if it's possible for me to feel that way when I hold something in my hand that I do with the Comme des Garçons perfume bottle and then it's actually my own, then I'll probably never forgive myself. So I reached out to him and just said I'm a massive fan of what you do. It's just one of those moments that I feel where you... For me it was meant to be. I think I speak for Marc as well. We feel that this was just like a coming together of kindred spirits, and we were able to create this packaging that in the end really holds both. It's the silver compacts that very much read luxury yet they aren't recyclable. So in the end it became a refill system. So you really just buy this silver compact once and then you can keep refilling it.
Jodi KatzSo let's just go back to, you have a high regard for his work. Did you find him on LinkedIn? How did you actually find this person?
Kristen Kjaer WeisI Googled him. I found his website, and I just cold emailed him. Wrote an email that I went over a million times before I clicked send and just put in there like, "I am a just admiring what you're doing. I think it's timeless, it's unique. It's so beautiful, and this is what I'm trying to do. Yet I constantly run up against this wall of not being able to merge these two worlds." Then I also put in there, "This might be the most ridiculous email you've ever received, but then, hey..." And he was kind enough to write back pretty fast and say, "This actually sounds really interesting." At the time he had mainly been doing designs for perfumes and skincare and not really color. So I think he also thought it was sort of an interesting challenge to find a way of actually finessing this sort of combination of luxury and sustainability.
Jodi KatzSo the lesson here is just send the email.
Kristen Kjaer WeisJust send the email. I mean, what have you got to lose at the end of the day? I also just shared with him the fact that I was admiring his work, and so I guess it was just in an essence a fan letter. And then with that little sort of caveat of I'd love to work with you.
Jodi KatzSo think of how many people... I mean, sure, everybody who's listening, there's someone they're a fan of and they've thought about, "Can I DM them? Can I email them? Can I LinkedIn them? Are they going to ignore me? How will they feel afterwards?" We all overthink this so much, right?
Kristen Kjaer WeisI absolutely agree. I think back then there was really only like email or phone or sending a physical letter.
Jodi KatzOr you could have sent a fax.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThat's true. Yes, I could. Yes. I think the bottom line, the message in all of it is what have you got to lose? You are actually sending an email that is very positive and kind, and the person can take it or leave it. But there's nothing offensive in it, and you just have to go for it. You just have to jump. It's not a super risky thing to do, and if you don't hear back, I mean life goes on. I mean, it's really just no deeper than that in my opinion. It is what it is.
Jodi KatzI think our egos get in the way sometimes though. We're afraid to take a risk because we'll feel in a front if we don't get the response we want.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah.
Jodi KatzWell, I love that you were so brave and you did this because it really is phenomenally gorgeous packaging that is so timeless, and I love that it's a refill system. I mean, we have a lot of clients who say they want to do better with packaging, but it's hard. There's really not... We're making products that people consume.

Also, a lot of times people try it and they try it a few times. They don't even want it anymore. They don't empty all their products. So it's a really challenging thing to be in the business of creating consumables but also trying to do that with minimal impact.

I'm curious if you've considered doing away with the secondary packaging?
Kristen Kjaer WeisThe red boxes?
Jodi KatzYeah.
Kristen Kjaer WeisNot at this point. I mean, we're looking into different ways where we can do better, frankly. But the red paper is recyclable. We've moved away from the primary red paper that we used to have, which wasn't recyclable. So at that point we really pushed, which we still do because I think the red boxes is beautiful. You can keep them and use them for all kinds of different things. I always put my rings in them when I travel, stuff like that. But obviously there's a risk that people throw them out. So now we've been able to switch over to recyclable red paper that sort of covers it, which is a step in the right direction. But never say never.

But I think what I love about the branding is sort of the combination of the silver sort of more futuristic primary packaging combined with the red, the white label that a little bit more old school, that there's a beautiful balance in that. So not immediately, no, but as I said, it's an ongoing conversation in our office. How can we do better?
Jodi KatzI have this fantasy, maybe we should just do this work ourselves, that we'll get a client like a retailer, like I don't know, a CVS or Walgreens. I would say like, "How do we sell what we sell but not sell it with the type of packaging that we have now?" Because I think it's a really a retail thing. It's not for direct to consumer. Amazon just put it in something where it can survive. But we're still so driven visually and wanting to touch things. So what does the store experience like if my bottle of Claritin that's teeny tiny is not in a giant box taking up space. So I have little fantasies about this. Maybe it'll be a pet project just to conceive of what life is like shopping with minimal packaging.
Kristen Kjaer WeisI mean, I wouldn't be surprised to see things going that way. I would love to take on the challenge. There's obviously the sort of, to your point, the basic protecting whatever's in the red box, but you could in essence walk out of a retail store and then just put it in your purse and it would be fine.

