Women with GRITT
December 07, 2020
by Erin Cook

WOMEN WITH GRITT: Elle Ferguson On How She Got Here, Launching Elle Effect & That Time She Accidentally Printed The Wrong Label On 20,000 Bottles

by Erin Cook

“I think I worked a good 18 months and banked every cent that I made to put into an account that would pay for the samples of my products. I wanted it to be self funded. I wanted to be the person making the decisions.”

Welcome to Women with GRITT: a series where we interview the resilient, hardworking women who have kicked in the glass ceiling and inspire us to do the same.

Elle Ferguson is our kind of gal. With 679,000 followers (and counting!) following her every Instagram move, you could forgive the 35-year-old for having somewhat of an ego. But in reality, Ferguson couldn’t be more down to earth. 

Ferguson first came to our attention over 10 years ago as one half of fashion blogger duo They All Hate Us and by way of her own personal Instagram account @elle_ferguson. Before long, the Bondi local gathered a global audience thanks to her daily street style snaps, boho-meets-polished style, tousled blonde hair and golden tan. 

Always one to be ahead of the curb – she was an influencer before we even knew what an ‘influencer’ was – Ferguson noticed that a handful of her peers and fellow influencers in the US were backing themselves and successfully launching their own start-ups. “I saw a change in the current where all of these amazing girls globally were creating their own brands and I thought to myself, I need to be at the front of the pack, you don’t want to be at the back. Kim Kardashian is right at the top of the list – especially when she started to create her brands [KKW Beauty and Skims].”

Once Ferguson sets her sights on something, she always sees it through. And in 2018, ELLE EFFECT was born. The brand launched with one product: The Self Tanning Mousse. Ferguson is known for her long bronzed limbs and with the launch of ELLE EFFECT, she let us in on a little secret. That golden glow? It’s always from a bottle. “People always say to me, why is your skin so good? And I think it’s because I never go in the sun. But I always have a tan. I was mixing my own colour with three different types of self tan but it stunk and I could never get it right. So I thought, what happens if I make my own? That’s how it started.”

Given that her followers already associated Ferguson with a streak-free faux tan, launching her own self-tan was a no brainer. In the two years following, ELLE EFFECT’s offering has expanded to include: The Wash (a tan remover), The Tint (an instant illuminating tan) and a few cute accessories to boot. 

From the outside looking in, everything seems pretty rosy for this fashion-forward entrepreneur but as always, Instagram is a highlight reel. We caught up with Ferguson to learn more about her journey to date – from high school to her first ‘real’ job at One Teaspoon, launching a global brand and all the challenges that pop up along the way.

At the final presentation – the night that you presented your final works to the industry – I won the Most Promising Student Award which I never thought I would get. After I had my acceptance speech, a woman came up to me from One Teaspoon and said, ‘I love what you’ve done. Do you want to come sit for an interview for a National Visual Merchandising Manager at One Teaspoon?’ I remember thinking, oh my gosh, this is where I want to work and I don’t care if you pay me $2 per hour. 

[When I got to head office] One Teaspoon Founder Jamie Blakey had just given birth to her first baby and was walking around with a Gucci baby holder on her front with denim shorts and a leotard. I joined and the starting salary was something I could barely afford to live on so I was still commuting from the Central Coast. I didn’t even have my license – I had to get the train. I remember, one day, Jamie called me and said, ‘You need to be at the office at 5am for a shoot’. I was on a train at 3am in the morning.

I spent 18 months [at One Teaspoon] and then Jamie said to General Pants Co., I think this girl is amazing and you would really benefit from having her on your team. So I was lucky enough to interview with the head of visual merchandising at General Pants Co. and I got the job.

 

Most Gritty Pretty readers will know your face from Instagram as you are one of Australia’s most-followed influencers. How did you transition from visual merchandising to being an influencer? Was ‘influencing’ even a thing back then?!

