Beloved for its wallet-friendly price point and its ingredient-focused approach to beauty, Canadian company Deciem has swiftly become one of the most popular beauty brands in the world for millennials since its launch in 2013. But with its success also came dark times. Following a turbulent 2018 with the death of its founder Brandon Truaxe, the company has spent the past year regaining its foothold. As it continues its recent journey of expansion through the Asian market — starting with a spate of Hong Kong launches at the end of last year — we look at how the company is moving onwards and upwards.
Deciem, which means ‘ten’ in Latin, was initially conceived to have ten brands and ten distinct missions under its belt. Its family of brands has since ebbed and flowed, but it was The Ordinary — the 11th creation — that disrupted the skincare world when it launched in 2016 and made its mark. Now Deciem’s highly sought-after signature brand, The Ordinary is instantly recognisable by its clean aesthetic that invites comparisons to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
To explain its ethos, Deciem’s current chief executive Nicola Kilner likens it to buying aspirin: “Even if they might look to be quite affordable, you know they’d still work and you’d still recover. It’s the same thinking but for beauty — [before The Ordinary], you had no idea of knowing whether if you spent $100 on a product it would be better than spending $50.”
Indeed, one of The Ordinary’s first products was a bottle of retinol, priced under the equivalent of HK$60, back when a typical retinol product would be over triple the cost. Founder Brandon Truaxe’s genius was in plucking out the core ingredients from otherwise overpriced and overpackaged products on the market, and offering them a la carte for an affordable price. This transparency was a key pillar for Deciem.
Other brands under Deciem, which are not yet available in brick-and-mortar stores in Hong Kong (but are available via online channels), include The Chemistry Brand, a similar pared down approach for body care products; Niod, ‘the iPhone of skincare’ with constantly upgraded technologies; HIF, all about scientific haircare; and Hylamide, a high-tech range that’s all about delivering potent actives with multifunctional products.
2018 marked a year of PR fiascos and emotional turmoil for the company, due to the controversial and erratic behaviour of Deciem’s founder and former CEO Brandon Truaxe, on and offline. Key partners and individuals were fired — including then co-CEO Nicola Kilner. Still, Deciem was family, and she later returned at Truaxe’s request. When Estee Lauder, a minority shareholder in Deciem, decided to sue the company under Truaxe’s management, he was forced to leave and Kilner became CEO, seven months pregnant at the time. In January 2019, Brandon Truaxe was found dead in his Toronto condo.
Following the traumatic rollercoaster ride, it was time for Deciem to rebuild and regroup. With an infant in tow and refusing to take maternity leave, Kilner began the heavy task of healing the company. In the beginning, it was reported that her baby daughter, Mila, had flown more flights than weeks since she was born. Within months, the team launched at Ulta Beauty and returned to Sephora, mending previously severed ties. Deciem moved into a new 70,000-square-foot headquarters. It opened a new flagship in Edinburgh.
In Hong Kong, The Ordinary officially launched its physical presence at luxury retailer Harvey Nichols in September 2019, making a point that “luxury can no longer be defined by price point,” which aligns with The Ordinary’s message. This was followed swiftly in November by two concurrent boutique launches at New Town Plaza in Sha Tin and Times Square in Causeway Bay. The brand has also been teasing its Singapore launch since mid-2019, but a store is yet to surface.
When we spoke with Ms. Kilner in September, the company was also in talks with T-Mall so that the brand could enter the China market and get past its historically stringent animal-testing requirements for beauty brands. “Expansion is a big priority,” she said.
In light of the challenging retail landscape that Hong Kong had been experiencing in the past six months due to political tensions and protests, Kilner saw no qualms about opening stores so rapidly in the territory. Retail, she believes, is instrumental to the brand’s success. “Retail all around the world has had its challenges. For us it’s always been about the experience. We have such big revenue channels in different areas and websites, but they can never replicate the experience of coming in and doing consultations and really understanding your skin.”
“We continue to bring out new products. We’ve got three new brands launching [in 2020] and 300 products in development in the lab,” says Kilner.
In December, Deciem created a single-store tribute to Brandon Truaxe, named Avestan. A fragrance initially conceived to be under Deciem’s umbrella, this was the late founder’s personal project that he had been tinkering with for almost a decade. The store features deliberately unfinished walls and clay furnishings to complement the raw, rustic edge of the fragrance. Where perfumes are often said to evoke certain memories, Truaxe decided to go in the opposite direction — to create a scent that was inspired by unfamiliarity. “It is a departure from lavender and rose to an unfulfilled journey of unfamiliar notes: clays, stems, saps, places and moments,” the website’s preface writes, from the founder’s own words.
Avestan is only available at the London address, a space that was secured by Truaxe back in 2018. Launched on 18 December at noon, the store opening is designed like a poignant, comforting memorial for the late pioneer. In the evenings, films that trace the development stages of the brand are projected onto the ceiling. In keeping with the spirit of Deciem’s down-to-earth pricing, each bottle of the perfume sells for £38 (approx. HK$382).
It’s been a busy year for Nicola Kilner for sure, who toggles between being a new mum and working mainly in the evenings (“once America is online”) when her child is sleeping. Yet, she carries it with an affable smile and glowing skin — the latter she attributes to a routine of The Ordinary’s Squalane Cleanser, “Buffet” serum with Copper Peptides, and Niod’s Multi-molecular Hyaluronic Complex.
“It’s been a horrible time for everyone. Brandon wasn’t just a founder, he was family to so many of us, and it’s difficult when you’re watching someone you love just fall apart,” Kilner tells us. “I think the team has shown amazing resilience and strength, and the one thing that I try to instil in our whole company is kindness.”
One of the first things she enacted as CEO was to hire a HR director. She also established wellness days for staff. She adds, “my motto is that when you are kind to people, people are kind back. You surround yourself with experts, and people who are far more intelligent than you. The team has been so supportive. They supported us in the darkest hours, it was important we gave back. The team is in a good place now.”