We discovered LIHA Beauty on Instagram (where else!) and had to reach out after trying the beautifully aromatic coconut oil infused with tuberose flower. We’re not the only ones that love it as it was recently featured on Vogue.com.
The founders are Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan who champion natural ingredients in skincare but also want to shine a light on traditional Yoruban beauty, where women make their own beauty products and learn how to prepare natural ingredients from a young age.
Luckily we got both Abi and Liha for the interview.
Abi: I grew up mostly in NW London but I’ve lived in Hackney now for quite a few years.
Liha: I grew up in Gloucestershire, living above shops and moving around quite a bit. When I left for London to go to Uni at 18, I swore I’d never come back but I missed it after a few years of fast living!
Abi: Both my parents are Nigerian and my heritage definitely inspires and influences our brand. Not only from the ingredients and techniques we use, but also from tales, richness and abundance we want to convey about our culture and heritage.
Liha: My Dad is Nigerian and my mum is English. They both have a crazy work ethic that has motivated me non stop! They would be up at the crack of dawn to go to work, and all us kids would have to help in the shop on Saturdays, and do house chores Sundays.
Abi: My mother definitely inspired me as a child. For a long while she was a single mother as my dad lived in Nigeria. Seeing her work so hard bringing up four kids in a very tough neighbourhood was something that has always stayed with me. She never complained, she always made it look so effortless but it made me work just that bit harder because I know she sacrificed a lot to give us a better life.
Liha: I was very inspired by my parent’s shops which sold African crafts, clothes and furniture as well as local craft and aromatherapy oils. I was a massive bookworm!
We didn’t have a TV for a big chunk of my childhood which forced me to read a lot and get into music. My dad’s old pictures of him hitchhiking around the world in the 50s were a big inspiration. I used to look at their photographic slides and write little stories about the people in the pictures. It made the world seem small to me.
Abi: I think now what inspires me are the many women we’ve met since launching LIHA Beauty. I’ve been inspired and humbled by the support we’ve received from so many women who are also trying to build something and pave the way. Women like Sharmadean Reid who has been beyond supportive and her advice has been invaluable. Women like Michele Scott-Lynch founder of the brand Boucleme and Akosua Afriyie-Kumi founder of AAKs.
Liha: Definitely all the women we meet, and all women in general! I find the fact that feminism isn’t a dirty word anymore inspiring, and the idea that some of that could be down to a book written by a Nigerian woman (We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).
I’m currently reading a book called A Time Before Crack by Jamal Shabazz about early hip hop culture, which is another constant inspiration for me, and a book called New Atlantis about how musicians survived in post -Katrina New Orleans.
Liha: In Yoruba culture there it is normal for women to make their own beauty products from a young age, and learn how to use natural ingredients like coconut oil, or plantain ash which is used in Black soap. Now more people are into natural ingredients we wanted to shine a light on the amazing ingredients and techniques from Nigeria, which is why we have used Yoruba language for the names. We will take traditional recipes and tweak them, by adding a British twist. For example, we couldn’t leave the plantain skins to dry in the sun in rainy England! So instead we roasted them in the oven and added English Rose essentials oil, and carefully selected ingredients from Africa like Molasses and skin brightening Moringa. We are trying to think really far ahead, so that as our production grows in size, the crops we use will have a we can have a positive socio-political impact on the world around us.
Abi: My earliest beauty memory is probably watching my mum shaving off her eyebrows and drawing them back on with ultra-black eyeliner pencil. I think back in those days the thin, black rounded eyebrow shape was all the rage!
Liha: My mum would make fresh blends of aromatherapy oils each week and keep them in a big abalone shell in the bathroom, a little out of my reach. It was always so mysterious and magical to me, and I couldn’t wait to learn.
What do you find beautiful and why?
Abi: I find the chaos of my family beautiful, I find the craziness of nieces and nephew beautiful – it reminds me that those traits are passed down one generation to the next and that’s comforting to me.
Liha: I find my daughter beautiful -she’s a constant inspiration to me.
I also find England really beautiful and inspiring. It’s hard to beat England on a sunny spring day, and the street style we have here is my favourite.
Growing up I would look out of the shop window and see Skinheads, Punks, all sorts! I think we are in danger of things coming a little too homogenous.
We need to make sure we preserve the parts of our culture that ensure creativity and diversity-it’s so depressing how many record shops and important music venues have closed down in the last few years.
Abi: I was a professional athlete for 12 years. I went to two Olympic Games including London in 2012… basically I travelled the World training and competing. As a former professional athlete I do quite a few things alongside building our brand; I’m a coach and personal trainer, and I’m also learning to be a Pilates teacher. I do quite a lot of motivational speaking to young adults and corporate engagement work.
Liha: I have an art publishing company that makes posters of classic literature, and I was working as community engagement officer at a Museum. I really miss that educational element, but our workshops make up for it a little!
Abi: For me I want the beauty industry to be more inclusive; It’s no longer about having one shelves tucked away at the back for WOC, it’s about having a range of products for any skin type on the same shelve regardless of race.
I would also like to see it being more transparent in terms of what is in the products.
