If (like us) you ever wonder what the inside of a beauty editor’s drawers and cupboards look like, then Anna-Marie Solowij’s would have to be the holy grail of storage solutions. An award-winning beauty journalist with over 25 years experience, Anna-Marie began her career at Marie Claire in 1988, before doing stints at Elle, Vogue and as editor of Harvey Nichols magazine. These days she’s contributing editor of The Gentlewoman, co-founder of BeautyMart and an industry powerhouse.
“I am constantly trying different products” says Anna-Marie, “I actually just had a big sort out of my storage cupboards - often I keep things not even to use, but to remind me of the packaging, smell or texture of some things”. It’s a Friday morning and we’re in Anna-Marie’s bright and breezy Highgate home, chatting about beauty products, and what it’s like to be reunited with an old favourite you haven’t used in a while.
“There’s almost an emotional connection, it’s like when you see somebody you haven’t seen for a long time, you have so much to catch up on.” she says, “It’s almost that feeling of ‘oh, I remember you! You were really great and I want to spend time with you again.’”
Anna-Marie has that rare knack of actually talking about beauty in an interesting way. These aren’t just products on a shelf – they’re hidden gems, new discoveries from far-flung places and old friends to be cherished. This is part down to her years spent writing, researching and critiquing the subject and part down to her sheer obsession with it. Either way, we can’t help but be engrossed by everything she says.
BeautyMart launched 4 years ago in Harvey Nichols and an online store followed a few months later. Tapping into the changing patterns in how we shop for beauty, Anna-Marie began the concept with Millie Kendall, formerly one half of Ruby & Millie cosmetics and a retail maven who launched the likes of Shu Uemura and Aveda in the UK.
So in tune were they both with the way consumers cherry-picked their beauty products from different brands and price brackets, they managed to create a unique retail concept that focuses on only the products they believe work best, rather than taking on full ranges or focusing merely on high end.
“Post-recession, women were increasingly looking for inexpensive items, as well as the more prestige items, shopping across prices, products, brands and locations” says Anna-Marie, “Everyone was mixing it up in the way they have done with fashion.”
The store has become a destination for those who are after that ‘editor’s stamp of approval’. Magazines have the ability to sell out a product in minutes, so why not transfer this expertise to a retail environment?
It strikes us that Anna-Marie’s taste (and not just in beauty) is unashamedly eclectic - her home is a curated mish-mash of paintings, books, sculpture, ceramics, woven rugs and low hanging lampshades. No corner has been left to sit bare, a little like her bathroom cabinet we expect. She mentions that her partner runs an art gallery in Cornwall and we certainly get the feeling Anna-Marie appreciates craft and curiosity.
This eclecticism also translates into obsession. The concept behind BeautyMart is arguably based on obsessiveness - that absolute need to have the ‘can’t live without’ product whether it’s a £3 peeling mitt from Korea or £99 facial oil. Anna-Marie is obviously a collector, not just of art and ornaments but less obvious items too: “I have an embarrassing collection of muslin cloths” she confesses “I counted them once for a blog post about why I was obsessed with muslin clothes, there’s about 70. In the end I had to bring some down to the kitchen to become cleaning cloths - they’re recyclable so I didn’t feel too guilty.”
Anna-Marie’s obviously got a keen eye and after spending six years as beauty director of British Vogue and six at Elle, she can tell if something’s going to be a cult hit at first glance.
“My life has been spent looking at products and judging them” she says, “You can spot a winner a mile off. It’s like a sniffer dog on a table of ten things – spot the one with the juicy piece of chicken under it. You’ve seen what works so many times”.
With long silver-grey hair and well-looked after skin with a suitably subtle sweep of makeup, Anna-Marie strikes us as someone who takes true care when it comes to her hair and beauty routine. Essential oils, balm-based cleansers and whizzy mascaras come top of her can’t-live-withouts and the idea of going to bed without washing her face makes her shudder - “It’s kind of a spiritual ‘take the day off’ thing, a bit like that part of yoga where you wash your face with your hands. There’s got to be some sort of hands on face action.”
When someone has a real skill for trend forecasting and a firm hold on the beauty zeitgeist of the moment, you trust their opinion on the next best thing. We get the impression that Anna-Marie is a total sucker for any product with the science and technology behind it to back it up, however she can also see the shift towards a more natural approach – an element of the industry we’re no stranger to.
“I love the idea of clean formulations and clean products.” she comments “I like knowing where ingredients have come from, how they’ve been processed, that nothing has been messed with on the way and that the people who produce things have been paid a fair wage.”
In true Anna-Marie style, she doesn’t just notice this trend, but is able to unpick it’s popularity and understand why it’s filtering through to the mainstream. A lot of this is to do with the way we approach our diets - “There’s a crossover between food ingredients for internal nutrition and food ingredients for external application and beauty products, and I think that crossover makes sense to people” she says, “Eating well makes a difference to how you look and how you feel, and therefore putting good things on your skin is likely to be better for it.”
When it comes to her own personal diet, she favours a careful approach with no wheat or dairy and a few key supplements for support (namely collagen boosters, calcium and magnesium citrate and vitamin D3). Up by 7:30 to walk the dog and in the office by 9:30 (“Millie would probably say it’s closer to 10 and she’d be right”) her day is spent juggling Beauty Mart, their brand consultancy business and any freelance writing projects for the likes of The Financial Times How to Spend It and Get The Gloss.
With a busy routine and a seemingly insatiable appetite for skincare and makeup, we’re a little bit in awe of Anna-Marie. She even finds time for a bath before bed every night, equipped with detoxifying eucalyptus salts (“I love the brand Dr Salts”) - something most of us should probably find more time to do at the end of a hectic day.
She happily admits that the industry (like any industry) isn’t completely perfect, and thinks that inclusivity - whether racial, gender or age based - is something that still needs improving: “The idea of recognising that not every person is the same and has the same requirements is still incredibly limited.”
It’s a much lauded over point in popular culture and the issue of age in particular is one that Anna-Marie understands, not least down to her most distinct feature, her beautifully natural grey hair. The shift towards this hair colour becoming fashionable, rather than a source of fear, is one that we’ve definitely seen in momentum - and so has she.
“There was a point not too long ago that having grey hair would have just taken me out of the conversation automatically. I would have become invisible” she comments, “It’s interesting now that that’s not happening, actually I’m getting stopped by younger girls constantly asking about my hair.”
We’re not surprised. After a final few photographs, we leave Anna-Marie’s serene home feeling far more informed and suitably inspired. And armed with a new horde of skin and makeup recommendations, we’re ready to fill up our beauty cabinets too.
Words: Lucy Vincent Images: Jessica Maccormick for Glasshouse Journal