Few women can claim to have an internationally lusted-after lipstick line. Fewer still are likely to be just 25. On the eve of launching her new matte lipsticks, exclusively on nastygal.com, I spoke with Florence Adepoju, founder of MDMflow. If you don’t know the name, then at the very least you will recognise the eye-catching golden bullet design that has already become a cult must-have. Over coffee at the Ace Hotel, we talk about the issues that come along with building a beauty brand from scratch, and how she stays positive, whatever the process throws at her.
Tell me about the first colour you made.
Very first…I think it was a bright red. Well, the first one for my dissertation was red. But in the second year I made a blue lipstick. I remember the lab technician being like, ‘people aren’t gonna wear this colour; why are you making this ridiculous colour?’ It was blue with a shimmer, as the pigment I chose was actually for an eyeshadow, but I thought, why not? If someone tells me ‘don’t do that’, that’s what I’m gonna do. The lab technician said it wasn’t a wearable colour so I said, ‘well I’m wearing it.’ And now it’s one of my top colours that people want.
So, were you obsessed with makeup growing up?
I was never the girl who played with her mum’s makeup; I was not allowed to touch my Mum’s. I had a bit of an obsession with glitter – I remember a glitter mascara from Primark – and this was when Primark was really not cool, at least 10 years ago. It was more like play makeup; even then it wasn’t like I was wearing makeup to try and look like Halle Berry – I just loved glitter and I wanted to put it all over my face!
As I got older, I started getting more into music and aesthetics and was drawn to women like Alicia Keys and Kelis; they were such strong characters, they made me want to wear makeup because I wanted to be powerful and strong. A lot of Alicia Keys’ lyrics were about female empowerment, so I felt like, I want to look this way because I am this type of woman, as opposed to the stereotypes that come with beauty. For me it was always a power thing. I remember once Kelis had a video where she was wearing red eyeshadow and her eyebrows were red – in some ways it was almost an anti-makeup vibe.
I’d do random things, like put eyeshadow on my cheeks, just do things differently. I didn’t want to do the norm. At the same time I’ve always appreciated highly sexualised beauty, like Lil Kim, she was just so confident – really raw and yet powerful. It’s fun – you can be yourself, or not yourself! Wear black lips for one day and then be someone else another day. (FYI this interview took place before Lil Kim opened up about her feelings of low self-worth related to her skin tone.)
In the process of building your beauty brand, has your sex or race ever been an issue?
Not in an obvious way. More than anything, being young is more of an issue. Often people think that you can’t make decisions, or they make assumptions about what you want or what you’re trying to achieve. Especially now, with the growth of bloggers and social media influencers, many people think that I just want to be a brand figurehead, but that’s so not what I want to be. Sometimes I feel like my brand’s aesthetic is a lot stronger than my personal aesthetic. I’m not the MDMflow girl – she is way more fierce than me! It’s funny, this industry serves women but the people who call the shots are more often men. So the fact that I’m younger and I’m a girl means some people can just assume I don’t know what I’m doing. It can be a good thing sometimes, as it can be a filter.
Certain people in the industry wanted to work with my brand because they saw its potential, but have then been arseholes to me, so I’m like, ‘yeah…this isn’t gonna work’. I’m a permanent fixture of this business – it’s not an idea that I’ve just churned out for someone else to make money off. As a young female entrepreneur you have to be strong. When it comes to race I haven’t experienced any issues, but there have been assumptions, the biggest of which is people thinking that it’s a brand for black women. It is, but it is also for all women. If a black woman can’t wear my lipstick I’m not gonna make it, but I want white women to be able to wear my products too.
What’s your daily routine like?
I usually wake up around 10am. I work into the night; I love working late and then getting a lie-in. If I’m working from home I’ll just make an omelette. Recently I’ve started adding plantain to it. You have to mash it then add the egg and everything else – it’s really good. But today I had a muffin; if I’m in a rush I’ll just get something at the station on the way to a meeting.
Formulation time is 10am-5pm; I get in the lab, put on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and mix it up – I love formulating ‘til it’s dark. I’ve got this thing for music about drug dealing, about being a hustler, chopping it up in the kitchen. I’ll play Pusha T all day.
In the evenings I’ll go home, have dinner and then get behind my computer. I still live at home with my family. We’re really close which is really cool but they talk too much! So from 6pm ‘til 10pm I’ll chill, give my parents attention. Then when they mellow out I’ll get back into my work. I’ll stay up to 3am or 5am. I’ll listen to some Afrobeat or dancehall and then get into my emails, because I hate emails!
How did MDMflow end up on Nasty Gal?
