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RACHEL IDZERDA/The Globe and Mail

When Frank Toskan co-founded MAC Cosmetics with his late partner Frank Angelo in 1984, he had no idea that what started as a modest models' makeup brand would become a beacon for social justice. Since 1994, its Viva Glam lipstick campaign has raised more than $300-million for AIDS causes and the company has also been a champion of environmental responsibility and animal rights. Since then, it has become common practice for brands to connect with important causes. On Friday, Toskan will be the 2014 honouree at the annual Design Exchange gala, celebrating positive protest culture. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why blue hair is good for business

A strong identity is worth protecting

I have always believed that if you want to hire creative people, you can't clip their wings. When you go into a MAC store, I think you sense that the people are a bit different, that they might look out of place behind an Estée Lauder counter. There's a freedom to express themselves, which was not the norm when we started in the business. Maybe it still isn't. We had some difficult times in the beginning. There were department-store floor managers who would send our staff home because they had blue hair or because it was a boy wearing makeup. The most serious incident was when a transgendered employee was fired. We told them that if he wasn't hired back, we would pull our product. We said, if you want to make money from us, you're going to have to let us be who we are. I think it was probably the money that kept us in a lot of stores at that point, but the result was a move toward tolerance, so I'm very proud that, today, that is part of the MAC identity. It wasn't a calculated move at the time, it was just us doing what we knew was the right thing.

Be the change

Getting an award from my peers at the Design Exchange is a true honour. And getting an award not for the product that I sold, but for the culture that I was involved in creating is so personal and so great. MAC was one of the first companies to stand against AIDS. It was a big deal back then. People were scared, like they are now with Ebola. Even more scared because people were literally falling all around us – especially in the fashion world. We stepped in and we made a point of letting people know that we cared. The MAC AIDS Fund has given out more than $300-million. Today we see a lot more of this in terms of the importance of a company associating itself with giving back and helping others, and to have played even a small part in making that a norm is just wonderful.

You can have it all, just not all at once

The way to have it all is to not need to have everything at once. I think you have to create different stages in your life. In my early teens I was rebellious, next I did the business thing with MAC, then I raised my family and now that my kids are all going to be in university I'm embarking on a new phase, which is the restaurant business. The idea behind Impact Kitchen [in Toronto] is to teach people about food and nutrition and I'm really looking forward to it. Every part of my life has been exciting and wonderful in its own way. As a gay man to have had the opportunity to raise my family – if you had suggested that in the eighties, most people would have said you were crazy. I worked hard for that, I have worked hard for every goal, and then at a certain point I start feeling the urge to recreate myself. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but that's what has worked for me. I can't imagine being in a situation where I was doing the same thing for 30 years.

You can't buy passion

When we started MAC, we didn't want to put a face to our product. People kept saying – you have to have a face. The problem was we couldn't figure it out: Who was the face of MAC? There was a formula in the beauty world of using a certain type of attractive woman, and I knew that we didn't want to go in that same direction. I don't remember exactly how RuPaul came up, but it was was a perfect suggestion. He was everything we wanted – well spoken, wears lots of makeup, looks great and, most importantly, he identified with our cause. You can't buy passion, even with a $20-million cheque. The Viva Glam campaign has had so many great spokespeople – Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Cyndi Lauper, Ricky Martin – all of who really cared about the cause.

Sell yourself and you can sell anything

The best advice I ever got came from my parents and it was that when you empower others to be their best, you empower yourself. When we started MAC, most cosmetic companies were doing the hard sell, pushing their products. We did something different by encouraging employees to sell their talent rather than selling makeup. I always said, it's not about selling the product, it's about selling yourself and your ability to make choices for that customer. Maybe you can sell a product, a lipstick, to one customer, but if you sell yourself, an image, a lifestyle, then that customer will come back and they will tell other people. We built our company on word of mouth, a lot of which came from the fact that our customers trusted us.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea