Inside the millennial church of Glossier—the beauty brand that wants to be your best friend

The beauty brand's London pop-up shop sells not just its wildly popular products but a sense of belonging—while maintaining an air of exclusivity

January 15, 2020
Glossier's London HQ highlights the brand's cult following. Photo: Prospect composite
Glossier's London HQ highlights the brand's cult following. Photo: Prospect composite
“I was hired as an assassin.”

That’s how writer Patricia Lockwood opened her recent review of John Updike’s novels for The London Review of Books: “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” I thought of those words when my editor, upon receiving an ES Magazine with a promotional cover announcing Glossier’s new pop-up shop in London, peeled it off, handed it to me, and summarily announced: “I have a new assignment for you.” The last time I wrote about Glossier, the cult American skincare and makeup brand best known for its celebration of ‘natural beauty’ that is nevertheless beautiful, sleek millennial-pink product design, and frenzied popularity among millennials, I referred to it briefly as a salesperson of “snake oil for wannabe heiresses.” I also mentioned that I couldn’t stop buying it.

The difficult thing about being offered a metaphorical dagger is that it is so fun to wield it, especially when your opponent insists on being so obvious. So, let’s play. The pop-up Glossier store in London’s Floral Street in Covent Garden is a florid eye-watering spectacle whose mood board seems to have been titled “if Laura Ashley’s millennial lovechild dropped acid and then threw up on herself.” I arrived on a rainy Monday morning, six days after its grand opening. Despite the rain, there was a queue full of excited students and tourists. Behind me, a teenage boy from Australia expressed his determination to get a gift for his girlfriend. “Why can’t you just buy this stuff online,” asked his mother wearily, with the defeated air of a parent realising the world is getting too stupid for her. “I don’t want to wait here all day.”


It’s this easy scepticism and common-sense understanding of the purpose of a store—a place to go and purchase things you need — that the Glossier pop-up wants to aggressively undermine. It is an experience, a playground, a cushy members club. It contains four rooms, all coated with a different hue, wallpapered and carpeted with clashing floral prints and lit by high-octane drop-down spherical lights. You are guided through these rooms via a circular, one-way IKEA-style floorplan; the idea is that rooms are ‘unveiled’ to you as you go along, adding a pleasurable element of surprise to the experience. Unlike IKEA, each room contains the same 36 products—cleansers, moisturisers, lipsticks, brow gels, and more—laid out on brightly-lit white trays complementing the sleek pink-and-white packaging of their products. The space takes pains to differentiate itself from a garden-variety department store. Products are branded in such a way to emphasise their uniqueness: a face moisturiser becomes “FutureDew”; a blush becomes a “cloud paint.” There’s no reason for the shop to be as vast as it is, given all the products can be sold in one room. There is a lot of dead space, superfluous giant mirrors and floral-printed armchairs. But this inefficiency is the point. At the Glossier pop up, the aim seems to be unadulterated, communal pleasure: the task, then, is to help visitors buy into the fantasy.

“It’s a playground for make-up junkies,” enthused a friendly young sales assistant, nodding to the many women who have set up shop in front of well-lit mirrors, swatching different shades of lipstick (“I don’t think my boyfriend likes this shade” one woman laughed to another; “Well, that’s a him problem, not a you problem.”) The metaphor is made literal when you go to the very end of the store, where a final room, adorned with a light-blue clashing rose print carpet and lilac clashing rose print wallpaper, hosts a playful full-scale installation of what’s called a “Glossier Rooftop,” which seems to mean a life-size sculpture of a roof, in pink. When I got there, a young family was cheerfully taking a picture of their baby son astride the metaphorical skyline. It is fitting, in a sad way, that the logical result of late capitalism is the repurposing of all that was great and beautiful about an unmarketised, communal public space (even, I say with caution, a space of worship): genuine camaraderie among people; uninhibited encouragement of collective joy; a social commons, brought together by something greater than the sum of its parts, to then throw them into a literal store pretending it isn’t a store. 


Glossier has become the ur-brand for a millennial subculture that loves to hate itself even as it loves to support that which it (supposedly) hates. Gently skewered and re-entrenched in viral meme pages like Starter Packs of NYC, finding folk-villains and heroes in “grifters” like viral influencer Caroline Calloway and whatever pop star can be crowbarred into being an avatar for the revolution, negotiating how their left-ish political sympathies square with the realisation that conspicuous consumption via & Other Stories puff-sleeve dresses and literary tote bags is actually quite fun, this subclass is diffuse, malleable and global, but patterns emerge.  It is composed of many city-dwelling young professionals who have grown up with the sorts of liberal arts educations replete with ostensibly radical theories. Minds unleashed to embrace the terrifying, seductive realisation that the world doesn’t have to be what it is today, they are gripped with wants that cannot be satisfied by their employer-mediated worlds, full of Powerpoints and disappointment. It is only natural, then, like guilty moths to a bad, shiny flame, that reams of women (and not just women) flock to Glossier in gorgeous surrender and bad faith, finding undeserved absolution in the brand’s subtle avowal that it knows, like you know, that everything is a little bit bullshit, but we may as well have fun with itand with each other, in a glorious sisterhood of equals stitched together by pink bubble wrap pouches

As a brand that sells skincare and makeup products, and lately, branded clothing, Glossier is astute enough to shy away from explicitly equating itself with feminism. The failure to understand the limits of one’s business project has ensnared a similar product, private co-working space The Wing, an American upscale private member’s club whose Instagram posts have included homages to Algerian FLN member Djamila Bouhired, French resistance member and artist Marguerite Duras and Mexican painter and communist Frida Kahlo. Glossier, rather, hints at its feminist-ish politics through its company ethos, which prizes accessibility, openness, and sisterhood in contradistinction to the inaccessible and snooty posture of heritage male-owned beauty brands. (It is not the first, nor the last, to do so.) Founder and CEO Emily Weiss has stated that the brand aims to “democratise beauty” (though what does that really mean, asked critic Rosemarie Ho, “besides nothing?”) Glossier forgoes the middleman to sell products directly to the consumer, in the hope of strengthening these emotional bonds. Products have been formulated through back-and-forth consultations with fans; salespeople are often young, approachable and friendly; the Glossier experience, whether online or in stores, seeks to optimise pleasure for the buyer to the point of erasing the customer-brand distinction entirely. It’s not like the department-store beauty brands, who market their products by making you feel terrible, insufficient, perennially caught in a Sisyphean loop of trying to become what you ultimately can’t. Glossier wants you know that you’re enough. She wants—presumes—to be your friend.

What is impressive about the brand’s ability to sell the idea that it is “democratising beauty” is that, in spite of it all, Glossier’s appeal sticks precisely because it is so aspirational. Its Instagram feed is full of conventionally-attractive, mostly young people glowing with a sort of beauty that only genetics can secure. The brand antecedent to Glossier, and a key plank to its initial success, is beauty blog Into the Gloss, which saw Weiss leverage her fashion industry contacts (before Glossier, she was a fashion assistant at Vogue) to deliver short, readable interviews with the likes of models, actresses, and other culture industry A-listers about the expensive items that lined their bathroom shelves. When workshopping Glossier’s debut product, a face cleanser, Weiss mused that the doe-eyed blonde ingénue and fashion darling “Elle Fanning (would play it in a movie).” The Hollywood actress is one of the most aspirational figures of womanhood in the West today—successful, white, beautiful, blonde, still young enough to be called “mature for her age.” This is not the world of the “everywoman,” let alone a world of most women. 

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But Glossier knows this; the point is that it offers you access to this world with a millennial-pink rose and smile, at a comparatively affordable price point. It is also, to its credit, openly committed to racial and gender diversity in its marketing and self-presentation; the London store, when I visited, was also one of the few high-end beauty spaces I’ve been in that hasn’t felt conspicuously white. The brand can sometimes feel like Teflon, swallowing and pre-emptively neutering easy criticisms on the basis of its all-encompassing democratic ideal. (Even common criticisms of the brand as “makeup for girls who don’t need it” end up enhancing the brand rather than detracting from it, saying the quiet part of Glossier’s marketing out loud.) In this sense, it is kinder to the women whose consumption supports the beauty industry than heritage brands, with their cold contempt for women and avowals that crow’s feet, cellulite, and armpit hair are the work of Satan, ever have been. Glossier understands that you can hate what you want, feel bad for wanting what you want, but want it anyway, without being reduced to a fool. Desire can be a complicated thing, and not everyone who falls for shiny things is a sucker. 

In March, Glossier reached “unicorn status” in the venture capital world, attaining a historic $1.2 billion-dollar valuation. Weiss, founder-CEO supreme, knows that to deal with venture capitalists is to deal in fantasy; “Evaluations are interesting,” she told the Financial Times, “because it’s like stock prices. It’s not a stat. It’s not a real thing.” But: “I think it’s incredibly validating… that some of the most important venture capitalists and investors in the world...are recognising both the power of the beauty industry, which is going to be worth $750bn by the end of 2024.” Glossier’s meteoric rise cuts an exceptional figure to the otherwise dismal state of retail, most recently exemplified by the demise of 90’s cult lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret (Let it die.)

Seeing the starkly different trajectories of these two companies has made me realise, or rather wonder, whether the new iteration of capitalism will be led by women—something I am trying to say value-neutrally, as hard as it is today to speak of women gaining more access to capital without invoking the triumphant, overdetermined spectre of the girlboss. As capitalism becomes more and more speculative, and the brick-and-mortar retail model replaced by startups in the volatile venture capital funding cycle, the ability for brands to play with narrative, forge emotive customer relationships, and—crucially—conjure up five thousand public fantasies from a bog-standard product will become more and more important. Companies like Victoria’s Secret and the heritage brands that Glossier seeks to topple (Weiss, in a bold statement to the FT: “We’re creating the Estée Lauder of the future”) built themselves on one account of fantasy—one with the subtlety of a dump truck on fire. They were wholly negatively aspirational, in a stick-with-no-carrot, men-looking-at-women kind of way. Victoria Secret refused, for example, to hire plus-sized or transgender models in its annual show last November, claiming “the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”

Glossier is smarter. Desire, that endlessly renewable fuel of consumer capitalism, is at its most interesting when it is less obvious; sometimes the best way to look exclusive is to bang the drum of inclusivity from on high. As a recent startup founded by a photogenic young woman, Glossier and its democratic ideal feel more sophisticated than earlier iterations, such as Dove’s seminal “Real Beauty” campaigns. Dove, after all, can’t shake that it is part a global corporation, something that makes its campaigns feel somewhat less authentic, and crucially, less cool. Performing womanhood involves a masochistic negotiation of how easily pleasure tips into punishment, where the most compelling thing to chase is not always being the instantiation of a male fantasy, but being the sort of woman looked at by other women with effusive, punishing admiration: you are both accessible best friend and impossible archetype all at once. Glossier understands that to try and be an “ideal woman”—that impossible vision—is absurd and gruelling. It understands that the acknowledgement of this truth has not stopped masses of dreamers from trying anyway. As you follow your doomed path to transcendence, one that will see you endlessly hit at a wall, caught in a feedback loop of temporarily sating your inappropriate desires with inappropriate consumer goods that further inflame your inappropriate appetites, Glossier wants, above all, to be your friend. It’s a kinder, gentler capitalism—but a capitalism all the same.