She's one of New Zealand's most well known and accomplished business owners, and is a leader in beauty, style and taking makeup to a whole new level...
Phoenix Renata the owner and creator of Phoenix Cosmetics, sits down to chat 20 Questions with me, about creativity, the challenges of a small business, and staying true to yourself. You can follow Phoenix Renata and check out her amazing tutorials, and makeup tips + tricks here on Instagram, or Facebook. Follow Phoenix Cosmetics on Instagram and Facebook here, and take a look at The Wardrobe on Facebook for our Phoenix Cosmetics Christmas giveaway pack!
20 Questions with Phoenix Renata
It's one of the most well known genuine New Zealand owned makeup brands, with stores now all over the country. How did you make your childhood dream of Phoenix Cosmetics happen?
So when I was around 11 I fell in love with the brand Calvin Klein. I really liked the fact that he was mysterious, but everyone knew C.K. and the logo, so I thought it was a great branding concept. That's where my love of business really developed, because people look at Phoenix Cosmetics as only makeup, but it's also a business. Even though I'm creative, these aspects are really important to me as well. It's a big part of who I am. This stayed with me through my early tweens period, and when I was 14 I completed a short makeup course, then a longer one. When I was 16 I left school to pursue my passion. I always knew that I wanted to have my own brand. It was just something that I wanted to do, was going to do and I was determined to make it happen. I went through a few different jobs in the makeup industry and it wasn't until I was 19 that I really started working on a business plan. So that came first. I researched a lot and I started preparing. My development of the brand started with solid foundations. Then from that plan I started researching suppliers and utilising the Internet in its very early stages. After that at 20 I developed a line of lip glosses. So that's where it all began. I just went out and approached places like Postie Plus, chemists, and asked them to sell my lip glosses... and they did! so I had a small business while I was working full time running a Makeup Academy. I would go home at night and work on that and then eventually I started selling them at every kind of market you can imagine. That's how I started and developed, and the whole goal of that Pink Kitty lip gloss line was income, and money to invest in my real goal which was starting Phoenix Cosmetics. So by the time I was 21, I left my full time job and opened my first store where I had developed a whole range of products then started from there. We began with one store in 2005, and that was in New Market and eventually we moved that store to Kingsland. It wasn’t until 2008 that I opened a second store. There's been lots of milestones and things that have helped grow the business along the way but the three year mark is where we started to properly expand.
You have a vast array of looks you create, from the couture to the everyday. What does beauty mean to you?
It's just a way of living, a part of my creativity so it's just a part of who I am. I just love everything feminine and creative. I'm really well read in terms of fashion because I just absolutely love the fashion industry. So I get a lot of inspiration from the history of fashion and makeup. My love of that really came from teaching. When you're a teacher you learn so much and obviously you need to have a wide knowledge base of your subject. On a simpler note though, beauty to me just means confidence, self love, feeling good about yourself and empowerment. That's what I think makeup and being a makeup artist is all about, is giving women and girls empowerment to love and appreciate themselves.
What inspired you to follow your dream and become the successful makeup artist and businesswoman you are today?
I was raised by a mother who’s a sole trader, a father who's also self-employed and they're both creative. That is a big inspiration because I think if you were raised that way it's natural to you. Whereas a lot of people find it really hard to go from a secure job to something creative and not know when your next pay cheque is coming from. So I guess a lot of my inspiration comes from other successful people in business. That does change though, because you read and you learn more about different people all the time. So there's constantly new inspirational stories to keep you motivated.
In terms of your inspirations of the aesthetics, what appealed to you when you were younger has this changed?
Not at all. If anything it's just more more of a love and more of a passion for those same things. I am just completely in love with old Hollywood glamour aesthetic of the 1920’s and 30’s around the Art Deco era. Even when I come away from it and I don't watch those films or look at those images for a long time, when I come back to it I'm just so inspired all over again. I love European 18th century decor as well. I draw a lot of inspiration from high fashion too. I used to collect Italian vogues before the days of the internet too. I have folders of beautiful fashion magazines where I would cut out each image and put them in to clear files. I used to file them into different categories but now you don’t need to do that because we’ve got Pinterest! With beauty in particular, it is less about the make up for me and more about the whole image and everything that's gone into it.
