The Interview: Stephanie Capuano, founder, 31st State

31st State

31st State is a brand of grooming and skincare products targeting Gen Z young men, with a focus on a “cleaner” offer, removing harsh chemicals and ingredients that aren’t necessary to the performance of a hygiene routine. The focus has been on ingredients that are naturally antibacterial, which has resonated strongly during the coronavirus crisis.

The idea came from Californian founder, Stephanie Capuano – now living in London – not being able to find what she wanted for her two teenage sons, Matteo who is now 17, and Gianluca, 18, who were struggling with typical skin problems for their ages. It’s certainly hitting the right notes now, with direct to consumer sales having doubled year-on-year for the past three months, plus strong sales are being seen through the likes of ASOS, with fashion-driven young men also clearly interested in their wellbeing, hygiene and skincare.

What was the original idea behind 31st State?

I launched it in late 2017, though I probably had the idea four and a half years ago now. It’s a range of skincare products for Gen Z guys. The idea was to create a really tight edit in the clean beauty space where there was a real lack out there – especially in the UK – for Gen Z guys. There was a lot out there for girls, babies and adults, but nothing for that sweet spot when boys are entering that grooming phase – products that were cleaner and healthier for them, and healthier for the planet. For me, as a consumer, and a mother of two teenage boys, I was starting to make more informed purchases in our household, such as buying healthier food that wasn’t sprayed with chemicals, and food without preservatives. We also started eliminating the chemicals in our household cleaning products and laundry care. Here I was feeding my kids healthier foods and using cleaning products with fewer chemicals for the house, and yet I couldn’t find a simple hygiene routine for them that wasn’t laden with unnecessary chemicals and was something they would actually want to use. I was mystified why no one was really doing that in teen skincare and deodorants in a more aspirational way for Gen Z, a super progressive generation of consumers.

What was your background before launching 31st State?

I was previously in the pharmaceutical industry, working in San Francisco, New York and London – in the marketing end of that industry. I worked on more complex drugs for breast cancer and AIDS, doing issue management around those, so it was much cerebral than launching products for teen grooming! I think what it did was give me a much more clinical approach. It made me think about it in a different way than your average consumer. That was the bulk of my career before I did this, that said, in between that I did work for a Nigerian-born British fashion designer called Duro Olowu. He has a cult following in the fashion industry and dresses the likes of Beyoncé and Michelle Obama. That little foray in to fashion was important to me prior to launching 31st State, as it gave me more of an appreciation for fashion and the blurred lines between it and all the other products we consume, especially beauty and personal care. My two teenage boys are also massively into fashion, so I really thought the 31st State brand almost needed to be a crossover. It had to be a part of that lifestyle and it had to look good with their other things. Here they are, buying and selling streetwear all day long on Depop or whatever, and spending their own money they’ve saved on really expensive designer wear. So, we really felt strongly that it needed to be more like a fashion accessory and something that looked good with the rest of their stuff.

So, it’s almost a product for Gen Z by Gen Z?

It’s been such an interesting time for us. When we launched, it was always with the intent that we were indeed a brand for Gen Z, but also by Gen Z. All the decisions we made came from feedback received from Gen Z. I didn’t retro-fit it to this generation’s needs like a big global Unilever-type brand. We really built if from scratch around them, with their informed opinions. We even did focus groups with boys in London and their mothers to discuss what they used, how they groomed and what they looked for in products before we even lifted a pencil to develop a product. We asked if ingredients were important to them, and how important impact on the planet was to them. All those elements were considered before bringing a single product to market. Once we started building it, we then had them involved in the actual product development – looking at branding ideas and testing logos on them.

What were the first steps to creating your own products?

I worked with a developer in London who had done a lot of work with dermatologists and other brands in the “cleaner space,” and we came up with formulations that took out ingredients that are known to be harmful to our bodies and just aren’t needed in the products. We tried to keep the ingredient list very simple, and made it vegan-friendly. We’re not a premium brand, we’re more top of the mass market, with price points like Kiehl’s or Origins. So, we couldn’t manufacture in glass, instead choosing plastics that are fully recyclable for our packaging. With regard to the design of the packaging, it was probably one of the most important things we did. We worked with an agency who’d never designed for beauty or grooming, but we thought they could speak the language of our end-user Gen Z guys. They are an east London agency, called Outside, who have designed for the likes of Nike, Adidas, Reebok K-Swiss – brands that guys would understand and would appeal to. We really felt strongly that we didn’t want it to look like their dad’s product, or something they were borrowing from their mum. They hand-drew the font, inspired by some 1970’s California surf photography and fonts. It’s very different for beauty packaging, but it’s really resonated and it’s sets us apart on the shelf, which was the whole idea. We’re really proud of the packaging, both the design and the recycling aspect of it.

31st State

How difficult was it to get it on to shelves and how big is your direct to consumer online business?

About 50% of our business is usually direct to consumer, which has saved us during this pandemic. In fact, that is probably more like 80% right now as we’ve doubled our sales year-year-on for the last three months.  We also have a lot of e-commerce retailers selling our products, and we’re normally on the shelves of some bricks and mortar shops, such as Liberty in London, as well as some smaller independents. We sell through Victoria Health, which is a really unique boutique online chemist which has a bit of cult following in the beauty world. ASOS was the first retailer that really launched us, as they picked us up about four months after we started out and, since that time, we’ve had a great partnership with them and it’s just gone from strength to strength. They picked up on the vegan aspects of our products and the attributes that the Gen Z generation, and also some Millennials, really focus on. Our customers with them tend to be the top-end of Gen Z, so young men in their early 20’s, as well as some Millennial men. We also sell really well on online supermarket Ocado, which is completely different. That’s more because our end purchasers are often mothers purchasing for their sons, who are in the lower end of the demographic – boys who are maybe 15-18 years-old, who don’t quite yet want to spend their own pocket money on their own skincare or deodorant yet.

