This Is How Urban Decay Became One Of The Most In-Demand Beauty Brands

Two decades ago, Urban Decay Cosmetics was born. Today, it's one of the most influential beauty brands on the market (and on Instagram, and in our makeup bags...), so it only seemed appropriate to celebrate its 20th birthday with a tribute to its rich history. We scoured social media, chatted with cofounder Wende Zomnir, and dug through photo archives to get the inside scoop on how the brand came to be.

Urban Decay came to life in 1996, when Zomnir, who was working in marketing, met Sandy Lerner, a fellow makeup-lover and tech entrepreneur. Both women were tired of the cookie-cutter pink and red lipsticks flooding the market, and they decided to do something about it. In Zomnir's Newport Beach, CA, bungalow, the duo mixed and matched polish formulas (with no experience in cosmetic chemistry and formulations) and tapped neighbors to help them glue fake nails on their displays. Humble beginnings for a brand that now has an Instagram following of 7 million and domination of aisles at Sephora, Macy's, Ulta Beauty, and Nordstrom.

UD's wildly colored polishes, lipsticks, and shadows were hits, but it was the Naked palette that changed the game. One of the most purchased palettes in cosmetics history — one was sold every six seconds in 2015 — it scored Duchess Kate's seal of approval and was dubbed "the iPhone of makeup" by Forbes.

Ahead, we highlight the major milestones in the life of the brand and share some behind-the-scenes secrets.
1 of 15
The Beginning: 1996
In a tiny Newport Beach apartment, the founders mixed and matched mainstream polish shades to create their own funky colors "inspired by the seedier facets of the urban landscape," like "the iridescent rainbow sheen of an oil slick,” and other forms of "urban decay," like smog and rust.

Needless to say, the brand name happened rather organically, as it was a pretty accurate description of the aesthetic, and stuck because it was funky, fun, and slightly offbeat.
Advertisement
2 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
Since the duo had so little experience creating cosmetics, they started slowly, launching only two types of products: nail polishes and lipsticks.

Armed with a killer name, some serious entrepreneurial drive, and the slogan "Does Pink Make You Puke?", Zomnir and Lerner vowed to deliver the fun, high-pigment colors that the cosmetics world seemed to be lacking. "We didn’t want to just knock on the door of the cosmetics world; we wanted to knock it down," Zomnir tells us.
3 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
UD's 1996 launch included 12 polishes and 10 lipsticks. The polishes came in shades like mildew green and iridescent purple, while the lipsticks ranged from shimmery black to deep burgundy. Some of the names? Rust, Smog, and Plague.
4 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
The Shadows: 1997
After launching the lipsticks and polishes, UD branched out into eyeshadow in 1997 with 19 shades, six of which are still in its lineup 20 years later.

Shadows were the brand's third type of product, because they’re one of Zomnir’s favorite makeup items, and she craved a bold and highly pigmented range that she could wear from day to night.

The OG shadow shades included several unique duo-chrome pigments that shift color on the lid, like Plague, a deep red-purple with a blue shift; and Roadstripe, an iridescent white that shifted to violet.
5 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
But for a brand to go from startup to superstar, it needs a good strategy. Urban Decay took a grassroots approach. In a 2015 interview with Bloomberg News, Zomnir recalled hunting down style icons like Gwen Stefani (who would go on to launch a collection with UD in 2015) and Shirley Manson at music festivals, and asking them to try her products.

The efforts paid off when the brand picked up major steam in the late '90s. UD had one of its first big coups with the Midnight Cowboy shadow, a pink-champagne color with silver shimmer that launched in 1998. “The edgy name was part of the secret sauce — it was naughty. That was our first big hit,” Zomnir told Bloomberg.

In the wake of that color's success, UD created several variations, including Midnight Cowboy Rides Again, a deeper mauve shade; Midnight Cowgirl, a peachy shimmer color; and Midnight Rodeo, a taupe-y brown. You can never have too much of a good thing.
6 of 15
All That Glitters: Late '90s & Early 2000s
The brand built momentum with the release of several loud, glittery, one-of-a-kind products in the late '90s and early 2000s. These products included Lip Gunk, a flavored, super-pigmented lip gloss with serious sticking power; All-Over Body Glitter, a flavored, scented body glitter; Primer Potion, a stay-all-day, polymer-filled eyeshadow primer; and Heavy Metal Glitter Eyeliner.

