Born to be wild: Amy Zunzunegui discusses the journey from Urban Decay exec to the launch of Wldkat
Amy Zunzunegui was born a rebel. Not so unusual in and of itself, rebellious souls are born every day. What set Zunzunegui apart from is that she had the cognizance and determination (and some well-timed serendipity) to channel her renegade spirit into a successful career as a beauty industry trailblazer.
A restless California college graduate of the late ’90s, Zunzunegui craved a job that tapped into her kinetic creative energy and desire to be part of something innovative and culture-shifting, or as she puts it, ‘I wanted to work for a cool company.’ At that time, action sports were more her thing, but a quick peek at the backside of an Urban Decay eye shadow changed her life (and the make-up world) forever—she discovered the quirky start-up brand was located in southern California, practically in her backyard. A mailed résumé and three weeks later, Zunzunegui became part of the Urban Decay team of beauty outlaws for 20 years where she became a senior executive and mastermind of such make-up icons as the Naked Palette and 24/7 Glide-On Eye Pencil.
In true rebel spirit, Zunzunegui felt the urge to break free after two decades to create a skin care brand that integrated everything she is passionate about: sustainability, originality, efficacy, affordability and inclusivity. Vegan, cruelty-free, consciously harvested and packaged, Wldkat launched pre-pandemic in 2019 with five products that merged tried and true ingredients such as vitamin C and hyaluronic acid with newer players (though not necessarily new ingredients) such as patchouli, orchid stem cells, and snow mushrooms.
Even a cosmetics industry veteran like Zunzunegui, however, experienced the ups, downs, and zig-zags of a skin care start-up and the changes and redirections in the process. The CBD was omitted (read on, it’s fascinating stuff), packaging revamped, and, voilà! Wldkat débuted at Ulta, and most recently, at Target, in early 2022.
We had the great pleasure to speak with Amy Zunzunegui about Wldkat, UD, what it takes to launch an indie beauty brand, and of course, why CBD as an ingredient is not always a good marketing strategy.
Lucire Rouge: How did you manifest the rebel image in cosmetics? Why do you feel it resonates with so many women?
Amy Zunzunegui: Urban Decay was founded as the antithesis of mainstream, which is why I think so many people were attracted to the brand. It was fresh and different and didn’t feel like everything else sitting on the department store beauty counters. That was the reason I was personally drawn to UD as it felt like it spoke to my personality, style and attitude. As UD evolved and grew, we always made sure to keep the edge that continued to set it apart for so many years. Even today with Wldkat, my main mission was to make great skin care formulas at an affordable price, but with an attitude and energy that didn’t feel like everything else in the market. In a small way, this brand lets people break free from their daily norms which is exciting.
You were an integral part of UD and the development of many iconic products and the UD image. How does Wldkat represent today’s beauty æsthetic?
Yes, I was at UD for 20 years and it was absolutely amazing to be part of that journey. Obviously, Wldkat sits in the masstige skin care space versus prestige colour so already the energy is different. Personally, I have never been drawn to traditional beauty norms. I always liked things that were just a bit off, from products and packaging to models, and I believe showing real humans with real skin is extremely important. Being aspirational as a brand is important but allowing the customer to see themselves in it is even more valuable.
How long did it take to develop the WLDKAT brand? What advice would you give up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
Developing the brand from the very first concept to five products launching on our site took well under a year. I am told by the suppliers that I am quicker than most. What I think it comes down to is knowing what you want and being able to make a decision. That is the majority of the battle and the advice I would give someone entering this space. It is extremely crowded and noisy and it seems like there is a new brand launching every single day. So you have to be thoughtful about how you differentiate your brand from the others but still come across as relatable and attainable. It is not easy. Start small and start on social first, that would be my advice.
Wldkat started as a cannabis-infused product line. Why did you decide to omit the CBD?
Everyone thought that with the passing of the Farm Bill, which made CBD federally legal, all barriers were down and that there would be a large amount of consumer demand for CBD products. But that wasn’t the case. When you have CBD in your products, here are just a few of the challenges: you cannot advertise on Google or FB, Apple Pay and Paypal will not work with you, you cannot sell on Amazon, you can only bank with certain banks, payment processors for your site are not only limited but more expensive as well. And the list continues. But what is most frustrating is that it is no one talks about all of this, so brands entering the space have no idea how hard it is. Because selling, advertising and simply talking about CBD is so difficult, the consumer doesn’t have access to information, and so they are confused, leading to lower demand for products with CBD. So we made the pivot away from CBD last year.
How did you develop the formulations? How are you keeping the consumer cost so affordable?
Believe it or not, I didn’t work with any of the same labs and manufacturers for Wldkat formulas that I worked with previously at UD. I really wanted to start this all from scratch. When I work on formulas my goal is to be very collaborative with the formulators as they are the magicians. I give them direction, inspiration, guidance on what I want the formula to do, feel like, etc., but then step back and let them do their jobs. In terms of the cost, we set a target cost from the onset and push hard to keep it there. A lot of the time the cost goes up due to extraneous factors like the current increase in freight so we do have to have some flexibility.
Is expensive really better? If not, why?
This is a tricky question. The old adage of ‘You get what you pay for’ applies to a lot of things in life, but not necessarily to beauty products. Part of this is due to packaging costs and also due to overhead. At Wldkat, we use very inexpensive packaging because I wanted to put the money into the actual formulas. For instance, our boxes do not have any coatings or special treatments on them because I know the customer is going to throw it in the trash moments after opening that product. Most of our components are lightweight to limit our carbon footprint. Better for the customer’s bank account and better for the environment.
Can you describe the Wldkat ethos?
At Wldkat, we always want to bring the unexpected. If most brands are going left, then we go right. For instance, niacinamide and retinol are in so many formulas, and they do work! But our goal is to provide something different in the market. We search for interesting ingredients and then pair them in unexpected ways, while always keeping efficacy and getting that glowing skin in mind. The packaging always has to be fun and sexy and not feel like skin care per se. I want the customer to be proud to put Wldkat products on their shelves.
What’s in the future for Wldkat?
We will forever be looking for interesting ingredients that come from the earth because those ingredients can do amazing things for all parts of our bodies. But we also believe in pairing those ingredients with modern technology to get that sought-after glow. We sit in this place where those two concepts meet which is pretty interesting. I don’t think technology or man-made ingredients are all bad. It is how you source them and use them that is critical.
What’s your favourite product and anti-ageing skin care advice?
I cannot pick! Honestly, my favourite product is the one we haven’t launched yet. Otherwise, it should never make it to market.