Kawaii Girl Cosmetics is a Black woman-owned, Leaping Bunny certified, vegan indie makeup brand founded by Dorian Smith-Garcia. The company focuses on inclusivity and ensuring that makeup is more accessible to everyone. Smith-Garcia explains her brand as a “judgment-free beauty space that lets beauty lovers wear makeup however they see fit.”
Smith-Garcia aims to offer quality products at affordable prices, but also to take the stigma out of cosmetics. “We don’t believe in dictating how a person should wear makeup — we just provide them with the tools to let their personality shine,” she says.
We spoke to Smith-Garcia, a born and raised Hoosier who is now based in New York, to find out more about Kawaii Girl Cosmetics and her newly released “Indy Beauty Tools Collection” named after different locations in Indianapolis.
Q. You are the founder of Kawaii Girl Cosmetics; what drove you to start your own line?
I have an interesting professional history where I’ve had the opportunity to work in the corporate side of retail, represent clients from the Japanese entertainment industry, and even dabbled a bit in the investment world here in New York where I’m now based.
A few years before I started Kawaii Girl Cosmetics, I was engaged to be married. This was around 2013. At that time, I started a blog called The Anti Bridezilla that was originally all about planning destination weddings. Even after my wedding in 2014, I continued to manage my site — which at this point had turned into an influencer platform more than a personal website — about my experiences planning a destination wedding in Japan.
Eventually, the website expanded to include bridal beauty, and as a natural segue, I became a beauty influencer that worked with a variety of beauty brands — both color cosmetics and skincare — like Kevyn Aucoin, E.L.F. Cosmetics, Pixi Beauty, Dermae, The Body Shop, and more. Through those experiences, I got to sample a wide array of beauty products. Some were amazing, and some missed the mark. So after a while, I realized that if I felt there was a void in the beauty world, I should create something to fill that space.
Initially, this was just a desire for more accessible and durable beauty products. But as I continued to talk to friends, relatives, and even people I randomly met at events, I realized that while the cosmetics industry has such a strong presence globally, at least with people I met in the US, a common refrain was that “they didn’t know makeup” because they either weren’t a professional makeup artist or didn’t apply makeup exactly like the beauty gurus on social media.
Meanwhile, after years of covering New York Fashion Week and New York Bridal Fashion Week, I knew that most working MUAs (makeup artists), while they might be able to create what you see on social media, that’s not what they’re usually getting booked to do when they’re at a photoshoot or backstage at a fashion show.
So that disconnect between how makeup is treated in the industry, versus what Western social media portrays as how you should wear makeup, is where Kawaii Girl Cosmetics sits. We don’t dictate how to wear our products, and we don’t push one method of makeup application. Makeup should encourage your creativity and should also reflect your style. We view makeup as a judgment-free safe space that allows you to just be and enjoy this creative medium.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in creating your own beauty brand, and how did you overcome it?
Most definitely, the hardest part was relaunching our brand during the worst part of the Covid pandemic. As an indie brand, we’re entirely self-funded. And when I initially launched Kawaii Girl Cosmetics in 2017, I was relying on earnings from my marketing consultancy to help fund it. Unfortunately, the primary client we had at the time abruptly ended our contract, leaving us without the necessary income we were using to fund the brand during the initial start-up period.
And of course, in a Murphy’s Law plot twist, around the same time I found out my husband and I were pregnant! So, my focus became ensuring that my household was financially stable — which meant that even though Kawaii Girl was starting to get momentum and attention from national and regional media, I had to put our plans on hold. Fast forward to late 2019 and I was ready to relaunch with plans to release a collection by mid-2020. And then the pandemic happened!
So, we went from originally planning to relaunch with a supply chain that was primarily international to having to pivot and start from scratch. And as anyone knows who survived the worst of the pandemic, even domestic supply chains were severely impacted. So, getting raw goods shipments could take a month or more whereas in pre-pandemic times (or even from 2021 on) you could get it in a week, tops. In October 2020, we relaunched with the New York Collection which started as a 10-color collection of loose shimmer powders that were sourced, produced, and packaged entirely in the United States. It later grew to its current size — 16 pigment powders and five lash styles.
Thankfully, the reception to the New York Collection was amazing. We got a lot of press across media tiers from majors like Forbes, we began to secure placements with subscription box services, and by late 2021 we were growing our retailer network. And in my opinion, the setback we faced in 2017 actually put us in a better position, as now I can focus more on Kawaii Girl Cosmetics versus trying to split my time between supporting client campaigns with a marketing consultancy and trying to squeeze in time to run a makeup brand. Of course, at the time that I was dealing with that setback, it was impossible to have that rosy outlook!
Q. You just launched the “Indy Beauty Tools Collection” with makeup brushes and tools named after Indianapolis; can you tell us more about the collection and your inspiration?
Kawaii Girl Cosmetics is a brand that releases curated collections throughout the year. And the interesting thing about our collections is that each one is named after a city that has significance to me. And the individual items within the collection are named after districts or neighborhoods across that city.
