When Regina Merson left her job at a prestigious law firm in 2016 to start Reina Rebelde, a makeup company geared toward Latina women known for its vibrant colorways and packaging inspired by Merson's Mexican heritage, she had no idea that just four years later she'd be navigating her company through a global pandemic — and emerging not just intact, but with the brand's best year ever on the books. "Our pivot was that we made makeup secondary and community support primary," says Merson, whose products are sold directly through the Reina Rebelde website and via retailers like Walmart.
Here, she talks about what inspired her to start Reina Rebelde (which means "rebel queen" in Spanish), how she shows up for her community, and what new products are on the horizon.
How does your Mexican heritage influence the way you run your business?
I am very Mexican in the sense that I am kind of a collaborator. It's never about me, this was never to make me famous, never to glorify my life. It was so that other women could say, I see myself in this. And I want to support other business owners and other women who are doing amazing things. We did a brief collaboration with a big retailer last year — I could have gone to so many different designers for our display, but instead I went to a husband and wife Latino duo and gave them the opportunity.
We launched in the fall of 2016 and it was a very contentious time for the community. There was not a lot of positive chatter around what it meant to be Mexican in this country. I have tremendous pride about my heritage and tremendous pride about being an immigrant, being born in Mexico. I try to bring that pride to everything I do in the business.
I have tremendous pride about my heritage and tremendous pride about being an immigrant, being born in Mexico. I try to bring that pride to everything I do in the business.
You were a Big Law attorney for years. What was your relationship to makeup during those years, and how did you decide to leave your legal career behind?
After I went to law school, I was working in the restructuring and bankruptcy world during the '08 crisis, and my beauty ritual was part of my creative experience for that day. Especially in an industry where I was only wearing navy, gray, black, experimenting with [makeup] colors was like [choosing] what side of myself I wanted to present that day.
In the corporate world, it's tough — people can't really reconcile the sense of being an intellectual or being in a very corporate space and being obsessed with beauty. But I was buying boxes and boxes of makeup and I started realizing this pattern. I was having to go out and source so many different types of makeup from different brands. I came to find out we — Latina women and women of color in general — are the largest consumers of color cosmetics in the country. I felt that no one was really serving us properly. They weren't marketing to us in an authentic way. So that was the genesis of the idea: What happens if I take all of this and I create a higher end beauty line with symbols that remind you you come from a line of women that's fierce?
I also felt very frustrated about how we were always talked down to, like we're cheap, we're cheesy, we have no agency over our own lives. I felt very frustrated by that. Even at my level of education and career that I had, I was talked down to at many intervals. I also felt I was young enough that I was willing to take a risk, [but if I didn't] then maybe the opportunity wouldn't present itself again.
You’ve said that Reina Rebelde had its best year in 2020, even during the pandemic. How did you pivot your business during the pandemic and what did you learn from this experience?
As soon as the pandemic hit I was like I know exactly what's happening here. As people start getting sick we're going to be impacted in a disproportionate way. Our pivot was, this is not a time to sell makeup. This is a time to rally the troops and support the community. In a way our pivot was that we made makeup secondary and community support primary. Having a small brand is really tough, but the one thing that I think is so great is you can pivot really quickly. We pivoted in like two days.
[Latina women] put on makeup not to go out, but to be at home. It’s embedded in us culturally. We were going to do that as a form of self-care like other people were baking bread.
My thought was not completely altruistic — our most valuable asset we have and have always had is our community. That meant every day trying to read the room. Are people in a funny mood? Are they in a really down mood? If people end up buying lipsticks great, and if they don't they don't. But I think the best year ever came from the fact that a lot of people were sitting at home bored doing makeup tutorials. [Latina women] put on makeup not to go out, but to be at home where no one will see us. It's embedded in us culturally. We were going to do that as a form of self-care like other people were baking bread. That allowed that train to continue for us.
I think there's a massive hangover this year from all of that. I think people are settling in to oh, this is not just a break from my everyday life, this is actually our new reality and it's tough. It's a different feeling. There's burnout and languishing. That definitely is the case in our community as well.
What are your favorite Reina Rebelde products? Which products would you recommend for someone just getting started with this line?
Our red lipstick. It's a red that looks great on every skin tone and has this energetic quality to it. It's become my lipstick cup of coffee equivalent in a way. Our eye shadow palette in Azteca, with the golds and the bronzes. It's easy to put on and performs beautifully. We have two new glosses that we launched this year that are both in the nude family, which was very intentional. It's an easy something but not a huge commitment. With all the mask wearing, my face and my lips have gotten drier so I love all the moisturizing aspects of our formulas. They've been a lifesaver for me.
Are there any new Reina Rebelde products launching soon that you can talk about?
We are working on lip pencils. For a long time we thought, do we really need lip pencils? Our lip color is long-wearing — it's formulated to not really need the lip pencil. But a lot of people were using two lipsticks to create this ombre look on their lips, which is still very popular. We're also finding people want a lip liner that fills a bunch of different roles. People are paring down what's in their makeup vanity.
Where do you see the company in five years?
I don't know. Before the pandemic there was this model for growth that we were also chasing. In order for you to define success, it was about this ultimate exit at a big conglomerate, to expand at exponential breakneck speed. I think some of that's changed with the pandemic, but I don't think it 's changed everywhere.
From a makeup perspective it's obviously to keep growing but in the right way. We try to go after customers who are actually engaged with us and customers that will continue being engaged with us.
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