Jen Smith: I’ve known Kirsten for over 20 years and have seen her realize Kjaer Weis from scratch and take the brand from being an idea to a full-fledged, award-winning, global makeup and skincare line.
Whenever we worked on shoots together (me as fashion editor, her as makeup artist), Kirsten usually had with her a beat-up copy of the CONSUMER’S DICTIONARY OF COSMETIC INGREDIENTS, first published in 1978, which she studied from cover to cover to learn about every product, and the good and bad (and often toxic) ingredients. As an editor, I was also fascinated with her makeup kit. It was full of amazing natural products she’d pick up from teeny, out-of-the-way pharmacies from her work travels in Europe. No one else had what she had. Kirsten had developed an incredible knowledge and her personal philosophy before the rest of the world caught on. She is the real deal. This past Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kirsten and I sat down and had an in-depth conversation about how her unusual upbringing planted the seeds for Kjaer Weis, the challenges of creating an organic brand, and what the future of sustainable beauty looks like to her.
JS: When you started Kjaer Weis over 10 years ago, the marketplace was so different from what it is now. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered when you started the brand?
KKW: Ten years there really weren’t any organic brands-- there were only a few natural brands that you had to buy in a health food store. One of the biggest challenges I encountered was that organic makeup with a luxury profile was an idea hard for people to grasp. It’s a very simple concept but at the time seemed confusing and complicated to those on the receiving end. In the early days, most of the manufacturers and retailers I approached could not wrap their heads around the small production run, the organics themselves, the recyclable packaging or the actual positioning of the line. On top of that, it was a challenge to even find the materials to create such a product, especially within my limited budget.
From the beginning I knew I wanted to create a product with ingredients as close to nature as I could get--with recyclable packaging that had a luxury component. I was content to go with various degrees of “natural” for the makeup and was completely thrilled when I found out our factory in Italy had long-standing relationships with organic farms around the world, and they were willing to work with me to develop a small completely organic collection, certified by CCPB. Our journey together began then.
The packaging was a whole other component that had its special challenges to solve: fortunately I was able to partner with Marc Atlan on the refill design. Finding maverick thinkers to share my vision, who were willing to think out-of -the-box, was the greatest challenge—but when I discovered them, it was my biggest reward.
JS: You grew up in rural Denmark on a working organic farm. I don’t know anyone in the beauty industry who had that kind of upbringing. What was that like and how do you think it influenced you?
KKW: I was raised in a wonderful way, a very simple way. Nature was the backdrop. My parents had a modest working farm in Denmark outside Billund (the birthplace of LEGO) at the edge of the Gyttegaard Forest. We grew everything—and thought nothing of it.
As the youngest of six children I spent a lot of time with my mother, following her around as she tended to the gardens and the animals, and playing with our dog and cat. The rest of the time I was running around with my brothers. Our childhood was very carefree in that we were allowed to explore the forest, which was our playground. We would build forts, ride our bikes on the paths near the woods, jump in the creek and go swimming or spend hours on our swing.
The thing about my mom that really influenced me was her connection to nature and she very much nurtured that in me. I got my love of plants from her. She was a brilliant gardener—she had one rather large garden—very traditional—where she grew beautiful flowers like peonies and roses, and then we had a massive kitchen garden which fed our family of eight.
We also had what we called the “Old Garden,” which was wild and closer to the woods, where there was a grassy field encircled by tall trees. It was quite a magical sanctuary. I spent a lot of time there--it had such a calm energy-and was the perfect place for me to daydream.
So I grew up with the seasons and rhythms of the earth. Now that I look back on it, I can see how this upbringing, being so in tune with nature, really influenced my aesthetic and adult life.
JS: What inspires you?
KKW: I love my art and design books, going to the flower market as much as possible, working on the garden at my home in Connecticut. But to tell you the truth, my dream is to spend an entire month in northern Italy with our formulator at our factory there. The best way for me to describe him is he’s some sort of an alchemist, a mix-master with the most passionate respect for plant intelligence.
It would be my dream to wander through the woods every day with him, learning about nature’s bounty and the healing properties of the different plants and to see what can be unearthed for us to use to create and eco-innovate in the lab. So again, as you see, I go back to the garden!
JS: Does the perfect product exist? What is your ideal?