Liha: I agree- I would like brands to stop trying to sell the same thing over and over again in different packaging! People are too smart for that.
Liha: We will be at Wah Power lunch on 20th April talking about product development. We also have a workshop coming up at Shoreditch House on the 27th May and some in Boxpark also in Shoreditch in the Summer. We will be launching some exciting new products soon, so keep checking in!
Post by Thandie.
And it’s challenging what we rate as so-called ‘beautiful v ugly’. Of course, there has never been a way of rating these definitions, they’re subjective. There’s no wrong or right when it comes to being anything at all. But when it comes to ethnic oppression there IS a right and wrong; which is why definitions in our value system need to be all-embracing.
I feel that’s why colours in general are being appreciated in a whole new way. Take nail colour – greens, blues, browns, greys – colours that may have once been called dreary are the choice for hip people from NY to Lagos. No longer are we sporting red and pink to beckon the attention of other cutiepies – now we’re making statements with colours as a way of communicating our individuality, wit and stance. Statement rather than Acquiescence.
Or, you just really like green, brown, black and like the way it looks with your outfit!
Respect is the new Sexy.
Posted by Kay
I met Make-Up artist and founder of RMS Beauty Rose-Marie Swift when I first moved to NYC aged 26 when we were at the same agency. It’s of particular interest to me when another make-up artist becomes an outspoken advocate for women (or anyone else in general) and in her case, protecting them from the toxic chemicals found in products that we use on our bodies daily. She and I have been exposed (& expose others) to a myriad of beauty-related ‘substances ‘on a greater level than most and several years ago, Rose-Marie began to experience some health issues that were causing many problems physically, mentally and emotionally. After an extensive series of tests, she learned that her blood contained toxic levels of heavy metals including aluminum, barium, cadmium, lead and mercury as well as high levels of pesticides and other chemicals.
We’ve been lead to believe that our skin acts as a barrier to the outside world, blocking out whatever applied to it. We now know that whatever we put on the skin is absorbed into the bloodstream. You need only look to medical patches, anti-smoking patches and hormone replacement patches for proof.
Yet every day, multiple products come into contact with our skin, from shampoo and conditioners to body wash, moisturizers, makeup and hair spray. All together, we probably apply more than 100 chemicals to our bodies daily, and we know that not all of them are good for us.” Rosemary Swift, founder of RMS Beauty.
After many years in the fashion and make-up industry, I learned a lot about the impact of daily exposure to chemicals in beauty care products. I’ve seen what works-and what doesn’t live up to its promises. I see the results of taking a quick-fix approach to looking good. I know first-hand the price our health can pay in the pursuit of beauty. I realized that what women need are skin care, color cosmetics, toiletries that are as pure as possible and create a solid foundation for anti-aging and long-term beauty. I became an advocate for cleaner cosmetics when my own health deteriorated, and through my research I realized many of the chemicals that were in my body were also found throughout the whole beauty industry. I began studying ingredient labels in depth and the extent of the use of unregulated chemical ingredients (sorry to inform you but the FDA-US Food & Drugs Administration-does not regulate our beauty industry. It is self regulated by the actual people that are adding all these ingredients and deeming them safe). In fact, many ingredients are downright harmful. Ingredients like phthalates found in synthetic fragrances and nail polishes, are known to disrupt the hormone system, and are a factor in reproductive diseases and breast cancer. Sadly, the list of harmful ingredients in your personal care products is long – and we continue to use them daily. I am honestly trying to educate every woman to be more aware of not just what they put on their skin, but also what they put in their bodies.
My original idea was to start with skin care, but the market was so saturated with skin care products that it didn’t leave much to the imagination. At that time mineral lines were the ‘big thing’ color wise, but in reality minerals tend to dehydrate the skin terribly and over time you are actually aging the skin. Visually it makes the skin look old, particularity on mature skin-not a nice look! I decided to do a colour line using the concept of raw skincare (organic ingredients that have not be adulterated & fractionated) with mineral color combined. My stint as a raw foodist years ago taught me so much about the healing properties of oils and butters in their purest form (before refinement & fractionation). The realization was that these were superior ingredients and thereforethe best base for colour make-up. That in itself would solve the dehydration problems causes by powdered minerals alone. The perfect combination between oil and minerals had to be accomplished and I began creating that. Aesthetically I feel it captures the concept of rouge/creams from the 40’s and 50’s with the frosted glass pots and metal lids.
I started my makeup career using all the same store bought products that everyone uses. There were no real noteworthy “green” brands back in the beginning of my career at all. The ‘green’ brands that were starting to pop up were not memorable and were basically a sad state of “green washing”. None of them stood up to my standard of what I had in my head and worth applying to the skin. I actually began by using organic Jojoba oil on the models skin rather than (petroleum-based) Vaseline and baby oil because jojoba photographed beautifully and didn’t have the separation and the “floating on top of the skin effect” that the petroleum-based products had. It was also closest to human sebum (skin!) and left a warm golden sheen. Next came more exotic oils and butters and I then moved to more complicated formulas that I would mix with various organic and natural ingredients. I had to start RMS Beauty because I tend to be a little on the rebellious side and I knew there was no reason that most of our beauty products could not be made with safer, healthier, organic ingredients versus chemicals and synthetics.