When I was working at General Pants Co., I was lucky enough to have the role of Head of Womenswear Visual Merchandising which meant I got to set the tone for what you bought in store. I would look for inspiration from overseas or in magazines and would have pictures on the walls around my desk – it got to the point where I had to put them online. So my business partner at the time and I started a blog. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we were [avid followers] of blogs overseas. 

It started in our lunch break and then it gathered this cult following. [Our followers] would ask, ‘Who is behind this?’ So every now and then, I’d put up a photograph of myself on the blog and people would ask where my top or shoes were from.

Then, Instagram popped up and it was actually my sister who said to me, ‘You need to get rid of your Blackberry and get an iPhone because there’s this app called Instagram. Your outfits are so cool. You need to do it.’ I told my sister I didn’t really understand but yeah, let’s give it a go. 

I started posting my outfits either taken at reception or against a brick wall; I just documented what I wore every day. From there, it started to gain traction. I remember getting 1,000 followers, then 10,000 followers, then 50,000 followers. I was just staying consistent and doing me. That’s it. I was really lucky to find an audience.

 

After a few years, you pivoted again and launched your own business: ELLE EFFECT. Why did you launch ELLE EFFECT? And was it a lightbulb moment or something you thought about for a while?

I started to see a shift globally where these amazing girls who inspired me were starting to create their own brands. I remember working with brands [in an influencer capacity] and people would be hiring Elle Ferguson to support their brands. I’m very numbers driven and analytical when it comes to transactions; I remember getting a report back from a brand that I had worked with and seeing the units that I had moved and sold versus my talent fee. It was interesting. People trust my voice, they trust the brand that I’ve made and I thought to myself, ‘What if it was my name on the bottle? Would they still buy it?’. It was a leap of faith.

 

You have a fashion background – why did you start a beauty brand?

I had always worked in fashion and I think I knew too much. I knew how the fashion world worked. And I’m the biggest beauty junkie out there. I love the fact that beauty speaks to everybody. It wasn’t about whether you would fit into this pair of denim shorts; beauty can be for everybody. I was also very naive. I actually didn’t know a lot about beauty. When I would ask a question, I really didn’t know the answer to it which made it really exciting. I was going in blind – it was the same thing as what I did with Instagram.

 

Hi, Elle! We’re excited to talk about all things ELLE EFFECT with you. But first, we want to know a bit more about you. Where did you grow up and what were your early years like?

I grew up on the sunny Central Coast of Sydney in Terrigal. It was beautiful. We were right on the water which was amazing. However, I went to high school in Sydney so I don’t think I was ever destined to stay there; as much as I loved it, I think the universe had bigger plans. 

I was the youngest ever student to be accepted from the Central Coast to go to the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. It was a selective school and it was an audition process to get in. I got accepted when I was 12 and it was so scary. My mum actually commuted with me for the first term of high school because it was two trains and a bus and a walk to get there. Plus, it was scary but the opportunity was amazing.

 

And what were the early days of your career like? When you finished high school, what did you do? Did you go on to study?

I did my HSC and I knew that I wanted to work in fashion. I remember seeing a course for visual merchandising – I’d always loved the windows of stores and loved to shop – and I submitted a portfolio and did an entry exam and got in. It was at Sydney Design Centre.

When I was halfway through my final semester, one of the lecturers said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing interior design?’ And I was like, no, I’m into fashion. He told me that I’d shown a real flair for the design aspect [of visual merchandising] and suggested that I look into a college called Enmore Design Centre. 

I commuted down to Enmore five days per week [from the Central Coast] and that course was one of the hardest things I have ever done. They sat us in a room at the beginning of the year and said, look around you, there’ll only be about 10 of you left from the 30 that are starting. It was true, there were only 10 of us that graduated.

How did you fund ELLE EFFECT from the get-go?

I think I worked a good 18 months and banked every cent that I made to put into an account that would pay for the samples of my products. I wanted it to be self funded. I wanted to be the person making the decisions. I didn’t want to do it for somebody else.

