Having a lash at an eye wateringly large international cosmetic market
Eight years ago Sharee Wilkinson married a crazy idea to an existing business, and started on a journey that's eyeing a revolution in the international beauty business.
The Technology Valley Silverstream-based entrepreneur has a background as an eyelash specialist within the makeup sector, and had been a partner in a beauty parlour in Alicetown.
Among some of her engagements were beauty pageants, makeup at the NZ Eco Fashion Week and at Miromoda – an indigenous fashion and apparel runway showcasing Maori fashion designers.
She specialised in strip eyelashes (temporarily glued on top of an upper eyelid), and her own range of extension eyelashes where individual hairs are bonded to a client's natural eyelashes.
Most of these eyelash types originate from Korea, but Sharee started questioning how cruelty-free these mink hair strips and extensions actually were.
“I wondered why there weren't any New Zealand made eyelashes, and what was the possibility of creating our own,” Sharee says.
“Back in 2011 I thought, 'what about possum?”
The 'crazy idea' has resulted in much research and development, and “lots of learning about the fibre industry.”
However, it has only been in the past two and a half years that she's really started concentrating on, and making great progress developing her possum-based eyelashes; and equally as important, a natural non-toxic glue to attach such fibres to a natural lash.
Linking up with the right people
Part of the journey has been linking with the right people – including HineBoss, part of the Maori Women's Development Incorporation. Carrying out a course at HineBoss helped draft a business plan as well as aspects requiring more research.
One of Sharee's first ports of call was Woolyarn's Neil Mackie based in Technology Valley’s Wingate.
Woolyarn spins much of the country's Merino Wool/Possum fur yarns.
“He suggested that what I needed were possum tails, as these have a different fibre to the rest of the pelt,” Sharee says.
“Sure enough, we found the tails have the right length of fibre with which to fabricate eyelashes.”
Much trial and error later, Sharee perfected a method to hand-knot these individual hairs onto a strip.
Her orginal thought was to make these natural fibre lashes available for other makeup brands to sell under their own name.
“But, talking to intellectual property lawyers, they helped me see that we have something special,” she says.
“They pointed out that branding our own product was the best thing we could do.”
This brought 'Moka' into being.
Moka was the name of an inspirational grandmother who taught Maori at local primary schools, and helped establish both the Citizens Advice Bureau and Basketball Association in Manurewa, Auckland. She was also awarded a medal from Sir Edmund Hillary for 30 years service to the community.
When mentioning the name as a possible brand to her wider family, the idea was met with positivity, and her tupuna’s memory is now built into the story, beginning in 2016.
At the time of writing (May 2019), though possum-fibre Moka strip eyelashes are available, “there’s not a huge marketing effort at the moment,” says Sharee.
“There’s still research and development we want to complete.”
“There’s fibre improvements and adhesive modifications we’d like to make.”
The fibre modification is being able to impart a permanent curl to the hollow possum fibre. The lightweight nature of the fibre itself makes the eyelashes themselves very comfortable to wear, “but our goal is to make them waterproof, and able to hold a curl.”
“The moment we do that...then we are into better extensions.”
And it is the glueing of these individual fibres onto a users own eyelashes which is the holy grail for Sharee.
The current adhesives are quite toxic, and superglue-like in nature. Some women develop an allergy to the glue.
Sharee considers herself lucky to have linked into some science partnerships thanks to Callaghan Innovation, and tangentially through a recent Asia NZ Foundation sponsored trip to Malaysia and Singapore, being put in touch with Rob Kelly of Lincoln University Agritech.
“His specialty is natural cosmetics,” says Sharee.
“What we’re exploring is whether we can extract a natural glue from pia harakehe [the gel found at the bottom of the flax native plant].”
“It is quite possible we’ll use it as a base glue and functional keratin. We’re super-excited about it.”
Waterproof possum-fibre eyelashes and a different glues for both strips and extensions will help revolutionise her business.
Sharee is also working alongside David Moodie of Foundry Lab has created a mould which in turn makes making the Moka eyelash strips so much quicker and better.
When these quality and production streams come together, “we’ll be focused on exports,” says Sharee.
“We’re targeting women who understand, are prepared to pay a premium - as Moka does reflect a product which is truly luxurious.”
Many women are quite prepared to spend lavishly on lashes.
For this reason, one first up market will be the United Arab Emirates, “where for women in public, often the only things you see are their eyes and small part of their face. They spare no expense on cosmetics.”
Moka solves a cosmetic challenge
One aspect Moka will solve for many customers is the elimination of microplastics and toxic materials in its lashes, as well as their biodegradability.
All this will be with an alternative luxurious lash, “which repurposes something that has a negative impact on our country and forest, and turn it into a positive impact,” she says.
“It does suck that we have to kill possums, but here’s something good that comes out of it.”
In five years time, Sharee envisages Moka Lashes being sold throughout New Zealand, and in at least three offshore markets.
“In the meantime, I’m concentrating in turning my crazy idea into something that’s good for all of us.”