It was a miracle. Sophia Amoruso is one of my biggest inspirations when it comes to female founders. She really is the definition of what it means to write your own rules, she didn’t read a retail manual on how to start a store; she just did it and it worked. With Nasty Gal, I’d always been inspired by Sophia but would never contact them. I just wasn’t thinking that big. What happened was, they Googled ‘cool lipstick brands’ and my brand came up. They emailed me – we were going back and forth and then it went really quiet. Then they got a new CEO, who happened to walk past the buyer’s desk and saw my samples there and thought they were really cool. Apparently it’s quite rare for the CEO to make buying decisions, so the buyer was like, ‘ok’. They bought in my stock but kind of sat on it for a while – I was losing my mind!
I was searching online and randomly saw these super cheap flights to Los Angeles. I asked my mum if she thought I should go – she’s never spontaneous – but she was all for it. I went out there, had a meeting. I think meeting face to face really helped to establish a good relationship. They put my stock up the following week and it’s just grown from there. They really like the brand but they’re also very supportive and proactive in helping you grow. A lot of retailers will be like, ‘well you don’t have this many Instagram followers, you need like, 10,000’ – because they just want to leech off you. They want you to be this really cool brand and bring all the customers with you, they want to capitalise off your work. With Nasty Gal it’s a two-way relationship. They give to me as much as I give to them and they give great feedback.
Have there been times when you’re like, ‘ugh, why am I doing this’?
So many. At the beginning it was really hard. Everyone tells you you’ve got a great idea, and you know it’s a great idea, but you are literally making no money. You have to constantly tell yourself: ‘this is a business’. The year after I graduated I got a graduate job in Middlesex and did MDM Flow at the same time and it was so hard. It wasn’t that it was a terrible job but I hated it. It was really good money but I had to leave, otherwise my business would die – even though it wasn’t making any money.
The hardest thing is running a business when it doesn’t feel like a business; it feels like a pet project. Even when you start to make money, you start to question: will I make this much next month? But it all helps – when things come up now, I remind myself that I got through these other times, so I’m probably going to get over this issue too. You become better at problem solving and become more intuitive. Now I’m a fan of slow growth. I’ve realised you can cut out so much risk if you just take the slow route.
When you do go through those times, do you have any mantras, or practices?
I’m a Christian, so I go to church and I do pray, and that definitely helps. Other than that I’m extremely positive. I know some people find inspirational quotes really cringey but I’m always posting them on social media or pinning them on Pinterest. I really believe positive reinforcement helps you feel good. It makes you smile, you feel good. It’s an infectious thing. If I’m in a bad place, I’m all about, how do I get out of it quickly? There’s no point dwelling on it and going deeper. There are also physical effects when it comes to feeling down, that can really affect your health. Mental health is a big and important issue. As an independent business owner you have to take care of yourself. You’re not in an office environment so no-one is checking up on you, so I’m all for being really aware of the fact that I’m down. I’ll tell someone about it; I won’t deal with it solo. I also have a life coach, Naomi Jane, and there’s so much coaching material out there. I think it makes you see that there’s nothing unique about the issues you’re facing. Someone has already been through it.
What do you spend your money on?
Shoes, bags, makeup – I don’t buy any other lipsticks though! I’m obsessed with new brands. There’s a place in Silverlake, LA called Apothecary – they just have really cool brands. I love going into random pharmacies. There’s a nail brand I love called Smith & Cult. I love Caudalie – their science is so on point – Chantecaille’s palettes, Korres’ body butter and anti-ageing primer are amazing. If I could own Nars I wouldn’t even have a brand. The pigment, the packaging, the lettering, their collaborations; everything they make is so wonderful – getting rid of my Nars lipsticks was extremely difficult! I’m very into oils and Liha’s Idan Oil smells so good. When you open the bottle you don’t want to close it – they’re two really cool women with a really cool brand.
My liquid matte lipsticks (out now). I wanted to create a formula that wasn’t drying, or bitty and doesn’t look grey on darker skintones. I’ve also improved upon my mascara. In the future, I’ll be thinking more about the message behind my products. It’s about self-expression, but I also want to look at it economically; I want to be able to employ people. I’m obsessed with the Estée Lauder group and family. Obviously it’s not perfect, but I love the way that each brand they buy has an almost personal connection to them. I love the fact that the Estée name is still a huge part of the brand. If I have kids there’ll be a lot of pressure! I could definitely see MDMflow becoming a conglomerate later, perhaps buying other brands or starting new ones. Right now I’m able to have a personal touch, and no matter how big the brand gets, I want to keep that element of having my own personal hand in it.
Shop the MDMflow range here and check out the MDMflow blog
Have you tried the range yet? If so, what's your favourite shade? Or do you have a question for Flo when it comes to starting your own business? Let me know in the comments below!