May 16, 2023

Inside the Competitive and Cutthroat False

By Vanessa Grigoriadis

First there was kohl. That was ancient Egypt, where both men and women used malachite and kohl to darken their lashes, but it took until the 19th century to bottle mascara and start the false-lash trend. Back then, the French began sewing hairs onto their eyelids, and a Canadian in the US patented an early version of “strip lashes,” the familiar crescent of lashes we now buy in pharmacies. Since then, oversized lashes have been intermittently popular—think Twiggy in the 1960s—with the current explosion beginning in the early 2000s, when the Asian eyelash-extension craze began to rip through Hollywood, with celebrities from Jennifer Lopez to Paris Hilton cramming into estheticians’ chairs to achieve peak flutter.

During these years, I was living in Los Angeles, and I had a friend who was obsessed with lashes. Sahara Lotti was a screenwriter who was also furiously buying and selling Balenciaga bags. She’d noticed that most of what she saw for sale online was fake, and wrote a manifesto about how to spot it, then sold a PDF of instructions online for five dollars. After that, she started calling around to Barneys and other department stores to order real Balenciagas, flipping them for a higher price on eBay. This sideline faded when she landed a script deal with Fox, but then she started moonlighting as an online intuitive, gathering Hollywood clients before she went on retainer for a member of the royal family of Qatar.

In other words, Lotti was a woman who could spot a hole in the market. And as she became increasingly intolerant of going out without her lashes, and increasingly bored of sitting in Koreatown having them applied on end, she started messing with lashes herself, trying to suss out a DIY method. My husband introduced her to an industrial designer for Starbucks who was interested in picking up freelance work, and the industrial designer introduced her to a brand designer. Within a few months, they all flew off to Korea. After that, when I’d visit her at home on Sunset Plaza Drive, she’d be focused on hair irons, glues, and cut-up lashes. She created a tweezer shaped like a Nike swoosh she called a “wand”; she wanted to attach each little cluster of hairs to the eye individually, which made fake lashes look more natural.

Lotti set Lashify’s price point high, and the margin higher. She rented a loft office on Greene Street, a warehouse in North Hollywood, a pop-up store in SoHo. Lupita Nyong’o and Nicole Kidman were wearing Lashify, and so was Cynthia Nixon during her campaign for mayor. Not that there was anything glamorous about the eyelash business; it was a grind, and she worked around the clock, convinced she was going to win this lash game. Like all entrepreneurs, particularly one who thinks she can read the future, she believed it was only a matter of time before everyone on earth realized they didn’t need mascara or extensions. They just needed Lashify.

There were other female inventors in the space, but not many. In 2012, Alexandra Byrne of Beta Beauty Lab patented a segmented style of strip lashes. Byrne wrote via email, “My technology came from being a makeup artist for runway shows in London, Europe, and New York. When I wanted the models to all look exactly the same, like an army, I started cutting apart different strip lashes into pieces (I called it the lash hospital) and then fitting every model individually—it was the only way to make all lashes look identical, by customizing them for each eye shape and face.”

There was also Katy Stoka, inventor of the wildly popular magnetic lash. Stoka’s lashes used rectangular magnets to attach fake lashes to your real ones. “It was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears developing the product, and then it was the biggest thrill of my life,” says Stoka. “I wasn’t even in the beauty industry and I invented something, built a patent around it, somehow got the prototype made. Next thing I knew, I was on the shelf in Sephora, and then we were the number-one-googled beauty question of 2018.”

Stoka was knocked off by Asian suppliers, who flooded the market with dupes—not a surprise in the IP game. You probably know that music is heavily copyrighted in the United States, and that fashion is largely not (the evidence is on display every time you walk into an H&M), but beauty giants take out loads of patents. For example, as of July 2020, L’Oréal has 3,717 patent families to guard against the types of lawsuits and conflicts that abound these days. Charlotte Tilbury pursued and won a copyright claim in the UK against Aldi after it released a makeup palette that she claimed copied her Filmstar Bronze and Glow. (At the time, an Aldi spokesperson said, “This matter relates to a product that was on sale for a very short period around December 2018.”) Revolution Beauty pulled its Honey Bear brow product off the market after indie brand Pink Honey accused it on social media of copying its Honey Glue Original Superhold for brows. Olaplex initially won a suit against L’Oréal, claiming the brand copied its hair-treatment tech, but an appeals court later threw out the ruling. (The case has since been settled to “mutual satisfaction,” the CEO of Olaplex told The New York Times.)