So, our debut collection in 2017 was the Tokyo Collection and was exclusively devoted to false lashes with the hero product from that being Odaiba — a district in Tokyo where my husband and I were married. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities to visit. As I mentioned, I was married in Tokyo and I’ve worked quite a bit with brands and music artists from that market.
In 2020, we released the New York Collection which includes both lashes and loose shimmer powders. We named each of the five lash styles after one of the five boroughs (Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island) and the powders are named after different neighborhoods across those boroughs. I lived in New York for 10 years and still live in the metro area. I basically “came of age” here, so it’s been very influential for me.
And as a born and raised Hoosier, I felt it was time to give a nod to the city where I spent my childhood. With our initial launch, it’s a small collection of makeup brushes and tools to start. So, we have the Castleton Mirror (the general neighborhood where I lived for most of my life until I graduated high school), the North Central Powder Brush (my high school), the Allisonville Angled Blush Brush (my elementary school), the Eastwood Fluffy Eyeshadow Brush (my middle school), the Keystone Angled Liner Brush, and the Broad Ripple Flat Eyeshadow Brush.
What’s so fun about the naming process is that our fans really love hearing the stories behind why a product is given a certain name. And in some cases, we’ve even gone to our live stream audiences to ask them to name new product drops. We did it last year with our Queensbridge shade from the New York Collection as a poll asking our audience to choose between the birthplaces of two Hip-Hop icons — Queensbridge (Nas) and Park Hill (WuTang Clan).
Q. What advice would you give other women who are interested in starting their own beauty companies?
I would definitely say, just do it! There’s no denying that the beauty industry is a crowded one. But unlike some industries, I do feel it’s one where there’s genuinely room for everyone to have a seat at the table. It’s pretty rare to find a true makeup or skincare fan who exclusively uses just one brand for their entire skincare and makeup routine. So, there’s room on their face for you too!
But having said that, I’d say it’s important to understand your target audience and to be authentic. We don’t call our audience customers, they’re our Kawaii Girl Beauties because they’re part of our community. While there is room at the table, that doesn’t mean you can toss anything into the marketplace and hope for the best.
People are way more savvy than when I was growing up. You can’t just toss anything on a website and assume that people will buy it “just because” — especially when you’re starting out. Whereas beauty lovers will blindly buy from known entities (think people buying Kylie’s lip kits or Fenty Beauty products even if it wasn’t a color they particularly loved just to say they had it), they won’t do that with an indie brand.
Thanks to social media, people do have access to your brand 24/7, and for better or worse you have access to your audience nonstop as well. If you tap into your audience correctly, they’ll help grow your brand — even when the media or buyers from your wish list stores won’t reply to your emails or return your calls. Trust me, I know this frustration very well — it was my 2020 experience in one sentence!
As an example, this time last year, Canada wasn’t a focus for Kawaii Girl Cosmetics’ original expansion plan. But when we would host live streaming sales, almost consistently a quarter of every audience was coming from Canada. And we kept getting feedback that they loved our products but the shipping was too expensive for them to shop outside of those streaming platforms and directly through our website. As a result, we pursued Canadian sales channels and I’m proud to say that in May we launched online with Walmart Canada, making it possible for our Canadian Beauties to buy our products and pay reasonable shipping rates. But this never would have happened if we hadn’t listened to our Beauties’ feedback.
And our Beauties are very emotionally invested in our brand. They want to know our brand story, they want to hear how we name products. They love to spend time with me on live stream apps when we host live sales and product drops. So, be ready to interact with and listen to your audience because those early adopters who like every post on social media and reshare your posts (even the not so good ones) are the ones who are going to propel your business forward.
I would also say, don’t feel like you have to compete with the big brands and drop large collections all at once. Unless you’re very well-funded, the expense associated with releasing new collections can cause serious sticker shock. If you tap into the right audience, they’ll understand that you can’t drop 50 eyeshadow shades at once. And they’d rather you release a few well-made products versus releasing a large array of poor quality items.
Q. What can we look forward to from you and Kawaii Girl Cosmetics in the future?
This year, we have a few items on the horizon. While we did just launch the Indy Makeup Brushes and the Castleton Mirror, we’re also going to be releasing the Circle City Liner Lash Glue, and accompanying lash tools (names TBD) within the Indy Beauty Tools Collection — as our vegan, glasses-friendly lashes continue to always be our best sellers.
Later this year, we’ll be releasing lip and cheek tints under the San Francisco Collection — and most likely accompanying lashes for that collection as well. And in late 2022 or early 2023, we’ll be releasing the Seoul Collection which will focus on skincare that’s relevant for makeup. Think cleansing balms, primer serums, and moisturizers. And we’re thinking about bringing out a dedicated liner collection later in 2023 as well (name TBD)!
Stephanie Groves is the Executive Editor of Indy Maven and she is always excited to find out about a new beauty brand.