You've been in this industry a long time. So has the increase in your skill set changed your inspirational interests in your work, or just enabled you to do more of what you want?
Yeah I think it has, because a lot of what I like is not really popular. Because I have a commercial brand and a commercial image, I do have to cater to trends. I don't always particularly like doing that but I have to. That's just a part of trying to keep ahead and trying to appeal to people. And often what I absolutely love is not what the majority of people would like. So you have to just do that as your own creative outlet.
Were there any particular things that you worked on that you really loved that if you fit in that category?
There's a whole series of work that I did with a photographer that was very styling based and less beauty focused, so I styled everything dramatically, very over the top and I absolutely love the finished images but they're not necessarily anything I could use for my brand. In a commercial setting, people have to be able to look at something and get it straight away. If there's too much detail then they won’t.
You're considered as the 'Brow Expert' and walking beauty bible by many including the NZ Herald. Brows are your pride and joy, why do you feel they are so important?
[Laughs] I have been banging on about brows for so many years now, and it's really interesting to me. I'm really happy that now there's a brow bar on every corner and woman are finally taking brows seriously because when I started in makeup it just wasn't even a thing. It was my goal when I first started Phoenix cosmetics to have every woman in New Zealand with amazing eyebrows, and to really educate and teach people about the importance of brows. Thanks to Instagram and YouTube that has really happened on a global scale. I like to think our brand was a part of that. Brows are important because you can wear less makeup if your brows are groomed which Kiwi woman love. If you have a groomed partly drawn in or well shaped brow you just look a little bit more made up. Therefore you don't have to wear as much product so that's a bonus too. They also of course help frame your eyes. They frame your face. They are the window frames to your soul, and they are to me a really important aspect and extension of makeup artistry. They also give you personality! I always tell my students about a client that I used to have when I was working on a counter, and she was a high powered attorney. She was working with a lot of men, and that can be really intimidating when you often aren't taken seriously. So she would literally come to me every time she had a really important meeting and I would draw her eyebrows on for her. That's all I'd do and she'd call them her power brows! Just one little thing gave her so much more confidence to go into a meeting full of men and kill it.
It’s so true, when you feel the way that you want to look, you can encompass that a lot easier. How has the New Zealand fashion and beauty industry influenced your choices?
They haven't at all. Not at all. It's a little bit different now, but the New Zealand fashion industry is predominantly black, edgy, very grungy and the focus is on the very thin, skinny heroin type of models. I just don't like it, it's not me and I feel it's the opposite of feminine and beautiful. Marilyn Monroe is one of my biggest inspirations and that’s nothing like her at all! [Laughs] I don’t like that it’s a cliquey industry, the new and colourful is more difficult to get noticed. I feel the New Zealand industry is very judgmental of newcomers also. I just kind of go to the drum of my own beat and I've worked for almost every New Zealand designer you can think of. So I understand their processes and I understand their appeal, and I can especially adapt to that. Being a creative, you need to follow someone else's vision if you're doing a job for them and that's cool. It's just not my vision and so I think it's important to be flexible although you don't have to be a part of it, you don't have to follow trends and you should always be yourself. People will respect you for that. They come to me when they want a really good job done or they want something different and creative, that will stand out and they do. So I don't think people are put off by someone that's unique and has their own style, if you can bring something of value to them. Though I have seen designers buckle and some go under because they haven't fitted within that expectation. There used to be this incredible designer Lucie Boshier and I remember her. Incredibly beautiful, almost flower power aesthetic, a 1960s/1970s vibe which was very, very colourful. We did lots of work with her and she was always highly criticised by the fashion industry. But her shows were incredible. That's where I met the rest of my team. We all got on really well because we had different creative visions but all loved colour and glamour. We weren't going to change or be anyone that we weren't. Her fashion show that we did was one of the first fashion weeks that Phoenix Cosmetics did for a brand, and the fashion industry completely snubbed her. However, her show had the biggest turnout of the whole event. There were queues for miles out the door. There was so many people they couldn't all fit in! It was a burlesque theme and the makeup that we did led to so many jobs because of that show we made so incredibly beautiful. For my own show there it was the same, New Zealand Fashion Week completely dismissed, undervalued and underrated our popularity. We weren't treated great, come show day they were so many people that there wasn't enough security and they claimed the Phoenix show was full - even though they hadn't even started filling the seats up. The next year they gave us the biggest shed which we filled twice, so that was a great feeling. That’s just a few examples of why I really feel you should be yourself always, even in that kind of environment.
