Toni Ko, Founder, Nyx Cosmetics & Bespoke Beauty Brands


“I’ve always said that I was going to stay single and make something on my own. I don’t know where that idea came from, but I’ve always said it.

My family moved to the States from Korea when I was 13. Immigrants who can speak English go out and get jobs, but those who can’t tend to start their own businesses to put bread on the table. My mom started a small beauty supply business, and I worked there from when I was 14 to when I was 25. The whole time my mom did not pay me. She gave me an allowance, a roof over my head, clothes on my shoulders, food in my belly…and maybe $20 for the week. I did not have a lot of money to spend on beauty, but when I would go to department stores, I’d fall in love with the products. They felt so luxurious and high-quality. Girls were wearing dark brown lip liner with frosted beige lipstick inside, and really thin eyeliner that was highly arched at the end. I could afford things from the drugstore, like Maybelline, or Revlon, or Covergirl, but back then, their lip liners and eyeliners were absolutely horrible. Pre-1999, there was nothing like Nyx Cosmetics, with that quality, at that price point.

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My mom gave me some seed money, and because of my family business I knew a manufacturer. I will never forget the product I started off with—807 Cocoa, a chocolate brown lip liner. Instead of it being $18, I was selling it for $2. At first you could find it at your local, mom-and-pop beauty supply store, and since there wasn’t social media we advertised on buses or billboards. I think doing business now is a lot more expensive than doing business was in the ‘90s or the 2000’s, because we didn’t have to create content to post on Instagram every day. I could get face time with customers by going to trade shows like Beautycon and IBS [International Beauty Show], so I went to all of them. Usually it cost $500 for someone to take in your stuff and set you up, but to save money I would bring my merchandise in the back of my car, park a mile away, and lug it to the show myself. That first year of Nyx, I was the only team member. I launched 18 SKUs—six shades of eyeliner, 12 shades of lip liner. And with that, I did $4 million worth of business in retail value, or $2 million in wholesale. I went from getting an allowance to being a millionaire, literally overnight. Everything I have, it’s all sweat equity.

The next item I launched was lipstick. Then single color eyeshadow. I hired one full-time person and one part-time person. Our first drugstore carrier was Ulta, and then we got into Target, and then we got into CVS. By the time my company was acquired by L’Oréal, we had plans to go into Walgreens. I had a serious identity crisis after it sold. That brand felt like my entire self. I was married to it for 15 years, and then one day I had nothing to do with it. It’s weird when I see them launching new products now, but I still order the products I love online. There’s this lipstick I developed, the Soft Matte Lip Cream, that I buy six of at a time because I have to have it. When I was at the company, product development excited me the most. Second to that was when random people I’d meet would pull Nyx products out of their makeup bag. That felt very special.

That brand felt like my entire self. I was married to it for 15 years, and then one day I had nothing to do with it.

My identity crisis led me to start a few new companies, the third of which is called Bespoke Beauty Brands. It’s an umbrella company that holds a portfolio of different brands—I call it a ‘beauty incubator’ because it’s the closest reference people would understand, but an incubator would let you go at a certain point, and we don’t do that. The first brand we launched was Kimchi Chic, with Kim Chi, a drag queen who was on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I actually DM’ed her on Instagram because I was a fan, and that’s how we got connected. The second brand we launched was with Jason Wu. Being a celebrity is a full-time job, and you can’t really run daily operations unless you partner with somebody. We put up the money and do product development with the influencer, then, once the brand is launched, we do all the marketing, fulfillment, logistics, distribution, operations, finance, et cetera. And it’s a requirement for anybody who comes under Bespoke Beauty Brands that a portion of revenue gets donated. What you see from a brand on Instagram is like an iceberg that’s submerged underwater—there’s years of work and struggle behind that.

My cleansing process is two steps—actually, it’s more like four steps. This is at night. I remove my eye makeup with the Lancôme Bi-Facil Double Action Eye Makeup Remover, which I’ve been using for close to 30 years. I’m very careful not to tug my skin, especially around my eyes. You need to put the cotton pad on your eyes, let the ingredients soak into your lashes, and then gently wipe to remove your mascara. I alternate between using a makeup wipe or Pond’s Cold Cream to take off my foundation. Pond’s you can buy for just a few dollars, and it’s amazing. I wipe it off with either tissue or a warm cloth, and then I use lukewarm water and a foaming cleanser to wash my face. Right now I’ve been using Shiseido’s Clarifying Cleansing Foam, but I’m not too particular about it as long as it lathers well. Finally, I wash my face with the original Dove Beauty Bar. Dove bars are 25-percent moisturizer, so it cleanses while protecting the moisture barrier of your skin. In the morning, when I haven’t been wearing makeup, I skip the other stuff and just use that. And some mornings where I only wash my face with only water—there’s a difference between maintaining your natural oils and being greasy, and I only use soap in the morning when I wake up feeling greasy. The one thing I always do is clean my eye area with soap. Once I read an article about a fungus that grows on your eyes and I’ve never forgotten it.

