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Shades of Innovation

Business: O.C. companies improve on beauty with fast-drying nail polish, no-smear lipstick.

April 30, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lipstick stains on coffee cups, long waits for nail polish to dry, runny mascara--the things women put up with to make ourselves look good.

Now a couple of small start-up companies are making their mark on the beauty industry by offering solutions to common cosmetics woes.

English Ideas in Irvine and Seche International in Rancho Santa Margarita have won industry accolades and coveted counter space in cosmetics departments and beauty salons by offering innovative products.

They're facing off with cosmetic giants such as Revlon and Estee Lauder, which until recently had a virtual lock on the beauty business.

"Makeup artist lines like M.A.C. opened the doors for smaller entrepreneurs," says Jane Scott of Bloomingdale's in New York City. "Kids in L.A. like Drew Barrymore and Courtney Love were sick of [traditional] cosmetics."

They turned to alternative lines such as Urban Decay and Hard Candy, which were mixing up odd colors.

"It still takes a fair amount of money to be in the business," Scott says. "If you hit it, you have to have capital. And you can't just be plunked in a store. You need testers and demonstrators, because no one will buy it without trying it out."

Seche has had companies scrambling to duplicate its patented, quick-drying nail polish, a clear topcoat ($9) applied over wet lacquer that's touchable after five minutes and dry down to the nail bed in 10. (As anyone who has botched a nail job knows, it usually takes at least 45 minutes to an hour for nails to dry completely.)

"With Seche, you can put polish on at night before bed and have no sheet or hair marks [on the nail] in the morning," says Charles Martens, owner of Seche.

Martens started the company in 1991. "I was 25 and had $5,000 to my name. I bought the technology and created Seche" after acquiring the formula for the topcoat from a childhood friend.

Martens named the polish Seche Vite (pronounced "sesh veet"), a French slang term for "dry fast."

"The idea was to create a cult thing about the name. No one knew what it meant or how to pronounce it," he says.

They're learning.

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Seche has become a multimillion-dollar company that sells the topcoat--plus base coat, lacquers and other products--to nail-care salons, where professionals use the products. "A woman who has her nails done every week wants this," Martens says.

Clients spend less time in the salon, and the polish stays put two to three times longer than it would without a topcoat. Seche Vite also prevents lacquers from yellowing in the sun--or on tanning beds.

Other companies copied the Seche Vite formula, until Seche pursued them in court. Some have come up with quick-drying formulas of their own, but Martens maintains that those polishes quickly chip because they use more solvents and less resin.

"A lot of them make the same claims. Some say their polish will dry in 60 seconds. It's ludicrous. The film would be a fraction of the thickness. It would be too brittle and have no gloss," Martens says. "This has smoothing agents, so it's flexible and high-gloss. No manufacturer can get near our technology."

Beauty professionals have lauded the product. In Style magazine named Seche Vite the No. 1. topcoat in March. It's been listed as one of the Editor's Essentials in Elle and a top 10 nail product in Tattler. Marie Claire, Glamour and Allure have also touted the topcoat.

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Like Seche, English Ideas has used science to change the face of the beauty business. Five years ago, the company introduced Lip Last, a sealant that keeps lipstick from smearing. Since then Lip Last has been cited by almost every top fashion magazine.

Company CEO Russell Pflueger, a chemical engineer who designed angioplasty catheters and other high-tech devices before turning to cosmetics, concocted the first batch of Lip Last in a blender for his wife, Rebecca.

"He hated seeing lipstick stains on glasses. It was his pet peeve, so I said, 'Make me something,' " recalls Rebecca, company president.

Applied over lipstick, Lip Last ($17.50) dries in about 30 seconds and keeps lipstick in place, even during coffee breaks. It's designed to appeal to women who don't have time to reapply makeup.

"I'm a person who puts on makeup once a day. I'm not a makeup junkie," says Rebecca Pflueger, formerly an electronics engineer.

One challenge for English Ideas: teaching customers how to properly apply the product. At Stevens & Cross cosmetics studio in Newport Beach, which sold Lip Last for two years, reaction to the product was mixed, says Richard Stevens, president.

"Some really loved it, but for some it didn't work at all. It could be that their choice of lipstick was too glossy," Stevens says.

English Ideas recommends using a lip pencil if lipstick is too oily. Because Lip Last is designed to be removed only with oil-based cleaners, it may need to be reapplied after oily meals. Applying the sealant to wet lipstick can also cause the color to peel.

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