How do you think the New Zealand beauty industry has changed and how has that impacted Phoenix Cosmetics?
When we started doing Lash extensions nobody else was doing them. So for a long time we were it when it came to lashes. Then just like the nails people were initially dismissing and now there's a nail salon everywhere. I think that business has changed by taking those aspects a little more seriously, and realising how popular they can become and how they can help your salon grow. Brows and lashes has been a huge blossom over the last 5-8 years.
What's the hardest thing about being a business owner in New Zealand?
I interact with different business owners, and I've had many mentors from small to big businesses. If you're talking to another business owner that has employees and somebody asked you that question when you're together you'd look at each other, laugh, and say employees. It's people. People is the hardest part about owning a business because it's people that are changeable and it can be really hard to find good employees with a good strong work ethic. There's nothing that surprises me anymore. It's been a huge learning curve and it's still a huge challenge because I feel that in the millennial generation it’s more difficult now to find those with a strong work ethic. They have so many pressures growing up in the world of social media, having high anxiety, depression. Of course you can't generalise, because there are some that are a great and hardworking, and it depends on your background, your role models that you've had growing up. But I also know because I have taught makeup for a long time and have young students. My husband also taught an academy for 10 years, and all of our friends and colleagues have had that experience. The type of student that's coming through the school now compared to 15 years ago are just completely different. My husband went back to teaching this year for a short period, and he sees the struggle over the last few years that I've had. My industry's particularly hard because in hairdressing and beauty we are client and appointment based businesses, so you build a rapport with people and a clientele and you build that up so people come back to see you regularly. So the idea with thing is Phoenix Cosmetics is you have your own clientele as an artist you build up that clientele and you sustain it working in the position. No makeup artist I have ever hired has their own clientele because a lot of them are new fresh out of makeup school or they've been working on counters all across Auckland. So they come in, they build up a clientele and then they leave and they take the clientele. So that is a part of business I know just to expect now. But from a moral and ethical perspective you're coming into a business and building up a clientele based on the business promoting and marketing to bring people into the store, and then you're leaving with that clientele that’s not necessarily yours. So it's really hard. Of course as an employer you have so many rules and regulations around what you can and can't do. It's very difficult so your brand can go through a lot of damage. It's seriously difficult for small businesses.
What about while you were growing up so when you were learning from other mentors in the industry, you must have experienced at least some criticism and how did you handle that?
I just completely ignored everyone because I was so focused. People would scoff at me and think I was just a silly little girl, what I was doing was way too big. People would tell me all the time I was so crazy, and they're probably right but I just wasn't interested in hearing it. It was more just a disbelief from others, but I knew I was going to do it. [Laughs]
How has working in the NZ fashion industry, with designers like Trelise Cooper and Zambesi influenced your work?
With designers like Zambesi and Trelise all of their shows have an incredible story. I just love that because I can learn from it. One of my favorite shows I ever did with Trelise was when she did a Grecian look. Everything was Greek inspired, we put gold coins in the models’ hair and weaved them through with lots of gold details. Those experiences just inspire you rather than influence you.
What have you done differently in your journey. If you knew at 15 what you know now?
I would just love to have known that retail was going to go the way that it has now. I just wish I could have told myself to invest more in social media, than reach physical retail stores. That's probably my biggest regret.
What are you doing now to try and remedy that?
Everything I can to try and remedy it but it's much harder now because of all the algorithms that have changed on social media platforms. But I know that it's going to keep that evolving and there'll be new things in so I've learnt to be more aware and look out for new things.
What advice would you give to other passionate makeup artists hoping to walk in your footsteps?