UD also saw increased commercial success during this time. Case in point: Zomnir divulged to us that Rihanna is a fan of the Heavy Metal liners, and she swiped all the colors from her makeup artist's kit after they'd been used on her.
Advertisement
7 of 15
The Liners: 2006
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, UD released the now cult-favorite 24/7 eyeliner — a creamy, waterproof formula that has earned over 230,000 “Loves” on Sephora, and an impressive rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars.

Since the launch, the 24/7 liner range has been expanded to include 41 colors, ranging from bright gold to magenta and metallic aquamarine.
8 of 15
Courtesy of: Urban Decay Cosmetics.
Getting Naked: 2010
In 2010, Zomnir and her team created a palette that would change everything. “I wanted to create a quad palette of essential neutrals, so I asked my two key product-development and beauty junkies which four eyeshadows they would take to a desert island,” she tells us.

“I picked my shades, too, and when we threw them on the table they were all different, and actually made a beautiful palette.” Thus: the Naked palette was born.

The Naked palette boasts 12 shadows, ranging from a warm taupe to a bold blue, and includes mattes, shimmers, and satin finishes. Per usual, the shadows have cheeky names, like Virgin, Sin, and Creep.
9 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
The palette was lauded for its versatility, pigment, and consistency. The success can be summed up in a brief list of its admirers, which include Julianne Hough and Mindy Kaling, acclaimed makeup artist Wayne Goss, and even Kate Middleton. It's even rumored that Kate Middleton recommended the Naked palette to first lady Michelle Obama.

That's some serious brand loyalty.
10 of 15
The Naked Collection: 2010-2016
Over the next six years, Urban Decay leveraged the success of the Naked palette to expand the line into seven palettes, foundations, concealers, color-correctors, illuminators, nail polishes, and lip glosses, all inspired by the idea of “desert island” shades.

In the midst of the line's success, and shortly after the 2011 launch of the Naked 2 palette, L'Oréal bought Urban Decay. The Wall Street Journal noted that "being folded into a large global company such as L'Oréal would allow Urban Decay products to be sold globally, and through multiple channels."

Global availability meant makeup-lovers all over the world could sample UD's buttery shadows and stunning pigments. Just another phase in UD's plan for cosmetics domination.
11 of 15
The Moondust Collection: 2013-2016
In the wake of the brand's mega-successful Naked launches, it debuted its Moondust shadows in 2013. The line included Space Cowboy, a riff on the popular Midnight Cowboy, and Glitter Rock, an insane metallic pink.

In 2016, Urban Decay expanded the Moondust line with the eight-shadow Moondust palette, as well as eight colors of liquid Moondust in shades like Chem Trail and Spacetime.
Advertisement
12 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
XX Vintage Vault: 2016
This year, the brand had its 20th anniversary, a massive milestone that it celebrated with the XX Vintage collection — the re-release of 12 of its 20 original shadows and its first 12 nail polishes.

The shades are limited-edition, but most are still available on the UD website. UD also released a massive "Vintage Vault" for the true collector, which also incorporates some of its OG lip shades.
13 of 15
Photo: courtesy of Urban Decay Cosmetics.
The Future: 2016 & Beyond
What’s next? When we asked Zomnir how UD constantly evolves and which brands she admires, she referenced Nike. “It’s a big company that still leads the market with innovation and vision. The DNA of the brand is consistent, yet always evolving; it is OG and modern all at the same time. They are always trying new things.”

One way Urban Decay is channeling that pioneering spirit is through celebrity-helmed releases, like Gwen Stefani's limited-edition eyeshadow palette and Ruby Rose's campaign for its 100-part Vice lipstick collection.
14 of 15
Urban Decay has helped give a beauty outlet to the outcast, the risktaker, the daredevil. It's transformed the eyeshadow game, turned the lipstick world upside-down, and made glitter mainstream. Safe to say, it's cemented itself a place in makeup history.

We asked Zomnir what's coming down the pipeline, and she was, understandably, tight-lipped. But she did let us know the brand is working on something BIG, so get excited for 2017.
15 of 15
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!