Humanity has always looked to nature for our needs. In the right hands, humble plants or minerals can become just about anything. Today we’ll delve into two very different approaches to harnessing what nature gives us. We’re going briefly take you to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the original owner of which was the first licensed pharmacist in the US. Then we have an interview with Allison Gretsuk, owner and sole proprietor of Rogue Republic Cosmetics. Her line is gentle, vegan, and mineral based. Let’s get started!
The New Orleans Pharmacy museum is marked by a mortar and pestle sign in the heart of the bustling French Quarter. One can’t help but note the hand-blown glass globes filled with strange colored liquid in the windows. When it was still operating as a pharmacy, the color of the liquid was used to signal if an epidemic was happening or not. Red meant yes, blue or green meant no. Before sanitation was understood, the abundance of moisture in the city made it a hotbed for yellow fever.
When you enter the museum, it is as if you’re transported back to a different age. The noise and commotion of the streets are gone, the museum itself is quiet and still. The walls are lined with gorgeous mahogany cabinets. These contain almost anything you could imagine; and some things you might not. Hand blown glass jars with gold lettering, medicinal herbs, catheters, magic powders and potions, pills coated in silver and gold leaf for the ailing wealthy elite. Ominous looking rusted medical tools are displayed beneath glass. There is also a soda counter made of incredible Italian marble. These sodas served to mask the often harsh flavor of the medicines available at the time.
Another unexpected piece of pharmacy history is the tin lined copper still, formerly used for distilling perfumes. In the 1800s when the pharmacy was in operation, people would either craft cosmetics at home themselves, or a pharmacist would compound them for you. Some ingredients, such as rose, lavender, honey, and beeswax, are still in use now. A few of these are even being grown in the courtyard garden to this day.
Other cosmetic ingredients from the time would shock us; face powders with arsenic and lead, mercury, turpentine, creosote, belladonna to widen the pupils. These cosmetics, predictably, would cause major damage to the skin or worse. And, not knowing the cosmetics themselves were the cause, people would just slather on more lead and arsenic to cover the problem. Thankfully, doctors and scientists eventually realized these things weren’t safe for cosmetic use.
Today our standards for cosmetic ingredients are much more stringent. Anything you buy has been tested and approved for use. We no longer have to worry about our face powders eating away our skin or causing lead poisoning. However, as I’m sure most people who wear makeup know, modern products are still not necessarily gentle. If you have sensitive skin or allergies, you’ve probably had to steer clear of some products you really wanted to use. Allison Gretsuk of Rogue Republic Cosmetics saw that problem, and decided standards for her line would be even higher. Besides owning her own makeup line, she is also a musician, a painter, and a member of a special effects makeup collective. We sat down with Allison and her cats to get the scoop on her makeup line and her incredibly busy creative life.
Courtney Goe for Birds N Bones: What got you interested in makeup initially? What lead you to creating a gentle, vegan cosmetics line?
Allison Gretsuk of Rogue Republic Cosmetics: Interestingly enough, I was not a makeup artist yet when I started making cosmetics. I’ve always been a maker of things. I’ve been into crafts, into creating things with my own hands, I used to paint a lot. I liked process of mixing colors. Also, being a goth kid, I loved playing with makeup. I wasn’t as good at it but I really liked doing it.
I was looking for some kind of career path change-up, something that I could do that I could share and would help other people create. I didn’t know what I was getting in to, but I knew that indie makeup lines existed and I wanted to be a part of it. I started researching things, figuring out what I could to do.
I think a lot of the initial idea came from the fact that I wanted certain colors that I was not able to find unless they were kind of harsh and made my eyes water. A lot of the time that would wipe my makeup off before it was even finished, which is not cool. It mainly started with red. I wanted a matte red I could wear that wouldn’t make my eyes tear up. Through research I figured out two things that make reds pretty harsh for some people. Carmine is one, and it is also not vegan; it’s crushed up beetle shells. For purples, pinks, reds, carmine is generally the go-to. Then even certain neutrals that have a pink or purpleish base, certain taupes or tans that you wouldn’t think twice about, they’ll have carmine in them, just in a smaller amount. I didn’t even notice at first since usually neutrals didn’t cause me any issues with my eyes. But after the fact, looking in to them, I realized they had carmine. Reds, really bright pinks and purples, will have a high concentration of carmine. It also used to be that there wasn’t any alternative. We’re at a point in history where we have the luxury to choose what we use. I thought, that ingredient is kind of gross and has been causing issues for me. I’m sure this is a common problem. The other ingredient is a red dye. It is a D&C dye, so the FDA says it is safe to consume, it’s used in a lot of foods, but it can be harsh near your eyes unless there is only a tiny amount. Again, I wanted gentle makeup for myself. In researching what makes cosmetics gentle, I found that often gentle cosmetics are also vegan cosmetics. I figured it was also just easier for me, instead of listing which products were vegan, to just go all vegan. If you are vegan it is easy, if you’re not vegan it isn’t like you’re going to be bothered that you’re using vegan makeup.
I kind of came to this process in a non-standard way. There is a lot of indie makeup, especially in the last five years or so. Mostly because there are more suppliers that will do small quantities, which used to be the biggest obstacle for small lines. It’s really cool to see what everyone out there is doing. As a makeup artist, I don’t have just one brand in my kit. I have 18 brands in my kit. From Make Up Forever to Urban Decay to indie makeup to effects stuff. No makeup artist is going to use one brand. That’s what makeup is about. We’re making the supplies for you to do your makeup, it’s not about me. I think a lot of makeup artists come about it in the same way, they eventually want to have their own brand. I came at it inside out and backwards, that is the long and short of it.
BnB: So along that line of thought, what are your favorite indie brands at the moment?
