October 13th, 2021
Kerstin Weller is a German-born wig, hair and makeup artist, now based in the UK. Her sought after skills, coupled with her charisma and zest for life have, taken her around the globe, working on many large film and TV franchises including Mission Impossible, Mad Max, Bond, Fast & Furious, Aquaman and Game of Thrones. Most recently she has worked on the latest Mission Impossible film, TVs The Great and the new film adaptation of Blithe Spirit.
In 2012, while working on Namibia on Mad Max: Fury Road (for which she was nominated for a Hollywood Makeup Artist & Hairstylist Guild award), she was inspired to create a natural skincare product that was high quality but also beautiful – for both the bathroom and the film set make up station. On her return to the UK she took a skincare course and after four years of planning, researching, sourcing and testing her kewekō brand was born.
We catch up with her to chat all things wigs, hair and makeup and talk about the challenges of keeping a small, organic skincare company in business during a pandemic.
What’s your background and what brought you into wigs, hair and makeup? Which came first?
My background is in theatre. I was educated in Germany and there you have to do three years as a hairdresser first, and then I did three years in the theatre. You have to do different exams too – they cover hairdressing, period hairdressing, wig making and a small amount of prosthetics. I then worked in the theatre in Germany, mainly concentrating on the wig making and make up side. Next I spent a year in Australia on a prosthetics course and realized I wasn’t very good at it! (laughs). I was talking to the teacher about which area of the industry to go into, makeup or hair? And they said don’t worry, the industry will make the decision for you. At the time I didn’t really understand what that meant, but later I did. That did happen – I always got jobs in hair, so now I view myself as a hair person over a make-up one.
Hair and wigs are a little bit separate, and I specialise more in wigs. I was a wig-maker for so long, and that makes it so much easier when you understand the structure of wig. From putting one on to dealing with wig issues on set if something goes wrong. I find it quite easy to fix problems – as I understand how the lace is structured and the hair is knotted – even if you have to cut in somewhere, I know the best place to do that and what the wig does so I don’t ruin the whole thing. I still do hair and make-up too but I tend to get given the actors with wigs and I love it!
What’s your first make-up memory?
That’s a really hard question as I’ve never been one of those people who said from a really young age “I want to be a make-up artist”. It wasn’t a dream of mine, it just happened. I basically fell into it and loved it so much. For me, one of the main things I learned right at the beginning, was that stuff you learn can’t be applied in the same way on every single person you work with, and that applies to both hair and make-up. If someone shows you a technique, for example making a bald cap, that’s not necessarily going to work on every single job so you have to stay open to learning new ways all the time. I think it’s important to work with different designers as everyone has different tricks up their sleeve and you learn all the time. It’s not like baking a cake where you can use the same recipe over and over again – in this industry you have to adjust it for the client. That was an early realisation for me.
What’s the first product you remember using as a teenager and has that affected your later product choices?
The first product I used was mascara remover – I’ve never been into heavy foundation or wearing much make up. I was far more interested in a skin care routine. What I find interesting is the choices I made later when I started the range – the reason I did it was because I have always used organic products. Even when I was a kid in the 1980s my mum only used organic skincare products, she was quite forward thinking in that regard. We always had organic food – which was quite unusual back then – and I hated it! I learnt a lot early on, even though I didn’t want to. So I always used organic skincare as that was what I knew, but I never liked the design of it. One of the main reasons I developed my skincare range is because I wanted an organic product with a really beautiful design so you could have it on your station, in your bathroom and you can actually have it and it looks beautiful. With most organic products I end up putting them in the cupboard as the design is so terrible.
kewekō is completely female run company too. The design was really important to me and one of my closest friends in Germany is a graphic designer who does amazing work. I collaborated with her and she understood my taste and what I wanted to do. Every design she showed me was beautiful and it was so hard to decide!
The photographer is a woman from Norway and the person who helps with the business aspects is also female. I didn’t set out for that to happen, but it just ended up being that way and works well with the company ethos.
How did you end up starting your own brand – what was the impetus?
I did a course about skincare to learn how to make products. I started in small batches just for me, but couldn’t work out how to get an organic preservative as they are really hard to make. Otherwise the products would go off in weeks. I contacted a small family-run lab in Surrey and they helped me scale up production and use organic preservatives. At that point I realised I had something amazing so could start a range. I knew I could use it at work on set; lots of actors now ask for organic and cruelty-free products so it was perfect for that audience. I am cruelty-free but it’s very difficult for small brands to get the certification. I was organic certified by The Soil Associationat the start, but it was so expensive that I had to stop being registered as they are only really set up for big companies. The cruelty-free certification is easier to get, but you don’t get much exposure from them as a small company, they tend to focus on the large companies on social media.
What sets kewekō apart from other skincare products?
