When it comes to makeup and women of colour in Australia, the two are often treated as mutually exclusive by leading retailers. But that’s all about to change. Kleur is challenging the mainstream cosmetics industry by representing women with diverse skin tones. Since 2015, the three-woman team – Nonny Bulle, Fozia Akalo and Saarrah Akoojee – has combined their creative vision to source and develop products to reflect the beauty and shades of consumers overlooked.
Nonny Bulle: It comes out of personal experience. When we were growing up it was quite difficult to find our shade of foundation. A common experience of girls who have our skin tone was if you had a family friend who was travelling to the States you’d give them money and they’d get products for you. I went to high school in Tassie, so you’d have to come to Melbourne or maybe go to another city.
Accessibility was quite an issue, just being able to find something in your skin tone. Getting a perfect match was even harder. For us, it was about being dissatisfied with the fact that there’s a lot of people with quite a diverse range of skin tones in Australia, yet that’s not reflected in the commercial makeup sector.
The other thing was when you went into stores, even if they did have something in your skin colour there was a lack of knowledge about makeup oxidisation – so the makeup might suit your skin tone in the store, but might look a bit darker when you got home. It was about wanting a better experience and wanting better quality, and to be understood when it came to our makeup needs.
Nonny: Saarrah and myself are Southern African – Kleur comes from the Dutch word ‘colour’. It’s a word that expresses what we’re about, incorporating some of that heritage. It’s a word that sounds cool and rolls off the tongue, and means something and is relevant to what we’re trying to do with the brand.
Fozia Akalo: So all three of us are really different shades and we all seem to have had different experiences. Mine was in Year 10 and I’d never experimented with makeup before. A lot of my friends were Caucasian so I didn’t have friends that I could experiment with. It was our Year 10 formal so I was getting dolled up for the first time on my own. I’d gone to a pharmacy or something, and purchased a drug store brand foundation. At the time I thought it was perfectly fine, until I looked at all the photos and realised the makeup wasn’t photosensitive, so I looked like a ghost standing next to my friends.
It really put me off wearing makeup. Beyond that I think we’ve all had that experience of going into a makeup store and not getting the service we needed, or being told they didn’t have something in our colour, saying, ‘Sorry, we’ve got nothing for you.’
Nonny: I think in terms of my own makeup experience it’s been similar, with the photosensitivity issue. With my skin tone, the top half of my face is bright and the bottom half is darker, so I think if you have the right concealer, and so on, it’ll correct that.
Nonny: We wanted to find a manufacturer that had the experience because none of us have a chemistry background. In terms of the quality that we wanted, it was easier to go with someone who had the knowledge. You work with them to refine the products and get them to the level that you want. As an example, with some manufacturers we went to we thought the product smelled too much like talcum powder, or it wasn’t photosensitive, or the products had too much shimmer.
We wanted something that didn’t have a smell or too much glitter – more like a second skin. With our foundation, a lot of feedback we get is that you can’t tell you’re wearing makeup, and that’s exactly what we wanted, so we work with a manufacturer that can apply our feedback.
Fozia: We want them to feel like they can be themselves. We don’t want them to feel like they have to be someone else when using the product – they can put it on and no-one will be able to tell they’re wearing makeup. I like to wear makeup and feel like I’m covering my dark circles and things like that, but I still feel like me and I still feel natural. Personally, I want them to feel like the way they wear our makeup is an extension of themselves.
Also, with our branding and our media, we want women of colour to feel like they are represented. Like when they go to our Instagram they’ll see girls who look like them, and they’ll recognise themselves in this brand. There aren’t a lot of brands in Australia that advertise towards people of colour – for women to feel like they’re being reflected in the media.
Fozia: At the start we wanted to play to our strengths; so Nonny’s been in photography and media for a while, and we’ve all worked within the fashion industry. I’ve worked in fashion and owned a label previously, so I have an understanding of how the business should run. Then we’ve got Saarrah, who’s had a long sales history. It’s been good that we haven’t had things that have clashed.
Fozia: So long as your vision is the same, which it has been from the beginning.
Nonny: And I think you need to have some flexibility in your planning. You have to be able to see that sometimes the idea you put forward doesn’t benefit the team. From the get-go you’re working as a unit. It’s not about your ego or your personal endeavours. It’s for the business and the brand. One thing I’d say is that you have to be on the same page, as Fozia said. Don’t be afraid of what you personally want out of it, but at least we know what each other wants from it.
Nonny: Personally for me, coming from a freelancing background I’m used to working on my own. Working in a group you realise communication is such an important thing. You have to be able to communicate; people can’t guess what you’re thinking. You need to allow people to understand where you’re coming from, and bear in mind the outcomes of that communication. If I’m frustrated there’s no point in acting that way towards anyone else as that’s not the outcome I want, because everyone else is just going to get frustrated. For me, communication has been the number one thing.
Fozia: I think it was a thing for all three of us to learn. We have such a solid friendship that we thought everything was going to work out, but we learnt quickly that we didn’t really talk to each other about what was going on in our heads and what we wanted for the business. I think a part of that is letting go of ego, being able to remove yourself from the business and work for the greater good. For me it’s ego, the letting go of it. You’ve got to be willing to accept what others have to say, and compromise and work with each other.
Nonny: that was a really cool opportunity that came about through a friend of ours, NtombiMoyo, who is a stylist. She has an amazing style and is so fearless. She hit us up and asked if we wanted to do a collaboration, and I was like, of course! So I went down to the studio and did Tkay Maidza’s foundation, concealer, highlighter, all of that, using our products, and makeup artist Chloe Rose did the finishing touches. It was a great opportunity to express a different side of the brand.
Nonny: One thing we’re trying to do is encourage people to tell us what they need. We’re trying to focus on the issues that women of colour experience. People with my skin tone are well-versed in what issues we have, but we want to hear from those with a more olive undertone, for example. We want to encourage people to send us an email, drop us a line, give us some feedback and have a conversation.
Fozia: If anyone wants to collaborate we’re always open to doing things with others. We’re workshopping a lot of ideas, so there’s always room.
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.