I think that there's probably a good middle ground is where I would land immediately. I think it would be something like let's say we had our own standalone stores, you could kind of customize it in a way that is still remains branded and feels like a wonderful experience as well. Because I think at the end of the day, you don't want to lose the experience of purchasing something that is beautiful. I think that's one of the things that has been a lot of the feedback that I have been getting but also that I felt myself. When you buy makeup, it's fantastic that you can get it in, let's say in a Whole Foods. But there's something to be said for the environment, for the experience that sort of ties into the 360 experience. But I like the challenge. I think it's a worthy point on all levels.
Jodi KatzI'm such a fan of the shopping bag, the insert cars, all these things. You and I were talking before we started recording about my changing eyesight. So I was at Warby Parker picking up new glasses, and they wanted to put it in a beautiful shopping bag and put the eyeglass case in a adorable carton. I'm like, "No, I don't want it." But like I get the experience is so beautiful and lovely, and they use really nice papers and fun printing. But I don't want to take it home with me. So I want the experience. I want to feel like I'm opening a present, but I actually don't want this stuff coming into my house. But then we have to teach the retailers not to just throw it in the garbage can but to recycling and use it for somebody who actually does want it or need it. Right?
Kristen Kjaer WeisYes, definitely.
Jodi KatzBut I don't know, maybe you and I can take on a side pet project in re-envision the store of the future on another day. But let's talk about you. You have had a very long career as a makeup artist. So take us to the beginning. Like why beauty? How did you end up in beauty?
Kristen Kjaer WeisBy accident to be totally honest with you. It was not something that I grew up with. But I always thought I was going to end up in design somehow, in architecture, the creative sort of space. And avenues took me down several roads and I ended up at a makeup school in Paris because I love Paris, and I got a chance to go to school there to actually learn makeup. I figured that's got to be a little bit like painting, and I loved it. This is back in like the late '80s.

