This Is How E.l.f Became One Of The Most In-Demand — & Affordable — Beauty Brands

E.l.f. Cosmetics is the needle in the beauty haystack: a brand that barely advertises and has never done celebrity endorsements, yet has an enormous and devoted fanbase; that makes high quality products packed with pigment and secret features, yet charges only a couple of bucks for 'em.
In the 13 years that the brand has been around, it's grown from a tiny e-commerce site to a major player in Target, CVS, and 19 brick-and-mortar stores. How? We tapped Achelle Richards, E.l.f.'s Global Artistic Director, and Mara McCune, the brand's V.P. of Brand & Marketing, to spill the secrets behind the evolution.
"E.l.f. was founded by father-son duo Joey and Alan Shamah," says Richards. "Joey's wife came home one day with five new makeup products and the bill was something like $200. Joey thought that was ridiculous and wanted to find another solution." So Shamah set out to fill a gap in the market — a lack of affordable and pro-quality products — and we're all better for it.
Ahead, we're highlighting the company's biggest milestones. (Oh, and PS: The name stands for "eyes, lips, face.")
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The Beginning: 2004

Thirteen years ago, E.l.f. launched with a line of over 20 items, one of which was the Shimmering Facial Whip. "It's one of the heritage items that's still a fan favorite," Richards notes. The best part of the lineup back then? Every product cost just $1, making it one of the only mass cosmetics companies to offer such low prices at the time. Close relationships with suppliers and manufacturing abroad has helped the cruelty-free brand keep costs low. The brand also spends very little money in traditional advertising or celebrity endorsements and relies heavily on crowd-sourcing through social media to get the word out.

"E.l.f. was born online," says Richards. "It was really about being able to communicate with consumers directly and that's how we broke through the clutter. We wanted consumers to be part of the innovation process and it's still a big part of the brand today."

E.L.F. Shimmering Facial Whip, $1, available at E.L.F.
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Brushes Are Born: 2005

A year later, the brand branched out to tools. "We started with dollar brushes, which we still have today," says Richards. "We wanted good quality [and affordable] brushes that are soft, vegan, and cruelty-free." E.l.f offers everything from eyebrow spoolies to blush brushes that cost less than a one-way subway ticket. Can't argue with that.

E.L.F. Eyeshadow Brush, $1, available at E.L.F.
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Taking Over Target: 2007

The 2007 foray into Target stores is arguably one of the most pivotal moments in the brand's history. Since then E.l.f. has expanded to CVS, Walmart, Ulta Beauty, and Old Navy.

E.L.F. Velvet Matte Lipstick, $3, available at E.L.F.
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The Studio Line: 2008

Once E.l.f.'s $1-products started to pick up steam in the retail market, the brand decided to mix things up. In 2008, it launched its studio line, which features a slew of innovative products in sleek black-and-white packaging, each sold for $3. Many products from the Studio Line have become cult favorites, like the Contouring Blush & Bronzing Powder.

E.L.F. Contouring Blush & Bronzing Powder in St. Lucia, $3, available at E.L.F.
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Photo: Courtesy of E.l.f.
The First Store: 2013

Five years later, E.l.f. opened its first brick-and-mortar store in New York City — a very rare move for affordable mass brands. "It's a great chance for us to interact with shoppers and another place to see how they respond," says Richards. Over the next three years, E.l.f.'s retail presence would expand to 19 stores across New York, New Jersey, and California. The brand also launched free international shipping last year.
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Skin Care Domination: 2015

For over ten years, E.l.f. was solely a makeup-focused brand, but a range of skin-care products had been in the works for a long time. "Great makeup starts with great skin and having skin care was a natural evolution of the brand," says Richards. "We have great key ingredients with a lot of K-beauty inspiration, like our Hydrating Bubble Mask. We're also paraben-, sulfate-, and pthalate-free."

E.L.F. Hydrating Bubble Mask, $14, available at E.L.F.
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Photo: Courtesy of E.l.f.
E.l.f. Goes Public: 2016

Last September, E.l.f. Cosmetics went public. According to Fortune, "Wall Street investors...are clamoring to own a piece of the newly public cosmetics brand...Shares for [the brand] soared more than 50% from the offering price."
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A Cut Above: 2016

Richards, who develops all of the brand's products, decided it was time to up the brush ante. Enter: the Beautifully Precise Collection. The brushes look like expensive little works of design, but each rings in at under $13.

E.L.F. Beautifully Precise Multi Blender Massager, $12, available at E.L.F.
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BeautyScape: 2016

Last year, E.l.f. held its first BeautyScape conference — an event that brings the brand's consumer-driven mission full circle. Fans can submit their favorite makeup looks via social media for a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip and to learn new makeup tips and product innovation news. "Beautyscape is about giving back to our [customers]," says Richards. "It's like a weekend-long focus group."
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Celeb Moments: 2016-2017

E.l.f. has been picking up steam in the celebrity sphere as well. Back in 2016, Emma Roberts wore the brand's Molten Liquid Eyeshadow; this year, Nina Dobrev wore the brand's Smooth Matte Eyeshadow as a lipstick to Vanity Fair's Oscar Party — proof that affordable makeup can hold its own on the red carpet.
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Tech: 2017 & Beyond

When in comes to the future of E.l.f., Richards and McCune are understandably tight-lipped. But E.l.f.'s first foray into technology this month marks new territory the brand would like to continue to explore. Its first device is the Massaging Eye Wand, which can be used as an eye massager or to aid in better product absorption.

When asked how the brand stays on top of — and ahead of — trends, Richards points again to the magic of social media. "Through social, we're able to really communicate with our customers and find out what they like," she says. "We also follow fashion week and travel around the globe."

Today, E.l.f. has over 900 products in its lineup (100 of which launched in the past year alone), and it doesn't plan to stop innovating any time soon. Which is very, very good news for our faces and our wallets.

E.L.F. Massaging Eye Wand, $25, available at E.L.F.
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