Is it cool to work? Survey says not at all. It’s cool to have money, and to use it to buy Margiela ballet flats, where the big toe has its own little chamber, or to flee to Palm Heights for a week and convalesce from inflammation between white sands and yellow umbrellas. But to make money—to make a livelihood, instead of simply living lively—is the most pedestrian thing a person can do besides walking down the street, toes crammed together in a single chamber, as if traveling by Megabus.
But the greater cultural, economic, and cosmic forces that govern coolness—the ones that decide which ugly shoes should be expensive and when—sometimes conspire to make work seem cool, even like something one might aspire to do. It happened once more than a century ago, in an era when Thomas Edison was our nation’s Kim Kardashian, and millions of children slept soundly dreaming of inventing factory machinery.
It happened again recently, but unless you were attuned to the frequencies of the 2010s start-up booms in New York and California, it’s possible you missed it. It was cool to work at Uber, which was a rideshare app; it was cool to work at Warby Parker, which sold men’s and women’s eyeglasses; it was cool to work at BarkBox, a subscription box for “dog products, services, and experiences.” It was cooler to work at some places than at others.
It was cool to work at a makeup and skin-care company called Glossier, a new American brand pronounced Frenchly. “At parties in New York, if you told people you worked there, even people from Vogue would have respect for that,” one former employee, a middle manager, remembers. “They thought it was really cool!” It didn’t matter what one did there, or if their title was associate brand manager. Merely the proximity conferred an ineffable sense of superiority, even minor fame, in the line at Sweetgreen, as well as on other streets and avenues. Bakeries sent treats to the office at random, in sweet genuflection; Glossier employees could get their hair cut for free at Spoke and Weal, or anywhere, probably, if they inquired from their @glossier e-mail.
After launching in 2014 with the Phase 1 Set—a face mist, moisturizer, lip balm, and “skin tint”—Glossier has steadily, then rapidly, expanded its product offerings to include lipsticks in a variety of finishes, mascaras for brows and lashes, sunscreen, a niacinamide serum, a retinoid, a body cream, a makeup case, a sweatshirt. Whatever it sells comes caked in a thick ooze of cool. It’s typed in sans serif and paletted in soft sunsets. The ads, playful and tightly cropped portraits, feature cool girls, who were It Girls who had day jobs instead of mainstream press coverage. Cool girls were aspirational but just shy of unattainable. They had flaws, like gap teeth or lack of ancestral wealth, and Glossier provided the midpoint on their journeys from waiter or associate brand manager to Chanel new face or full-time influencer.
“At parties in New York, if you told people you worked there, even people from Vogue would have respect for that.”
Maybe the products themselves came imbued with a confidence you could apply to your skin, like an oil serum called Futuredew for an allover “gleamy” look; maybe they were gorgeously and smartly marketed to a generation caught awkwardly between fourth-wave feminism and the beauty-commerce boom; maybe it all came from one source, the brand’s founder, Emily Weiss, but Glossier was cool to the touch as it was making money, too.
Weiss was a cool girl. By the time she graduated from N.Y.U.’s studio-art program, she was a fashion assistant at Vogue and had a three-episode arc on The Hills as Lauren Conrad’s brunette foil at Teen Vogue. She had unfettered access to other cool girls; a self-tanner recommendation from Doutzen Kroes was the seed that germinated into Into the Gloss, her beauty blog. Her first post on the site wasn’t with an actor or even a beauty professional, but with a publicist named Nicky Deam. “I fangirled over [her] when I saw her outside fashion shows,” Weiss told the Fat Mascara podcast.
In the early days, Weiss photographed and interviewed all of her subjects. She would bring her camera and recorder to fashion events, which is how she got a quick interview on Pharrell’s skin-care routine and an invitation into Liv Tyler’s bathroom. After a while, they started booking themselves; Emma Watson reached out to the Web site because she was a fond reader. Into the Gloss hinged on an opportunity between beauty-product chatter—the interviews and the comment sections—and beauty-product commerce linked to an affiliate retailer.