What do you attribute such strong current direct to consumer sales on right now?

I attribute that to people being at home a lot more than usual, and this real new focus on hygiene. Our products are naturally antibacterial and I think people are really seeking that out now in products. Going forward, that’s probably going to remain very important to how people choose what they buy.

How have you kept the Gen Z connection with the brand?

They now create all of our content, such as our photography – which sometimes is imperfect but other times is amazing. But, it’s theirs – we don’t edit it. They also write all of our content, so all of our blogs are written by them. Again, it’s often imperfect but totally honest and raw, just like them.

How has that been during this unprecedented time?

We really wanted to understand what all of our contributors and users were going through, so we blasted out correspondence to network asking them to write 400-word blog posts for us. About 100 came back to us. As you can imagine, they are fraught with anxiety, because they are uncertain about their futures. A lot of these kids were socialised and grew-up during the recession of 2008 and following years, and now they’re going in to adulthood in another recession. When you dig deep in to this generation and their psyche, and why they are so entrepreneurial and careful about what brands they choose, a lot of it is because they’ve seen their parents struggling financially. I think they feel they now have a tremendous burden to carry us forward out of this. The big things that came out of the feedback was their wellbeing, anxiety about their education and work futures, climate change, activism, wealth disparity, access to healthcare and entrepreneurship. While they feel a burden in terms of feeling the need to correct the damage that’s been done to the planet and the economy by previous generations, there was also surprisingly a real optimism and positivity among them. They are looking after their bodies more, eating better, getting more sleep and also “unplugging” more despite everyone having to communicate via technology. They were just some of the findings that ran true in several of the blog posts.

Was the plan to get your products on to more shelves this year?

Yes, it was, and it still is. We were supposed to launch with Urban Outfitters in the US in March, but that’s been delayed due to them being shuttered. We were also supposed to go on shelf with Boots in March, but that’s now been moved to August. In the meantime, we are super focused on our direct to consumer business, which has been really positive.

Why would you say your products for young men fall in to the beauty category?

It’s the grooming category but, when we talk about, it’s really part of the overall beauty industry as men and boys now take a greater interest in self-grooming, body image and hygiene. I think a lot of the trends that we see with traditional beauty, we now see in men’s grooming too. For example, the focus on ingredients and cleaner skincare and grooming. In fact, those are things that are not trends any more, they are movements that are here to stay. Moving forward, perhaps even more so, as I think they’ll be a greater focus on those aspects in the industry. Of course, we don’t manufacture traditional cosmetics, but we still fall in to that discussion. Young men are much more switched on to products that will make them look and feel better these days. I definitely think we’ve spotted a gap in the market and, as an independent brand not governed by a big corporate giant, we’re more appealing to a Gen Z customer in our products, outlook and sense of wellbeing.

What are your best-selling products?

Pre-lockdown, our best-seller was a pot of ‘Overnight Cleaning Pads’, which you swipe over your face at night, and they work wonders. They are actually our most unisex product, and our most technologically advanced product from a skincare perspective – priced at £15.99 for 50, to clean your pores, reduce redness and refine spots and lines with the help of lactic acid. They are very well made with premium natural ingredients, but still accessible. We always want to make the whole range accessible despite being made with more premium natural ingredients. The cleaning pads are still selling really well but, what’s been interesting in the lockdown, and what we are calling our “hygiene heroes”, are the two products that are our most antibacterial, and they have ingredients like silver and manuka. Silver is something that you see increasingly in natural products because it’s naturally antibacterial. We have it in our ‘Foaming Face Wash’ and our ‘2-in-1 Hair & Body Wash’. Those two have been our best-sellers hands down across our retailers and our own website. What it’s showing us is the antibacterial message is really resonating with consumers. From an industry standpoint, with all of the webinars I’m sitting in on, and all of the podcasts I’m participating in – listening to what people are saying, formulators are very aware that antibacterial is going to be one of those claims that will stay with us.

So, do you think the hygiene aspect is going to become even more important?

People will continue to look for that, and you will start to see that in the future in many more product lines. We needed that from the get-go, because we wanted to help young men suffering with acne and other skin issues. The ‘Foaming Face Wash’ is £12.99, and the ‘2-in-1 Hair & Body Wash’ is £8.99. Our products are proudly made in the UK and all of our ingredients are sourced in the UK and EU, so obviously right now we’ve got some production delays. We actually have two new products in development, which are going to be delayed because we just don’t have access to the raw ingredients at this time, or at the speed we normally would have. We were also in the process of replenishing stock which has also been impacted by the pandemic in terms of access to raw materials and skeleton staff at manufacturers. We hope to be on track with production again very soon. In the meantime, we are super optimistic about the future growth of 31st State – a brand name taken from my roots, as California was indeed named as the 31st State of the USA back in 1850. It’s a geography and a philosophy – a place and a way of doing things that’s a little more natural and effortless.