Necessity is the mother of invention, a maxim Australian-born lipstick designer Poppy King understood from a very young age. “I had a kind of vintage look when I was a teenager,” King remembers, “but I couldn’t find any 1940s-style matte lipstick.” Her quest for the perfect shade inspired King to start her own eponymous lipstick brand, Poppy, straight out of high school. The range was such a hit that ten years later, Estée Lauder came knocking, luring King to New York to serve as vice-president of creative marketing.
After three years with Lauder, King realized the corporate world was not her milieu and instead decided to once again launch a boutique lipstick brand, this time under the name Lipstick Queen. The line, which features rich shades with names like Sinner and Velvet Rope, launched in 2007 and quickly became a fashion favorite. Lipstick Queen now comprises over 100 products sold at exclusive retailers like Barneys New York and Space.NK. And King says she’s currently working on some very exciting but still off-the-record projects, the first of which will debut with Barneys this fall.
She spoke to the Cut about Nancy Drew–ing her way into the cosmetics business, her 500-strong handbag collection, and trying to reconcile feminism and capitalism. Read on for the full interview.
You started your first brand at 18 — how did you make that happen?
It was a little bit like a Nancy Drew adventure. I’m not a chemist; I’m a high-school graduate. I haven’t got any credentials except I love lipstick. By looking in the Yellow Pages and ringing up all these numbers — this was before Google — I found a cosmetic manufacturer that made lipstick. Once I found a factory and found out how much money I needed, I set about figuring out how I could get it started. I’m not from a wealthy family, so it took me about a year of knocking on doors until I found a business partner who believed that the world needed a lipstick brand called Poppy that made matte lipsticks named after the seven deadly sins. Twenty-six years later, I still design lipsticks. I’ve probably ideated over 100 different lipsticks from concept to finish. Isn’t that crazy?
What’s your studio like?
I’ve got three spots for three very different functions. There’s the Lipstick Queen offices in the Flatiron. That’s a real place of getting work done; a real HQ. I work mainly from home, because at home I’m surrounded by my reference books and my extraordinary collection of vintage cosmetics. If I think of a lipstick idea, then I have to go through a book to figure out what sort of tangent I’m going on. Other times, when I need a completely neutral space, I’ll go to my tiny little office on Lafayette Street, just near the Puck building.
What kind of reference books are you looking at?
Fashion, science, philosophy. Right now, Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life. There’s quite a lot of feminist literature, but other than that there’s not a single common thread through them.
How does the feminist literature affect your work?
Lipstick is such an interesting product, because it’s both phallic and female at the same time. My own relationship with lipstick has been quite a feminist exploration. Not in any academic way, but in terms of, “Why am I putting lipstick on? What’s really underneath all this? Is it to be attractive to other people, is it to be attractive to myself?” I’ve often wondered, “Why do I feel like a feminist, but do things that are considered patriarchal, or even worse, capitalist?” It’s been a whole exploration. I’ve realized that when I put on lipstick, [what] I’m saying is that I’m all in — I’m ready to participate in life.
Where in New York do you live and what are some of your favorite local spots?
I live downtown, in Nolita. Unfortunately, most of my favorite places are disappearing. But I think my most favorite place in the neighborhood, and I’m actually on the board of it, is the Elizabeth Street Garden. I’m trying to save that from being developed into retail and housing and instead to preserve it as a green space. There’s a petition to save it online. It’s really what I consider the heart of my neighborhood, and it’s where I have most of my magical ideas for lipsticks.
What music are you listening to on repeat?
I cannot stop listening to Neneh Cherry’s album Raw Like Sushi. I listen to the whole album start-to-finish on CD, back again, start-to-finish, back again.
How do you stay organized?
I know it sounds really kind of kamikaze, but it’s all in my head. You also have to remember that I don’t have kids. It’s a hugely different thing to be a 45-year-old woman and not have kids. I’ve got the luxury of sort of being able to think about this stuff 24/7.
What’s on your reading list?
I’m reading a book called Island Home: A Landscape Memoir, and it’s about Australia; it’s by a writer called Tim Winton. It’s the first time in my 15 years of living in New York that I’ve felt really sentimental about Australia; if anybody wants to know really what Australia is like, in terms of landscape and mentality, it’s a great book.
Which shade are you wearing right now?
My go-to one is always Red Sinner, because it’s the most pure note of red. It doesn’t go blue. It doesn’t go yellow. It just stays completely, unabashedly red.
You’re known to be able to read people’s personalities through their lips. Tell us about that.
Over the years and years of doing events in stores, I realized I’m pretty good at being able to pick two or three colors for women who come in, usually that they wouldn’t think they could wear. I started to realize that just like eyes are the window to the soul, lips say a lot about your personality. It’s not the shape or the size of them, but it’s more how you hold them. Who you really are on the inside shows quite a lot on your lips — or how you’re feeling, your mood. I pick the lipstick by mood, and I just realized that I could read women’s moods in their lips.
You also have an extensive handbag collection:
I think I’ve got like 400 or 500. It’s been 26 years of collecting handbags from all over the world, from vintage, from thrift, from designer …
Do you have any prized jewels in the collection?
I often think about that. If there was fire, which one I would grab? I think it is this one from a really rural part of Australia [that] I found in an “opportunity shop,” which is like a thrift store. It’s a little satin bag, late ‘30s, early ‘40s, and it has a beautiful Degas print of a ballerina on both sides.
Which bag are you carrying currently and what’s in it?
I’ve got a little Hillier Bartley orange saddlebag with a mother-of-pearl clasp. I have my keys, my wallet, my vintage compact, and in my makeup case, I have my Medieval lipstick, I have a Lipstick Queen blush, which isn’t on the market yet, but it’s coming; some Maybelline cover-up for those blemishes that happen every month, and then an eyebrow comb. My wallet is vintage and matches my key ring — it’s a little red leather set.
What do you never leave home without?
Well, I try not to leave home without my keys. But probably the thing that I really never leave home without is red lipstick. It’s my superhero cape.
What career would you have in an alternate universe?
It’s hard, because I feel like my career is in an alternate universe. The only thing I could say that would seem more incredible and outlandish and adventurous and exhausting would be being an opera singer.