So I returned back to Denmark. Small country, certainly didn't have makeup artists and hairstylists that came on photo jobs. But it just happened to be so that at the time when I finished my year in Paris, it was actually the time where the fashion industry over there being small as it is opened up to makeup artists starting to coming on jobs. So I stepped right in and kind of had been working as a makeup artist since then and moved to the States. Moved to New York wanting to see if I could have a chance working on much bigger jobs around 1998, and I've been here ever since. And had just been working on a variety of all kinds of jobs you can imagine from editorial to advertising to catalog to music videos. So just a sort of very well rounded portfolio really.
Jodi KatzWho encouraged you to go to school to become a makeup artist?
Kristen Kjaer WeisSo I had done an apprenticeship in Copenhagen with this incredible woman who had like a spa. So I did an apprenticeship with her learning about skin and et cetera. But she was also really into makeup. Her whole personality was incredibly inspiring to me. I felt very much like a girl from the country. I grew up in the country. She was the complete opposite. She would always wear Yves Saint Laurent. She had all the makeup from Yves Saint Laurent that she wanted for us to apply to the customers coming in. She took a liking to the way I did make up and said, "I really think you should pursue and go to Paris and to this school called Christian Chauveau," which I did. So that's where it ended up. As I said, it was never what I thought was in my cards per se but I certainly don't look back. I've enjoyed it immensely.
Jodi KatzSo you said you were a country girl. What did that look like? Were you living on a farm?
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah.
Jodi KatzReally?
Kristen Kjaer WeisLiving on a working farm. My parents basically ran the farm. We had animals. We grew our own vegetables, stuff like that in a very small town of 2000 people. So certainly just not exposed to all the things that I kind of dreamt of as a child and certainly into my teens. Going to something as exceptional as a gallery or stuff like that, museums, et cetera. It was on my vision board, if you will. So as soon as I graduated, I moved to Paris and kind of had been traveling ever since, if you will.
Jodi KatzSo as a child, were you waking up early to milk the cows?
Kristen Kjaer WeisNo, no. I, I had older brothers. So I was lucky. I kind of just got to hang out, if you will. The youngest sister. When I was about 12, we moved into town and my parents gave up the farm. So we lived in this little town.
Jodi KatzWere you sad to give up the farm?
Kristen Kjaer WeisNo, not really. I was ready. I just wanted to be around my friends and no. But looking back, I really loved just growing up out there running around. We lived right up against a huge forest. And so that was our playing ground. Just taking our bikes and running around in nature if you will. Yeah, it was good.
Jodi KatzSo growing up on a farm, how did your brain and your heart even go to design? What moments inspired you to think that design is a space for you?
Kristen Kjaer WeisI think that was just part of my DNA. I don't sort of necessarily recall anything specific that took me down that route. I just always liked it. I would buy the fashion magazines from Copenhagen that I could get in town and just devour them and start ordering stuff home from the stores there, which drove my mom crazy. But I think honestly it was just part of who I am, and I just didn't have a huge outlet for diving into anything out there because mainly what we did was sports. But I sort of was looking into it on the side via the magazines. When I was around 19, I left and moved on and just couldn't wait to move into an area where I could get all of that. That has kind of been missing throughout my teens.
Jodi KatzDid all of your siblings and your parents understand your move to Paris?
Kristen Kjaer WeisNo.
Jodi KatzYour desire to do this?
Kristen Kjaer WeisNo, they didn't really. I mean, they all pretty much still live right around there, but they now love coming to New York visiting. They think it's fabulous over here. But they also happy to return. There's a huge difference from where I grew up to New York.
Jodi KatzI mean, this is sort of a Hollywood story, right? You're the farm girl. You meet some like exotic aspirational woman in town and she sets you on this journey. I mean, it's like you can't really craft a better story than that.
Kristen Kjaer WeisI'm grateful for it. I truly am. I, I think I have been blessed to be able to do something that I really, truly enjoy. I think that's looking forward to going to work every day that that's a blessing. So believe me, I'm grateful for it.
Jodi KatzSo let's talk about entrepreneurship because as a makeup artist, you're a freelancer, right? So you're used to a bit of an unconventional style of working, right? You have to go with the flow. You have to hope and pray work comes. You have to market yourself. But starting a business and putting money into inventory and packaging and supporting retail is like a completely different thing. Why start this brand?
Kristen Kjaer WeisSo to be honest with you, I'd always dreamt of having my own company. I just thought it was going to end up more having like my own architects studio or something like that. So it's always been what I feel was in my card somehow. And it naturally just transitioned into being beauty because that's the space I was working in. That's one thing.

The other thing is certainly just seeing firsthand what applying conventional makeup over and over again on all these models that I was working on was actually doing to their skin. That's just a reality. This a firsthand experience of continuously seeing the skin that is breaking out, that's super dry, that's red, the red running eyes, et cetera. At some point when I had moved to New York, a lot of the girls would actually start sort of just pinpointing stuff that I would have in my kits saying, "I know for fact that this brand really breaks me out. I know for a fact this makeup gives me red eyes."

So I started looking to find alternatives and the sort of green brands that were out there, but there just weren't a lot. I mean, this is 2000. There was some of the German brands. They've always kind of been on the forefront of anything green, but it was majority in skincare. The textures, what was there, the textures, the colors from my perspective just weren't up to par. They didn't have that sort of Silicon feel that we had all gotten used to. The colors were a little bit stuck in the '80s. So in essence that was the aha moment thinking there's really an open gap in the market where you could fill a brand that would hold both. But it just would have to be without any kind of compromises. Because whether you went into the green shopping experience, the performance came with as a compromise. If you went into the conventional, from my perspective, the ingredients profile was a compromise. And so just taking the best of both and merging them into one that became the goal. And it still is.
Jodi KatzSaying that it was 2000 when we're going through this, I mean, the landscape had very little.
Kristen Kjaer WeisVery little. Yeah.
Jodi KatzMaybe some Brown sold at farmer's markets, right?
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah. There was Dr. Hauschka, Lavera, the German... But they have very few products in terms of color, but they had lots of skincare. So yeah, it was absolutely limited.
Jodi KatzAnd were you mixing your own things in the beginning? Were you taking a skincare product that you liked and mixing in some mineral color or how did you start?
Kristen Kjaer WeisNo. I started... I knew I needed to find somebody that I could partner with. Somebody that actually had the expertise of being able to put formulations together. I always had just a natural interest I think maybe from growing up where I grew up in anything natural, in anything pure, if you will. And so my goal was to find something that, or to create something that would be to the extent that you could almost eat it and really taking out all kinds of synthetics. But I wouldn't be able to do that on my own. Things need to have a shelf life. They need to have the performance.

