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Nonie Creme Talks About What She Does for Love

She’s not afraid to shake up what a beauty exec should look act or look like, but she always leads with her heart.

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SHE ALMOST DIDN’T make it to the shoot. The evening before Nonie Creme , founding creative director of Nonie Creme Colour Prevails and former founding creative director of Butter London, was set to be the latest thought leader spotlighted in our Package Design Matters series, she found out that her Friday morning flight to Seattle was canceled. A tropical storm had grounded her original flight out of Houston, Texas, where she was educating Walgreens beauty advisors on her premium makeup line for the masses.

As she tells it, while others were trying either strong-armed arguments or taking the recommended approach to call the airlines before going to the airport. Creme, instead, took a leap of faith and headed to the airport determined that she would be in Seattle by morning. Once at the airport, Creme saw passengers fight for seats on the few flights that would beat the tropical storm to Texas. While Creme empathized with every person who lost their temper, she again decided to take a different route and argue with kindness for one of those highly desired seats—winning a coveted first-class boarding pass back to Seattle.

The rebel and the romantic

Creme is better known for her rebellious side. That’s understandable: The self-proclaimed scrappy underdog wears her gray hair proudly in an industry, which can sometimes be obsessed with youth, and wears it in a silver Mohawk. She definitely was the portrait of a beauty rebel when we first met at this year’s Cosmoprof North America show.

This time, I had the chance to dig deeper and found the woman is so much more. She’s the rebel, not afraid to shake up what a beauty exec should look act or look like, but Creme ’s also a romantic whose success often comes from leading with her heart.

The love affair

Creme ’s transformation from fine artist to business maven starts across an ocean. “I was 22 years old,” Creme recalls. “I had collected my very hard-won diploma from Scripps College, where I studied fine art and art history, and was in London, where I fell madly in love with this wildly inappropriate British boy whom I decided I should probably follow home. He was 19, I was 22. And he was going to be a rock star. My parents were so angry that they cut off my bank accounts and shut all my credit cards and said, ‘We will not be financing this adventure. Good luck to you.’

“There I am, spoiled brat, 22, in London, with no visa—so I’m not actually allowed to use my fancy degree to work anywhere—and had about $200 left to my name,” she continues. “Things started to get serious for me fast. I looked around and thought well what does a 22-year-old with no experience, no visa and no money going to do?

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“I thought, well what if I could make some cash painting nails,” Creme says. “So I used my last $200 to take night school classes to learn to become a manicurist, and that is how I got into the beauty industry.” In between manicuring sessions, Creme pulled on her fine arts background and started mixing nail polish colors. Creme ’s colors eventually caught the attention of London’s high fashion society, and she started getting called to the sets of famed photographers. “I worked with Vogue,” she recalls. “I worked on Mario Testino’s and David Bailey’s sets. This had the fortuitous effect of elevating me up to a place where people started to say, ‘You know you should really have your own line. Everybody’s always asking you for your colors,’ because I would hand mix these polishes. They told me that I had a point of difference.”

Creme clearly was on her way up. Oh, and that wildly inappropriate British boy: Lalo Creme, son of Lol Creme of 10 cc and Godley & Creme fame, became the guitarist for the English electronic rock band Arkarna and her husband.

For the love of function

“It’s very funny how those moments of your education and your life creep in at later times and affect your entire career and path,” she adds. Her fine arts education and celebrity manicurist experience laid the foundation for Butter London, a prestige makeup company where she served as founding creative director, and where she first cut her teeth in the world of package design—sourcing the now iconic square nail polish bottle from a smaller supplier at a Cosmoprof North America show.

Creme pulled on her knowledge of prestige cosmetic manufacturing, her formal arts education and her packaging experience, to create another standout packaged product for her latest venture, Nonie Creme Colour Prevails.

“My job outside of making beautiful cosmetics is making beautiful cosmetics that anybody would want to buy,” Creme explains. “Think about it, there is so much makeup in the world. Why does anybody need another red nail polish, and why mine?

