January 18th, 2021
Aimee Connolly is one of Ireland’s top makeup artists as well as creator of the award- winning makeup brand Sculpted by Aimee and founder of Sculpted: The Academy.
After years of experience working within the industry on commercial and editorial campaigns, as well as with brides and consumers, Aimee felt passionate about creating products she felt were missing from the market all in line with her ethos of making makeup easier.
As an artist Aimee has been a regular makeup contributor for TV shows, in columns for print and working on some of the biggest photo shoots or beauty events and therefore had pin pointed the exact type of product she wanted that would suit busy artists or customers alike; something that illuminated the complexion, was easy to apply and good to skin.
Aimee launched the brand with her first bronze, highlight and powder palette The Full Face Edit and double ended brush; perfect for women on the go as well as on set. In just four years the brand has launched over 40 cruelty and paraben-free products and built a cult following around the world.
At the end of 2020 Sculpted by Aimee launched exclusively into Boots in the UK. We caught up with Aimee to find out what is next and how she manages to get everything done. We may also have asked slightly more than ten questions!
What’s your background and what brought you into makeup?
AC: I’ve always been an MUA in terms of career progression so I actually started when I was 16. We have a year called transition year in school and as part of that you have to do two weeks’ work experience. I’m going back years to when I was a baby. I did my two weeks with Benefit Cosmetics in House of Fraser (now sadly gone) and I was offered a job with Urban Decay and I worked every Saturday and Sunday through fourth, fifth and sixth year. I did my Leaving Cert [Irish equivalent of English & Welsh A Levels] and then went on to college.
I did my degree in commerce and French – totally unrelated! I went to on work in MAC for a year in their flagship store in Dublin and absolutely loved it. I left there at the age of 19 because I’d started my own freelance career. I was really lucky that I was busy with shoots and brides and editorial and I was writing a bit of beauty and I kind of kept that going part-time whilst studying and completing the degree. When I graduated at 22 I dedicated myself full time to makeup; so I was still doing makeup I was researching the brand at that stage and I was teaching courses [in makeup] as well.
When you were doing your freelance work was that all in Ireland, or were you international even then?
AC: It was in Ireland but I would do Fashion Weeks in London and France, and my French came in very useful. As part of the degree I had to do an Erasus where you spend a school year in France which was the best thing ever to learn the language. I did mine in Bordeaux and I did a lot of freelance over there, which was great, I was all “I’ll speak French and do your make up” [laughs].
It was strange as I was very consistent with makeup all the way through but at the same time I was very dedicated to my degree studies, which I loved. I think then I was able to say “okay I’ve done that part, let’s go heavy on what the brand looks like.”
What an amazing experience for you, being so young and going off to do Fashion Week in London and Paris. It must have been a real eye-opener.
AC: It was. I think particularly in the first 3-4 years when I was working as an MUA. I knew I had all that experience but I was still considered to be very young. I was just lucky that I started at 16, but there was always a slight insecurity about people knowing my age as people would make a prejudgement on your lack of practical experience or your lack of trend experience. Fashion Week was always mental; you’re with the big global artists and you have to get on it and get in done, but it was amazing. You’re forcing yourself into situations and I probably wouldn’t have been the most confident teenager; but once I started working with customers every day that really changed.
What’s your first makeup memory?
AC: [laughs] I was actually thinking of this yesterday! So way back when, and I don’t know if it’s an actual memory or just one from pictures, I was obsessed with my mum’s makeup bag. Particularly her red lipsticks. Anything I could get that would make the biggest mess in the world. There’s this photo that honestly every single member of my family has a copy of. When I’m four years of age and they thought that I was asleep in bed and they were like “she’s very suspiciously quiet” I was obviously the child who would never go to sleep quietly. They thought “that’s very strange, we must go up and check” and I had broken the lipstick and it was all over my entire face. And my mam said she was trying so hard not to laugh, but on the same time thinking “that’s my red lipstick all over your face and your clothes and your hands and the bed!” It shows I was drawn to it from the get go – the biggest, boldest statement. Get it on quick!
What’s the first product you remember using as a teenager and has that affected your later product choices?
AC: The first product I used as a teenager was a black kohl pencil and I’d put about four layers on my waterline. I had no mascara on, no eyebrows, no makeup on, no foundation… I was pale, red, freckly – I loved black eyeliner. I particularly remember my mum’s friend saying “Aimee do you think you might have a bit too much black eyeliner?” And I’d be like “No! Are you joking me? I love it.” But I definitely wear browns more now, as they’re better with my colouring. I shifted. It’s funny as even at the start of my career, when I was on counter, I’d wear far more make up than I do now. So I think over the last few years I’ve progressed, definitely with the brand Sculpted as well and all about that natural luminous look, so yeah, I ditched the black kohl as extremely heavy on my waterline.
