t isn’t obligatory that the creative force behind a makeup empire be tall, dark and winsome. But it doesn’t hurt. Newport Beach resident Wende Zomnir put in 10 years as a model, ad agency account executive and aerobics instructor before a friend connected her with Sandy Lerner (co-founder of Cisco Systems), who was looking to start a makeup brand. It was a meeting of the minds that would lead to a cosmetics industry revolution and the meteoric rise of a little company called Urban Decay.
What made you believe, back in 1996, that you could play in this fast-growing business arena?
It was crowded, but it wasn’t exciting. The makeup landscape was fairly vanilla. You saw muted tones that were sold based on brand image and not necessarily on product. I felt that there was a white space to fill with alternative prestige makeup that was differentiated by high-quality color.
Why did the name Urban Decay resonate with you?
We needed the name to challenge the sweetness and light that dominated department store shelves. Makeup at that time was a sea of pink, beige and red. Our goal was not just to “show up” in stores; it was to kick the door down. Imagine a crumbling brick wall or a rusty fire escape in New York City. Even though it’s falling apart, it has a cool, edgy beauty with depth and character. You can’t take your eyes off of it. We wanted to express that in our brand, so the name had to be equally gritty, intense and ‘in your face.’
What do you see as makeup’s raison d’être?
I’ve always said that it’s not about covering your flaws. It’s about self-expression. Ever since we created Urban Decay it’s been about who you are and how you express that. Makeup should be a joyful experience. For some women, the transformative power of makeup is very powerful.
Do those women tend to align with a younger demographic?
I think it’s more about mindset than it is about age. There are conservative young women and conservative middle-aged women who don’t want to experiment with their makeup; they like to keep it simple. Then there are women in their 40s and 50s who were experimenters or transformers from the start. I don’t think you get rid of that; it stays with you.
Do you fall into that category (of experimenters)?
Most definitely. Makeup was always a tool for me to express myself. When I was 13 my mom took me to a Merle Norman® counter to get a consultation and pick a foundation, and one day she brought home one of those blockbuster kits from the department store. I cut pictures out of magazines and tried to re-create the looks. I even got sent home for wearing too much makeup, which in Texas is really saying something.
Do we use makeup any differently now?
Makeup today is a much better tool for self-expression than it was when I was growing up because now we have YouTube videos that teach people how to execute fairly sophisticated artistry techniques. Not only is the makeup available; so is the technique.
Do Urban Decay employees fulfill this teacher role?
They do. We let them be who they are and take chances with the products. We learn things from them all the time. One of the secrets to being creatively successful is being willing to listen to lots of ideas and cherry-pick the best of them. It’s not about having all the answers; it’s about letting others into the process. Anyone can be a muse if you let them.
How did your upbringing influence your career choice?
I grew up in Fort Worth, and that did have a lot to do with it. Women in Texas wear their makeup and they do their hair. My mom grew up on a farm in the middle of Texas with no running water. Before she and her sisters went out to pick cotton, they would get up and put their makeup on. She always told me to put on my makeup to protect my skin; it was sunscreen before you could buy sunscreen. My mom was more natural than the other moms, but there was still a makeup routine.
You recently introduced a new line called Naked, which seems to fly in the face of the company’s emphasis on bold color.
We now have two main focuses: the super-rich colors and the more neutral Naked palette. Both are completely valid; I do a little bit of both—actually, a lot of both. If you’re color-curious these days, you can find a community or a guru online to help you dive in and experiment. If you’re less comfortable with the idea of transformation, there’s Naked, which I call Urban Decay’s gateway drug. Once people try it and see how great it is they end up being a better customer.
What’s ahead for Urban Decay?
L’Oreal® has been a great partner in taking the brand worldwide; they believe in what we’re doing, and they believe in the team. Working on makeup has always been my creative outlet, and we’re continuing to evolve and keep it fresh. I consider myself fortunate to be able to work and live in Newport Beach and be a mom to my kids. I love this brand, I love the people I work with and I definitely don’t want to give it up.