Hannah Gay sat down with the Lipstick Queen herself, Poppy King, for an intimate discussion around the past, present, and future of beauty entrepreneurship.
Does the name Poppy King sound familiar to you?
If not for Poppy herself, but her namesake lipstick line that gained cult status throughout the 1990s? And her Lipstick Queen line that followed suit?
The makeup royal is back, and remains eager to do things on her own terms.
Poppy King developed her brand as a self-proclaimed naive teenager. By sidestepping business school, she told PB she was able to avoid self-doubt and instead lean into her “pure intention” to succeed. The simplicity of Poppy’s mindset “gave me a clarity that has been hard to hold onto” since. “It started with what any entrepreneur starts with, [which was] something that I couldn’t find myself – a 1940s-style matte lipstick. At the time, everything was coral and pink and shimmery.” Not unlike those behind many start-up beauty brands today, Poppy did not come from a financially buoyant background, and so tasked herself with sourcing an investor and a factory.
Poppy King lipsticks began by gracing boutique Australian retailers, including beauty and hair salons. Poppy said she recognised the value in starting out in smaller bricks-and-mortar outlets that helped to grow and “nurture” her young brand. Presence in department stores, David Jones and Myer soon followed to keep up with demand.
Before the internet was around to drive word, Poppy saw coverage of her brand in magazines and on television news, with stories headlining her age. “I was so young and so what would normally have just been a beauty story became a general news story.”
In 1993 at 19 years-old, she opted to travel to New York to better understand how the brand could make its mark internationally. What started as a five-year goal to stock Poppy lipsticks in America came to be seemingly overnight with an introduction to US-based department store, Barneys. “I loved it because it wasn’t doing a lot of product, but highly curated [product].” A gutsy phone call and quick visit to Barneys HQ later, and Poppy and her line of lipsticks were in. “I was the first Australian lipstick ever in Barneys New York,” 12 months after initially launching down under.
Poppy was called in to lead the press for the opening of Barneys then new Madison Avenue store. For many years, Poppy would stock at the retailer who she likened to a gallery in which she, the artist, could showcase her talent. This partnership would go on to serve as the launchpad for other retail relationships, both for her Poppy King line and later Lipstick Queen line.
The major lipstick players during that era were YSL, Clinique, Lancome, Revlon, and Estee Lauder. Poppy’s brand held court alongside such international names. “Australia was not known for its innovation in lipstick,” Poppy said. She went on to collaborate with the likes of Lauder, Disney, and fashion labels like J Crew and Kate Spade. “There’s been a lot of things that I’ve ticked off my bucket list.”
The shine eventually wore off, leaving Poppy to face challenging financial times for her businesses. “I was not experienced in raising money. And in choosing the right partners, it’s a bit like dating – it takes a lot to learn what’s going to work for you and what doesn’t,” she shared. “The biggest hurdle in those early days was in financing the [brands’] growth and in finding the right people and the right investment.”
Under Lipstick Queen, Poppy released multiple collections and up to 90 shades, with names ranging from ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to ‘Saints and Sinners’. The latter range served as a nod to the female psyche, Poppy said. While she said she was better equipped on how to raise finance launching her second brand, the scale of the business would be far greater given its presence in the US. She eventually sold that brand in 2011.
In 2023, Poppy remains in the US residentially but has elected to return her brand to its Australian roots to be manufactured locally and exported globally – a decision she said “feels so meaningful”. She expressed her commitment to Australian production due to our “can-do” and “intrepid” formulation process. “In other factories, [formulations] can be watered down, or are more commercial.”
Poppy’s signature bold red ‘Original Sin’ lipstick shade has been re-released, utilising the majority of the product’s original formula. She owes much of her success to her consistent creativity; across everything from the Poppy King narrative to the names of her lipstick shades have been considered. “I think if I would have been any less creative, I think it would have been much harder,” Poppy admitted.
These days, Poppy is considerate of how her brand will be marketed to a Gen Z consumer. She sees user generated content as the way forward, working with ‘real’ women of varying ages, colourings and styles to promote her product. In a radical approach, Poppy insists stylists will be omitted and models left to show up as they are. Artistic interpretations of public figures continue to be used in place of celebrity portraits to uniquely and authentically tell the Poppy King story.
Poppy now stocks exclusively with US e-commerce platform, Moda Operandi. In fewer than two months since re-launching, she said the single lip shade has generated six-figures in sales. She also plans to bring back her most popular SKUs from both the Poppy King and Lipstick Queen ranges to sit alongside new launches. “This is never going to be a ‘spaceship’ of a brand,” Poppy said on choosing to keep her newest collection tight. “It allows me… to be able to do some unique retail.” By retaining such a curated approach, Poppy leans into the movement toward what she dubs a “psychographic” over category-specific shopping experience.
So why re-enter the market now? “Because for me, the moment is right,” Poppy said. “There’s a huge nostalgia for the 90s in general. And I think through the pandemic, everybody really kind of reassessed what’s special; the mood of special, unique stories and brands, away from the corporate world, is something that people are really thirsty for… the authenticity.” Poppy reflects on the “absolute deluge” of celebrity brands that have appeared in recent years, arguing that the wave “is getting really old.”
While Poppy seeks to engage a new consumer cohort, she reflects on her first fans in Baby Boomers and Generation X. “There’s a whole generation that is not going to be there for me forever in Australia.” Despite driving interest in her brand organically, Poppy isn’t quick to dismiss the opportunities that can arise with new technologies. “I do think that social media is an entity that if you put a frequency out there, it finds an audience.”
For new-comers in the local beauty scene, Poppy insists that “Australia is an incredible market where you can be much more experimental than you can be in any other market. You’ve got a sophisticated, yet intimate population,” she said. “You can really pioneer things here then take them overseas.”
“Australia has the capacity to lead the world in beauty, not necessarily in terms of volume, but in terms of innovation.”
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