As the founder of Color Wow and co-founder of John Frieda, Gail Federici has been the brains behind some of the most innovative haircare products to hit the industry in recent times.
With an empire of brands under her belt, how has she managed to conquer both beauty and business while juggling a family (twin daughters!) too?
After she and John sold the John Frieda brand to Kao Brands in 2002, Gail continued to find ways to be one step ahead of the beauty and haircare game. Transitioning from finding a solution to frizzy hair to covering up our greys, she's always managed to identify a need that hasn't been addressed yet. We sat down with the beauty mogul to ask her about her motivation, hair styling, hair colour and the secret to her success.
On how it began...
“I didn’t actually set out to be an entrepreneur or to manage my own business, it was just that opportunities would come my way and I would see them and take advantage of them. If anything, I would have been voted ‘Least Likely to Succeed’ or something along those lines in school! I wasn’t a Hillary Clinton who knew from a young age what I was going to do, I didn’t have a path set out.
“One minute, I was ripping up my T-shirts and singing with a rock ‘n’ roll band, the next minute I was taking painting classes or going to study French in France. I even took drum lessons when I was 27 years old! I was young and thought there was so much to see in the world and so I travelled. A lot of things interested and excited me but wherever I worked, I put myself into it because I was learning. The more you learn, the more exciting it is. You’re challenged and that’s how everything happened.”
MORE GLOSS: Gail Federici shares her top 5 beauty products
On achieving a good work life balance…
“I think you have to give yourself a break. You have to just accept that you can’t be perfect at both. You have to be able to live with that, it’s ridiculous to constantly be beating yourself up. You’re never going to be perfect at both because you’re doing more than one thing at the same time. If you just know that you’re trying to do your best, you just have to let it go.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I got on a plane and was so torn, like the weight of the world was on me. I was miserable. When I got to the place I was going to, I was fine but when I left I just felt terrible. But then I think to myself, what could have I done differently? You just have to do your best.”
On co-founding John Frieda…
“I used to be Vice President of Communications at a company in the States. I was always working with haircare products and hair appliances. During that time though, I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to open up my own advertising agency, but then I wound up working with John Frieda.
“We’d hired him to do an event in Italy and at the time, my twin daughters were two and John had just opened up a salon. Both of us could have used some extra money, but both of us didn’t know that about the other at the time. I thought it would be a good idea to write a book together on styling, because although there was a Vidal Sassoon of hair cutting (and he was the king), there was no Vidal Sassoon of styling. It was a time when styling meant mousse and products were just starting to come onto the scene.
“John had a range of products that he was selling at the salon and Boots were in talks to put it into 26 stores. I was consulting with him on that and was just about to leave to start the advertising agency when he had the opportunity to do a TV show (This Morning) and he was being advised not to do it.
“He didn’t trust that advice and so he called us and asked what we thought. We said he should 100% go for it. He did and it was a sensation. Boots immediately extended distribution into 1200 stores. John wasn’t prepared for that. He was working for Vogue on shoots, he was managing his salons, there was no structure for this type of company and that’s all that I’d done. He said that he needed a partner and whether I’d be interested instead of starting up the advertising agency. I instantly said yes. We moved to the UK in 1989 and then launched John’s products.”
On finding a solution to frizzy hair: John Frieda Frizz Ease serum
“I had an idea for a serum for frizzy hair as I thought we’ve got to come up with something for this hair type as no one has addressed it. Until that, the world ‘frizz’ hadn’t appeared on a package anywhere. Some people didn’t even realise that they had a frizzy hair type. That led to the launch of the serum in the US and the UK and eventually to one being sold every second all around the world. It was crazy.
“When we started, we thought, what can we do to compete with L’Oréal and P&G? We couldn’t spend like they did so we thought we had to stay to true to who we are with our professional heritage. Everything we did had to be prescriptive.