You took a big step from working for brands as an MUA in a department store to being an independent MUA then becoming a brand yourself. What was the impetus for this?
AC: At the stage when I had graduated I had seven years of MU experience built up. So I was really confident in terms of doing make up, my knowledge of products, consistencies, skin conditions etc. Given I’d done the business degree I knew I was never going to go into a graduate programme with the big four in terms of accounting and such. I knew I wanted to elevate what I was doing with makeup and that was to mix in the business element of having the degree. It was never really a question. I knew the way for me to do that was to create my own brand.
At the same time I’d got to know my own style, what I liked from brands and what I didn’t, and really the acceleration for me at that stage was creating multipurpose products. My initial product, three or four years ago, was a palette that had a bronzer, a cream highlighter and a powder highlighter. Obviously the range has expanded massively since, but the whole ethos behind that was that people found contouring so overwhelming; it was like I need four sponges, five foundations and three brushes and tada I’m done! But I don’t have an hour before I go to work. I knew it didn’t have to be that complicated, so I felt there was a lot of excitement to be found in one palette that you could throw in your handbag and it would do it all. When you work for MAC they are an amazing brand but if someone comes in you say “yes we have these 27 powders, which would you like?” and they don’t know. It was really about simplifying the process for customers and how to bring it together. And then being multi-purpose by saying use your bronzer on your cheeks and your eyes. It’s so simple and it was done in half the time.
What were the first steps to setting up Sculpted and what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs? Would you do anything differently if you had your time again?
AC: All the basic things: you physically have to set the company up, you have to decide on your logo. I remember I was in my final year at college doing my exams and I was looking up Fonts101 on line. That’s literally it, no fanciness, no graphic designers. I did everything on my own for the first year and a half. We definitely had a slower growth at that stage. I actually don’t have any regrets. I learnt everything from assessment, regulation, courier, to logistics. All of that I was doing… I was the cliché of physically packing orders at the kitchen table.
But obviously there’s the product at the very beginning and I had to research [production] companies. I knew they had to be certified for Europe and so I stuck within that initially. I hopped on a plane, went to Manchester, met a lovely English company who believed in me, even though most would have thought I was crazy as I had no benchmarks, no confirmation on what I could sell, I was just confident that it would work and I was determined to do it.
In terms of tips for entrepreneurs, I think the biggest thing is not to overthink it. One of the biggest questions I get asked as how did I have the confidence to do it. How do you just get up and go? And it sounds like a really lazy answer, but the truth is that I did not over think it. I didn’t foresee all the issues and errors that might arise but I knew I trusted my idea and was ready to go for it and to work hard, so off I went. I think you have to have a passion for your product. I think it would be impossible to work the hours we do and be on the whole time if you didn’t love what you were selling.
Is there anything you’d do differently if you had your time again?
AC: I don’t like to consider having regrets. I think we might have accelerated quicker if I’d taken the leap and hired people in that first 18 months. At the same time I don’t think I would do it differently as I’ve progressed with the way trends and markets have, how I want the brand to be and I think it would have been too rushed had I not taken that year and a half out myself.
You’d clearly been thinking about and planning everything – you didn’t just jump in with idea and nothing else. We joked about your degree not being relevant, but I suspect that analytical thinking and that critical approach actually really set you up to think about the way to make the business work. Your passion and confidence for the project must have helped to convince the company in Manchester to work with you.
AC: Definitely! When they answered my email I said “great, I’ve booked a flight I’ll be with you on Friday.” I haven’t looked back.
How long did it take you to create and develop the concept from start to finish and bring it to market?
AC: I would have graduated in May  but I was probably starting to plan for the two months prior to that because I had already decided that I wasn’t going into any other company. Then the following November  it launched; so about a year and eight months. I did a lot of work in that time; a lot of deciding what way I was going to give my own time. I was really busy as an MUA and teaching, and then you have these late nights with factories or designers or freight companies. You’ve got all these things that you don’t account for, that go wrong when you don’t think they will. By the time it had landed and I got the meetings with buyers, I had made a tactic for myself that I was going to approach five of the biggest pharmacy chains in Ireland. In Ireland pharmacies are massive for cosmetic sales. So I excluded Boots and picked five of the others and hopefully sell to them, with the hope that the smaller pharmacies would follow suit when they saw the range had launched into those five. That’s exactly what I did – I spent about two or three months when the product was here meeting them, showing it to them and finally launched pre-Christmas. I did get in to the five I wanted and I’m now in 150 pharmacies in Ireland. I didn’t have Boots on that initial list as they were so up there, the proper goal stage. Launching into Boots last year was brilliant.
You must have had to really ramp up production to meet that kind of demand?