RR: They’re not really considered indie anymore, but I love Sugarpill more than anything. When I first started this they were transitioning into being more mainstream and popular. They showed at the IMATS which is the International Makeup Artists Tradeshow, and they go every year now. I actually got to meet the owner, she runs her brand with a lot of transparency and community spirit. Any time on her personal page when she posts, she tags all the brands she used and not just hers. I definitely want to make sure I’m going along those lines.
BnB: So besides creating your own cosmetics line, you’re also a musician and a painter. How do you balance all the different creative endeavors you’re involved in?
RR: Ummmm, poorly? I’m just too stubborn to not make it work. I know there will be a point where I’ll have to have a better answer even for myself and not just an interview, but I’ve always done a million things. And I’ve always been bad at time management, but at the same time good at just doing my own thing. I think I’m just used to overextending myself, and I think that is the case for a lot of entrepreneurs. I feel like a lot of people that take that step, that want to put a lot of energy into something of their own, and struggle for a long time and dedicate their lives to it, are the type of people who do that naturally. I don’t know any other way. I feel like my way of managing it is to just do it, because there is no other way. I think it also goes back to me being obsessed with potential and achievement. I feel like if I don’t do these things, I won’t reach my goals. I feel like I have to pursue everything, because what if I could have been amazing in x field? Maybe I’m the Stephen Hawking of indie makeup; who knows? I just feel like I have to do everything.
BnB: Can you tell us a little about your creative process, both in conceptualizing new shades and in creating the final product?
RR: Well it started because I wanted that matte red. Then I just wanted to play with everything and see what happened. The first color I ended up finalizing is the one I named after this guy (points to her blue cat Mauser). It’s a blueish gunmetal. Then I worked on the red I wanted a little more. At first I didn’t like how it turned out so it ended up being my first pink which is really nice for a blush. Then eventually I got the red. Those were my first three colors, after that I just wanted more. I wanted to fill in aspects of the whole spectrum. I felt like I should offer a little bit of everything.
It’s all mineral based, that is that makes it gentle. There are mica allergies, so you do have to watch out for that. Even big brands are mostly mineral based, and historically iron oxides and micas were used for body paints in rituals before we ever had a beauty industry. Those are some safe things you can still use. I started making my own bases. I did a lot of testing on the base formulas. I developed a matte base, a shimmer base, and a semi shimmer base. That is my starting point for everything. Those are all things I formulate on my own. Then, I tried it with just black iron oxide to see what the differences in the final product were. It took a lot of trial and error. The internet did help a lot with figuring out which different ingredients serve which purpose. Certain ingredients help things blend well, some make them waterproof, some determine how they feel on the skin, if they’re matte or shimmer, translucent or opaque. I can then take these bases, and start to play with micas. They come in all different colors, types and finishes. It’s a little bit color theory, a little mad scientist. I feel like this is where my background as a painter helps. As soon as I have my base down, I can just play like I’m mixing paint except it’s dry and I’m using a mortar and pestle. Some people use grinders, but I like the mortar and pestle because it is more in line with doing everything by hand. I’d rather do it all myself, as handmade as possible.
BnB: We love the Dune references in your product names. How else has Dune influenced you in your work?
RR: It’s one of those cult sci-fi stories where even if people haven’t been exposed to it, they’ll probably at least sort of get the references. It resonates with people on a lot of different levels. It goes in to high level political interactions, and also how individuals interact on a smaller scale. To me it is almost like a space Lord of the Rings, which is another source I will probably draw color names from in the future. Growing up, my mom would read us The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as bedtime stories. I grew up on this fantasy and sci-fi stuff, other worlds and other cultures. Epic battles, good and evil, but not necessarily black and white. I love excellent storytelling that can totally take you to another world. Dune was my first encounter, as an adult, with a story that was anything like Lord of the Rings. The stories are so elaborate and creative, the worlds are so well built. The color story in Dune is very specific. Even when you look up things about Dune, it will tell you the color associated and what it would look like. It is all described in the book. Every planet in Dune, every house in Dune, has its own color. There is a red that I’m coming out with that will be called Harkonnen, of course.
BnB: Tell us a little bit about your band.
RR: It’s called Fad Nauseum, we love puns. Half my relationship, if not more, with my band is based on puns. We like to write a lot of experimental stuff. It’s very mixed genre, but goth influenced. It’s hard to describe your own band. It’s like a goth rock, post punk influenced sound. Instead of having a lead singer, two of us just split parts. This allows us to write more intricate parts on our instruments and kind of trade off. Rather than get a synth player, we got a violinist. She plays electric violin and uses pedals.
BnB: So what made you connect the dots between your life as a performer, and your makeup line? How has being a performer and on-the-go makeup artist made a difference in your approach to your cosmetics line?
RR: I think it’s made all the difference. Honestly, I started the line for selfish reasons, I wanted stuff that I could wear. And since I’m a performer, I wanted it to stand up to my demands. Any kind of performer, even if they’re modeling for a stationary photoshoot, they’re sweating under hot lights. I didn’t completely realize that until I was on sets. From burlesque to go-go dance to classical dancing or being in a band, you’re going to be sweating. You want your make up to stay in place and not mess up your skin. You might have another performance tomorrow. I thought, “This is my market.” I tested things on myself, and I tested them on my friends. Your individual skin chemistry can affect how make up wears. I gave products to as many of my performer friends as possible to make sure it wasn’t a fluke that they worked for me.
BnB: What is your favorite Birds n Bones piece, and why?
RR: It's the Tribus Infans Dragon Claw ring. It’s a turtle claw, but they called it a baby dragon claw. I love how they have the stories that go with the pieces. It’s just taken that extra dark fantasy step, it’s great.