Viva Interview March 2010 by Janetta Mackay
Karen Murrell is a very modern green goddess. She makes an all-natural lipstick that feels good on and comes in a stylish black canister - biodegradable, of course. She shops on eBay for designer labels and lives by the beach for environmental inspiration.
We meet over coffee in a Takapuna organic café. She's wearing an olive green strapless "DVF" number [Diane von Furstenburg] and her trademark lipstick. The red version is packaged in a pretty (and recycled) cardboard box, colour-matched to a pohutukawa blossom.
Murrell is ecstatic because style.com has this month named her certified organic skincare as one of the best things to come out of New Zealand, up there with Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Flight of the Conchords. She's waiting to hear about distribution in Australia, has signed up a new outlet in Sweden, and Henri Bendel in New York have asked for product samples. In mid-April her lipsticks go on sale in Paris department store Bon Marche.
For most young New Zealand women the idea of selling lipstick to the French might be terrifying, but the willowy brunette is born for the job. She's been in the beauty game all her adult life, heading from university to the cosmetic counter at Smith & Caughey and in 2002 she co-founded and came up with the formulations for Skinfood, a pioneering natural range that found its way on to supermarket shelves here and in Britain.
In 2007 she split from the company after a business relationship soured, determined to pursue her own vision. At the same time, a personal relationship foundered and though Murrell likes to keep her private life private and focus on the future, it's obvious a lot of personal soul-searching and rebuilding has led to Karen Murrell Enterprises, which takes the slogan:
"The business of beauty now has a conscience. At last, beauty is becoming beautiful from within."
Ten products, five for lips, priced at $25 each, and five for skin comprise her range, which sells in New Zealand at Farmers. It eschews the often dull brown and green packaging of many natural products, in favour of a fresh, modern look.
"Natural is colourful,"
explains Murrell, who spent a lot of time getting the design-style she wanted.
"Why should we have to sacrifice our usual appearance considerations?"
The lipstick line, with its canister made from PLA, a corn resin-based material that breaks down within 100 days, is the standout product, being all natural and moisturising. Women are said to consume nearly two kilograms of lipstick in their lifetimes, so with consumers looking for natural alternatives, it's something of a beauty holy grail to come up with a high performance, "got to be good for you" lipstick.
"We've got a niche of our own at the moment,"
She reckons women only need the balm and the four colours she offers, though she does admit to being a makeup junkie who on a recent trip to Australia spent as much time checking out the Chanel counter as the natural skincare.
Her aim is to be judged alongside the big prestige brands, not tucked into a corner, though in her years in the business she's noticed the mainstreaming of natural skincare. To assure her customers she's the real deal she took the tortuous and expensive route of gaining globally recognised ECOCERT approval.
"It was a not negotiable to be internationally competitive on the shelves of the world's department stores."
Murrell says creating market segments is her career aim and exporting is essential if she is to be competitive. But it's clear that the business brain is driven by the passionate heart of a craftswoman.
Each of her products has a back story: the range's hero ingredient tamanu oil is sourced from Vanuatu where it is prized for its healing properties; the unusual addition of oats makes her Nature's Essence Body Scrub more moisturising; she travelled to China to come up with a rubber-look, recyclable matte black plastic container; and she originally made her True Miracle Intense Balm to ease her 94-year-old grandmother's psoriasis.
"They're all full of love."