I would I would tell people to be patient, because you've got to lay the groundwork. I see lots of girls buying followers and that kind of thing. But you're not going to get engagement from that. It's a fake following and it takes time if you want to really work on your craft and build a following. So I just think just do it the right way. Stay true to yourself and have patience.You've got time. You don't have to have it tomorrow. You know you can wait a year and you're still young. So learn as much as you can and be inspired, and patient. You have to start at the end, and think about what you actually want and then you work backwards and think about how you're going to get there. Once you've figured that out then you can figure out what you need to do to get there. When you're staying true to yourself and you're bringing value to others, it will just grow.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My Nana once said to me, you can have anything you want but you can't have everything that you want. I don't necessarily agree, but it really highlights how much you can achieve if you are focused and you put your mind to it. On the flip side, it’s also about how you can't have everything, you can't have it all. What she meant by that, was you can have a multibillion dollar business, but you're not necessarily going to have the family life or lifestyle that you want. Because to get that you have to be completely isolated, and work really hard. It's rare to work that hard and have people that want your time. You have to be so focused on one thing that you lose focus on others. What I took from that, was how to really prioritise. When I was 15 I wanted to have a global brand. I know now that that would be very difficult because what I also want is my family, and my life. I didn't know that at the time. It wasn't until I had Clara my first child that I realised how important that was to me being a mum. If you want to work that hard though, you are going to be really successful.
What do you think is the biggest platform for fashion and beauty?
If you want to have a presence online you have to engage with the variety of platforms. I remember a friend of mine completely mocking me for being on snapchat when it first came out. Facebook started with just young kids. Then it grows into something else, and all those young kids get older and it evolves. So if you want to have a presence in social media you've got to be on all those platforms. I think snapchat is huge, and if people aren't doing it and wanting to build a personal brand you should be. What Snapchat provides is a more personal glimpse and a connection to grow your bigger accounts. So Snapchat will help grow your Instagram, your Facebook, or whatever because Snapchat is a glimpse at your life. Not necessarily your work. Gary V said “If you can’t create, then document.” in terms of content if it’s difficult to create more, just document the journey. People are nosy. They'll watch it. You don’t have to worry so much about your content. You can build up hype around your content. The power of Instagram is amazing too, I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is to engage in your community. You've got to spend time on there. I spend an hour when I can. Every morning and hour every night, engaging by talking to other people. Just making heartfelt but genuine interesting comments, and the power and strength is incredible. You can go onto the search bar pick a hashtag, then you can look at the map area and target specific people. If you do that for long enough everyday, you'll definitely see growth.
Tall poppy syndrome is something I discuss regularly with many creative professionals, despite being a creative country it seems to be a common experience. What is a common misconception that others have about you?
Tall poppy syndrome is horrible and it happens all the time. The funniest misconception is that I grew up from a rich family. That makes me laugh so hard, it doesn't make me angry it just makes me laugh. I was brought up in humble beginnings and I had a struggling musician as a father and an astrologer as a mother. I worked my arse off and that's partly why I wanted to be successful because I wanted to make money. I think entrepreneurial tendencies you're born with. You either are that way or you aren’t. People also assume because I own a business that I'm a bitch. I find it really sad when people believe whispers or rumours, things others have said about me, without ever having any actual interaction with me themselves. My Mum taught me to be kind so I always keep that in mind in any situation with people. People often are surprised that I am nice when they meet me, so my advice to people is to only ever judge someone based on your experience with them, not other people's tales.
You opened your own physical store at only 21 years old, many people would consider that an incredible accomplishment. But you have a list of many. What would you consider your greatest success?
It changes, it used to be that I was really proud of just being able to employ makeup artists because when I was coming up there weren't a lot of jobs. So because of that teaching background it was just awesome to be able to put creative people into work paid work. So that was a really big accomplishment for me and I guess it's just small things along the way like I produced all the images for a calendar once for the SPCA. We had an auction and raised over 6000 dollars.. So just little things like that but that's what I’m proud of. The biggest thing though would be my makeup shows because it was a huge undertaking. Three months of prep work for a 20 minute show and again it was giving makeup artists a really creative outlet. It was a coming together of a collective of creative people.
