Elon Musk personifies the modern cult-of-personality CEO style. His social media posts are unfiltered, he gets into public scuffles with his critics, and he has a loyal band of followers that defend his every move, often attacking Musk’s detractors. But Musk has nothing on Brandon Truaxe, the founder and CEO — though he likes to say his official title is “worker” — of Deciem, one of the buzziest skin care companies on the planet right now.
The unconventional beauty brand founder’s exploits have been followed rabidly by those both interested in incredibly affordable skin care and those who just love messy gossip. As Deciem’s sub-brand the Ordinary gains popularity for its $9 acids, its founder gains notoriety for his incendiary and even offensive Instagram presence. He’s used the platform to insult fans, cancel partnerships, and even posted a photo of an impoverished-looking New Yorker in front of one of the brand’s stores.
In a video on Deciem’s Instagram on Monday, Truaxe said: “This is the final post of Deciem. … We will shut down all operations until further notice, which will be about two months. Please take me seriously.” The location of the video was tagged as the White House. He went on to say, “Almost everyone at Deciem has been involved in major criminal activity, which includes financial crimes.”
The largely incoherent message was paired with a long, rambling caption in which he called out many in the company’s inner circle, then went on to name hotels, restaurants, other cosmetic companies, “so many porn ‘studios,’” Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Ford, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, Richard Branson, Tim Cooke, and Leonard Lauder, the patriarch of the Estée Lauder company.
This post has been covered and analyzed everywhere from Allure to Buzzfeed, but it’s par for the course for Truaxe, who has given fans reasons to worry about his emotional state before. He posts on the brand’s official Instagram page himself — the rest of the social media team consists of one employee who responds to product usage questions — and has a history of posting confusing and sometimes concerning messages.
Truaxe has not hesitated to attack commenters who question him on the brand’s page. This behavior has led fans and critics to question his mental health and the health of the company, as well as speculate that the social media theatrics are actually just savvy marketing. But what is really going on?
What is Deciem, and who is Brandon Truaxe?
Before we get into the events of this week, here’s a primer: Truaxe founded Deciem in 2013 and launched 10 sub-brands simultaneously — including hair care, supplements, and a men’s grooming line — which is pretty much unheard of in the beauty industry. His company, based in Toronto, also makes its own products, instead of contracting outside manufacturers, which is how most beauty brands work. Deciem employs about 800 people and has more than two dozen stores worldwide. Tagline: “The Abnormal Beauty Company.”
Truaxe is a computer programmer by trade, but he co-founded a high-end line of skincare called Euoko in 2008. One product cost $700, according to an article published in W magazine at the time. He then exited that brand and founded Indeed Labs, another Canadian beauty company. He left that under “angry” conditions and with a non-compete agreement, according to an interview in 2016 with Cosmetics Business. “A combination of passion for bringing credibility to the functional beauty business and the revenge overly due to Indeed Labs led to the formation of Deciem,” he told the publication.
Deciem really took off after the company launched skin care brand the Ordinary in 2016. The line features exceptionally affordable skin care featuring well-studied ingredients that have been used in skin care for decades, like vitamin C, retinol, hyaluronic acid, and others. Most are in simple dropper bottles, and the formulas aren’t fancy; they often smell weird or have gritty textures. But the line took off because the price is cheaper than anything on the market, including products you can find at a drugstore.
A simple glycolic face acid costs less than $9; an equivalent at Sephora or Ulta can cost upward of $20. The Ordinary launched at a time when people were getting interested in and purchasing skin care in a way we haven’t seen in years. The Ordinary’s accessibility contributed to a democratization of sorts. Really effective skin care had previously been in the purview of those who could afford pricey products.
According to Truaxe, the brand has done about $300 million in sales. Beauty conglomerate Estée Lauder has a 28 percent minority share in the company, an association that has given the indie brand credibility but invited scrutiny. Truaxe has always been described as quirky in early interviews, but things started to get weirder at the beginning of 2018 when he started posting very personal and even bizarre messages on the brand’s official Instagram account.
The many, many company dramas
In January, Truaxe officially announced he was taking over the brand’s Instagram page. His first order of business was to pick a fight with another indie brand, Drunk Elephant, by suggesting its marula oil was too expensive. He apologized. After that came a series of pictures of garbage and increasingly more personal posts. He also appeared to be communicating with his team via Instagram. Redditors then discovered Glassdoor reviews suggesting that the company was not a great place to work.
In February, Truaxe took to Instagram to broadcast that the company would no longer be producing Esho, a brand of lip products made in collaboration with a UK plastic surgeon, Dr. Tijion Esho. Truaxe unceremoniously announced this on Instagram, allegedly without alerting Esho himself that it would be happening. (Esho is tagged in this week’s Instagram post as well.) It led to an almost year-long legal battle between the two.
Esho told Vox that he secured trademark and other rights to the Esho brand, as well as payment he was owed, with the help of Deciem’s Nicola Kilner.
Kilner is an important part of the brand story. She joined Deciem early from UK drugstore brand Boots and had been integral to its growth; at one point her title was “co-CEO.” She was largely seen as the calm and moderating force in the company. But Truaxe fired her in February after a confusing string of events that culminated in Truaxe questioning her loyalty to him.
An experienced CFO, Stephen Kaplan, who had only been there about six months, quit around the same time in protest. Kilner was given two years of severance pay. She gave an interview to Elle magazine a few months after her firing, in which she seemed reluctant to say anything negative about Truaxe or Deciem. “Talking to Kilner is a bit like talking to someone rescued from a cult against her will,” wrote Carrie Battan in the article. This summer, Kilner was rehired at the company. (She has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)
Following the ESHO posts, a Racked investigation, prompted in part by the negative Glassdoor reviews, revealed allegations by several employees of verbal abuse and other misconduct by Truaxe and others in management positions. It was generally acknowledged, including by those working at the company, that the leadership was disorganized, with people changing roles and job titles frequently.
