Detroiter Melissa Butler founded The Lip Bar for ‘confident, outspoken women.’
By Kyla Heat
Photography by Jenna Belevender
Melissa Butler was tired of cosmetic companies offering the same, limited colors. Without much success, she searched brand after brand, looking for the perfect lipstick. Eventually, Butler decided to halt her search and launch her own cosmetic brand with a mission she believes in.
“Our goal is to say ‘you are enough’ and to celebrate all types of beauty,” Butler says. “We are challenging the beauty standard.”
Yet the native Detroiter didn’t set out to be in the beauty industry. After graduating from Florida A&M University, Butler landed in New York working on Wall Street as a financial analyst at Barclays. While many would envy her success at her young age (Butler was 26 at the time), she was miserable.
Instead of complaining, Butler ditched the 9-to-5 and created The Lip Bar, a vegan and cruelty-free lipstick line that offers a variety of vibrant colors with fun names like Trophy Wife, Man Eater and Crown Me.
Now six years in, Butler, 33, reflects on the journey and the future of the company. The Lip Bar hosted a pop-up store in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit and earlier this year, launched in 142 Target stores across the country. Butler is hoping to expand her cosmetic company’s line and debut more products in late winter.
“Everything has been a big learning curve for me,” says Butler, while waiting to board a flight to New York for a business meeting. “I’m able to work on my passion full time and give it my all.”
In 2015, Butler appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but was rejected by all five sharks. Despite their cutting comments, Butler was not discouraged. She says before the show, people didn’t know The Lip Bar was already in Urban Outfitters and Bloomingdale’s and had sold-out trunk shows.
“It was good exposure, but I wasn’t going to allow someone to have authority over me and what I could do,” Butler says. “They were not my audience, so they were not interested and fully engaged.”
Cosmetics wasn’t financially appealing to the sharks, but in 2017, the U.S. beauty industry made $17.7 billion, a 6 percent increase from 2016, according to market research company The NPD Group.
When Butler left the Big Apple for the Motor City, many questioned her choice, but intuitively she knew it was the right move for The Lip Bar.
“The narrative of Detroit was changing. At first you would hear how bad or scary the city was, but it’s different now,” Butler says. “Detroit is coming back, and I wanted to be included in the resurgence. This is my hometown. I want to live in and support my city.”
She’s come a long way from the days she made lipsticks in her kitchen, with her products now a nationwide beauty brand. Customers like Linda Jackson, 41, can shop The Lip Bar while picking up essentials at Target.
“I didn’t know The Lip Bar was in Target. I stopped in to pick up some laundry detergent and decided to browse the beauty aisle,” says Jackson of Detroit. “I first tried their lipstick when I bought one at a festival downtown. I was hooked after that. The color glides on so smooth. My favorite is Man Eater.”
Many cosmetic stores sought out The Lip Bar to carry the brand, but Butler was drawn to Target.
“We decided to work with Target because we wanted to be able to offer high-quality cosmetics for an affordable price,” Butler says. Her lipsticks cost about $13. “We are in talks of working with other retailers, but it’s too early to say anything right now.”
Butler says she believes word-of-mouth helped The Lip Bar succeed. With over 110,000 followers on Instagram, Butler says she never paid for marketing.
“In a community sense, it was like a grassroots effort,” she says.
While things haven’t changed much for Butler, except being a lot busier and traveling more, she’s still getting used to being the face of The Lip Bar.
“I hid behind the brand for the longest. I didn’t want to be the face, but I had to look within myself and say, ‘OK, I can’t hide forever,’ ” Butler says. “I was more visible, and during panel discussions, I saw that my story was helping to inspire others.”
Butler credits her mother as her beauty inspiration and one day hopes to see up and coming actress Yara Shahidi, a star on ABC’s “Black-ish” and Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” wearing a Lip Bar lipstick.
“Growing up, I would watch my mother do her own hair and everything. She helped me to become a strong woman who is self-sufficient,” Butler says. “Also, I love Yara, because she embodies what The Lip Bar is — confident, outspoken women that don’t belong in boxes.”
When asked about her favorite Lip Bar color, there was no hesitation.
“Boy Trouble. That’s my go-to color. I wear it in pictures all the time,” Butler says. “But the fan favorite is Bawse Lady.”