“Until Frizz Ease, there wasn’t even one styling product on the market that could be used for frizzy hair. That was a blinding glimpse of the obvious because skincare companies had solutions for oily, dry and combination skin, but hair companies only had shampoos for different hair types. There was no mention of styling products. The formulations were the opposite of everything on the market. It was a real unmet need that we just went after.”
On a hair colour innovation: Sheer Blonde from John Frieda
“Blondes love their hair, it’s an asset. They said that styling products often darkened their hair and they’d like something that kept their hair looking really blonde. So we got our chemists and colourists together and I asked them about it. Our chemist said that they only thing that he could think of for what was happening was that if a blonde goes swimming in chlorine water, their hair can get a green tinge because chlorine is a mineral which attaches to blonde hair in particular.
“Depending on the tap water and the minerals in it, it can make the hair look dingy and more grey, brown or orange. So we asked whether there was a way to get the minerals off the hair without stripping it. It was tricky at first. We had to use the chemistry used in the clothing industry to find a way to do it gently.”
On finding a way to cover greys: Color Wow Root Cover Up
“We saw that everyone was walking around with grey roots and clearly if something worked in the marketplace, people wouldn’t be looking like that. We wanted something that was nice to apply, wasn’t a mascara, wasn’t wet, wouldn’t flake and didn’t looked obvious.
“I worked with a hairdresser on a shoot who worked with wigs. On a blonde wig, he used to put brown powder on the roots, but was always frustrated because it would always blow off and it looked really dull. I wanted to find a way to make it adhere to the hair and blend it so that the pigments would look reflective like actual hair. Three years later we finally had something that would adhere even if you went swimming, which wouldn’t drip down your face or affect your hairstyle, it just really worked.
“The response has been overwhelming. If you have grey hair, that’s a different category of problems compared to if you have frizzy hair. There was nothing out there for that period between when you first see the roots coming through and getting it coloured. It was something that if we did right, we felt would spread like wildfire.”
On her motivation...
“It’s been great to have products that really make a difference. We’re more about finding something that no one’s has thought of or what’s not doing the job. My motivation’s always finding what the need is.
“I find it fun doing something different that means something. Shampoos can make a difference to someone’s confidence or can make your life easier if you don’t have time to get to the salon. I like to do things like that. I like to come up with something that gets your hair in better condition and really makes a difference to the amount of time you spend doing something.”
On a day in her life...
“It’s pretty mad! We spend a lot of time creatively brainstorming, speaking with Jo the chemist about future ideas, looking at artwork, planning video shoots, plus I’m always testing products. Every week we have about two serious meetings about what we’re using, innovations and ideas. I think a lot about what the vision is for the brand, where do we want to go, international markets and meeting with lawyers. Also, every ten days I write a blog for the Huffington Post.
“There’s been a lot of social media planning as of late, which takes a lot of focus. With a lot of the products, we went a different way in developing them, so we think about how best to get that across.
“I’m usually in the office from 8.30 in the morning until 8.30 in the evening, especially lately because there’s just so much going on! Because salons are really interested in the products now too, we also participate in trade shows and I usually train the hairdressers for QVC too. I’m not really creative, I’m very analytical. So when I’m looking at ads, I’m always thinking what it is that’s good about it. At a concert I’ll think, why is it so good? It’s very hard for me not to be analytical about creative things. I automatically do it!”
On the future...
“People ask us what’s our next new product and we don’t really have one that’s close. We have ideas but we haven’t been able to make them work. If we aren’t able to make them work, then we’re not going to come out with them.
“I don’t know If we’d necessarily come up with a new brand, unless we felt that there was something out there that was important but wasn’t doing the job that well. There are products that I would love to get to work but I don’t know whether it’s possible with the ingredients available at the moment.
On the vision for her companies...
“I think products are about making a promise and making people feel better about themselves. I don’t want our brand to be a dull, soulless big company brand. I wanted people to have a good time and to be happy when they’re using the products or when they’re looking at our Instagram.”