What didn’t fit : Karoline Wells

Didn’t get enough of Karoline Wells and The Elixery from the “Sneak” peek you read in the latest redshoes news? I hear you! She’s fascinating. Read on for the full interview with this talented, creative, and whip-smart scientist. (Not yet a subscriber to redshoes news, my monthly email? Sign up here!)

Lipstick by The Elixery's Karoline Wells

Lipstick by The Elixery’s Karoline Wells (photos by Rebecca Zenefski)

Hey Karoline! Tell us about your background.
My interest in science started as a child, and I learned soapmaking and herbalism from my grandmother. I’ve been formulating and mixing my own products since I can remember, starting with simple things like face masques, lip balms, and herbal mixtures. My grandmother instilled this belief that there was a cure for every disease already on the planet, and that all we needed to do was go out in the forest and find it. I was totally inspired by that idea, so for years I thought I’d be a phytochemist, which is a person who studies plants for drug applications.

I graduated from St. Catherine University [in St. Paul], and devoured classes in chemistry, biology, and philosophy. Throughout school, I worked in microbiology labs, so I sort of fell into that field after graduating.

I never really gave up the fascination with how things are put together, though, and kept making things like laundry detergent and other oddities in my kitchen. Eventually, I decided to open a lab and seriously focus on formulating an original product line. That started me on a long year of research and development for lipstick.

What is The Elixery?
It’s a place in which many different concoctions are made. We’re inspired by old pharmacies, old-school manufacturing, and the romance of science and machinery. We’re still a small lab, but our ultimate goal is to create a larger manufacturing facility here in Minnesota.

The company has a strong stance on gender equity, and we don’t see gender as a binary thing. We believe in science education, especially for women, who have largely been ignored in technical fields. We’re also careful to source each of our ingredients to be free of animal testing, all the way back to the source. It can take longer to do it that way, but as someone who has seen animal testing first hand, I personally think it’s worth the extra effort.

What makes The Elixery different?
Most makeup brands are run by marketing companies, including a lot of the big brands. If you read the ingredients on the products at Sephora, it’s funny to see how many of them are identical. I read an article recently called the “10 Best Lip Liners,” and five of the brands had exactly the same ingredients.

The reason those products look the same is because they really are the same product. Most companies are just marketing a product, and the product itself is made by a small handful of actual manufacturers. Nexus, for example, never owned their own formulas!

A company’s marketing usually claims it has a unique, special product “created” by a unique, special person, but actually it’s often just the same labs using the same set of stock formulas. By contrast, our formulas are developed in-house, so nobody else has the same product. We’re very proud of that, because when we say our products are unique, they really are.

Why is that important?
I think when your company doesn’t formulate its own products, you have very little understanding of the products. I cringe when I read cosmetic marketing—some of it is so bizarrely inaccurate, mostly because the marketing people didn’t understand science very well.

Manufacturing your own products also puts you in control of ingredients. We know the ultimate source of every ingredient we use, and that gives us more understanding of what we’re creating.

What’s your creative process like?
I work in an old lab [in Minneapolis], which used to be the research labs for General Mills back in the day. Cheerios were invented in this building, and I love that. It’s a great place full of artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, and I love being around all of that creative energy.

A lot of people don’t think of science as creative, but nothing could be further from the truth. The process of invention is the synthesis of imagination and experience—envisioning what might be possible in color, texture, structure, and scent. After that, you have to figure out how you’re going to get there with the materials sitting in front of you, which is not always so obvious.

It sometimes requires pacing and obsessing and late nights, and then when inspiration strikes, it isn’t always convenient. There are moments of frenzied activity, varied with frustration, and lots of piles of failed concepts, and the occasional thing that works in a totally different way than you’d intended. And then, eventually, if you keep pushing through, you finish the work. In that way, I imagine that science is absolutely no different than art.

Where do you get your inspiration?
So many places, and a lot of people contribute. I draw a lot of inspiration from mythology. “Lakshmi,” for example, is an Indian goddess that sits on a bright pink lotus flower, and the lipstick is that color. “Aviatrix” was named by my husband Michael, who likes airplanes. And “Fearless,” a bright red-orange, was named by veteran Elixery photographer Rebecca Zenefski. We’ve run a few naming contests, which is where “Scheherazade” and “Karma” came from.

Almost all of the [colors used in the Voltage: Fashion Amplified show last year] were named during an evening at “Opera on Tap” at the Red Stag Supperclub, and quite a few of those names came from the opera songs. “Hazardous” was named at around 4 a.m. in the lab, when my exhausted brain could only connect the color orange to a biohazard sign.

Do you ever collaborate with others?
I really enjoy finding cool people to work with on projects, from makeup artists to designers. Right now, I’m working with Post- to fill their beautiful, hand-sewn and hand-printed makeup bags. I also love working with couture lingerie designer Sarah White from Jagress Intimates. Recently, I’ve been collaborating with Academy Award-winning makeup artist Crist Ballas, and we’ll be announcing some really cool projects soon. I’ve also been looking for over a year for the right artisan perfumer to collaborate with!

Collaboration is great, in my opinion, because if you love someone’s work, chances are, your fans will as well. Collaborating is a great way for artists and makers to expand their audience organically.

What are your thoughts on being in art shows?
Honestly, it was a little strange at first, since I primarily think of myself as a scientist. I also wasn’t sure how people would react to having makeup at an art show. But some of the most brilliant artists I’ve known have been makeup artists, so it does make a certain kind of sense that art lovers would also love makeup as a form of expression.

Who are some MN artisans that you enjoy?
I love to meet all the soapmakers at shows and see what kind of fun things they’re creating. Recently, I met the owners of bodylish, and love their products. For local jewelry, Larissa Loden and Jennifer Merchant are a couple of favorites. I should also mention Lucille’s Kitchen Garden, which is a couple of local ladies who make fantastic jam. Honestly, I’ve met so many creative people [in Minnesota] that I can’t begin to list them all!

Who has worn your products?
Ooh, I’m just bursting to tell this one, but you’ll have to wait [for] our very special announcement for Fall 2012.

Find The Elixery in Minnesota at i like you, June, Honeycomb Salon, The Hive Salon, Ethique Nouveau, Eye of Horus, and online. If you’d like to be included in the next naming contest or giveaway, “like” The Elixery on Facebook.

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