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Back in the mid-'90s, the prestige makeup world wasn’t as abundant as it is today. “There was no Sephora or Ulta—just department stores selling color stories that were basically pink, red, or beige,” recalls Wende Zomnir, Founding Partner of Urban Decay. “I craved high-quality color cosmetics, but they were hard to find. You could source fun shades at the drugstore, but back then, the quality wasn’t good and the payoff was chalky, streaky, and basically terrible for brighter colors. Makeup brands also tended to be ultra-feminine, and I thought makeup should be for everyone.”
Zomnir also wasn’t a fan of the fact that the beauty industry preyed upon people’s insecurities and failed to show diversity in their aspirational marketing. “So, I was very interested in creating a brand that would champion self-expression and embrace the power of transformation for both men and women,” she says.
Urban Decay Cosmetics
Founded: Wende Zomnir, Sandy Lerner, and David Soward, 1995
Based in: Newport Beach, CA
Best known for: Making a statement for both bold makeup and a forward-thinking mission. Urban Decay is about empowerment, acceptance, and edginess in its line of cruelty-free, high-performance products.
Most popular product: Urban Decay is most famous for its Naked collection, which now includes 12 eyeshadow palettes. Other favorites include the Eyeshadow Primer Potion, All Nighter Setting Spray, Perversion Mascara, and 24/7 Eyeliner Pencils.
Fun fact: Zomnir made all of the brand's initial samples in her Laguna Beach bungalow. “I hired unemployed surfer girls to sit on my patio and paint fake display nails with our nail polish so we could use them on our displays in store,” she says.
Then one day, Sandy Lerner (founder of Cisco Systems) had the idea to start a makeup company. Zomnir met her through David Soward and together, Lerner and Zomnir brainstormed a takeover of the beauty business. “I mean, the woman had basically invented the internet, so her point of view was, ‘how hard could makeup be?’” Zomnir says. “Back in the mid-'90s, there wasn’t an indie beauty brand culture. I had loved makeup since I was 13 and got sent home for wearing too much of it, but never would I have thought that I could try to break into an industry dominated by big corporations. Sandy made me realize that we could. I inspired her by suggesting we put our nail polish in gender-neutral medicine bottles, and UD was born!”
Urban Decay has been shattering industry norms ever since, and is now a mainstay at Sephora, Ulta, and more for everyday solutions and bold makeup looks alike. Keep reading for Zomnir's thoughts on what makes the brand's best-sellers standouts in the beauty space.
Naked Skin Foundation
“This was an important milestone for us,” Zomnir says. “It showed that an indie brand could have a successful and significant foundation launch. We started with 28 shades, which was an enormous range back in 2015. I was so proud of the lightweight, but buildable texture that looked like naked skin. We’ve since evolved it to be even better and long-wearing with Stay Naked, and upped the shade range to 40 shades.”
Naked 3 Palette
“This is one of my favorite Nakeds,” Zomnir says. “I was inspired to create it because I had a photographer boyfriend who would always tear me away from my margarita while we were on vacation to go take photos on the beach right before sunset. He kept talking about this magic hour thing, and I just wanted a drink! But then I saw the photos and the light was magical. So Naked 3 was my attempt to recreate that beautiful golden, glowy light, even if you don’t have a sunset.”
“This is amazing because it gives you the blackest lashes that have both incredible volume and separation,” Zomnir says. “It’s so soft and creamy, and never flakes. My favorite part about it is that it’s so flexible, you can add additional coats hours after your first application, and it still combs through. People always think I’m wearing fake lashes when I put on Perversion.”
Eyeshadow Primer Potion
“There are so many stories around this product!” Zomnir says. “Perhaps my favorite is that I was testing a lab sample from my chemist (I had tried so many!), and put on a purple smoky eye (in a shade called Last Call) for a Sephora photo shoot. Then I had to get straight on a plane, fly to London, and go to dinner. The flight was late so I had to go straight to dinner, and was so scared that my makeup was going to be faded, smeared, and scary. But when I finally looked in the mirror, I saw that my shadow was still perfect! That’s when I knew we had found our formula. LAX —> LHR was the real-life testing ground for this product.”
All Nighter Setting Spray
“So many uses keep coming up for this and there are stories from around the world about how people have kept their makeup on through childbirth, car accidents, and sex thanks to All Nighter,” Zomnir says. “I named it that because I pulled quite a few of them in college, and my sister and I used to spray hairspray on our faces to keep our makeup on. I wanted something better for all of you, and this has temperature control technology to keep makeup in place by keeping it chilled.”
“These started out in aluminum tins and have evolved over the years,” Zomnir says. “First it was a metal tin we printed on, then a metal tin we embossed. The constant evolution keeps coming, but our iconic shadows are always deeply pigmented and easy to blend. We were the first brand to blend sparkly glitter bits in our shadows.”
24/7 Eye Pencil
“We offer so many colors in this product,” Zomnir says. “It was inspired by a visit I made to a street and skateboard art exhibit I went to. I thought that we should be equally colorful and expressive with makeup and set out to create a product that would be like art supplies for your eyes. I wanted it to be creamy and bendable, but also wanted it to last, like the paintings I saw. I finally found a lab that could make the vision come true.”
“The level of softness is just right on this retractable pencil—not too hard, not too squishy,” Zomnir says. “The pencil is thin and lets me shape and fill in brows because it’s so precise. And I love having a spoolie brush on the end for grooming.”
All Nighter Pressed Powder
“I can’t live without this,” Zomnir says. “I’m a shiny type, but also kind of dry in places. All Nighter Powder absorbs my shininess without drying, caking or building up, and it’s waterproof. I can keep layering it, and it’s so blurring that even if I’m not wearing foundation, my skin looks better.”