When it comes to makeup brushes, perfection is in the palm of the beholder. With thousands of options on the market, consumers are spoiled for choice, but the ideal tool is a matter of personal preference. The desire for softness, precision, ergonomics, or even “shelfie” potential can fuel a search for new brushes, but each user has their own set of requirements. Over the years, multiple brands have attempted to address those needs with expansive collections, or feedback-fueled additions, but few have approached the process like Rephr. Founded in 2018 by three former engineers, the Toronto-based startup approached the problem using Silicon Valley-style methodology and plenty of crowdsourcing.
On paper, founders Tom Shen, Kenny Leung, and Dien Nguyen aren’t who you’d expect to start a beauty brand. They aren’t makeup artists or product junkies, but their lack of cosmetic credentials is part of the reason why they focused on the industry. “We chose beauty because we don’t do makeup,” Leung explained during a visit to Vogue’s New York offices. “We wanted to make sure that every time we received feedback [our own] personal experience wasn't tied to that. Every single review, good or bad, we take it at face value.”
Well-versed in open source coding, the group sought to apply the tech principal to product design. “Open source involves a lot of passionate individuals working towards a singular goal,” Shen says. “They spend hours coding, and in the end, the product they develop becomes better than the market equivalent.” User fueled and feedback-driven, their business model and direction required input from hundreds of people. Industry professionals, YouTube gurus, and everyday beauty enthusiasts alike were asked to provide input about what they felt was missing. “We asked a simple question: ‘what is something in the beauty industry that truly needs an upgrade in terms of quality,” Nguyen says. “Resoundingly, the answer was makeup brushes.”
Once they had their focus, they set out to collect as much data as possible, letting their customers test the products for free as long as they provided feedback. With their test audience chiming in on everything from brush length to ferule texture, they were able to refine each prototype and learn a few lessons along the way. “When we started, we asked our girlfriends and acquaintances, and their priority was having the softest possible brush,” Leung explains. “We did that on our first prototypes, but then when we spoke to makeup artists they told us that they weren’t picking up product. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Their crowdsourced process may be modern, but Rephr relies on handiwork to create its products. Made in Kumano, Japan, a manufacturing hub focused on brush making, each piece is a collaboration with local artisans. “When we went there the first time it was astonishing, they’ve been making brushes for hundreds of years and it is a part of their culture,” Shen says. Still, it took time to find a balance between the speed the internet demands and a process steeped in tradition. “We would ask for two week turnaround times and come back with changes. Make this shorter. Make it denser. This is too fluffy,” Leung says. “Initially they must have hated us, but we’ve built a strong relationship over time."
The connection is far from the only one Rephr has built. A glance at their website reveals a community of beauty lovers with a personal stake in the products. Eager to share their opinions or potentially inspire the next standout tool, they helped propel the brand towards an impressive Kickstarter campaign. For their part, Shen, Leung, and Nguyen have found the collective interest the most exciting part of the venture. “We get to talk to almost every single one of our customers personally,” says Shen. “They send us pictures and examples asking us to make new prototypes, they [even] ask if we’ve ever thought about making brush cleaner! We feel very honored to be a part of a community where everyone wants us to do well.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue