His high-tech, accessibly priced products have earned thousands of devotees and shaken up the beauty industry. Meet gamechanger BRANDON TRUAXE…
It wouldn’t surprise me if there were little voodoo dolls of Brandon Truaxe on the desks of cosmetics bosses all over the world, because this is the man responsible for probably the biggest revolution the beauty industry has ever seen. He has dared to launch high-tech, age-defying skincare products that cost a tenth (or even less) of their rivals with skincare line The Ordinary. (Ironically named, because it’s anything but.) the brand sells at low prices because it doesn’t spend on fancy packaging, expensive marketing or supermodel ‘faces’ – yet still makes a tidy profit. The waiting list for Brandon’s products puts the queues at Harvey Nichols for Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty in the shade – more than 75,000 signed up for the launch of The Ordinary foundations on the Victoria Health website. After all, who can argue with less than £6 for a fabulous face base?
In just four years, Brandon has built a beauty empire (with more than ten brands under the umbrella company Deciem) that not only took more than £335 million in orders in the last quarter, but so intrigued Leonard Lauder, patriarch of the Estée Lauder empire, that the company took a small stake in Deciem. Alongside The Ordinary are NIOD, HIF, the liquid skincare supplement range Fountain, grooming line AB Crew and bodycare line the Chemistry Brand, with approaching 200 products altogether in the portfolio.
Today, this 39-year-old beauty revolutionary is in town on a ying visit. Just after we meet, he will go on to collect the most innovative beauty brand award at Luxury Briefing’s prestigious ceremony before heading back to Toronto, Canada, where this British-born, part-Greek, part-Iranian dynamo is based.
‘These days, I live on an aeroplane,’ he says. It’s all completely – yes – extraordinary, for someone who trained as a computer scientist and whose grooming regime was once limited to a bar of soap. ‘I was an archetypal geek in a plaid shirt, glued to a computer screen,’ he smiles. ‘And if you had told me then that one day I would have a beauty business, I would have looked at you as if you were on some kind of mind-bending drug.’
But while doing analysis for a major cosmetics company looking at formula costings, Brandon had his lightbulb moment. ‘One of the products launched for around $1,000 cost them less than $2.17 to make.’ So, having made a cool £590,000 selling a (much less sexy) software business that simplified car-leasing agreements, Brandon moved into skincare, building and selling other beauty companies before launching Deciem. It was a non-compete clause restricting him from launching a skincare product costing more than £22 that inspired him to launch products costing far less, setting Brandon on the path to being the ‘beauty disruptor’ he has become.
As Brandon puts it, ‘What I’m about is honesty, integrity and transparency. If you want to spend £500 on a great skin cream, fine. But the point is, there’s no need. If you’re selling someone a beautiful dream, tell them it’s a dream. Don’t turn something that’s entirely functional into a dream.’
More than that, though, The Ordinary cleverly taps into the shift towards personalisation, enabling us to become our own skincare expert and react to what we’re seeing in the mirror on any given day: a dose of skin-plumping Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 here; a drop of brightening Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% there; add a squeeze of hydrating Natural Moisturizing Factors/HA; maybe a puffiness-blitzing burst of Caffeine Solution 5% + EGCG on that morning when you wake up with more under-eye baggage than usual. By offering precise, individual ingredients that you use to ‘build’ your skincare regime, explains Brandon, ‘you’re more likely to be able to gure out what works for your skin and what doesn’t’. Vogue has called it a ‘skintellectual’ approach to beauty, while Cosmopolitan observes: ‘It’s skincare that puts you in charge.’
When The Ordinary launched in 2016 – via a modest couple of paragraphs in Victoria Health founder Gill Sinclair’s September newsletter to its customers – both Brandon and Gill held their breath. Gill remembers: ‘We honestly didn’t know what to expect because we were being provocative, challenging the beauty industry. But the entire stock sold out within hours of the newsletter being released.’ From that moment, The Ordinary became a phenomenon.
It certainly isn’t money that motivates Brandon, however – though I’d put £1,000 on at pretty much any odds a bookie could offer that one day he will be very, very rich. ‘Money is like oxygen,’ he says. ‘I need a certain amount of oxygen to breathe, but beyond that any extra really doesn’t make any difference to me.’ He may have moved on from department-store shirts to something decidedly snappier (today’s is ‘either Ermenegildo Zegna or Hugo Boss – I can’t remember’), worn with a sharp suit and white- soled lace-ups, but home comforts don’t feature on Brandon’s priority list. ‘I like the fact that I live in an apartment with a bed and a shower, some speakers and a wooden oor that feels nice when I do press-ups. I’ve never owned a TV – but I do have a great view of a lake, and I like that.’
Brandon’s background goes some way to helping explain where he gets his phenomenal drive – and his ease with being something of an outsider. His Greek-Iranian parents died when he was very small and he was raised by friends of the family. But his adoptive father ‘wasn’t terribly interested in having me’ and his adoptive mother developed cancer and ultimately died. Brandon is closest to their son, who helped raise him; the fact that his brother lives in Toronto is what drew Brandon to make his home there. ‘Maybe what I experienced was extreme, but it allowed me to be me, to appreciate life and work. Deciem is the family I have chosen, and my work is my life.’ And the ‘family’ is growing fast: Deciem – ‘the abnormal beauty company’ is its tagline – sells in 20 countries and has more than 300 employees, including a graphics team whose streamlined packaging is so completely ‘now’.
Brandon admits that he would be a nightmare to be in a relationship with (though his surprising sweetness does have me mentally scrolling through my single girlfriends, trying to think of someone who would be up for the challenge). And whatever you do, don’t invite him on holiday. ‘I have tried the kind of vacation other people have,’ he says. ‘Friends convinced me to take a week in Mexico and just “relax”. The first two days I was really happy. I thought, “I can do this!” By day three, sitting by the pool and seeing a woman come down and sit on the same lounger, in the same place – well, I felt completely depressed. I ran away in the middle of the night without saying goodbye and ew home.’ If he does take a holiday, it will be three days – yes, three days – in Bhutan, or riding a llama across a totally silent Chilean high plateau. He does admit to having once, just once, watched a box set: Family Guy, with a friend who was in the doldrums. ‘I loved it; it was clever, anarchic, hilarious. But I don’t feel the need to do it again.’
Brandon sleeps for just five hours a night and more than 30 per cent of his (long) day is spent in the lab. ‘I’m trying things, questioning, challenging my 17 chemists. Which is ironic, because the only subject I hated – and failed – at school was chemistry.’
There are at least three more Deciem brands imminent: Loopha (a bodycare range), Hippooh, and his own personal 13-year passion project, a fragrance line to be called Avestan, which will launch in the not-too-distant future with a London store. ‘Unlike skincare, fragrance isn’t rational,’ he says. ‘Skincare can never make someone fall in love. Fragrance is the most powerful thing, and I’m truly excited about it.’ (Just don’t expect £5 price tags on this one.)
For now, though, it is The Ordinary and its democratic appeal that’s grabbing the biggest headlines – and powering sales. ‘The Ordinary allows a larger audience to have proven skincare technologies at their disposal, regardless of income,’ he says. On one landmark occasion, Victoria Health took orders for 5,000 The Ordinary products in just 50 minutes. Fulfilling orders, however, is still a challenge because the Canadian factory can’t always keep up. ‘That’s what the Estée Lauder investment is intended to help with,’ Brandon says. ‘We’re currently going through our fourth factory move in four years.’
Meanwhile, expecting customers to go on a waiting list most definitely isn’t a good marketing strategy – ‘it’s about trying to keep up with demand’. As Gill says: ‘There was absolutely no hype involved when we launched The Ordinary. the waiting lists were very real, very long and very stressful. And they still exist.’
‘I hadn’t really figured out that you could have 75,000 people on a waiting list even before the launch,’ says Brandon, ‘but then when you actually launch, another 200,000 people want to buy that product…’ Nobody could have predicted that The Ordinary would take off quite this fast – and that success has Brandon working even harder in his beloved lab. So it comes as a surprise that when customers have a query that nobody else can answer, they’re likely to get an email from Brandon himself. ‘Ultimately, nothing takes higher priority than the customer,’ he says. Indeed, he believes, to be a beauty disruptor, ‘you have to ignore everything and everybody and focus on one thing: the customer’.
As for the voodoo dolls of Brandon on those jealous skincare CEOs’ desks? ‘I don’t think they exist! I’m not in this to make enemies,’ he says. ‘Although I don’t at all mind if we’re shaking things up.’ Which is surely the beauty world’s understatement of the millennium.
The Ordinary Hall of Fame
HYDRATING: Hyaluronic acid 2% + B5, £5.90
ANTI-BLEMISH FORMULA: Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, £5
ANTI-AGEING: Granactive retinoid 2% emulsion (previously Advanced Retinoid 2%), £8
PEPTIDE SERUM: Buffet, £12.70
ANTIOXIDANT: Vitamin C Suspension 23% + Ha Spheres 2%, £4.90
Shop The Ordinary range at victoriahealth.com
Words by Jo Fairley