The Interview: Mona Kattan, Co-founder Huda Beauty and Kayali Fragrances
Mona Kattan, and her sisters Huda and Alya, have been at the forefront of a revolution in the global beauty industry, which has been transformed by social media, influencers and e-commerce in the past decade.
It wasn’t so long ago that it was seen as almost impossible to sell skincare and make-up online but highly informed influencers creating educational and inspiring content proved that theory very wrong. Huda Kattan was a trailblazer of this scene, starting out as an influencer and going on to gain global recognition, before teaming up with her sisters to launch Huda Beauty in 2013.
The establishment and ascent of Huda Beauty came many years before the new generation of personality-led beauty brands that now dominate the market. And, in the wake of the pandemic, the time is right for the Huda empire to get ahead of another curve, this time in fragrance.
Kayali is not new – it was launched in 2018 – but it is undergoing something of a rebirth. Unlike the Wishful skincare and Huda make-up brands which are fronted by Huda Kattan, it is Mona who is leading this venture. After years of doing the “really not fun stuff” behind the scenes, she is very much the public face and driving force of Kayali.
It makes sense since Kayali was very much Mona’s vision and passion, founded on her lifelong love for fragrance and the fragrance culture of the Middle East. (The Kattan family live in Dubai, having moved there from Texas in the US when Mona was 17.)
“Dubai is like a perfume lovers’ playground,” she explains on a recent trip to London to meet Kayali’s brand partners and to promote the brand more widely. “There are fragrances on every corner in Dubai; it’s a big part of the rituals and the heritage. People use it as part of their self-love rituals and even as part of their identities and culture.
“In the West, and I do think it is changing, fragrance was always an after-thought and it wasn’t done with intention. That is a big part of what I’m trying to achieve with Kayali – that you should wear your fragrances with intention because they are so powerful.”
Despite her clear passion for the brand and the fragrance category, Mona was initially reluctant to front the business, which turns four in November. But it was Huda who encouraged her to step into the limelight and, besides, fragrance was just “not [Huda’s] thing.”
“The First two years were probably the hardest for me,” says Kattan. “I was still figuring myself out. Even though I’ve had my own businesses in the past [she has run her own PR and marketing businesses] and I helped co-found Huda Beauty, I had a really different role doing all the really not fun stuff: finance, legal, tech, IT, PR and influencer. I never really did the founder/public-facing part of the business or the creative part, so for me it was really like finding my feet. Covid helped me a lot and gave me time to figure it out.
“When I first launched Kayali, I really forced Huda to do it with me and to come to all the meetings and she was like ‘this is really not my passion’. I didn’t really feel comfortable doing it without her in the beginning. But through Covid I got time to figure it out and also she really didn’t want to do it, so for me I knew if I was going to succeed I would really have to do it on my own.”
Having had a tough time initially convincing the market of the idea of fragrance pairing and layering – which forms the basis of the Kayali concept – consumers now seem to have caught up with the idea. Skincare, make-up and haircare have all been "ritualised" during the pandemic as consumers created DIY salons at home. In the course of that process, attention has now turned to fragrance, which is undergoing a similar ritualisation process.
When Kayali was launched in 2018, it was presented as a suite of layering fragrances, explains Mona. “The first one was Elixir 11, which was supposed to be the hero that people layer on top of the Vanilla, the Musk and the Citrus. The whole brand is about layering and creating your own mixture. Initially it didn’t really work out very well as people didn’t really get the concept,” she laughs.
Despite that the brand, which is available direct from the Huda Beauty website, and select third-party retailers has done well and things are picking up further still in the UK. “The UK is doing well, especially now we’ve launched in Boots, so that’s really helped us. ASOS has been phenomenal and a lot of our online retailers have been phenomenal, like Cult Beauty and Feelunique. Bricks and mortar has been a little more challenging [due to Covid] but it’s starting to pick up again,” she explains.
It’s interesting that the digital sales are doing so well as selling a smell via social media and a website has to be one of the hardest things to do. “It really is, it’s so difficult,” Kattan agrees. So how do you do it? “To be honest, the marketing and the content is extremely important, so learning how to express what’s in your head and putting it on paper or in a video is really hard. I didn’t really learn how to do that until recently during Covid.
“I did a lot of therapy during Covid and it really has helped me express myself better. So, I think through that I express my ideas better and my visions for each fragrance – it helped me be a better founder,” she adds.
Kayali (the brand name means “My Imagination” in Arabic and the bottles are meant to evoke those found in Middle Eastern souks) has been fast developing its line since the world emerged from Covid. The first to hit the market post-pandemic was Sweet Diamond, a luxurious, sweet floral fragrance with spicy kick from pink pepper.
“I do think that with Sweet Diamond, which is our sixth fragrance, and the first fragrance we launched after Covid, it’s like the rebirth of Kayali because it’s the first time that we really painted a picture of the vibe of the fragrance and what it is for me,” Kattan explains.
The launches kept coming and it has since added Sweet Diamond, Utopia, Invite Only and Eden to the line, which have further fuelled the concept of layering and pairing. The formats too help sell the concept. A 50ml bottle costs approximately £79, but minis are available for £23, as well as rollerball pens (with a complementary fragrance at each end) for £24, to encourage mix and matching. The brand also suggests its “Perfect Pairs” to consumers but they are encouraged to try their own combinations.
And it seems that there will be plenty more combinations to come. At any one time Kattan has around 20 fragrances under consideration (each of which may have 20 different versions). “My basement has turned into a crazy library and lab!” she jokes.
Each fragrance has a number after its name denoting the iterations its went through. Sweet Diamond for instance was number 25, others go even higher (Déjà vu is a 57). When does she know when a fragrance is good to go?
“To be honest, most of the time, you run out of time. I think I drive the team nuts and it’s like ‘you have to pick now’. But it’s also feeling like it’s different enough, it’s special enough, it’s well-rounded enough. You can kind of tell when a fragrance is not finished; it’s not balanced. It’s like a soup. If you put a few ingredients in a soup and it didn’t really fulfil you, it’s like something is missing. Sometimes you rework things and you feel like it needs to be heavier at the bottom or stronger at the top, it’s just about getting that balance right,” she explains.
But maybe some of those rejected iterations will see the light of day as Kattan is currently looking to build “fragrance franchises” within the range, such as creating a suite of perfumes around the fruity floral Eden fragrance. Perhaps surprisingly, since Huda Beauty owns a skincare line, it hasn’t yet meaningfully expanded into body products. During Covid it launched a Vanilla hand cream and there is a Déjà Vu hair mist, but not yet any body lotions or bath products.
That doesn’t mean to say it won’t happen, it just won’t happen until she is happy the products are of the right quality. The Kattans are known for having exacting standards when it comes to their products.
“I think we both are perfectionists with our craft. Maybe Huda is more when it comes to colour cosmetics and skincare, but for me fragrance is that one thing where I’m borderline insane. I think that’s what it takes to be a founder who is in it to disrupt and who is in it for the long-run. I’m not just here for the job or for the money. I’m here because I’m obsessed and even if I was making no money, I would be here doing this,” she concludes.
She probably doesn't need to worry about the making no money part, she and her sister Huda, have a knack of reading the market and producing the kind of products Millennial and Gen-Z consumers want at the right time. If they believe fragrance is the next category ripe for disruption, then the are likely very right about that. She says: "I do think fragrance is the next wave and I’m really excited about it." And her and Huda Beauty's millions of fans will be just as excited too.