This year’s Top 25 was full of bangers—the decade’s biggest hits in beauty across every category. But you don’t just end up on such a list by luck. It takes thoughtful formulation, lots of testing, and a good helping of foresight to land on a product that’s going to do its thing better than any of its competitors. We sat down with the brand founders behind some of our favorite products to get the full story—and Kate McLeod's story is so good, Amazon made a show about it! Here's Kate on The Daily Stone.
“There’s this thing called a Saturn return—it’s a big life shake-up that happens every 30 years. I had a very classic Saturn return. But let me start at the beginning.
Justin and I met in 2003. It was literally my second day of college—I thought he was super cute, he asked if he could sit next to me during a lecture, and one thing led to another… we were inseparable. He was my first love and I really fell hard for him, but we were very, very young. We broke up and got together seven times over a three and a half year period, which was painful. So painful that I actually ended up transferring schools.
My junior year I had an internship at Goldman Sachs, and at the end of it they gave me a job offer. I already had a job, and I finished my credits, so for my last semester of college I actually declared a leave of absence and moved to Florence to go to culinary school. When I got back, I immediately hit the trading floor at Goldman. I think it was my first week on the desk when the financial crisis hit—it really shook me. I did my analyst years at Goldman, and when they were over I wanted to move on to something else. I had also met a boy. We decided to move to London together, where I started a bakery—going from culinary school to Goldman really made me realize how much I loved working with my hands, and how much I defined myself as a maker. Around the same time, Justin sent me an apology letter. He wanted to see me, and even though I still thought of him all the time I really had my life together in London. So I said no. (I should mention that he went on to found Hinge.)
He was my first love and I really fell hard for him, but we were very, very young.
I ended up moving a lot because of my partner at the time’s career—we were in South Africa for a while, then Paris, and then we finally got engaged and decided to settle in Zurich. Two months before our wedding, I woke up to an email from Justin. He had sent me quite a few emails between 2010 and 2015 that I never responded to, but this email said something like, ‘I can’t believe I’m never going to see you again, I’m going to be in London next week, let’s just get a cup of coffee.’ I read it, and kind of sat there for a second. I felt like I had to answer. I told him that I moved to Zurich, but agreed to speak to him Friday morning. Friday morning came, and it was a snowy, wintry morning—I made hot chocolate, and got in bed, and sent Justin a message that I was ready to speak whenever he was. I saw the immediate dot-dot-dot of typing, which surprised me because of the six-hour time difference in New York. Finally, I got a text that said, ‘I’m in Zurich. I hopped on a red-eye because you were going to change your mind and I had to be here.’
I went to a cafe to meet him. I can’t tell you what it’s like to look out the window and see your first love walking towards you for the first time in eight years. He gave me a hug, and I literally had to back away because there was an electricity that was… too much. We stayed in that cafe for seven hours, just talking—we didn’t even get a glass of water. I moved into his studio apartment in New York 10 days later and called everything off.
So many people thought it was a fairytale, and it was, in so many ways. But at the end of that, the reality started to sink in. I was back in New York and I had no network, no real career, no friends of my own. I had lost myself. A couple months after moving back, we went to stay with my now sister-in-law up in Nantucket. I had just showered and was starting to apply body lotion when she ripped it out of my hands. I had never stopped to consider what was in my products. I just always assumed that if you could buy it in a store, it was fine—there had to be some regulatory agency that was looking out for us. That’s actually not the case. She threw the lotion away and gave me some shards of cocoa butter. Have you ever seen raw cocoa butter? It’s a rock-hard solid—it’s one of the most stable vegetable fats at room temperature. She gave it to me and said, ‘Go spend some time with your body. This is eventually going to melt.’ I wanted to put it in the microwave.
So many people thought it was a fairytale, and it was, in so many ways. But at the end of that, the reality started to sink in.
One day I took the cocoa butter into the kitchen, put it in my double broiler, and started trying all of these different combinations based off of my ganache recipe. Ganache is 50-50 cocoa butter and butter, and I wondered if I could add oil to the cocoa butter and temper it to make it softer and easier to apply. In the end, I landed on a formula with five core ingredients: cocoa butter, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, and a fractionated coconut oil. Those oils successfully lowered the melting point of the cocoa butter and made it a lot easier to apply.
I never thought I was going to sell this stuff. I was pouring it into mason jars and using it on myself for years. But when Justin and I were planning our wedding, I thought it would be nice to include it in our goodie bags. Justin basically said that I was crazy if I thought people would dig this hard cocoa butter mixture out of a jar with a wooden spoon like I’d been doing. And he was right—they would have just thrown it out. So I poured the mixture into one of my old silicone baking molds and made madeleines. People loved them. That’s when I realized I had something.
I took the product into Onda Beauty in Tribeca, and they ordered 20 of them. At this point, I was literally making them in my kitchen. They sold out in two days. Then, Naomi Watts mentioned it in her Top Shelf a month later. I connected with my co-founder and together, we got out of my kitchen in Williamsburg and opened up a full-scale production facility in Dumbo which we affectionately call the Butter Atelier. We officially opened for business last year, and have been going strong since.
I poured the mixture into one of my old silicone baking molds and made madeleines. People loved them.
Our slogan is Know Yourself. Know what you’re putting on your body, and know yourself through the healing power of your own touch. That was really the thing that helped me come back to myself. I found that the days that I took the time to put my hands on my body and care for myself were just better days. Because of the way the stone is made, you have to hold it in your hands, you have to take that moment—no matter how brief it is. It really is magic.”
—as told to ITG
Wondering what other products made our 2019 Top 25? Check out the full list here.
Photo by Hyuna Shin via Kate McLeod