How Face Stockholm’s Founders Martina Arfwidson and Gun Nowak Raised The Bar In Beauty, Wit, And Grace Since 1982

by | Aug 24, 2022

“A Swedish mother and daughter opened a cosmetics store in Manhattan in 1982. They are not trained makeup artists…” This is not the prelude to a punchline. It is an overture to one of the beauty industry’s most enchanting success stories, and it couldn’t have happened to a more delightful duo.

The mother, Gun Nowak, and daughter Martina Arfwidson were just two ladies who wanted to have fun with color and invite everyone along for the joy ride. Nowak was an artist who owned a fashion boutique and Arfwidson was a struggling theater actress working odd jobs to make ends meet. What they lacked in cosmetics industry experience, they made up for in enthusiasm, idealism and a commitment to inclusiveness, decades ahead of its time.

With a ‘we’ll make this work if it’s the last thing we do’ attitude, Face Stockholm became the antithesis of the makeup consumer experience; no intimidating saleswomen behind a glass counter, no bad lighting, and no judgment. Face Stockholm turned the makeup industry upside down by creating an open and welcoming space where anybody, from any walk of life, could touch, play, laugh, be inspired, and most of all – be themselves. Makeup’s first lifestyle brand came to fruition.

For forty years, Nowak and Arfwidson have refused to be bought, sold or live by any ethos other than their own. We had the joy and privilege to have a conversation with Martina Arfwidson. She is as charming as one of Face Stockholm’s flower-filled boutiques. It’s a true Swedish-American success story with all the triumphs and tribulations that come with creating a space where optimism and tolerance reign victorious.

Image by Donna DeMari

Gurus: Once upon a time…

Martina Arfwidson: My mother owned a hip fashion store and ended up with some cosmetic samples. She then converted her store into the first Face Stockholm. I was in school then – I had no plans to work with my mother or in cosmetics. Unfortunately, neither of us were devoted to makeup. My mother is an artist who loves color more than anything. I, on the other hand, was interested in music and went to a musical theater school in New York. Face Stockholm was mom’s thing – a hundred percent. After doing every job a starving artist could think of doing in New York City, we finally decided to open a little shop on the Upper West side.

Did you already have ideas for your brand image?

We didn’t even consider ourselves a brand at that time. I had to learn everything about business – even how to go to the bank in a foreign country. My English was not great when I got here either, and I remember the bank teller teaching me how to write checks in the ledger. It was kind of a hilarious start, but it was amazing. We were on 79th Street, and I had lovely customers. I didn’t even realize if it was Mia Farrow, Carly Simon, or Whoopi Goldberg. All these women on the Upper West side became our customers.

What did you think set you apart from the onset?

My mother always thought differently. We were the first independent brand to sell in our shop instead of department stores. I think that was unique in its own right. Also, of course, we were a Swedish mother-and-daughter brand. We had a wide range of colors that were unseen in the eighties. All the ladies wore blue mascara, pink lipstick and whatever Saint Laurent brought out seasonally. But then, here we were – with a gigantic range of shades. I worked at the store every day and was always very customer-oriented. We delivered products to people’s doors.

How was the shopping experience different from traditional stores?

We didn’t have counters, we had tables. The idea of approaching the customer and being able to show makeup while standing next to the customer wasn’t tried before. Now, it’s everywhere. I think it was this component that made us unique.

Did you ever imagine your brand could be such a phenomenon?

We never made a business plan. It was never our intention, so it was incredibly overwhelming. I don’t think we ever reflected; we rode this tidal wave. It is quite incredible to have your product in demand and grow despite being very unstructured.

How has Face Stockholm remained true to its original mission and concept?

Image by Donna DeMari

It was always more than just a job for us. It has always been about the lifestyle, the joy, and our journey. In these forty years, we’ve worked with people we love, been creative and flexible. Our company could have gone differently if we had not been this way.

Did large corporations offer to buy you out?

Towards the end of the nineties, we had stores in Japan, Hong Kong and Europe. We were in department stores. Even though we were approached by corporations many times; we sat through those meetings and every single time, it didn’t feel right. We didn’t want to be in a corporate office on Madison Avenue – it’s not who we are. So we kept saying no. Once, my mom and I were at a hotel in Minneapolis and I’ll never forget the time when she suddenly woke up from sleep saying, ‘I’m going to die. I can’t do it.  These department stores don’t have any energy, no creativity and the lighting is terrible. There are no fresh flowers and nobody’s going to care.” We walked into the meeting with these prospective corporate buyers and said, “You know, thank you so much, but we’ve decided not to move forward.” It was never about the money – it was always about  expression and the journey.