AC: Yes. I now deal direct with seven different factories world-wide. Which means you don’t get any sleep ever [laughs] as they’re mainly on different time zones. There’s nothing like having that control. I am definitely a control freak so I generally fly out to them two or three times a year – obviously when it’s not Covid. Our main production is in South Korea so I have an extremely close relationship with them.
What challenges have you faced during lockdown? Presumably you’ve had to put things on hold and delay launches?
AC: Yes. It’s funny, I think when you hit such a big challenge you mind can go one of two ways. You can really panic and think “omg it’s all a disaster” or you think “okay, that’s not going to happen, what can we do?”. I would like to think that we pivoted quite well in terms of the virtual space; both from our retail store and our academy. We brought a lot on line – we got more active and more confident. Naturally 70% of our distribution is through stores, and they closed their doors for about 3 or 4 months. At the same time we were really active on line, which helped our e-commerce platform and that then saw growth.
I said to the team, “We could panic now, we could think this is a disaster, what are we going to do? Instead let’s focus on what we can control.”
So we really concentrated on our website, we updated the functionality, we created hype around products ~ that maybe we weren’t going to launch yet. We brought them forward just for e-commerce and it was brilliant. I hate to say that as it’s obviously been a really negative year with a global pandemic. But for us as a business we saw a massive growth and we learnt a lot about how to control situations that were out of our control.
It’s a difficult situation but you have to be able to find the positives even it it’s not what you would have done in that time; you’ve obviously learnt things you wouldn’t even have thought of.
AC: Yes, for example with our website, it’s made me create a mini team just for the website. It now warrants that given the size of the business; we have two new people that we hired this month and are starting now. They are purely just for the website and are a small division within the company just for that. And that’s amazing as you’re creating jobs, you’re taking chances when things are a little bit uncertain.
You’ve mentioned the academy – how does that fit in to your model?
AC: For me, when I created the brand, it was so important to me that people were aware it was created by a Make Up Artist. I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way; some influencers have amazing trust in themselves and do great work, but I was really conscious of the fact that it was done by an MUA. You like to think that after that many years you are aware of skin tone and preferences and finishes etc. So given I had been running courses for about three years before I started the brand, I wasn’t going to let that go. For us education is key; it’s at the forefront of everything we do. At the forefront of every launch I believe we need to be teaching how you use this product. It empowers customers but it also gives them value because they get it in their handbag and they have places to go to find information. So the academy would be a subset of the brand. It’s placed within our flagship store in Dundrum and we’ve graduated about 300 students to date and we now have the academy virtually up on line, so we’re doing virtual lessons given that we can’t be face to face.
I trained to get my teaching certificate over two years and I also did my assessors certificate so we are a fully qualified VTCT/ITEC centre, and we can graduate professional MUAs, but we also offer courses to consumers who just want to learn for themselves.
It means I am really busy with both the brand and the academy but I wouldn’t want to forfeit this in terms of the business structure as I really believe it is an important part of how we are, the way we are and what we do. It’s also a good way to get feedback on our products and ideas for new ranges based on solutions to common complaints and issues.
What’s your favourite of your own products? – and is there one you wish you had created?
AC: Good question! It’s like picking between children [laughs]. I would have to say Second Skin Mineral Foundation and that’s two-fold – not just how brilliant I think the quality is but also the work I know that went in to it. That was a massive project to launch both a matte and dewy version of it. To get minerals, to get SPF without a flashback etc etc. We’re actually extending the shade range of that next week, we’re really excited about it and it’s well overdue thanks to covid delays. It’s launching across all markets and online too. It’s my passion project and one thing I’m really proud of.
One thing I wish I had created… I think it’s really simple – something like the Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream. It’s a really good product. Sneak preview – it may arrive this year, who knows, or something similar, but that particular product I just think is very much within our brand’s ethos of being a multipurpose solver and a really good addition to anyone’s makeup bag in any season.
You’ve launched into Boots and are expanding internationally – what’s next for you and the brand – is there anything left to do?
AC: My list is so long! I think this year – for me as I always have a keyword for every year when we start, so for 2020 it was Processes because I needed to get processes in place to support the expansion of teams and to get people working in certain system. This year the word is Growth; so it’s all about really going for the UK market and putting as much effort in there as we do in Ireland and trusting that we can do it as well. I think when we think of expanding markets we think oh god, that’s so terrifying, and even though it still is terrifying you just have to bite the bullet and go for it. So focussing on Boots UK and other etailers within the UK, the general UK consumer and planning our next market and then we have 10 new products to launch to the portfolio this year. It’s very exciting.
Plus if travel opens back up I’d love to take some time off; I took one day off in 2020 so I’m definitely going to take more than that in 2021!
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