Even if you don't recognize the name Dineh Mohajer, you either wore or lusted after her iconic '90s nail-polish label Hard Candy. I remember flipping through an issue of Seventeen and coming across an image of five bottles of nail polish, all in dreamy pastel shades that were definitely not available at the local Walgreens. The best part? That each bottle came with a little plastic ring that perfectly complemented the polish.
While I was never able to get my hands on one of those colors, I soon began experimenting with (and getting into trouble at my conservative Catholic school for) wearing the strange polish shades that were available only during Halloween, mostly blues and blacks. I'm not saying Hard Candy is the root of my nail-polish obsession, but one need only take a look at the number of pastel teals, purples, and nude shades currently inside my refrigerator (I don't know, I read once that they last longer if they're refrigerated, so that's where they live) to know that it had to come from somewhere.
As the legend goes, Dineh, who was then a premed student, mixed these iconic colors by herself at home, buying tons of white Essie nail polish to mix with whatever neon colors she found at her beauty-supply store. That's how a line, and eventually a whole movement, was born. The shades, with names like Sky, Violet, and Coconut, were a big part of the pastel craze that enveloped the '90s. It makes sense, then, that it was Alicia Silverstone, our patron saint of '90s nostalgia, who helped make the brand a household name when in 1995 she appeared on the David Letterman show sporting Hard Candy's pale-blue Sky on her toes (of course Letterman noticed, and of course he commented). The rest is, beauty history.
Now helming a new label called Smith & Cult, Dineh is still very much entrenched in the industry that she helped innovate. We spoke over the phone about the realities behind starting a business at home, dubious hiring practices, and why partnering up can often be the best road to success.
Laia Garcia: Can you tell me a bit about your first experiences with beauty products or rituals?
Dineh Mohajer: My first experience was watching my mom put on eye shadow and then me trying to do the same thing, but obviously it looked scary on me. It was like 27 different colors that she wore, and I was probably putting them in the wrong place. Later, when I was five or six, I was playing with nail polish on my bedspread, and I dripped it everywhere. We were selling our house and having an open house, and I sat on my yellow bedspread when the people came in to look at the house, to hide the stains. Which, like, why would they have ever noticed or cared? They did not care for my bedspread. [Laughs.]
LG: I want to talk about Hard Candy, because it started a completely new trend. Not only with nontraditional nail-polish colors, but also the trend of weird and descriptive nail-polish names.
DM: That's 100 percent true. Sometimes I feel like this happened to me, as opposed to me actively doing something, like I was on this roller-coaster ride that I had no control over, but it started with me. It took on a life of its own so quickly. Nobody had those colors, and nobody had names like that. Nobody had packaging. I was 21, and when you're young, you do shit that's not like anybody else. You take risks because you don't know any better.
I made these polishes and sent them to a bunch of beauty editors at magazines, thinking, Maybe someone will write about them. I didn't strategize in terms of PR. And then they actually did all write about it, and all the press came out around the same time. The phone number to my house was listed in the credits. And I didn't have Internet, which is so embarrassing to say because that's—
LG: Well, it was the '90s, nobody had Internet!
DM: OK, right! [Laughs.] So everybody called my house 24 hours a day. It was crazy. The Vogue editor was like, "You might want to put a couple extra phone lines in, because it's going to be loony." And I was like, "Really?" So we had like four [extra lines] put in in anticipation once we saw that every magazine had written about it. That shit was ringing off the hook.
LG: What was your next step when you realized that you had a real business? How do you go from mixing things in your house to manufacturing it on your own?
DM: One thing that made it so difficult was the speed at which it happened. It wasn't something that was strategically thought out.
I just ran around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to shore up all these resources that were minimal. I went to my parents. I called my mom, and I was like, "Please come to LA, please come and help me," because she had run my father's medical practice in Michigan, where we grew up. I asked my parents for money, so they gave me, I don't know, $65,000 to engage manufacturers, to open an office, to sign the lease, and ... what else did they make me do? I needed a fulfillment company. Like, I would ship everything myself at the beginning. And I didn't know what I was doing. It was kind of awful, actually.
My business partner that I have now, thank God Nordstrom sent her to me, because they were like, We kind of have an idea that this girl doesn't know what the hell she's doing, and we have a lot of dollars dedicated to her for the next season. One of their main beauty directors had seen the polish in Seventeen and called it in for her daughter's birthday. She wanted me to send a bunch for the girls that were going to the party. She brought it to Nordstrom, and then everyone started buying it at Nordstrom. At that time, they weren't as centralized, they had regional buyers, and then they all started calling me. I had a little operation in the back of my house. There was an agency in downtown LA that helped me find workers. I hired three or four of them, and they worked out of the back garage attached to my college apartment.
LG: Oh my God.
DM: I know! We had a duplex, so there was a garage in the back, and they were sitting there assembling all the nail polishes, putting the little ring on the bottles, packing up all the packages, and fulfilling all the Nordstrom orders, which were massive.