What misconceptions do you think people have about shopping for independent brands like yours?

When you go on to a website, you don’t imagine a person overseeing the whole thing. Someone is struggling to keep up with all the changes every day, despite having people working under them. There’s just so much.

But what’s unique for us today is that it’s still my mom and me. We’re still independent and running the show without any venture capital or backing. We don’t have a strategic partner. We are a family and a woman-owned company in its truest form. My mom was ahead of her time and such a role model. Almost nobody today would consider starting a business without an enormous infrastructure. There was none when she started. That, I think, is incredible.

Martina, Gun and a Face

What do you love most about Face Stockholm after all this time?

Our stores are eclectic and filled with so much warmth. Everybody who works at the store is an angel. We have lovely human beings with an extensive range of both customers and employees. One of our employees is eighty five. She’s worked with us for thirty five years and is an amazing person. The young girls gravitate towards her and the older ladies go to the young girls. We love it. Our stores have a very high level of customer service and no-pressure shopping environments. That’s something we committed to when we left the department stores- anybody is welcome to come in and hang out, touch, try on and never feel obliged. There is a generosity and vibration in the store that I’m very proud of!

Tell us about the Derek Fabulous collaboration.

Plainly put, the most important thing is that makeup should be playful. It is not something you need to do, to be accepted or look a certain way. It is a truly individual expression. This collaboration with Derek is very much an extension of that thought.

The collection has these incredible, crazy eye shadow colors that are not about gender or style. It’s about playing with color. It loops into what we love and stand for. We just fell in love with each other. The beauty of having a small company is that we can move quickly because we don’t have a lot of corporate structures to slow things down. It was a perfect match in many ways – we were meant to do this together.

Image by Donna DeMari

Is there anything new in the works for Face Stockholm?

We are a bit unusual compared to typical makeup brands. We’ve always had a full-range line – skin and body care, a wonderful makeup bag, brushes and tools. Skincare is essential to us and we just anchored that category even deeper, which is very exciting. We also have a hotel amenities line for a large Swedish chain called Scandic Hotels. That collaboration has been phenomenal. We were one of the first brands to stop single-use packaging and put pump dispensers in showers for shampoo, conditioner, etc. Over a million tonnes of plastic has been saved already.

Tell us a little secret about yourself that no one would expect from a cosmetic company executive.

Oh boy! Am I even supposed to say this? Here’s the deal- I have to work hard to find lipstick in my house. Do you know the famous saying about the shoemaker whose children have no shoes? I have a warehouse full of makeup and yet, most times I cannot remember to bring home moisturizer. I don’t know if that’s a good image, but it is who I am.

If I have to put myself together, I wear makeup. But I’m not the kind of person who goes in the bathroom for even half an hour in the morning. It’s just not me. I have products within the range that I find extremely good. So every morning, I put on a tinted moisturizer with SPF for a little glow and a bit of blush. Otherwise, I look washed out.

Finally, how do you define Face Stockholm?

Sweden has always been very liberal and accepting. We were always transparent and inclusive because this forms a core part of our basic values. I think about this a lot- ‘Inclusive’ includes everybody. My mother and I have aged, and we have a solid customer base who are above the age of fifty, just like me, and they have aged with us. When I look at some younger brands, I feel they have an advantage. They’re all vegan or they’re all sustainably packaged. We are a traditional brand. We come from a time when all this didn’t exist. Of course, we are constantly improving our formulas and packaging, but I’m not standing here today saying that we are 100% vegan because we’re not, yet. It’s more complicated than that and I think we have to be honest, transparent, inclusive and stick with what we are because I’m not going to invent something we are not. I have never really believed in competition and we’re not a mass market brand. There are so many people out there in the world, I don’t think there’s a need to be competitive. There’s enough for all of us.

For more information about Face Stockholm, visit their website at https://facestockholm.com/

Related links:
Zapyle takes leap; launches FACE Stockholm
Derek Warburton’s Makeup Collaboration With FACE Stockholm is Much More Than a Good Color Story
Mother-Daughter Beauty Trailblazer: Face Stockholm
FACE Stockholm president explains how the beauty industry is changing

EIC: Derek Warburton | Managing Editor: Cyan Leigh Dacasin | Art Director: Alexander Silkin | Photographer| Donna DeMari | Written by: Jody Miller Edited by: Bunty Chellani | Vault Images Courtesy of Face Stockholm

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