'All you need is a smile and a lipstick." That's what Toronto's Susanne Langmuir maintains, and so far, the formula is working. Langmuir's five-year-old company, Bite Beauty, which focuses on all-natural lipsticks made with food-grade ingredients, has proved to be a bona fide phenomenon in the cosmetics world, and selling it to powerhouse LVMH three years ago has ensured that its star will continue to rise. Langmuir began working with fragrances 17 years ago, first with aromatherapy and then with a customized fragrance line. She spent a decade travelling the world, working with growers and producers and linking them to cosmetics manufacturers. Her background in sourcing natural ingredients paid off when she decided to create a lipstick that was food-based – after all, what you put on your lips, you also ingest. And so, Bite Beauty was born. But Langmuir also wanted to tap into the customization craze, and in 2013, opened the Beauty Bite Lip Lab in New York's Soho district, where lipstick colours are custom-blended on the spot. A similar emporium recently opened on Toronto's Queen Street West. It's a glossy set-up with a glam bar poised to serve champagne and savoury canapés to those looking for custom colours and happy to put their money where their mouths are. I caught up with Langmuir at the newest Bite Beauty Lip Lab to talk about the appeal of her unique product, her unorthodox approach to making it and why she's so stuck on lips.
When did your love affair with lipstick begin?
It was rummaging through my mother's jewellery box and she had a variety of lipsticks that had that old, waxy, iris perfume smell to them – that vintage lipstick smell. So it really started by playing with my mother's lipsticks. And though my mother wasn't really a "beauty" woman, she always had lipstick and perfume.
You've established a strong brand identity in a relatively short period of time. Are you a marketing mastermind or is it down to the concept of this product?
I actually think Bite as a brand isn't super good at the marketing side of it. I think what made this happen quickly was the right timing. People were starting to care about what they were ingesting and Bite is beauty with bite – it's made with ingredients you could eat. It definitely has a trend aspect to it, but I think it was timing. When we launched the brand, [sales in the category of] lips were down 30 per cent and everybody was saying it was crazy to launch a brand that was in a category that was down. But it just really worked. [LVMH-owned] Sephora was an unbelievable partner as well. The magnitude of having something that works there is unbelievable
It's as though you had to give women something to get excited about again – lipstick that made sense in terms of the way we live, our health and our planet.
But when we originally launched Bite, we didn't put that part at the forefront. I couldn't find anyone to work with the ingredients that I wanted to work with. The five private label manufacturers in North America basically said that they couldn't make the lipstick without all these other ingredients. So out of necessity, we started making it in-house. And because of that, we can react quickly. We have a gold gloss that launched two months ago and we haven't been able to keep it in stock. And it was just three and a half months ago that we decided to launch it. So having that ability to see things evolving, to have in-house formulation, and our own in-house production – we don't have the two-year lead time that most [brands] have, so what we do is relevant.
Do you see the increasing use of pure and natural ingredients in the beauty industry as a mega trend of sorts?
I don't think it's a trend. I think it's a shift, in the same way that we connect with our food. We're just more aware. It doesn't mean that you don't go ahead and get in a McDonald's lineup every now and then. But there's a new awareness of the things that people do every single day. They're more mindful of cosmetics and skin care in particular. But some beauty products don't work incredibly well when they're natural. Mascara is an example that's a really hard one. But I think this movement is going to continue indefinitely.
You've also been adamant about keeping it small in a sense, because you care so much about the details. You want the product to be produced in the way that you envision it.
Definitely. Our biggest batch size right now is a soup pot. So everything we do is still small batch. That's why we have 140 people working on it. Part of it was finding a model that makes it sustainable, so that we can grow and expand internationally. But we don't lose those details that make the textures and the colour incredible.
That intention is certainly at the heart of the brand – customizing colours, and realizing that people want things that are their own unique expressions. How did that start?
I really believe it's coming in a much bigger way. We did an event at Yorkdale's Sephora and we literally just dragged all of our lab equipment in and set it up in the window. And we had lineups! We had a woman come back with her mother, and her daughter, and there was a guy standing there in front of the window and he had a tool belt on… So we've got a guy that has no real interest in lipstick who is fascinated by the mere process of making it and seeing colour being mixed. That was a huge moment for me. Three weeks later, I leased the store in SoHo, which was crazy because we didn't have a process or a concept, but I just knew that transformation – that magical part of people seeing colour being mixed and being able to pick the perfect undertone and the perfect shade, texture and scent of a lipstick – is really personal.
You seem determined to produce the lipsticks here in Toronto. Is that something that may change?
No. That's part of the reason that I was excited about partnering with LVMH. They are artisanal, long-term thinkers and quality craftsmanship and preserving that is part of what's important to our brand as we grow. It was one of the things that we really aligned on. I think it's amazing. We're in 30,000 square feet now and we're looking for quite a bit more so we can maintain it.
You were always very entrepreneurial, had a great imagination and were driven, but is this the kind of business and lifestyle you envisioned in the beginning?
It's taken a few twists that I didn't see, but definitely. I think I've been very lucky to do things that I'm passionate about and I've always had great people to help along the way. For a Canadian beauty entrepreneur, it's amazing. And being able to think and plan to maintain the things that we really care about: being made in Canada, using the ingredients that we use and the process that we use to make them while we grow – it doesn't get any better than that!
This interview has been condensed and edited.