I first became aware of Florence Adepoju and MDMflow during the initial flurry of press back in 2015. She became known as the makeup pioneer who took inspiration from 90s hip hop glamour and created products in her parents shed. What really resonated with me was in her scientific insight into why some makeup just doesn’t work for darker skin tones. I wanted to find out how things were going after being featured in the New York Times and Teen Vogue, plus her aspirations for her brand. She lives in Essex with her parents and works from a co-working space in East London.
The world has changed so much in the last 50 years. Whenever I think about the history of the beauty industry and the reasons why we have the problems we have today, it’s because historically the industry never had to look outside of its core consumer. They never had to be diverse. Even now some brands are doing perfectly okay just satisfying a section of the market. However the market is changing and it’s continuing to change. The middle class in Africa is growing and that brings a new demographic. If you brush your teeth, if you put product in your hair, if you cream your skin, then you’re a beauty consumer. The industry should care about you and you should feel as important and relevant as every other consumer.
A lot of insecurities that people hold are based on appearance. I could see this when I worked on different beauty counters. I started at Benefit when I was 17 and it was a privilege as I’ve always loved playing with makeup and helping people feel empowered. On the other hand, women who looked like me would come to me and I’d have to say ‘Unfortunately we don’t carry any products for you.’ When you’re young, you’re naive about so many things. If I saw a new product launch with no darker shades, I just thought ‘Well this is dumb.’ As you get older, you’re more conditioned to think that this is just how the industry is. All I could think was that some of my customers would get this incredible experience and others didn’t. That was my starting point in my career, to affect positive change.
I studied cosmetic science at London College of Fashion. It was invaluable as I got to learn about different parts of the industry. I did everything from working for a raw materials supplier in Belgium to a placement at a PR agency (I quit after one day). My plan was to work really hard and get a job with LVMH because I was obsessed with what they were doing with Sephora. I thought they were the future of beauty. Little by little, I started to get an understanding of the industry and how things worked. Learning about how certain conglomerates operated made me realise that although the industry is so massive and there’s all these moving parts, there’s still this big gaping hole. I realised that wouldn’t be able to work for the brand of my dreams unless I created it myself.
There’s been a lot of changes to my business, since all the initial press from 2015-2016. Now I look back, I don’t think I dealt with it well. In my initial interviews I felt like I had to present myself in a certain way. I always felt the pressure to always have something new or different to say. Now I’m going to give you the heart of the matter in terms of what I’m doing with MDMflow.
This isn’t a gimmick, it’s driven by determination and passion. For a very long time I kept thinking that I needed to have all these moving parts. I had a PR agency for a while but I felt that no one else could tell the brand story as well as me. Even managing a placement student is a lot of work. My team now is really tiny. The work around developing people as individuals is a key skill within itself.
Right now I’m working on so many things but I’m cautious about over-promising. I’ve always wanted a full range and that’s something that’s constantly been in development over the last 3 years. I recently just got some investment as I’m really passionate about scale at this point in my career. It’s the toughest thing in the world, you’re literally trying to take someone’s money and promise them they’ll see a return of x amount. They need to believe in you as a person. Maybe in ten years time I’ll have the answers. I listen to a lot of podcasts like Girlboss Radio, Recode Decode and Masters Of Scale. Most of my podcasts are around entrepreneurship, but then I’ll listen to something like The Receipts if I want to switch off.
Diversity is so nuanced and so layered. If a white woman can go into a store and have 30 brands targeted to her, then a black woman should have the same. At the same time, the foundations shouldn’t just be a darker version of what exists. The main thing I’ve done in my formulations is take out bulk filler ingredients. They serve no purpose other than to make the formula cheaper. At Uni you’re taught, this is the formula for a lipstick, this is the formula for a foundation, this is the formula for an eyeshadow. I always think about what can I take away and how I can make the formula work better. I’m trying to redefine it.
The bulk fillers are scientifically considered to be clear but only on white skin. On black skin, it isn’t clear, looks horrible and I refuse to put it into my formula. That’s based on me caring and having a passion, but if you don’t care you’re never going to look at it in that way. The best test to do when shopping is to swatch everything. If a lipstick is bright in the bullet, but dull or grey on you, then there’s something wrong with the formula. Working on a counter I could see that women internalise the issues they have, when in reality the product just hasn’t been made correctly.
You look at beauty campaigns now and they’re more diverse than they’ve ever been. But are they still representative of every woman out there? Not really. Is it just present in their social but not in their campaigns, or their product formulations. It’s impossible to tell and to know their motives. The number one things brands are doing wrong is not having people who are representative of the general public on their teams. No many how many focus groups you do, no matter how many questionnaires, you’re never going to be able to solve really nuanced problems that you have no understanding of. It’s never going to give you the real life experience of someone who has grown up as a black woman her whole life. It’s more than what data can give you.
My mission behind my brand has changed a lot since I was 17. It’s not just about race, but representation and different influences. I have white customers who go to a makeup counter and they’re told that they need to be demure and cute or sexy like Marilyn Monroe when actually they may want to wear blue lipstick. It’s more nuanced to present products to women so that they can express themselves, rather than saying that you need to look a certain way.
I think Youtube and the digital evolution is making changes quicker. If a girl sees a look and she wants it, she rocks it. There’s no feeling of ‘Is this suitable or respectful?’ Self expression has become a big thing and it will continue to be massive.
As I’ve grown and as I’ve worked in the industry, I’ve seen my space and that’s having products that by default are suitable for everyone. Just look at The Ordinary. They’re an incredible brand as their formulas are around what the product does to your skin rather than just defining it as a generic face cream. It’s not so much labelling according to race but a nuanced product that works on different skin types in different ways.
For there to be change it’s going to take small brands becoming big. As much as I look at these conglomerates and think ‘Wow you’re so big and incredible’, I just remember that I’m small, agile and can keep up with these changes. I’m not aiming to be them, but just seeing the spots they’re missing and making as much of a mark as I can.