Like I said, the buyers there were pretty sure that I didn't know what I was doing, so they sent my now–business partner to call me. She was an independent rep at the time, selling a bunch of boutique, really high-end beauty lines. She kept calling me, and I was putting her off because I didn't want her to come to my apartment with my musician boyfriend, and bongs sitting around, and his friends sitting around, see our makeshift operation, and just be like, "A, bye, I'm not interested, and B, call Nordstrom and say, 'Yeah, you're right, this girl has no idea what she's doing.'" I kept putting her off for two or three months until I got an office space.
Once I got an office, I had a fax machine in there, two employees, one of whom was a girl that my boyfriend met because he would spend so much time at Kinko's. He was like, "Do you want to leave here, because you could come work for us," and she was like, "Sure."
Our interview screening process was clearly minimal at best. I finally called her, and I was like, "Hey, let's take a meeting, why don't you come to my office?" She walks in, and she's like, "Clearly everyone just moved in." She thought she was walking into an office with people working. The fax machine was sitting there with $100,000 in orders from Nordstrom that had passed their ship dates. I was on the floor holding my face, going, I don't know what's happening!
The other stuff that was crazy was MTV House of Style doing a whole segment on it. I was like, What am I watching on TV? What is happening? I just mixed this stupid stuff, sold it to Fred Segal down the street because I thought maybe they'd want it, and now it's on MTV and Alicia Silverstone's wearing it on Letterman. It's like, What is going on? It was surreal.
LG: After that, you sold Hard Candy to French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, right?
DM: Yes. They acquired it after three and a half years of me starting it and it kind of blazing into this huge company. The thing is, their acquisition of it shows how quickly it spread like wildfire, how quickly everything was transpiring and me just trying to keep with it. I'm not exaggerating. We grew so quickly that we were a viable company for Louis Vuitton to purchase after three and a half years of operations.
LG: After that you started another beauty line called Goldie.
DM: Yes, we sold it to the Limited Group, and that was amazing. For me, that was even better than Hard Candy because I was able to function and breathe.
LG: And now you have your new line, Smith & Cult. How long was it from when you decided you wanted to launch something new to its being ready to go?
DM: It took us 14 months. Twelve months is standard. It took us a little longer, maybe because I'm tired. I don't know. So we started with nail polish, which is our signature little situation. Then we launched lip lacquer and a lip stain. It just comes in two shades right now, but we're working on other things as well. We'll see what's coming up. All we're doing is working, working, working, working nonstop.
LG: Why do you think nail art has become this total boom? My theory is that for some people, so much of the beauty industry is seen as a tool of the patriarchy [laughs], but when it comes to nail art, everyone can get on board. There is something really unifying about it.
DM: Maybe because nail art is seen more as self-expression, or an expression of creativity that's more individualized and unique. I think it's also a bit rebellious.
LG: Does your science education ever come into play with the beauty part of what you're doing, or did you leave it all behind when you dropped out of medical school?
DM: The only place it really came into play was when I was designing [nail-polish] formulas. Actually talking about substrates and suspension of pigment and all that stuff. But for the most part, when you're in biochem and chemistry classes, the actual adaptation of that knowledge doesn't come until you get into medical school.
LG: Were your parents ever mad that you left medical school, or were they OK once they saw the success of Hard Candy?
DM: No, my parents were like, "Yay! Do this. You don't want to be a doctor anyway." My dad's a physician, and he's like, "It's changed, it's hard. There's a lot of business involved now." They're still really supportive.
It's hard working for nine hours straight, stuck behind the computer operating Illustrator to do art and stuff. The process really, really taps you out. It's kind of like writing or doing any of those creative things. It's exhausting, because you're not only doing the work, but you're also tapping into this creative energy and keeping that up and going. It's really, really depleting. I always have this fantasy that if I were in medicine it wouldn't be like that, but of course it would, especially since I wanted to be a plastic surgeon, and that is again a combination of technique and art, which is what I do now. I just use a different medium. I'm not using skin and flesh. I'm using computers and cameras. I kind of regret it sometimes, but that's me romanticizing the idea that it would have been better.
LG: What advice would you give someone looking to start a beauty business?
DM: When you ask me for advice, I'm going to look at where I'm lacking. For me, I am not a good businessperson; otherwise, I would have walked away easily with $200 million in my pocket from Hard Candy, and I didn't. I'm purely a creative.
To the people that are purely creative, I would say learn some business skills. If you're not in university, go to community college. Take a class online, just figure out how the core of business works. Learn the basics.
If you're stronger in that way and your proclivity is toward the business side of things, then I would say team up with someone who's a visionary creative-wise. There's so much value to recognizing your skills and your weaknesses, because if you recognize them and you do something with that information proactively, you won't be blindsided the way I was. You know what I mean? Knowledge is power. If you've got the information, then you can do something to minimize your failure.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny, and she still regrets never owning a little bottle of Hard Candy.