I focus on the ingredients and that it’s good for sensitive skin – although you do need to be aware of the essential oils included as some people can react to these. It’s really the design aspect that sets us apart from other organic brands. I wouldn’t dare say ours are better and I’ll promote other brands – like Alice Moore’s Kyushi Skincare – if they work well for a client.
The design process took over a year to get it exactly right. The packaging took a lot of time too as I wanted everything to be recyclable, including using glass rather than plastic. Then there’s the labels – I started with paper ones with vegetable inks and a soya-based glue. But the problem was the paper label got wet so quickly. I’ve changed this now so they have a coating on, it’s not ideal but otherwise they just don’t last and they quickly look unprofessional. The problem for small companies is that most of the eco-friendly packaging products have such high minimum order quantities that they become unobtainable. I wanted to add reusable cotton pads to the range – I could just order from for China 2p each and resell with my brand name on, but I wanted to source them from the UK to reduce the carbon footprint and support our economy here. I contacted a lot of charities to see if they could sew them for me as many of them give women from vulnerable households work to give them some independence. They may be more expensive to buy but it fits better with the company ethos but even they can’t get the quantities that work for small businesses. It’s not just the purchase costs but there are storage implications too, which is an additional cost that you need to earn back through sales.
Covid nearly broke the company as no-one was buying for months but I still had the outgoings. Also people forget about you. If you’re a small company that doesn’t advertise you just aren’t on anyone’s radar, particularly as we weren’t filming. It’s hard work! I know I’m not the only one, there are lots of small businesses having the same issues. It’s worth the pain though and I’m glad I’m still going.
Which is your favourite of your products and why? Is there a product you wish you had created?
My favourite is the cleanser as I use that every day, and I also use the toner. I use all the products really (laughs). I use the cleanser at work all the time too. I launched the cleanser, toner and moisturiser all at the same time. I am changing the moisturiser recipe slightly though to use a stronger preservative, as currently the rosehip oil separates out after a while. It doesn’t affect the usage, but doesn’t look very attractive if you open it and there’s brown oil spots at the top. We are working on that at the moment.
The toner is our best-selling product, and I’ve sold out for the moment. I was hoping to have a new batch before Christmas but I am having trouble sourcing the packaging. I was using Italian glass which I buy through a UK company, but at the moment there’s no way of getting any. It’s partly due to Brexit and partly due to their minimum order quantities having increased dramatically that I don’t think I can use them. I am now researching new spray bottles with a finer spray, but it’s really challenging. I don’t want to buy from China but it is almost impossible to get a glass spray bottle from the UK or Europe. Another impact of Brexit is that I can’t sell outside the UK as the taxes and fees now are so high it’s not worth it for the consumers. It’s a real shame.
There’s no one else’s products I wish I had created, but I would love to expand my range to include hand soap and hand cream. They are definitely on my list. I have bath salts already and have developed another one to be released before Christmas.
What advice would you give to someone creating their own product range? Would you do anything differently if you were starting again?
If I was starting again I would adjust the prices. Where I went wrong is my profit margin is very small. The quality of the ingredients, the packaging and ordering in small quantities is very expensive. I should have better worked out my costing model. That’s why I struggle to sell in shops – there has been interest – but once they’ve taken their percentage I wouldn’t make any money on sales. I am not very good at the business side – I am the creative. I would really have someone to run the business side. My advice would be make sure you understand costs and price everything before you start. I would definitely recommend doing research on how to run a business, particularly if you are more creative.
When I started my business I spoke to Louise Young (Louise Young Cosmetics), who makes the most amazing makeup brushes, about this and she was so helpful with advice, and when Alice Moore (Kyushi) started her skincare brand she asked me lots of questions too. It’s so nice to be in a supportive industry where we can help each other. Alice and I use either other’s products if they are right for the client. Both brands really complement each other too, which is great.
You have worked with some amazing talent during your career – and with large volumes of background artists (Day of the Dead crowd scene in Spectre anyone?!) are there any memorable wig or makeup related incidents that you can share with us?
There are so many things. My favourite moment though was when I went to a wig fitting at Judi Dench’s house. We sat in the garden and had coffee. That is the only time I have ever been star struck. She is such an amazing person, such a treat to look after, I loved every moment I worked with her [on Blithe Spirit].
Who would you love to work with that you haven’t yet – who’s the dream client?
I would like to work with Reese Witherspoon. She’s a strong female character and always chooses really interesting projects. I like that. Particularly if you can learn from that person. I’ve always been lucky in having lovely people to look after though.
What’s next for both you and kewekō?
I have no work booked for the next month. Mission Impossible 7 [due for release next year] was quite a journey. I loved working on the film, I had the best time with all the travel, amazing people around me, and really nice actresses to look after. But it was also really challenging so I need some time off.
With kewekō I am considering maybe doing a pop-up shop again before Christmas if I get the time. If not I’ll concentrate on expanding the product range. I’m always busy!
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