GLOSSY: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier, by Marisa Meltzer
A Glossier brick and mortar opened in my neighborhood last fall, and because that neighborhood is Williamsburg, I could comfortably declare it to be the brand’s time of death. No longer the experiential playscape of dreamy makeup delights, Glossier has reached its logical conclusion: patrons waiting an annoyingly long time among intermittent groups of teens to buy $18 eyebrow gel. Here lies Glossier, the millennial pink tombstone’s black etching would read, makeup for pretty people. That the Williamsburg Glossier is neighbored by retail stores for Parachute (bedding), Mejuri (jewelry) and Warby Parker (glasses) does not feel coincidental; all the formerly online-only direct-to-consumer brands are arranged on North Sixth Street in a neat little row.
But when the first permanent Glossier showroom opened in SoHo in 2016, it was the cool girl’s place to go after work. Two years later Beyoncé wore the brand to the Grammys, ingeniously coordinated with the launch of a new product. By 2019, less than five years after its debut, the company had a billion-dollar valuation. Its founder, Emily Weiss, remains the star student in a class of girl bosses who have either imploded or flamed out. By the time she stepped down from the C.E.O. position in 2022, she was the last one standing, and the only one who’d built a business that could exist without her. (Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine is on Substack; the Wing’s Audrey Gelman has a store that sells the idea of a small town — honestly, mostly candlesticks — in Cobble Hill.)
But Glossier’s rise has plateaued, and with “Glossy,” the reporter Marisa Meltzer pieces together a compulsively readable narrative of beauty, business, privilege and mogul-dom. This is a well-reported inside-baseball analysis of a cosmetics company and the culture that surrounded it.
In terms of comps, “Glossy” is less “The Devil Wears Prada” and more “The Social Network.” That Vogue roman à clef was about a ruthless climb to the top; the Facebook creation myth focused on a single mercurial founder clawing for control of a culture shift. (Weiss might prefer the latter book, too: From Glossier’s early days, she likened herself to a tech founder, and kept brainstorming ideas for a beauty-focused social media app.)
Meltzer keeps Weiss at the narrative’s center: As the author of Glossier’s it-girl blog, Into the Gloss, she was from the beginning the empire’s unknowable, jargon-prone, occasionally vexing architect. Before Into the Gloss, Weiss briefly appeared on the MTV reality show “The Hills” as Teen Vogue’s “Superintern,” the capable foil to the jejune Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port.
But Weiss was always ambitious, and precocious: She got her first internship — in the women’s design department at Ralph Lauren — when she was babysitting for a neighbor who worked at the company, and simply asked if he could get her a job there. Weiss was Glossier’s perfectionist engine, but she cast herself as the company’s mastermind, not its face.
There is the millennial beauty industry before Glossier, and the one after it. Its thesis was that skin care wasn’t a science, but a composite of secrets, hand-me-downs, dermatologist prescriptions, something you smelled on a girl you met in the bathroom line. Where its competitors (Sunday Riley, Tata Harper, Biologique Recherche) were glass-bottled, three-digit luxury, Glossier was plastic stickers and smiley faces. Meltzer does a good job of capturing the moment when an Into the Gloss “Top Shelf” feature was a status symbol, and the Glossier puffy pink package an it bag.
Throughout Meltzer’s reporting, she’s both fascinated and confounded by Weiss, whom she finds to be aloof, preternaturally put-together and a master of wielding vulnerability to keep an interview on message. Meltzer is sympathetic to and sometimes friendly with her subject, but more than once the book works itself into knots trying to decide whether Weiss is too self-effacing or if Glossier’s success really was the right idea at exactly the right moment. There are only so many ways to make a concealer or foundation or sunscreen, and the market is saturated with good ones.
Weiss would use the blog to share her own selections from time to time, but with Glossier, she wisely stepped back. She wasn’t exactly the Glossier girl she was marketing to, as she unwittingly revealed in her own, viral wedding prep routine. She did weeks of colonics, a few laser hair removal sessions and two different types of facials — exactly the kind of labor the cult of Glossier seemed to eschew.
Sometimes Meltzer’s fascination with the founder feels a bit overblown. By Meltzer’s own reporting, Weiss asked for what she wanted, politely but firmly, and frequently got it. Sometimes her strategies worked, and sometimes they didn’t. (A highlight is when Weiss meets with Nike and tells them that they need to curate their own product line, that their customer has too many options.) Meltzer pushes Weiss for answers about how she fits into the brand’s smiley inclusivity, about how savvy she really is, about whom she really opens up to; but Weiss never bends. Maybe she’s right not to: Glossier seems to have long ago eclipsed her. When I mentioned Into the Gloss to a few 20-somethings who were Glossier customers, none of them had heard of the blog, or of the former C.E.O.
“Glossy” is fair, and smart, in its account of how Glossier ended up ceding so much of its market share. Sales started to decline in 2021, and a round of layoffs followed a year later. There were a series of vibe shifts: Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty came to market with foundation in 40 shades. The HBO show “Euphoria” made everyone care less about dewy, natural-looking skin and more about shimmery, bejeweled eye makeup. Both the youngest and the oldest people you know love Estée Lauder’s full-coverage foundation. Skin care replaced liquor or perfume as the celebrity-helmed product of choice, and brands like the Ordinary, with its focus on science and ingredients, outpaced Glossier’s offerings in that department. Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty out-happied Glossier, and Hailey Bieber’s Rhode out-simplified it. The girl boss era went from inspiring to insipid, but Weiss burnished herself against the flameout. Staff members found her obsessive, awkward or cold, Meltzer reports, but never nasty.
“Glossy” is dishy, and I read it in a weekend. Glossier remains almost exactly as Weiss had pitched it: simple products with funny, vivid, sometimes anachronistic names, not marketed to your mom in a department store but to you, online. Its standout products still find their way into my bathroom and beauty bag, but going to Glossier is no longer the cult lifestyle experience Weiss envisioned. It’s just makeup.
Hunter Harris is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The Times and other publications. She writes the Substack newsletter Hung Up.
GLOSSY: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier | By Marisa Meltzer | 293 pp. | Atria/One Signal | $28.99