Above all else, Olivia Palermo is an entrepreneur, navigating her way from reality TV figure on The City, to fashion tastemaker with an immense Instagram following. Now, the OG style influencer is moving into the world of beauty with her latest endeavour – Olivia Palermo Beauty – an eponymous brand offering an elegant collection of matte lipsticks, eyeshadow palettes and skin serums. Here, we catch up with Palermo to discuss her experience as a female founder, what it takes to launch a beauty brand during a pandemic and why London will always be special to her.
“I’ve always been very high-maintenance,” admits Olivia Palermo. “That’s never changed.” The American fashion tastemaker and entrepreneur is chatting to me over Zoom from her home in Dumbo, New York, which she shares with her husband, the dashing German model Johannes Huebl, and her beloved 16-year-old Maltese, Mr Butler. And those high maintenance tendencies she’s referring to are her intricate skincare and make-up routines, which she’s been honing since her teens. “I’ve always loved make-up, from a very young age, and I started going to a dermatologist when I was 14,” the 35-year-old explains, looking perfectly coiffed with freshly blow-dried hair and wearing a flowing printed boho-style dress from Chufy, the label designed by the Argentinian fashion consultant (and Palermo’s close friend) Sofia Sanchez de Betak.
Naturally, her expertly applied make-up is flawless – “I’m an all-or-nothing girl – either the make-up goes fully on or there’s no make-up at all” – and her skin is luminous. “I get a facial with Joanna Vargas or Dr. Dennis Gross once a week and see my dermatologist every three weeks, just to check in on my skin. My mother instilled from a very young age that you have your skin your entire life, and it’s very important that you take care of it. That’s always stayed with me.”
That close relationship with make-up and skincare has become even more important in her life recently, thanks to the latest release from the growing Olivia Palermo brand: Olivia Palermo Beauty. Launched in May this year and available to buy through her eponymous website, which features a mix of elegantly crafted editorials, Palermo-approved shopping guides and a digital beauty boutique, the vegan and cruelty-free range features a carefully curated beauty wardrobe of four matte lipsticks, two eyeshadow palettes – designed to capture that signature Palermo smokey eye – an illuminating serum and a mattifying mist.
The collection is as elevated and elegant as you’d expected from a woman who has become synonymous with understated luxury, ever since she first arrived on the fashion scene over a decade ago. While she may have originally come to the world’s attention in MTV’s hit 2008 show The City, which focused on the personal and professional lives of a group of young New York socialites, including Palermo, she swiftly made the move from reality star to Fashion Week front-row staple and has never looked back.
Known for her effortlessly chic approach to dressing – a glamorously preppy mix of camel coats, crisp white shirts and tasteful knitwear – Palermo was a style influencer before Instagram was even invented (she now has over six million followers on the platform) and famously broke the internet in 2014 with her unconventional bridal look: a white cashmere sweater and tulle skirt worn over shorts, all designed by Carolina Herrera.
Her trend-setting style has seen her collaborate with some of the fashion world’s biggest names, including creating her own line of footwear for Italian shoe label Aquazzura and working on an accessories collection with Aspinal of London, but it was her experience in the beauty world, where she has worked with the likes of La Mer, Bobbi Brown and Ciaté, that she drew on for this latest venture. “There has been a lot of build-up to this moment, almost three years in the making,” she says. “It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to start a beauty brand.’” Their USP, she says, is that she approached the beauty line in the same way she approaches fashion. “We wear everyday looks – prêt-à-porter – so I wanted to play off that with Pret-a-Beauté,” says Palermo. “Whenever I work with clients, I always start with key pieces in their wardrobe, so that was what we did here, creating elevated basics that you can build into.”
She cites glossy fashion editorials as a constant source of inspiration, as well as some of her talented make-up artist friends . “When it comes to make-up, I’ve been super loyal to my girlfriends Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath since they started their lines. They always have an incredible vision and talent for creating fantasy and glamour.”
There are plenty of personal Palermo touches throughout the collection, from the names of the colours, all taken from moments in her life (her eyeshadow, Seashell, was named after the sandy beaches of one of her favourite holiday spots, Ibiza, while her Chianti lipstick is a reference to her favourite red wine), to the reassuringly weighty metal cases, inspired by a vintage Art Deco bracelet she was given for her 21st birthday. “I’m so much about that luxury experience, so I wanted to bring that to the collection,” she says. “We thought it would be nice to give a nod to my gold chain bracelet that I’ve worn throughout the years, which people can identify with. Everything in the market right now is so lightweight and plasticky – I wanted to create a really heavy luxury product, something with old Hollywood glamour that you can have on your dressing table.”
But while the range draws on her own style references, Palermo insists she set out to create a line of products that was as inclusive as possible. “I was hypersensitive about that, making sure these products weren’t just suitable for me. We tested a lot of formulations to make sure all the colours suited multiple skin tones, and it was very important to me that there was something for everyone – my guys and my girls.” It was important to her to make sure the range was sustainable, too; every product was developed with non-toxic ingredients, formulated without parabens, sulfates, phthalates or mineral oil, and all of the packaging is entirely recyclable. “We try to make sure our products are as clean as possible,” says Palermo. “It’s very much what the market is demanding, so it’s important to listen to the customer.”
Palermo relishes her role as a female entrepreneur, and says that she believes this is the best moment to be in that sphere. “I think with the current climate, women’s empowerment is more important than ever.” As a businesswoman, she is steely in her approach and not afraid to get stuck in with every element of the design process. She’s particularly keen to make it clear that this is not just another celebrity make-up range, or a licensing deal that she has simply stuck her name on. When I ask just how involved she was, she gives a knowing laugh. “I like to go into the details of every single thing we do, so I was very involved. I went back and forth with my head of product development for months to make sure we got everything right. And I have a very clear creative vision for just about every aspect of the brand.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t had her challenges. The collection was supposed to launch last November, but due to the pandemic they decided to wait until the summer. “I always say patience is a virtue, and we had to be very patient, but it seemed right to be more thoughtful given world events.” Her biggest struggle? “Sticking to budget, definitely. You know, I have expensive taste. And I don’t really take no for an answer – there’s always a way to make things work.”
Though like the rest of the world she’s been grounded for the last 18 months, Palermo usually spends plenty of time in London, whether it’s for her twice-annual visits to Fashion Week, where she is a front-row regular, to check in with her long-time agent, Karen Diamond at Models 1, or to visit her best girlfriend, Sarah Harris, the Deputy Editor of British Vogue. “Sarah has given me incredible suggestions for beauty over the years, because she and I are very similar in our high-maintenance choices,” says Palermo. “When I’m in London I love getting a manicure at DryBy on Mortimer Street, a facial at 111Skin and my hair done at Hershesons in Harvey Nichols.”
Her favourite area to stay in is Notting Hill – “some of my closest friends live there, so it’s like a second home to me” – where you’ll find her having dinner at e&o or strolling down Portobello Road. “I like going really early or really late, when they’re about to close up, because you can always spot things.” But for now she’s happy in New York, working hard on the next range of colours set to launch later in the year and cementing her ever-expanding empire. “I’m trying to build a beauty brand that will still be around 50 years from now – this is a real labour of love.”