Something people need to remember about me is that I was always ahead of others regarding the health aspect because of my raw food background and knowledge on detoxing the body of metals and chemicals. I was like a mentor to many of the girls, sharing my knowledge about drinking organic raw juices and eating healthily. I’d always make my own organic salad for jobs, and the girls would call the night before to make sure I made a big enough salad for them also! They started relying and trusting me on what to eat and even what vitamins to take. So when I created my line it embodied everything I had been preaching to the girls since the beginning so they had faith in me and knew it would be good.
I couldn’t have done it without the girls help and enthusiasm so I am forever grateful to all of them. At this point I don’t think there is any model who hasn’t used or isn’t using a RMS product. Even celebrities like Scarlett Johanssen, Olivia Wilde, Cary Underwood and even Kristen Stewart is using it. (to name a few)
Skin care was never really in the forefront of my upbringing, we were more focused on the health aspect of what we put into our bodies. We ate mostly from our home grown vegetable gardens in Canada. Every meal consisted of tons of vegetables and always a salad . We never had processed food at all, hardly any sugar and never soda pop. When I see the models drinking soda they get the biggest lecture….soda’s are evil! I was an intuitive kid and knew what was good and what was bad and even started fasting when I was 15 to clean my system. I had no skin care regime as a kid but hated the feel of soap so I never used soap on my body. I would clean myself with just water and a little olive oil for my face- that was it. Even now I can’t stand the feel of soap or any cleanser on my skin. I graduated from olive oil to coconut oil and still to this day nothing has changed.
Yes, I would definitely say it is. I do so much research that it is really hard for me to ignore what I see and know what these chemicals do over long periods of time -to both the outside and the insides of our bodies. It isn’t just chemicals in cosmetics but chemicals on our food, in our water and in our air we breathe. Environmental toxins surround us every day. Not a pretty picture, to say the least and our body-burden is completely over worked.
I am constantly doing research and get very emotionally involved with it.
I go as far as recording people who I find are interesting and have valuable information that I can learn from. As for following regulations for cosmetics (formulations, ingredients, labelling, packaging) we take it extremely seriously at RMS Beauty. We do not want to have problems down the road with anything. These regulatory requirements we follow to the T so that nothing can deter us or have us scrutinized. As for synthetic chemicals it isn’t hard to learn which ones in beauty products are not good, or ones that should be avoided. The information is readily available.
More research is being done from outside sources other than the cosmetic industry themselves. www.cosmeticsdatabase.com is a valuable source for information on brands and ingredients but as I said, , the cosmetic industry is self regulated, which is like the fox guarding the chicken coop; the companies themselves decide what is acceptable. Most people don’t know that the FDA doesn’t regulate the cosmetic industry. And no matter how hard the beauty industry proclaims innocence, the undeniable truth is that many of these ingredients in make-up and skin care are toxic to our bodies.
Several reasons. First of all, a lot of these synthetic ingredients are cheaper than natural, organic ones so that means more profits and that makes corporations and shareholders happy. Another reason is patents; companies want to make patents on all of their so-called miracle anti-aging ingredients so they become a continuous source of money from them and anyone who infringes on them. Consumers also need to be aware that in the process, companies can claim ‘trade secret status’ so they don’t have to reveal all their so-called secret ingredients that make their product ‘special’, under the guise of protecting themselves from the competition. Who knows what the hell those ingredients might be. That can be frightening.
Beware of marketing. It is a very powerful tool and much more powerful than the product it’s actually marketing. We all want a quick fix rather than taking the time to eat properly (organic, raw foods, green juicing, vegetables, water). Remember ‘skin is a mirror to the gut’ so whatever is going on inside reflects on the skin outside. All the processed food we eat steals the life from our skin: the meaty hamburgers, french fries, processed fake-food, full of chemicals and taste enhancers. And, of course, cigarettes, booze and sugar. Then along come the marketers with their ‘hope in a jar.’ Anti-aging and great skin comes from eating well, getting some exercise, sleeping. Not from a pill and not from jar. It will always have a quick temporary effect, but over time it will actually age you. If these products were all so great we would ALL be happy with our skin.
Technology can be amazing: the way science can create something from nothing, or change something natural into a chemical version so they act differently than they would in nature. The ingredients you mention are all derivatives, and have been fractionated so they basically end up being a man-made chemical. Problems can happen, however, when technology is applied to skin care and makeup. One’s body and skin has intrinsic healing mechanisms, which are supported by a natural lifestyle and living food. Instead of activating these intrinsic healing mechanisms, the purpose of the cosmetic ingredients is to replace these healing mechanisms – with technology. This might have a chance of working if our skin and body were mere machines but, unfortunately for the designers, our body and skin are living organisms that naturally require the infusion of life forces to maintain their intrinsic integrity. Do I use them in my products? No.
I plan on continuing to expand the line in the hope that women embrace my philosophy.