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Skincare queen Renée Chow of @Gothamista on beauty trends and being “skintuitive”

The world of skincare and beauty is an intimidating and overwhelming one. Hundreds of brands, and even more influencers, pushing marketing jargon down our throats throughout various media channels — it’s enough to make one despair. Enter Renée Chow, aka @Gothamista, a skincare blogger who is engaging, direct and just refreshingly honest. 

Growing up within a very traditional Asian household, a lot of what I can remember from my playtime during childhood is my mum and her reminders — put on sunscreen; put on a big hat; keep your skin covered and stay hydrated. As a child, of course, that was eye-rollingly bothersome. I didn’t want to be covered in white goop! And I certainly didn’t enjoy being outdoors in a long-sleeved top in this heat. Now, at the ripe age of 30, I finally understand the wisdom of our elders. 

For the rebellious and the unruly, there tends to be a mad dash to skincare counters when the first wrinkles or discolouration start to appear, and with that, a mountain of information online about where to go for what. As a millennial, of course, my first stop was YouTube where I discovered Renée Chow of @Gothamista, currently at 658,000 subscribers and counting. The intrepid skincare queen also boasts almost 200,000 followers on Instagram, as well.

Renée Chow / @gothamista

Meet Renée

“I don’t chase algorithms. I don’t consciously check my numbers, so thanks for updating me,” says Chow with a laugh. “I started my career as a beauty buyer so I don’t feel like there’s that much of a difference between what I did before and what I do now. I’ve always talked the way I do about skincare because that’s the way it was always presented to me.” 

Unlike many other channels, Chow’s videos are long. We’re talking 10 to 20 minutes — sometimes even up to half an hour. For a platform where the average time a viewer tunes in is three minutes, Chow has been unusually successful in this regard. And, with good reason.  

“When I first started my channel, one of my girlfriends was like, ‘You can’t do videos longer than five minutes. Nobody has that attention span!’” she recalls. “One day, after I’d filmed this piece and tried to edit it down, it was still 17 minutes long. I thought, well, you know what? I’m just going to put it out there. I can’t edit this anymore without compromising what I believe is important information. It ended up being one of my most popular videos.” 

Renée Chow of @Gothamista on eye creams and serums

There’s a reason her videos are so effective

There is a certain serenity paired with quiet command in the way Chow describes skincare, be it her routine, new products or round-ups. It’s information that’s technical — but not too technical; it’s in a tone that’s conversational — but still carries educated weight.  

“Most people want to understand what they’re purchasing and how it works,” she says. “I believe one of the reasons why my videos are effective is because I don’t have a science background so I don’t get too in depth with the science behind it all. I simplify the information in a way that resonates with me, and in a way that, I hope, resonates with my viewers.” 

Chow has been living and working in New York the last 20 years. In the face of the pandemic, however, she’s back in our vibrant city to spend more time with family. As ye olde faithful resident skincare-fan, I was ecstatic to be able to meet my hero in person for a bit of a chinwag on a sunny Friday morning. 

Renée Chow of @Gothamista on the best budget-friendly skincare

What is a little-known tidbit about the beauty and skincare industry that most people don’t know? 

I’ve worked with a formulator and worked with most brands today and, honestly, what people probably don’t know is the amount of contract manufacturing that exists. The concept is simple: The brand will go to a manufacturer, most likely in Korea, and they’ll make small customisations to an existing range and then rebrand it under their own name. This is why so many beauty or skincare dupes [duplicates] exist.  

Having learnt that, I now tend to gravitate towards the very special formulas that are innovative that I know took years to develop, not brands with three-month turnarounds. It’s a whole different awareness of what products are and, in that respect, I learned a lot about pricing about what works together, what doesn’t work together, what’s pure marketing jargon and what’s virtue signalling in the beauty industry. 

I was able to find out why certain formulas cost so much, while others don’t. And everyone likes to believe it’s packaging. That’s not actually true. If you want any form of plant ingredient — and you want a high-quality plant ingredient — that’s going to be expensive. It’s the difference between going to City’super and buying these perfect Japanese apples that cost like US$100 a pack, versus one that’s bruised from someone’s backyard. A lot of brands charge an immense amount for something that is essentially hyaluronic acid and water because they’ve learnt that if you want to bring the price down: Add water, because water is free.

How has the skincare market changed over the past decade? 

It’s gotten a lot more inclusive, transparent and accessible.  

Being East Asian with sensitive skin, the options I grew up with didn’t really meet my skin needs at all. During that time, the popular, mainstream options were Western brands that were too harsh, stringent or very much catering to a Western aesthetic. The popularity of Korean beauty, or K-Beauty, kickstarted the evolution of addressing skin concerns with a focus on hydration and gentle approach which pretty much killed the flawed: “If you feel the burn, it’s working!” concept.  

The rise and empowerment of independent beauty brands also helped a lot. Deciem was one of the brands that revolutionised the skincare industry as a whole with their “The Ordinary” brand — formulas that are concentrated, without unnecessary additives and all under US$10. This changed the way people buy skincare; they are far more educated now than 10 years ago and brands have been forced to respond to this. 

When would you suggest we start anti-ageing skincare?  

Dermatologists will say to start as soon as possible, but, honestly, my whole thing is something I like to call ‘skintuition’. Anti-ageing skincare should be something you start when you feel like you need it. I think people are getting a little too obsessed with anti-ageing when, really, let’s turn the script and learn to age gracefully. Ageing is a beautiful thing! Wrinkles are natural and really nice — it shows that you’ve laughed; you’ve been happy.  

I can’t stand these social media trends where teens or people in their early 20s are starting to get Botox. I’m so against that. I think people need to learn to be comfortable with ageing. I didn’t start exfoliating regularly until I was in my mid-30s because my skin never needed it before. It’s all about trusting your skin, and your own intuition about feeling good.  

Are there any treatments that you do regularly? 

So, I’m really bad with treatments. I’m more about skincare only because treatments require maintenance. I can do my skincare routine every night easily, but if you told me to go every four months to get an injection, it’s not happening. It’s just hard to maintain. I’d rather pop into the shop and try a big haul of new products.  

Who is someone in the industry that you admire? 

I’m happy that you mentioned Jude [Chao of @fiddysnails] because there’s a huge space right now, so there’s a lot of noise. Jude is one of the very few people in the space that really knows. She’s got a voice that’s very reasonable, does not buy into like the trendy dialogue and I really, really appreciate her as an influencer. She definitely knows what she’s talking about. I learned a lot. She asked me to do the foreword for the book, and it was probably one of the greatest honours.

With the benefit of hindsight, what’s one advice you would give to your younger self? 

Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. And at least SPF30! 

Follow Renée Chow on Instagram here and YouTube here.

Skincare queen Renée Chow of @Gothamista on beauty trends and being “skintuitive”

Sandra Kwong

Features Editor

A perpetually hungry individual paired with an acute dirty martini obsession. You'll catch Sandra waltzing around town from gallery openings to various happy hours. Usually waxing lyrical about her 10-step skincare routine or her latest gadget. Currently missing: long ski runs in Hanazono.

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