So I started going to trade shows. There's green trade shows, natural trade shows that was back then as well. At one of those trade shows, I met the manufacturer that we currently work with to this day. We partnered up. I was telling them about what I was trying to do, and they started doing samples for me. I really liked what I saw. So it's just grown into this deep and wonderful partnership. They're like family to me today.
Jodi KatzSo that's another lesson that trade shows work.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThey do work. They absolutely work.
Jodi KatzAs much of a drag as it might feel to have booths there or attend it, it really brings people together.
Kristen Kjaer WeisYeah. You know whoever's going there is coming there for the same reasons. They're looking. They are looking to expand who they work with. They're looking to fulfill a gap. So I feel like definitely it's an open environment. People are there to be seen and heard.
Jodi KatzSo my last question for you is around this idea of growing the business. So for me personally, growing my business has been very seductive, and I get a little taste of growth and then I want more. But then I'm like, "Well, how do I get more? Is more investing more of my time? Do I have to invest more money in a situation that you're in where you have inventory?" We're talking about a lot of money. What does growth look like for you? What does it feel like inside?
Kristen Kjaer WeisSo growth for me, I feel like since... So let me backtrack. The first years, growth for me was very organic, if you will. No pun intended, but it was slow. As I said, it was a one woman show. I was working full time, and I was doing this at night and on the weekends. And then slowly being able to hire one person, and then I took on a small round of angel investments to be able to basically put more in inventory, either to do new products, et cetera. And then jumping to let's say around 2016 where at that point I had a few angel investors, which they have all been phenomenally supportive. But it was time to just take a bigger leap and also being able to hire more senior people on the team that actually knew a lot more about certain things that I certainly didn't.

So now I would say growth has kind of been learning on the go how to grow a business. I don't have a business background. So in essence growing it slowly in the beginning has allowed me to experience what it feels like wearing all hats. What does it mean to deal with inventory? What does it mean to deal with bookkeeping? Then you have new product development. Kind of getting a good overview of your company. So in retrospect, I actually really recommend that.

So then jumping to now where it's a much bigger team with people on board that are very, very good at what they do. Now growth looks different. Growth is not as scary anymore because I feel like there's a supportive team around the table, but there's also some great investors that come in with their expertise. So growth now looks like a more than, what can I say? A supported and exciting adventure.

The space is changing rapidly. It's not just a niche. It's truly turning into the new norm. We sit I feel in a good space because the brand carries a lot of solid pillars underneath it. So growth now for me really looks like the vision that I've sort of had from day one is truly to have an alternative globally for women to be able to have a product that is uncompromising yet you never have to worry about your health and some murky sort of gray tones in the middle of there.
Jodi KatzWell, I'm so proud of you.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThank you.
Jodi KatzIt's so Herculean to take on these new paths when vendors and partners aren't there yet, right? The manufacturers for product, the manufacturer for packaging, the retail partners, they weren't there yet. And you have to just keep moving forward or stop. There's only two choices. Give up, move on to something else or just keep going. I mean, as someone who's had to keep going quite a bit, to keep going and realize that it's worth your time to keep trying, and that there's new opportunities and excitement around the corner.

There's this meme on social. It says, "If we're going through hell, keep moving." I think about that all the time.
Kristen Kjaer WeisDefinitely.
Jodi KatzYou have to go through a lot of these things and lose a lot of money and face some scary stuff.
Kristen Kjaer WeisDefinitely.
Jodi KatzWell, I'm so proud to get to sit with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
Kristen Kjaer WeisThank you very much for having me.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Kirsten. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @WhereBrainsMeetBeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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