 

So you had the idea and the money for ELLE EFFECT and you were ready to make it happen. What did you do next?

I knocked on several chemist doors in Australia and none of them would take me seriously. They all wanted to know who I worked for and what the business was. I told them that I’m the business, I have the money, please let me do a sample. And they all said that they’d talk to me in 18 months to two years. It was too long. I needed to go now; I wanted to be part of the first group [of influencers] that were doing it, like Jen Atkin [Founder of OUAI] and Mariana Hewitt [Co-Founder of Summer Fridays]. At this time, I was spending a lot of time in LA and I had a conversation with a girl on a shoot. She said that her friend had just made a lip and cheek tint out of a chemist in California and that she could give me the details. I literally rang them that day and asked if I could come to the factory and meet the chemist. They were like, ‘Have you got the money?’ And I said yes, let’s go. 

From that first conversation to getting the ELLE EFFECT product in hand was a good 18 months. [The distance from Sydney to LA] was hard. Every time I went back with notes, it was another month. The launch date kept getting further and further away because there were so many formulations. Tan obviously develops differently on different people’s skin. Every time I got a sample, I would be testing on different people’s skin. [My fiancé] Joel, my sister and my manager literally tried every single formula.

 

What has been the biggest challenge to overcome?

For my first order of The Self Tanning Mousse, I had 20,000 bottles delivered to my apartment in Bondi Beach on the side of the road in summer. Without a pallet jack, my partner and I carried 20,000 bottles of tan up three flights of stairs, filling the apartment with boxes. I looked at the bottle and turned it around and the wrong cruelty free emblem was put on the back of the bottle. I’d worked so hard for this moment and I thought, I’m not going to be able to sell these bottles, what am I going to do? In that moment, I said to Joel, we’re going to have to get a tiny white sticker. We spent that summer ripping off 20,000 shrink wrapped bottles and replacing it with a little white sticker over the emblem.

 

What’s next for ELLE EFFECT?

We’re really lucky to be in a position where we’re looking for investors. I’m having amazing conversations that I’ve never had previously and they’re really exciting. The business has grown so quickly. Something that I’ve never done before is scale a business but we have such a global audience. I’m not afraid to put my hand up and ask for help. I’m having some really great conversations about how to move my business forward.

Elle Ferguson is our kind of gal. With 679,000 followers (and counting!) following her every Instagram move, you could forgive the 35-year-old for having somewhat of an ego. But in reality, Ferguson couldn’t be more down to earth. 

Ferguson first came to our attention over 10 years ago as one half of fashion blogger duo They All Hate Us and by way of her own personal Instagram account @elle_ferguson. Before long, the Bondi local gathered a global audience thanks to her daily street style snaps, boho-meets-polished style, tousled blonde hair and golden tan. 

Always one to be ahead of the curb – she was an influencer before we even knew what an ‘influencer’ was – Ferguson noticed that a handful of her peers and fellow influencers in the US were backing themselves and successfully launching their own start-ups. “I saw a change in the current where all of these amazing girls globally were creating their own brands and I thought to myself, I need to be at the front of the pack, you don’t want to be at the back. Kim Kardashian is right at the top of the list – especially when she started to create her brands [KKW Beauty and Skims].”

Once Ferguson sets her sights on something, she always sees it through. And in 2018, ELLE EFFECT was born. The brand launched with one product: The Self Tanning Mousse. Ferguson is known for her long bronzed limbs and with the launch of ELLE EFFECT, she let us in on a little secret. That golden glow? It’s always from a bottle. “People always say to me, why is your skin so good? And I think it’s because I never go in the sun. But I always have a tan. I was mixing my own colour with three different types of self tan but it stunk and I could never get it right. So I thought, what happens if I make my own? That’s how it started.”

Given that her followers already associated Ferguson with a streak-free faux tan, launching her own self-tan was a no brainer. In the two years following, ELLE EFFECT’s offering has expanded to include: The Wash (a tan remover), The Tint (an instant illuminating tan) and a few cute accessories to boot. 

