Whether you’ve heard of Millie Kendall or not, the chances are you’ve probably used a beauty product she either created, marketed or helped to launch. She’s the retail expert and beauty industry mainstay who introduced Shu Uemura to the European market, launched Aveda in 1997, set up her own product line, Ruby & Millie, with makeup artist Ruby Hammer, and picked up an MBE in the process.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Millie is currently one half of BeautyMart (alongside Anna-Marie Solowij, who we had the pleasure of talking to here) - the shop and e-commerce site that has changed the way we shop for beauty. In her own (typically straight to the point) words, “You don’t put a pair of knickers and the same top on everyday, so why would you wear the same makeup?” - which is exactly the kind of switch-it-up ethos BeautyMart aims to encourage.
To understand how Millie ended up with her fingers in so many cosmetic pies, we have to go back to late 70’s LA, where her family had recently moved from London.
“I really struggled living there” says Millie “I was an 11 year old punk and I didn’t fit in at all, I felt ostracised. When I was 13, I worked a little in my dad’s hair salon before coming back to London two years later. My dad realised I wasn’t going back to school so he got me a job in Toni & Guy, which at the time only consisted of one salon in Mayfair.”
On arrival at Toni & Guy, Millie found herself on the youth training scheme, which involved Mondays spent in their Chelsea Wharf head office, bottling shampoos (“Obviously they were kind of using us as child labour”) and the rest of the week as a trainee hair stylist.
“There was something about the product side of it that I really enjoyed” says Millie, “But when it came to a Tuesday night where we had to learn how to actually do hair, I lost interest.”
A move to New York in her late teens and a brief stint at Bumble and Bumble was then followed by a transition back to LA. Her dad had got her a job - this time it was in makeup, and at a relatively unheard of boutique called Shu Uemura. What followed set the path for her future career.
“To cut a long story short, my boss walked out and I got her job” she says matter-of-factly, “I was the most junior person, but everyone up from me had all walked out with her. My dad just said ‘stay and take her job’. I was only 19, probably far too young and not qualified enough to do her job but I thought I’d make the best of it.”
With an aim to ‘make the best of it’ and youth and determination on her side, Millie got to work transforming the brand. Shu Uemura hailed from Japan and at the time only had one shop in LA. All this was set to change and Millie went on to roll out stores across the UK and Europe during her time at the business.
“No one understood the brand. There were about 2000 products and he was a Japanese makeup artist but people couldn’t even pronounce his name” she says, “The story was very confusing. I just simplified it, got my banter down and turned what was a dying business into a profitable one in about 3 months.”
As a club kid in her early twenties, Millie suddenly found herself flung head first into the world of business, attending meetings in Tokyo with Mr Shu Uemura himself. Described by Millie as “an astute business man, a fantastic artist and my greatest mentor”, he was known for his philosophy of putting skin health first and enhancing natural beauty, rather than artificially creating it.
This attitude was also ingrained in Millie’s next brand-launch project, when natural and organic haircare company Aveda approached Millie to officially launch their business. From staffing and uniforms to PR and retail strategy, she had input at every level and became well respected in the industry.
“It’s like with anything, if it’s in a foreign language, you have to translate it. So I sort of became known for that.”
We get the impression Millie is a woman who doesn’t mess. Her varied career has made her a jack of all trades and a great industry insider with a bounty of knowledge to share. However, she admits that even in a female-driven industry, it’s challenging as a woman to get your voice heard amongst the highest ranks.
“I’d like to see more female empowerment” says Millie with conviction, “We come up with all the ideas and then it’s stripped away when some man runs off with it and makes it some massive global company. I find that really frustrating and I don’t know the solution. You go to L’Oreal and it’s run by five french guys - you can’t get anything past them and it’s hard to be radical.”
Millie understands this struggle because she is a maverick herself - turning around dying brands, not being afraid of being honest and standing up to the ‘suits’. She seems to truly understand women too, whether it’s a woman trying to push an entrepreneurial idea or a woman buying a lipstick at a beauty counter, she just gets it.
She thinks buying beauty should be a “woman to woman conversation on the shop floor, rather than a brand to consumer conversation”. We also get the impression she’s tired of the bullshit claims big brands are so used to making: “I’m given a doctrine that I don’t buy into. Don’t tell me my eyeliner is going to solve my problems, heal the world or make me look 20 years younger. I don’t care.”
You’d be wrong to think that Millie is all tough cookie and no soft centre. A mum of two girls, her day mainly involves school runs, rather than skin peels, and her Highgate house (right round the corner from Anna-Marie’s) is a sprawling family home. School holidays mean her youngest joins her in the BeautyMart office: “My 9 year old is very into it and very knowledgable. She’ll say to me ‘that lipstick doesn’t go with that orange jacket mum’” says Millie, “My older daughter is a skater, she’s more into Supreme, music and art rather than makeup. But then I’m a bit of tomboy as well, I don’t really wear any of it.”
We love the contradiction between her drawers jam-packed with products and her lax approach to makeup in comparison. However you’d be fooled into thinking Millie doesn’t take time and effort with her beauty routine - far from it.
Inspired by her years at Shu Uemura, she describes her skincare regime as “very Eastern, and probably has been for longer than it’s been trending”. For her this means several steps and different products prescribed daily. Cleansing comes first, followed by another wash in the shower, a toner, a layer of serum or oil and a final flourish of face cream. Phew. This all takes about half an hour - but what’s the most important part? “That it’s done in my bedroom, at the dressing table, with the door closed and usually some music on.” Take note!
We start to talk about the shift towards natural and organic beauty and Millie once again has a knack of summing up the challenges of this area of the market in a typically frank manner: “I wouldn’t feed my children processed food, so therefore I wouldn’t suggest they purchase toxic products either.” Like a lot of what she says, we couldn’t have put it better ourself.
But she believes there’s more to it than that - the ‘transparency’ that natural beauty brands are so keen to encourage, sometimes gets lost in translation.
“There’s a lot of confusion, even in the industry - natural, organic, eco, eco-cert, eco-friendly, cruelty-free” Millie continues, “There’s so many terms that there needs to be government legislation that provides the customer with benchmarking for what is really natural. If your product is 3% natural and you can write the word ‘natural’ on it then there’s a problem.”
She’s positive it will change though, and happy it’s now finally become available to the masses after pioneering the first wave of natural back in the 90’s.
We couldn’t leave without asking Millie about her MBE, which was awarded in 2007 whilst she was pregnant with her second daughter. Her family aren’t big royalists but her dad (who arguably kickstarted Millie’s ascent into beauty) cried when she picked up the award.
It was a real coup for maverick Millie and she steers the subject back to a specialist subject of hers - women. “The industry is still dominated by men with an agenda which unfortunately means that if you’re a radical or renegade woman in beauty, it’s a big uphill struggle even today” she comments, “The MBE was great because after years of doing things which were really quite radical and working with brands who were so left-field, to be recognised by such an institution was astounding.”
As we wrap up in North London we too are feeling suitably astounded after chatting life with Millie. Her energy and ideas seem endless - listening to her talk makes us think she should be at the helm of a revolution - arguably you could say she has been. Nevertheless, her spirit shows that originality and honesty are all you need to get by - and perhaps a bedroom dressing table to boot.
Words: Lucy Vincent
Photography: Jess Maccormick for Glasshouse Journal
Dress: navy silk Thar shirt dress from Sunad at The Acey