But the brand was growing, opening a rash of new stores (including the one in which the indigent person camped out in front or prompting Truaxe to say, “This person is disrespectful to the beauty of the library; he is disrespectful to the beauty of Fifth Avenue”). During this period, the brand got picked up by Sephora and even got a shout out from Kim Kardashian, who was apparently a fan.
Since these flare-ups, Truaxe has been likened to Donald Trump by fans. He picked a fight with Cosmetics Business when it reported on these comparisons. He’s angrily lashed out at fans on social media who have questioned his methods, expressed concern about his increasingly incoherent posts, or called him out for his sometimes brash communication style. He would often highlight retorts to them in Instagram Stories on the brand’s official page, which occasionally led to fans attacking those critics on social media.
“Anyone who insults me, I’ll insult back. Look, if someone drops a bomb on my house I will at least knock and maybe pee on theirs,” he told me in the summer in a previously unpublished conversation, when I asked him about angering his followers by insulting them.
Some of these events seem to have affected his relationship with retailers. Sephora carried the Ordinary for a short time online, then it disappeared. Truaxe had suggested that Ulta was going to carry the line, but that has not materialized. Victoria Health, a UK-based site (and one of the first to carry the Ordinary) dropped it recently and started stocking a competitor brand, Garden of Wisdom; Truaxe took to Deciem’s Instagram to post unflattering photos of the site’s founder.
He publicly announced, via a shared email on the platform, that he would no longer be supplying product to indie beauty e-commerce site Beautylish. (German retailer Douglas recently started stocking Deciem, and the company has over a dozen freestanding stores in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Europe, and South Korea.)
Truaxe has also publicly called out his minority investor, Estée Lauder, a large and powerful company that has always controlled its image very tightly. He’s published emails from Leonard Lauder and other Lauder executives, airing dirty laundry like the fact that the company supposedly wouldn’t allow an artisan who tiles its stores to post her work on social media. (The woman’s family ultimately was upset at Truaxe for that post.)
The company is mentioned in this week’s Instagram post as well. In a statement to Vox, a representative for the company wrote: “The Estée Lauder Companies is a minority investor in Deciem, and, as such, we do not control the company’s operations, social media or personnel decisions.”
(There’s so much more. You can read more of my old reporting here, and Elle also has a helpful timeline of events.)
The “financial crimes”
Now we are back to the “financial crimes” Truaxe mentioned this week on Instagram. In the video, he announced that the company would close down. For a while, Deciem’s homepage was a black screen with a small green pi symbol in the center. Individual brand pages, such as for the Ordinary, could still be accessed. As of publication time, the site is up and running.
According to an email leaked to Cosmopolitan UK, Truaxe ordered all the London stores except one to be closed until February 2019, accompanied by a warning that those not following instructions would be “terminated tomorrow.” No one answered phones at any of the London stores, the Miami store, or the Seoul store. (Truaxe and multiple others in the company did not respond to a request for comment.)
At the Amsterdam store, an apologetic woman who spoke English answered and said her boss told her to close the branch for two weeks, “but I don’t know why.” The Nolita store in New York City was open, but others in the city did not answer the phone. A source close to Deciem suggested that there was confusion behind the scenes and that more of the New York City locations would eventually be opened. The Toronto stores were closed yesterday, per social media reports, but it was Canadian Thanksgiving. The Canadian stores did not answer their phones today.
All over social media and in the Deciem Facebook chat room, customers have reported placing online orders successfully.
This is not the first time Truaxe has alluded to financial wrongdoings at the company. He’s posted increasingly disturbing videos, including one now-deleted post from a hotel in the UK in which he asked for his followers to call the police because he was worried for his safety. He once sent an email to all his employees stating he was “done” with Deciem.
During the summer, I spoke to Truaxe both on the phone and in person about some of these incidents, especially the insinuations that there were financial “crimes” at the company. He was vague, saying “authorities” were involved. He also suggested that he was served a lawsuit by his former Euoko partner and current Deciem minority stakeholder Pasquale Cusano, who did not respond to calls and emails. Truaxe sounded lucid during the in-person conversation, though he tends to speak quickly and occasionally rambles.
“I found things I don’t like in my company,” Truaxe said at the time. He would not offer more details when pressed. “Unless things are cleaned up, I won’t stay.”
Truaxe’s suggestion on Instagram this week that the company may shut down led to a bit of panic among customers and fans, as it has done on multiple other occasions when his behavior on Instagram has seemed erratic. The CBC, which ran a report on the company in July, spoke to a marketing expert who suggested that it might be a purposeful tactic to get customers to buy products in bulk. If it was premeditated, it’s working, if social media is any indication — though some are calling it a stunt:
Truaxe truly seems to run his company by the seat of his pants, and doesn’t really seem to be concerned about who he angers or worries along the way. A blog post about Truaxe’s drama as a CEO on Strategy + Business in July noted, “Chaos is not a business strategy.” But it seems to be working fine for Deciem so far. The company has opened two new factories and several new stores, as well as launched a variety of new products over the last six months. But shutting down stores, which he sporadically seems to have done this week, will cost the company revenue and also possibly cost employees their pay.
The parallels between Brandon Truaxe and Elon Musk are there. Musk’s problematic tweets have opened him up to federal probes and caused him to step down as chair of Tesla. But the sheer force of his personality and perceived genius are allowing him to stay on as CEO. So far, Deciem is telling a similar story.
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