“I could go to market and try and make myself likable,” she continues, “and maybe people would say, ‘I like her. I’m going to buy that.’ That’s not enough. I can put product in a beautiful bottle, and people will say, ‘That’s pretty. Maybe I’ll buy it.’ But that’s still not enough. Even a great formulation is still not enough. Everything has to be layered in.

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“Piece one starts with an exceptional, pregnancy-safe, child-safe formulation that doesn’t contain the nasty chemicals in other polishes and has exceptional coverage,” Creme says. “What’s going to make you grab this off the shelf? Piece number two. Beautiful packaging. This cute butterfly wing has visual interest, so a shopper will want to walk over and examine it. It also does something. The final piece of the puzzle is this precision painter, and it has a patent pending so unless you want to get sued by me, you won’t find this anywhere in the world except for Walgreens right now. The way that it works is you put your pointer finger down the central groove and simply grip. Now I have an ergonomic-shaped piece of packaging that looks pretty, a product with a great formulation and great color, and the packaging does something. Now you have a reason that you need another red nail polish!

“Part of my mission with the Walgreens partnership is to make products that are multi-use, and that’s reliant on my packaging” she adds. Creme has an exclusive distribution agreement with Walgreens that gives the retailer some of the branding benefits of an own brand but allows Creme to retain the creative freedom of an independent brand. The product line, launched in February 2015, online at Walgreens.com and Drugstore.com and in select Walgreens locations in March 2015, with product price points ranging from $8 to $19.

“When looking at retailers, Walgreens was the one that stood out the most for me,” she exclaims. “I’m in my Walgreens five times a week whether I want to be or not. I need toothpaste. Darn it, I forgot gum! Oh my gosh, I need a magazine or prescriptions.”

The distribution agreement enables Creme to apply economies of scale to bring healthier makeup at a more affordable price point. “My first company was a kitchen table start-up,” Creme says. “Butter London was grown very organically from literally nothing to where it became a known entity and all that entails. This time around, I have the benefit of going directly into Walgreens, which gave us practically overnight distribution in over 3,000 stores.

“This means I can afford to use prestige manufacturers because my minimum order quantities are very, very large,” she says. “This is not just ‘like’ a department store brand product. My cosmetics are made at the same labs that make 50-dollar foundation! I could have gotten away with using a less expensive manufacturer. But you have to ask, ‘What are your morals as a businessperson?’ There are all these different choices you have to make as a product designer, and some of them are ethical. The baseline for me is, ‘Would I put this on my kid?’ If I wouldn’t put that on my kid, it ain’t getting made.”

The love of a challenge

Creme refers to both Butter London and Nonie Creme Colour Prevails as “her babies,” but the love of her life is “her kid.” Maintaining a balance between her life as a mom and a beauty exec requires Creme to maintain homes on both coasts. Creme works in New York City, and she and Lalo raise their daughter, Paloma, in Seattle. “She has a great life here,” Creme says. “I couldn’t take that away from her. This morning, she was riding bikes with her dad. Last night, we had a block party with all the neighbors outside connecting.”

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Despite her fear of flying, she practically lives on planes. So, I believe Creme when she says that she might be in her 40s but she’s just getting started. “There are other product lines and potentially even other companies in the color realm to come,” Creme explains. She’s not a woman to shy away from challenges.

“This butterfly wing is pulled-in,” Creme says of the brand’s icon—a disconnected butterfly wing. “So it’s pretty, but it also has a slightly sexy, sinister darkness.”

Before starting a business, Creme asks herself the tough question of, “Why should my products exist?” For Butter London’s nail products, the need was to fulfill a thirst for a new, artfully approached color palette. For her Nonie Creme Colour Prevails polishes, the answer was an amazing product with great color with ergonomic packaging that would let anyone paint their nails expertly.

Creme partners with her multi-talented husband on many of the package designs. “As luck would have it, I am married to an art director whose area of expertise is beauty specifically but whose finite area of expertise is packaging,” she says. “We have so much fun and a lot of my creative work literally is done at kitchen table. We can work fast, because he can’t leave.”

Linda Casey is the editor-in-chief of BXP.

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