By Bess Levin

By Bess Levin

By Kenzie Bryant

At a moment when a top brand of lipstick can cost the same as a mid-range dress, a lot is at stake, and it’s easy to get pushed out of the space. For example, Black women in the US founded beauty companies that created hair extensions and wigs, but in the ’60s, Korean companies started moving in. “Black businesses have been destroyed multiple times, not just Greenwood, or Black Wall Street, and I think the hair industry is a perfect example of that,” says Natasha Gray, founder of Innovative Weaves and the “InvisiRoot Thin Part Wig.” “My invention journey was very intentional. I wanted to help the Black community build generational wealth.” Once Gray’s invention became successful, Gray was distressed to find that she was also knocked off by Asian companies, and feels that she’s far from the first. “Female Black influencers are so creative,” she says. “They invent methods and products all the time and put them on YouTube. Then a company will make a product based upon their method, and it’ll make millions while the influencer gets a few pennies for the views on their videos.”

In January 2020, a Korean American–owned corporation based in New York, Kiss, created its own DIY eyelash kit. It called the product Falscara, and set the price at $24.99 to Lashify’s $145 Control Kit. “Founded in 1989 in New York, Kiss respects intellectual property and, indeed, for over 30 years has been and is an innovator as the owner of over 50 issued US utility and design patents (many of which predate Lashify’s entry into the market),” says a Kiss spokesperson. By this point, Lotti had many patents, eventually working her way to hundreds for the process of applying lashes and design patents for tools like the wand. And she was dead set on owning the space.

By Bess Levin

By Bess Levin

By Kenzie Bryant

It might be fun to eat popcorn while watching the drama between beauty founders and competitors, like James Charles calling out Wet n Wild on Twitter for an eyeshadow palette, but it’s far less fun to experience it firsthand. Lashify litigated against Kiss, and eventually filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission, naming Kiss, Ulta, Walmart, and others. (The Kiss suit has been stayed pending the outcome of the ITC complaint.) Lashify asked the ITC to prevent the importation of other lash systems, saying they infringed on its intellectual property, and Lotti was devastated when it ruled against the company. (Lashify has since appealed the ruling.) “Lashify, which was built from the ground up by a single woman to a successful company employing over 100 people, does not contribute to the American economy to be protected by the International Trade Commission of this country,” Lotti said. “What is really the point of any of the IP stuff in beauty if it’s simply that easy to copy and no one respects it? You have to be a millionaire to even have a chance.”

When reached for comment, Kiss says that Lotti is mistaken in her point of view. “While Kiss is disappointed that Lashify apparently has raised the issue of gender at all, so the record is clear, all the Commissioners (regardless of gender or background) ruled in favor of Kiss with regard to the patent claims asserted against Kiss, finding that there was no infringement by Kiss, that Lashify products do not embody the patents Lashify asserted against Kiss, and that Lashify does not satisfy the economic prong of the domestic industry requirement with regard to the patent claims asserted against Kiss,” the company says.

Lashify hit back that Kiss misstated the commission’s decision and added, “Lashify is hopeful that the appellate court will correct this result to protect true innovators as the US Constitution requires and [that] a US jury that has yet to hear any evidence will protect American inventions.” Lashify is also pursuing litigation against Urban Doll, another eyelash company; a California court has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Urban Doll from using one of Lashify’s registered trademarks, “bondage,” but Urban Doll is now suing Lashify and Lotti for false advertising and false patent marking, claiming that Lashify and Lotti damaged its business by publicly accusing it of making dupes.

A Lashify spokesperson says, “In an apparent act of retaliation, Urban Doll has filed a lawsuit alleging that Lashify has made false statements about its patented inventions or being the inventor of the DIY lash extension. Urban Doll’s allegations have no merit, as innovation and disruption are at the heart of Lashify’s business and its products. The lawsuit is an apparent effort to distract from Urban Doll’s misconduct and its disrespect of Lashify’s intellectual property.”

Just as beauty products sell the illusion of youth and glamour, there’s another story under the façade, one that is cutthroat and competitive. Lotti continues to make a go of Lashify, while looking at other DIY sensations for expansion. She’s been working on at-home gel manicures, and spent a recent afternoon with her bulldogs sitting at her feet, filing down acrylic nails and placing her hand in an iris-colored warmer to set the gel. She’s also getting back into crystals, especially citrine, quartz, and tourmaline rock from Sage & Salt.

“The inventor of DIY lash extensions,” reads a recent Lashify Instagram post. And next to it, there’s a picture of a blonde woman with green eyes. As electronic music plays, a cursor circles her eye in white as the words “I did this myself” pop up on the screen.

Katy Stoka, of the magnetic lash, tries not to think about the past too much. “I’m always wary of saying ‘watch out’ to younger investors, because I don’t want them to take pause,” she says. About the continuing popularity of magnetic lashes, she says, “I know in my heart of hearts that I invented them, and everyone around me knows I invented them. It’s no joke getting knocked off, but you have to take that strength and stay ahead of the game.” This article has been updated.

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From the Archive: Too Hepburn for Hollywood (2006)

TwiggyJennifer LopezParis HiltonSahara LottiLupita Nyong’oNicole KidmanCynthia NixonAlexandra ByrneKaty Stoka,Charlotte TilburyNatasha Gray,James Charles