Ellis Brooklyn founder Bee Shapiro didn’t necessarily intend to start a leading sustainable fragrance company, but that’s how it’s worked out.
“I just started out saying to myself, I want different kinds of scents — like a scent that actually wears beautifully throughout the day, warms to your skin,” Shapiro said. “Two, I wanted scents that use safer ingredients.”
Shapiro, a former attorney and current contributing columnist to the New York Times Styles section, launched Ellis Brooklyn in 2014. Today, the brand makes fragrances, candles and personal care products, and is growing quickly. Net revenue growth for 2021 increased 76 percent from the prior year, and industry sources estimated the brand is on track to do between $30 million and $40 million in sales by 2024.
Along the way, Shapiro has had to weigh different options in the name of sustainability — from packaging to natural versus synthetic ingredients.
“When we sat down and looked at paper stock, you could have this paper board, which was a lot more affordable — like, a lot more — or you could have this [Forest Stewardship Council]-certified board that comes from this factory, that’s stunning, and you know where it’s coming from and all the different certifications that go with it,” she said. Ellis went with the FSC stock.
As it turns out, Shapiro said transparency had addition benefits — the more insight she had into her manufacturing partners, the less likely she believed she was to incur any pratfalls.
“As I was making those choices, I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t we choose that paper stock? Or why wouldn’t we care about where the cap is coming from? Or where the glass is coming from? And I also felt as a smaller company, I had to make those choices because, God forbid I choose a factory or something I have no oversight on, and they have no principles and no certifications, and I have no idea where anything is coming from.’”
The brand, which launched with a couple of body milks followed by candles, boasts an offering of 13 eau de parfums, including the brand’s original fragrance, Myth, which serves up ambrette seeds, jasmine and musk; the namesake Bee edp, which has notes of dark rum, vegan honey and vanilla bean, and the newest fragrance launch, Sun Fruit, with notes of fresh fig, handpicked jasmine and vanilla planifolia. Ellis recently underwent a redesign of its candle packaging, which was revealed in April. The fragrances range from $30 for a travel size to $105 for full size; candles come in at $65.
Shapiro, a beauty expert after years of working as a fashion and beauty journalist, has a distinctive viewpoint into where the beauty industry has room for progress.
One of those areas is “clean” beauty.
“Some brands you see are still stuck in this old school clean mentality. Like, no-no lists and all that stuff, which we believe in, which I think is important, but more as table stakes. When we started talking about this natural or synthetic divide, the clean police came out and were just like, ‘everything is bad,’ and nothing was about nuance,” Shapiro said.
“It was just so polarized. And meanwhile, the conversation was getting lost that [for example], yes, rose oil is stunning and natural and generally tolerable, non-allergenic for most people. But where is it coming from? Did you know that to get one little bit of rose absolue takes buckets and buckets of rose petals? That’s not very sustainable,” she said.
These types of revelations led to more questions.
“Do people know that when they have sandalwood, you have to kill the whole tree? A lot of the times absolues use the heart of the tree. So as I learned more about natural ingredients, which I love, I felt like I have to take a look at this. And I have to consider that maybe this synthetic substitute is better. Maybe we can get clean, natural sandalwood, but it has to come from this island. Maybe we can’t be sourcing certain woods anymore. Maybe those woods should be all synthetic,” said Shapiro, who said her aim is to foster a holistically conscious brand.
The quandaries are being solved deliberately, and that process includes asking for accountability from partners, while offering up the same to Ellis Brooklyn’s community.
“What we have started doing is asking more of our perfume houses. Now I want to know what the carbon footprint is of each of our scent compositions,” Shapiro said. “Woods are very hard to sustain unless you use synthetic,” says Shapiro. “So we’ve started asking for more because I realized part of this is just sharing… showing that these are things we care about and these are things we’re striving toward.”
As the brand, which now has a roster of capital investors, looks to further accretive growth in an increasingly crowded space, Shapiro said she’s thoughtful about fundraising and the people and firms she aligns with.
She says of certain venture capital firms who have a quorum of great brands, “It’s no accident. It’s not because they’re offering better terms, necessarily. It’s because they just get it and they’re nice people, and that’s what you want in an investor.”
She’s also watching the uptick in celebrity beauty brands, noting recent fragrance offerings from Billie Eilish, Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande. “You have the celebrity element that we’re all trying to weather. I don’t think it’s affected our growth at all, but it’s something we have to keep an eye out for. So many celebrity and influencer lines,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro also noted that as the number of female-founded beauty brands has risen in the last decade, so has the support within the cohort.
“Most of us believe that there’s room for everyone,” she said. “It’s simple things like, ‘Hey, do you like your warehouse?’ Warehouse is always something we talk about [laughs]. ‘Hey, I just got space at Sephora. What was your experience with XYZ. It definitely is a little easier if you talk to somebody in a different category.”
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