KKW: Perfect products…to me that would have to be hybrid products, products that possess dual efficacies, and I’m not just referring to the fact that you can use our cream blush as a lip tint (which you can totally do)! Kjaer Weis cosmetics, from the inception of the brand, have been hybrids—in our case makeup with skincare components. Or skincare with potential cosmetic results. I’m fascinated with this.
As for the ideal, there is still much to be done. Can we develop more color payoff? More performance payoff? Is the product purposeful? One example that comes to mind is our Beautiful Oil which is made from the Chinese ancient magical root, Dioscorea Batatas. We started using it in the oil, now we are beginning to incorporate it into our other makeup formulations.
Kjaer Weis cosmetics, from the inception of the brand, have been hybrids—in our case makeup with skincare components. Or skincare with potential cosmetic results. I’m fascinated with this.
JS: What are your dreams for the brand in 10 years?
KKW: I want to keep designing for the future: better safer products, less waste, ethical processes throughout our company and those we work with, excellent products created with good intentions.
Sometimes this looks like something so basic. Currently, one of our major focuses is to not just maintain but to continually improve our supply chain integrity. This is very important to me. It’s becoming more and more essential that we continue to improve our design processes, because it’s not just about the design of the product but also of the manufacturing process.
One of my mantras is “What can we do better?” Granted, there is no silver bullet answer. At Kjaer Weis we are continually asking ourselves this question-- one I believe is integral to accomplish lasting change. So we take steps as we are able, and nothing is above scrutiny.
One of my personal desires is to open a Kjaer Weis concept space that would include retail, our offices, so you can experience the brand aesthetic, and maybe, just maybe, even an academy where you could get educated about makeup, skincare, and sustainable practices.
JS: In creating a sustainable business, how do you involve and look after the people who contribute to your company?
KKW: Every effort counts and we all have to be aware that everything we do has an impact, large and small, personally, professionally, and collectively. Innovation lies in what can be done from unexpected materials in nature. There must be continuous improvement in sustainability. To make all this happen we need people.
It’s very important to me to surround myself with those who are seekers in this mission, which I feel is one key to evolving the company in a proactive, responsible and I hope unique way.
I want to continue to create a work environment that fosters true innovation through artistry and science. How can we work with nature instead of against it?
I also believe in and support true ethical consciousness throughout my company. One of my first hires was an ethical advisor, she has been integral to the growth and character of Kjaer Weis. From the people in the office, our factories and warehouses, to the farmers growing our plants, to the beekeepers watching over our hives, to our sales associates and retail partnerships, it’s always crucial to take care of the people who work for Kjaer Weis. I want to support them and watch them grow. In the end, it’s all about people.
JS: Compared to other makeup-artist owned brands, you’re very hands-on as an artist in the master classes and at Kjaer Weis events. Why?
KKW: It’s important to have a feel for what people want and need, to listen to them and hear them, to build that trust and human connection. My favorite thing about being a makeup artist is I love to educate. I love love love having someone in my chair that has an a-ha moment when she realizes just one little makeup trick can transform how she looks and how she sees herself. I love knowing she learned something about herself and that she can take that knowledge home with her. My hope is that in a small way our encounter will improve not only the way she applies her makeup but will improve her outlook on life. It’s all about spreading the love, isn’t it?
JS: What do you see as your greatest personal victory?
KKW: Developing stamina. I’ve discovered that out of necessity, I’ve become a warrior in what I hope are positive ways. Victory lies in not settling until you achieve the goal before you. I’ve never been one to follow the herd. I prefer to set intentions for myself and the brand and do my best to make conscious choices. I truly believe there can be more than one way to arrive at a destination or solve problems, and I try hard to maintain an open heart and mind. When I settle or cut corners, I’m not happy with myself. So I’ve learned to challenge myself to find a new way of doing something when necessary. I have a really hard time accepting when I come up against a “no”--maybe that’s because I’m a Taurus (laughs).
In a larger sense, I hope I’ve been able to impact women’s lives in not just the short term but more so in the long term, especially in regards to overall health. I’m concerned that the use of parabens and other toxic ingredients, when used every day, can greatly affect women’s bodies.
I believe the ultimate luxury for us all is to know that the ingredients we put in our bodies are not harmful, that they actually enhance our health. My intention is that the Kjaer Weis legacy will have a lasting positive impact on people, the industry, and hopefully the earth.
Flower image: Paul Westlake KKW Forest: Dina Waxman KKW Headshot: Alice Graff Little girl: Jette Jors Wreath: Jette Jors