The Web site “was trying to create a club where your affiliation with a brand indicated your tribe,” writes Marisa Meltzer in her new book, Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier (due out September 12 from Atria/One Signal). At some point, Weiss wanted a tribe, not a club. When she leveraged the Into the Gloss audience to launch Glossier, she wasn’t imagining Glossier as an Estée or an Apple, but as a brand that stretched the limits of her imagination. When giving interviews, Weiss often spoke about sweatshirts: What kind of a brand name would she want to wear on her chest? Could you imagine wearing a Clinique sweatshirt?
Then, when interviewing prospective employees, she liked to ask, “Why do you work?” Meltzer once asked Weiss what kind of answer she was looking for. “I believe that building Glossier is a calling,” she told her. “I just think there are lots of places someone can go work if they just want a job.”
Meltzer finds herself baffled but fascinated by Weiss. As a beauty journalist, she had profiled Weiss twice, and she describes their relationship as “warmly professional.” Glossy glosses over the fact that Glossier will be, as of October 2023, a nine-year-old beauty company still quite in business. Instead, it attempts to draw conclusions about contemporary beauty marketing by thoroughly examining the pretty genius behind it all. The book begins with Weiss’s yearbook quotes and ends with her departure from Glossier’s chief-executive seat, which is of concern to Meltzer—she knows that Glossier’s chief product is cool, not cream. “The cool has to come from somewhere,” she writes. “It can’t all be extracted from Emily Weiss.”
Hers was a perfect storm of factors both honed (her intelligence, her weirdness) and God-given (family money, modelesque looks); Weiss’s ascendance to the pages of fashion magazines was predestined by astrological forces older than time itself. But she ended up in beauty anyway, and thank Aries, because Weiss has what all talented beauty writers must have in order to craft their prose, and that is, and will always be, a certain lack of self-esteem.
One work in particular, “The Little Wedding Black Book,” was published on Into the Gloss in 2016:
The real story, seeing as though this is a beauty website and I’m a beauty editor, is in the prep. Months of prep! So much prep. Not of the venue, guest list, or seating chart—that was fairly easy—but of my limbs, skin, wanted hair, unwanted hair, nails, muscles, digestive tract, lashes and brows. Did I go overboard? Perhaps. Was it high maintenance? Maybe. I did spend an inordinate amount of the fall on my back. But, it worked. I was 8/10 happy with how I looked…pretty good!
A self-tanner recommendation from Doutzen Kroes was the seed that germinated into Into the Gloss.
I could write my very own book about this post, but in the interest of keeping your attention I will condense my thoughts into two rhetorical questions: Is it not the truth of every image-conscious person to feel 8/10, pretty good, even at their very best? And is it not the work of every beauty writer to seek those last two-tenths by any means necessary, and to commit their quest to the written word?
The small but mighty cohort of editorial professionals who come to write about beauty—the concept of it, but more specifically, the hundred-billion-dollar goods-and-services economy fueled by the vanity tradition—know that it’s difficult, almost impossible, to do in a way that doesn’t make a complete ass of oneself and all others. The only way to write about beauty is to debase yourself completely in a 12-step routine, to pluck out each eyelash and leave them on the page for somebody else to find. Music critics can hide behind florid language, and book critics can play in the language of others, but beauty writers are always undressed, applying gradual tanner. Our work tends toward a pursuit more naked than truth, I think, but I am biased economically.
She wasn’t imagining Glossier as an Estée or an Apple, but as a brand that stretched the limits of her imagination.
It’s a tough job, and nobody wants to do it. The global beauty economy grows every year, and it would be logical to believe that beauty-focused outlets have grown to cover it, but it would be wrong. The global pet industry generates a bit more than half as much revenue as beauty, and there are, by my count, 13 magazines published in America on the topic of man’s best friends. There are only two major magazines specifically dedicated beauty, and one of them just discontinued the printed edition.
Follow the money, and often it leads instead to the people making the products, not those discussing them. What better example of this than Glossier? After Weiss went on to start her product enterprise, Into the Gloss began a gradual shrivel—at first slowly, and then time-lapse-quickly—into the gorgeously desiccated husk of its former self; it now sits on the Internet in the manner of a piece of Jenni Kayne decorative driftwood.