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I pat my face dry—never rub—and use toner and essence from La Mer while I still have some moisture on my skin. That locks in the moisture. My nighttime moisturizer is from January Labs, because I like that it has lactic acid in it, and my daytime moisturizer is from La Mer, because I like that it doesn’t have lactic acid in it. And I always wear eye cream, which right now is from Shiseido. I also try to see Inara at L’Inara Skin Care Studios in Beverly Hills once a month for a general maintenance facial. For Korean women, skincare is preventative. Once the wrinkles set in, nothing's going to remove them except Botox. [Laughs]

I do my hair before I do my makeup. I have this thing that I bought in Hong Kong that’s a velcro strip maybe five inches long and three inches wide. The velcro is weak enough that it would fall off if you ran, but if I’m just sitting and putting on makeup, it holds my hair away from my face without leaving any creases or clip marks. My natural hair texture is super straight, and my natural color is dark brown. I go to one person, Juvencio Jimenez-Valdez, and I swear to God I can’t move because of him. Asian hair tends to go orange when you try to bleach it, which is a big problem. I’ve cheated on Juvencio like three times, and I always go back to him with messed up hair color like, ‘Juvencio, I’m so sorry, can you please fix it?!’ [Laughs] He’s the only one who doesn’t make it orange. He also cuts my hair—well, we don’t really cut it. It’s more like continuous dustings.

I’ve cheated on Juvencio like three times, and I always go back to him with messed up hair color like, ‘Juvencio, I’m so sorry, can you please fix it?!’

Right now, I’ve been using shampoo and conditioner from Amber Fillerup Clark’s Dae Hair. It’s an influencer brand, but I had nothing to do with it—I’ve just followed her on Instagram and always thought she was amazing at hair. Her line launched in Sephora, and it has really pretty packaging, so bought it to try. I’ve been using it for a couple months now and it is really good. After I shower, I use a little hair oil, whatever is available—when I buy from Sephora they give me samples, so I always use those. Then, I style my hair using the Dyson Airwrap. I blow it half way, use the Airwrap, and basically tousle it.

I love going to Sephora. Here’s the thing: in my makeup bag, you’ll never just find products from my brands. My bag has always been filled with something from every brand, because that’s how I see where my product stands in terms of efficacy, formula, and quality. Right now I’ve been using a little dollop of Jason Wu’s primer on my T-zone area. I grab any sponge, wet it really quickly, and then use the Moira Cosmetics Complete Wear Foundation in Classic Beige. I don’t wear concealer because I feel like it accentuates my wrinkles. I don’t contour, but I use Kimchi Chic’s Thailor bronzer and blush. The blush I’m wearing now is a sample I’m testing for her line. On my lips, I’m wearing a matte liquid lip from Jeffree Star—I go red when I have photoshoots, but on regular days I use that Soft Matte in Istanbul from Nyx. I think highlighter in the daytime is a bit excessive, but when I go out on a date at night, a little bit on my nose and cheekbones makes me shine like a diamond.

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I have no eyebrows because I’m a victim of the 90s. [Laughs] But I know where my arch should be and where my brows should start and end—I don’t like them to be too long because I think it looks heavy. When I heard they were discontinuing it, I bought six of these Shiseido Eyebrow Powder with two colors. Once the powder is on, I also draw single strokes to mimic my natural brow hair with Jason Wu’s micro eyebrow pencil. Eyeshadow depends on the day, but in general I stay within brown, rusty, and golden tones. I either use two colors, one medium shade and one dark shade, from the Jason Wu Flora 9 Matte Agave palette, or I’ll use Taupe and Mahogany from Bobbi Brown that I’ve been a fan of for 20 years. I’m also married to Bobbi Brown’s Gel Eyeliner, in the color Black Ink. I apply it with a thin eyeliner brush by MAC on my top lash line, and do a little bit of a cat eye at the end. Then, I follow with mascara. I like L’Oréal Telescopic, that classic Lancôme one, Milk’s Kush, YSL’s, Roller Lash by Benefit… I keep them in an acrylic jar and every morning, I pick one on a whim.

There are a few things that drive me nuts: car washes, pumping gas, and getting a manicure. I try to keep my nails clean, but I can’t go sit there for hours with my hands held hostage! I just don’t have the time. I do get massages pretty often though. Surya Spa in Santa Monica has this body treatment called Panchakarma... It’s a four hour massage, and you have two masseuses massaging you in synchronicity. When just one person is massaging your body, your mind goes, ‘Oh my God, they’re rubbing my feet, they’re rubbing my legs,’ but with two masseuses in sync you can’t really tell who’s doing what. It’s on purpose, so you don’t think about it. I did a seven week Panchakarma series about three years ago, and that was amazing. I mean, the quality and texture of my skin was changed. They closed due to COVID but just reopened, and as soon as I heard they were back I booked a one day Panchakarma. The owner of the spa also makes the most amazing oil with all these herbs.

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Fragrance is very unique to each individual’s body chemistry, so everybody needs to try a fragrance on themselves. Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani is a scent that works beautifully on me. Sometimes florals can be overwhelming and make my nose itch. But this is a green tea floral, so it’s fresh. I’ve been wearing it ever since it launched, over 15 years ago. I wear that 80-percent of the time, and the other 20-percent I explore. I came across this Pacifica perfume at Whole Foods called Persian Rose. This has the most beautiful rose scent without triggering my allergies. And my favorite home fragrance is Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone. I love that scent—it’s super sexy.”

—as told to ITG

Toni Ko photographed by Felisha Tolentino on April 26, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.