From the outside looking in, everything seems pretty rosy for this fashion-forward entrepreneur but as always, Instagram is a highlight reel. We caught up with Ferguson to learn more about her journey to date – from high school to her first ‘real’ job at One Teaspoon, launching a global brand and all the challenges that pop up along the way.

Hi, Elle! We’re excited to talk about all things ELLE EFFECT with you. But first, we want to know a bit more about you. Where did you grow up and what were your early years like?

I grew up on the sunny Central Coast of Sydney in Terrigal. It was beautiful. We were right on the water which was amazing. However, I went to high school in Sydney so I don’t think I was ever destined to stay there; as much as I loved it, I think the universe had bigger plans. 

I was the youngest ever student to be accepted from the Central Coast to go to the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. It was a selective school and it was an audition process to get in. I got accepted when I was 12 and it was so scary. My mum actually commuted with me for the first term of high school because it was two trains and a bus and a walk to get there. Plus, it was scary but the opportunity was amazing.

 

And what were the early days of your career like? When you finished high school, what did you do? Did you go on to study?

I did my HSC and I knew that I wanted to work in fashion. I remember seeing a course for visual merchandising – I’d always loved the windows of stores and loved to shop – and I submitted a portfolio and did an entry exam and got in. It was at Sydney Design Centre.

When I was halfway through my final semester, one of the lecturers said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing interior design?’ And I was like, no, I’m into fashion. He told me that I’d shown a real flair for the design aspect [of visual merchandising] and suggested that I look into a college called Enmore Design Centre. 

I commuted down to Enmore five days per week [from the Central Coast] and that course was one of the hardest things I have ever done. They sat us in a room at the beginning of the year and said, look around you, there’ll only be about 10 of you left from the 30 that are starting. It was true, there were only 10 of us that graduated.

At the final presentation – the night that you presented your final works to the industry – I won the Most Promising Student Award which I never thought I would get. After I had my acceptance speech, a woman came up to me from One Teaspoon and said, ‘I love what you’ve done. Do you want to come sit for an interview for a National Visual Merchandising Manager at One Teaspoon?’ I remember thinking, oh my gosh, this is where I want to work and I don’t care if you pay me $2 per hour. 

[When I got to head office] One Teaspoon Founder Jamie Blakey had just given birth to her first baby and was walking around with a Gucci baby holder on her front with denim shorts and a leotard. I joined and the starting salary was something I could barely afford to live on so I was still commuting from the Central Coast. I didn’t even have my license – I had to get the train. I remember, one day, Jamie called me and said, ‘You need to be at the office at 5am for a shoot’. I was on a train at 3am in the morning.

I spent 18 months [at One Teaspoon] and then Jamie said to General Pants Co., I think this girl is amazing and you would really benefit from having her on your team. So I was lucky enough to interview with the head of visual merchandising at General Pants Co. and I got the job.

 

Most Gritty Pretty readers will know your face from Instagram as you are one of Australia’s most-followed influencers. How did you transition from visual merchandising to being an influencer? Was ‘influencing’ even a thing back then?!

When I was working at General Pants Co., I was lucky enough to have the role of Head of Womenswear Visual Merchandising which meant I got to set the tone for what you bought in store. I would look for inspiration from overseas or in magazines and would have pictures on the walls around my desk – it got to the point where I had to put them online. So my business partner at the time and I started a blog. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we were [avid followers] of blogs overseas. 

It started in our lunch break and then it gathered this cult following. [Our followers] would ask, ‘Who is behind this?’ So every now and then, I’d put up a photograph of myself on the blog and people would ask where my top or shoes were from.

Then, Instagram popped up and it was actually my sister who said to me, ‘You need to get rid of your Blackberry and get an iPhone because there’s this app called Instagram. Your outfits are so cool. You need to do it.’ I told my sister I didn’t really understand but yeah, let’s give it a go. 

I started posting my outfits either taken at reception or against a brick wall; I just documented what I wore every day. From there, it started to gain traction. I remember getting 1,000 followers, then 10,000 followers, then 50,000 followers. I was just staying consistent and doing me. That’s it. I was really lucky to find an audience.

 

After a few years, you pivoted again and launched your own business: ELLE EFFECT. Why did you launch ELLE EFFECT? And was it a lightbulb moment or something you thought about for a while?

I started to see a shift globally where these amazing girls who inspired me were starting to create their own brands. I remember working with brands [in an influencer capacity] and people would be hiring Elle Ferguson to support their brands. I’m very numbers driven and analytical when it comes to transactions; I remember getting a report back from a brand that I had worked with and seeing the units that I had moved and sold versus my talent fee. It was interesting. People trust my voice, they trust the brand that I’ve made and I thought to myself, ‘What if it was my name on the bottle? Would they still buy it?’. It was a leap of faith.

 

You have a fashion background – why did you start a beauty brand?

I had always worked in fashion and I think I knew too much. I knew how the fashion world worked. And I’m the biggest beauty junkie out there. I love the fact that beauty speaks to everybody. It wasn’t about whether you would fit into this pair of denim shorts; beauty can be for everybody. I was also very naive. I actually didn’t know a lot about beauty. When I would ask a question, I really didn’t know the answer to it which made it really exciting. I was going in blind – it was the same thing as what I did with Instagram.

 

How did you fund ELLE EFFECT from the get-go?

I think I worked a good 18 months and banked every cent that I made to put into an account that would pay for the samples of my products. I wanted it to be self funded. I wanted to be the person making the decisions. I didn’t want to do it for somebody else.

 

So you had the idea and the money for ELLE EFFECT and you were ready to make it happen. What did you do next?

I knocked on several chemist doors in Australia and none of them would take me seriously. They all wanted to know who I worked for and what the business was. I told them that I’m the business, I have the money, please let me do a sample. And they all said that they’d talk to me in 18 months to two years. It was too long. I needed to go now; I wanted to be part of the first group [of influencers] that were doing it, like Jen Atkin [Founder of OUAI] and Mariana Hewitt [Co-Founder of Summer Fridays]. At this time, I was spending a lot of time in LA and I had a conversation with a girl on a shoot. She said that her friend had just made a lip and cheek tint out of a chemist in California and that she could give me the details. I literally rang them that day and asked if I could come to the factory and meet the chemist. They were like, ‘Have you got the money?’ And I said yes, let’s go. 

From that first conversation to getting the ELLE EFFECT product in hand was a good 18 months. [The distance from Sydney to LA] was hard. Every time I went back with notes, it was another month. The launch date kept getting further and further away because there were so many formulations. Tan obviously develops differently on different people’s skin. Every time I got a sample, I would be testing on different people’s skin. [My fiancé] Joel, my sister and my manager literally tried every single formula.

 

What has been the biggest challenge to overcome?

For my first order of The Self Tanning Mousse, I had 20,000 bottles delivered to my apartment in Bondi Beach on the side of the road in summer. Without a pallet jack, my partner and I carried 20,000 bottles of tan up three flights of stairs, filling the apartment with boxes. I looked at the bottle and turned it around and the wrong cruelty free emblem was put on the back of the bottle. I’d worked so hard for this moment and I thought, I’m not going to be able to sell these bottles, what am I going to do? In that moment, I said to Joel, we’re going to have to get a tiny white sticker. We spent that summer ripping off 20,000 shrink wrapped bottles and replacing it with a little white sticker over the emblem.

 

What’s next for ELLE EFFECT?

We’re really lucky to be in a position where we’re looking for investors. I’m having amazing conversations that I’ve never had previously and they’re really exciting. The business has grown so quickly. Something that I’ve never done before is scale a business but we have such a global audience. I’m not afraid to put my hand up and ask for help. I’m having some really great conversations about how to move my business forward.

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