If Into the Gloss merely featured cool girls, and recorded their preferences for conditioners and personal fragrances, Glossier minted them and sold them piecemeal—their boyish eyebrows, their gleamy cheekbones, their smells. One of Glossier’s most popular products, a fragrance called “You,” favored musky base notes designed to smell “mostly” like its wearer. “It felt like a joke the surrealists might have made,” Meltzer writes. It was a smash hit, and in 2022, one bottle sold every 43 seconds.
Meltzer makes frequent use of the word “folly”—something grand, artificial, performative by its nature—to describe what happens when the human brain encounters a Glossier product, and her book examines the scenery from all angles, talking to the stage managers, learning the cues. But it all returns to Weiss, who proves to be an inscrutable subject. Meltzer wrestles at times with the frustration of sitting across from a seemingly endless font of known cool that cannot be tapped.
That was one reason I was drawn to her. Sometimes dealing with her could feel like talking to the prettiest and richest girls you knew who deigned to give you attention, only to realize her goal was to get something from you. Yes, she stirred up old adolescent insecurities. Likening Weiss and her ilk to popular girls is for me to sort out. But it is not an inapt description.
Her survey of Weiss turns up no bombshell revelations—many people found her awkward and closed off, and few offered glimpses into the machinations of Weiss’s inner psyche. The assessment that rings truest comes from Morgan Von Steen, who assisted Weiss for three years during Glossier’s boomiest times: “She was an ambitious person who was trying to see through a vision.”
The only way to write about beauty is to debase yourself completely in a 12-step routine, to pluck out each eyelash and leave them on the page for somebody else to find.
She wanted the brand you could wear on your sweatshirt, and she made it. What more do we expect from Weiss? Was she simply an ambitious N.Y.U. graduate with great taste? Or was she a sorceress who, if exposed to the right interviewer or exorcism ritual, might finally recite the spell that makes people ravenous for eyebrow pomade? Glossy is a meticulous feat of beauty reporting, and it’s also proof of what we all already know: The story usually revolves around the coolest girl in the room.
Glossy tells many stories—that of the girlboss, that of the tech start-up, and that of millennial marketing. The company’s influence is undeniable. Remember when Estée Lauder tried to launch a Glossier competitor, the Estée Edit, faced by Kendall Jenner? It lasted about one year; if Glossier struck a chord with millennials, the Estée Edit simply failed to find the tune. The book traces the contours of a pivotal moment in the history of marketing, as brands began to distinguish themselves on social media and coagulate around charismatic founders, but it hews tightly to the figure of Weiss, blowing past other characters worthy of inquiry. (The only fireable behavior we witness comes from an anonymous director-level creative who was fond of verbally eviscerating her direct reports live in the open-office coliseum. Could this person have warranted more than a single page of text?)
Here I go, laying out some eyelashes for you: I was an Into the Gloss intern in 2013, and I worked at Glossier from 2015 to 2017. I probably owe my entire career to Emily Weiss, but my affection for her is no more or less than all others have for their creator-gods. In terms of glossip, Glossy scales the tip of the iceberg but fails to dip beneath sea level. (One of the sources quoted is known as a true international scammer by some chapters of the Glossier alumni network, though I fear that invoking even one of her crimes could open up several entire Ryan Murphy cinematic universes; Meltzer and I will have to keep that tomb sealed for now.) The book triumphs when it examines, with case-study precision, Glossier’s moments of uncoolness—the lackluster launches, or its mismanaged retail environments—that are so much more interesting than what Weiss is really like in private. (And that’s my creator-god!)
I return, as I usually do, to a waking fantasy about what Into the Gloss could have become under different circumstances. Actors on Actors but about cosmetic procedures? America’s third beauty magazine? One sheer truth I learned reading Glossy: You don’t make a billion dollars conducting interviews with cool girls; you have to break them down and sell them. Glossier attempted to farm its own cool-girl sales populace, through an Avon-esque “Rep Program”—it was scrapped and overhauled this year. The truth revealed itself slowly, like bad concealer creasing into under-eye folds: Not everyone can be a cool girl; some people have to be paying customers.
Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier, by Marisa Meltzer, comes out on September 12
Brennan Kilbane is a New York–based writer. He is originally from Cleveland, and his interviews and essays have appeared in GQ, New York magazine, and Allure, where he was recently on staff as a features writer