Caitlin Johnstone of Shiro Cosmetics
Shiro Cosmetics – known for their nerdy-themed makeup and hilarious product names (like the wildly popular eyeshadow “Nic Cage Raking Leaves on a Crisp Autumn Morning”) – turns four years old today. We met up with the company founder, Caitlin Johnstone, to hear how she turned $800, a broken arm, and a love for Pokemon into a successful line of indie cosmetics.
Caitlin Johnstone was studying mathematics, trying to make a living as a writer, and caring for her infant son when she took a well deserved break to go snowboarding. That's when the snowboard, Caitlin, and her life, took a sudden turn. After tumbling down the slope, Caitlin found herself with a broken arm and some unexpected free time.
“My mom helped me with my son while my arm healed, and I started wondering what I could do,” Caitlin says. “With my son, of course, I was very motivated to find work I could do from home.”
Caitlin had been interested in pursuing cosmetics before, but had been advised against it by her father.
“He may not have been excited for me to study cosmetics,” Caitlin said, “but he was happy to have me start my own business.”
Shiro's Humble Beginnings
With only $800 and no cosmetic experience, Caitlin began her efforts in earnest by reading beauty blogs, with a specific interest in their product reviews.
“The reviews were a great place to start my work, because the bloggers would give very specific details about what they liked, or didn't like, about a product,” Caitlin says “For example, they might say they liked a lip balm because it used a certain wax, so I would write down that ingredient and find out where to buy it.”
(Caitlin bought most of her ingredients from TKB Trading, which lists all of the additives in their products. All Shiro products are 100% vegan and cruelty free, so Caitlin is very picky about what she uses.)
After the initial research, Caitlin began the arduous process of creating and testing makeup formulas. She would compare her creations against some of the best makeup on the market and make further adjustments until she was finally satisfied.
“My dad came in and saw I had a gram scale, a bunch of white powder, and small bags, and he got a little bit nervous,” Caitlin says with a laugh.
Super Effective Success
Shiro Cosmetics launched in April 2010 on Etsy with her “Super Effective” Pokemon-themed collection of eye-shadows (Caitlin has been a Pokemon fan since playing Pokemon Red on the GameBoy Color when she was six years old).
At the time of her store's debut, she was one of only a few people offering indie cosmetics, and one of the only offering nerd-themed makeup. Beauty bloggers began writing about and reviewing her products, and word spread quickly.
“Timing is definitely a big part of my success,” Caitlin said. “Now there are lots of people selling their own makeup, but I was able to get in early and secure a customer base.”
Celebrity Colors and Internet Fame
Another piece of Shiro's success was the ability for customers to request their own colors. As the company grew, Caitlin was unable to meet the demand for hundreds of custom requests, so she created the Color of the Month, a competition where customers can suggest and vote on makeup ideas. The most popular suggestion is turned into an eyeshadow.
The Color of the Month has repeatedly made waves across the internet. Most recently “Still No Oscar for Leo DiCaprio” - a sequel to 2013's “No Oscar for Leo DiCaprio” - was repeatedly posted on sites like Reddit and Tumblr.
“The first 'No Oscar' was gold, to represent the Oscar he didn't have, with red sparks, to represent the anger of his fans,” Caitlin says. “This year it's more of a champagne with platinum sparks, a sort of 'Gatsby'-inspired opulence.”
It's amazing to hear how much thought Caitlin puts in to her work. Every shade and sparkle is chosen carefully, and with meaning behind it.
“There's a lot of room for creativity in cosmetics,” Caitlin says, “that's why we're able to do very specific work with nerd inspired themes.”
Of course, the most famous Shiro product of all time is probably their Color of the Month for October 2012: "Nic Cage Raking Leaves on a Brisk October Afternoon,” featuring Nicolas Cage's face Photoshopped into a pile of fall leaves.
“When we posted that color, Tumblr users decided it was the funniest thing they had ever seen,” Caitlin says. “Someone posted an image of the eyeshadow and it was re-posted about 35 thousand times, then 60 thousand times.”
People are still re-posting it.
Shiro has since made a line of flavored lip glosses featuring Nic Cage dressed as period style women.
“It's all very silly,” Caitlin says, “but I'm glad the internet likes what we are doing.”
That's the genius of Shiro Cosmetics: Caitlin sells her products on the internet, and her products are fueled by what is popular on the internet. By catering to the nerd niche, she's able to quickly create makeup that plays off whatever her fans are into at the time, whether that's a meme, comic book, superhero movie, or a recurring celebrity joke. Add that to the fact that she's constantly improving her formulas to ensure they are the highest quality, and it's no surprise that Shiro Cosmetics is one of the most recognized and loved indie cosmetics lines out there.
The Future of Shiro
This month Shiro Cosmetics will debut their newest product: pressed powders. Attendees of Portland's Crafty Wonderland on May 10th can find the Shiro booth and create their own pressed powders in hand-decorated pallets.
An “Avengers” themed eyeshadow line will debut in the summer, followed by a line of BBC “Sherlock” inspired contouring powders in the fall.
“I think it will just be called 'Cheekbones,' because Benedict (Cumberbatch) has those gorgeous cheekbones,” Caitlin says, looking dreamily into the distance.
Shiro Cosmetics is also developing a lipstick formula and a cream shadow formula. Caitlin's creativity and drive seem never ending, and she has high hopes for her company's future.
“I dream of opening up a little storefront on 23rd, selling all kinds of nerdy things, hosting weekly game nights,” Caitlin says, “and I'd live above the shop, of course, because how cute would that be?”
We, for one, would love to see that happen. But for now, you can buy Shiro Cosmetics on the company's website, or find a few of her most popular products for sale at Mag Big on Hawthorne.