What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
My second store which lots of people don't even know. It was franchise and it just went really badly. I learned from that experience. I felt somewhat stupid because I was just starting to be mentored by Annah Stretton, and at one of our very first meetings she mentioned to never start with a franchise, which made me feel so much better because she'd been through it and it hadn't worked. She'd been through on a bigger scale and it hadn't worked for the exact same reasons that it hadn't worked for me. Unless you're a big brand like McDonalds and you've got all of those big structures in place, and the money in place it's not going to work. Because you're never going to find you there's never going to be a person that loves your brand as much as you do. When your brand has your name on it, if it's doing badly that's your reputation on the line not theirs.
What other interest do you enjoy when you're not working?
I hate that question cause I just don’t really have any! My kids would be my main focus but everything else really is just a part of my work as well. I love movies and reading, but they’re still all influences. My ultimate dream is my house called the Phoenix Estate, and I've made a scrapbook of what every single room is going to look like. It's this huge pink palace. There's videos that sometimes circulate on Facebook of eccentric women and their pink houses, I showed one to my husband, and he said ‘But she doesn't have to share it with anyone, so do you want the house or your husband?’ [Laughs] I have to share this house with him and children, my outlet is through the stores obviously.
Who are your biggest role models and why? You mentioned Annah Stretton a few times and Valentino.
My biggest influence, is Clara Bow. Clara Bow is one of the very first starlets of the silver screen. She is the original "it" girl. I actually named my daughter after her. Clara invented the term "bow lips" and when my daughter was born she had perfect bow lips. Hence, her name Clara. My biggest beauty inspiration is Marilyn Monroe. I have a whole bookshelf of Marilyn books. So many. I collect books, posters, Images, everything Marilyn. Again I admire everything she stood for and represents and I draw inspiration from her story all the time. Mariah Carey is also one of my influences. People have this image of her and that's okay. But as a fan of her, the reason why she is a big influence is not just because of her vocal ability. She's a business boss. Nobody knows that about her. I just fell in love with her when I was in high school and just followed her career since. I met her in 2014 which was one of the biggest moments of my life, gave her Phoenix Cosmetics products! I admire her because of her business accolades. The accomplishments that she's had and they’re all hers. It's frickin incredible and so inspiring, she's had knockdowns but gets back up. She is the biggest artist in history, but she doesn't ever get any credit for it which I think is really sad, but that's a woman in business basically. Your failures are made bigger than your accomplishments. So Clara, Mariah and Marilyn are my life idols.
What is your biggest strength and weakness?
I think my biggest strength is managing people, I think I manage really well. Not just people but also at managing events. I enjoy bringing a whole lot of little things together and making it all click and run, I can do that really well. My biggest weakness would be that I am really empathetic to everyone and I can put myself in other people's shoes. I used to think that everyone did that. But I realise now that not many people do. I think it’s a real skill as well though to be able to see where someone else is coming from because most people can't. My Mum always says to me that even if they don't appreciate it then in that moment, they may one day.
What's next for you? Is a fashion label for you, is that ever on the cards?
Maybe once I grow my own personal brand a bit more then I wouldn’t count it out. But it would be different. I don’t want to be the same. Everyone does the same stuff and it's boring. It would be pink and it would be glamorous. The Phoenix Estate is the end goal. I think at the moment I'm in a different place. I'm a very goal oriented person and all of my goals that I had, have all completely changed because of the landscape of retail. I'm kind of just in the process of figuring out what to do next because it is a very different world than what it was a few years ago. So digital disruption has completely changed the world in a way I don't think most people knew it would and I still don't think a lot of New Zealand businesses get it. It's here and here to stay and it's just kind of figuring out how I fit in. How I grow, and I've learned that although I always wanted a huge empire, it's one thing to have 12 stores but when you're still a relatively small business, it's me that has to do all the recruiting, the hiring, the H.R. and I don't particularly like that. So I'm trying to change that because I don't want to be running a business that I don't enjoy. This is an opportunity with digital where you don't necessarily have to have all of those employees and all of those stores. You can still have the same level of success but on a different platform. So I'm just still figuring it out really.
What do you want the legacy of Phoenix cause me to be. How do you want to be remembered?
I just want to be inspirational to people and I want to bring value to people's lives. I want to uplift them and make them feel good which I think makeup does. That's my way of doing it, to give people confidence and self esteem.
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