The Museum of Ice Cream, that pop-up concept featuring colorful “sprinkle pools” and other ice cream-themed installations, was met with a bit of confusion when it first opened. But people flocked to it, and the current iteration in San Francisco sells $38 tickets to 1,700 people daily. The 26-year-old founder Maryellis Bunn just extended the concept into retail, opening a real ice cream/grocery store in New York City called the Pint Shop. Instagram-bait sells.
It was an appealing model for the beauty brand Winky Lux. Winky Lux, as the name suggests, is whimsical. The brand, which was founded in 2015, has leaned hard into cute. The unicorn is its spirit animal. Glitter is a balm for the soul, or at least for your lips. Its products, tailor-made for Gen Z, are Insta-bait. There are lip balms encasing flowers and a glitter puff spray that is akin to a fairy lightly blowing magic dust on you.
The brand has just opened its first of five nationwide pop-up retail concepts, called the Winky Lux Experience, in New York City, openly courting customers who crave an experience — or at least an amazing Instagram picture.
Though Winky Lux has its own small store in New York and its products at major retailers including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Ulta, and soon Sephora, “no one seems excited to go to traditional retail,” said Winky Lux’s co-founder Natalie Mackey, laughing. “The rise of Color Factory, Museum of Ice Cream, Happy Place, Candytopia — these seem like big-format retail concepts that people were really excited to go to.”
Enter the Winky Lux Experience. Pop-ups are already planned for other cities, including Chicago and Atlanta in September and Nashville and Miami in October. “The idea was to take those moments where you could create your own content and marry it with commerce,” Mackey says. “If you don’t understand what Winky Lux is about when you walk through the door, well, we sort of beat you over the head with it!”
Indeed. I brought Winky Lux’s customer ground zero to the New York City launch party this week: a 15-year-old girl named Mabel. She describes herself as being more into makeup than some of her friends. Glossier is very popular at her school, but she had never heard of Winky Lux. Her eyes widened a bit when we walked in and she said, “It’s very aesthetically pleasing in here.”
There’s a retail space in the front of the store that’s free to enter, but Winky Lux charges patrons $10 to walk through seven interconnected rooms in the back of the space that each correspond thematically to the brand’s products, like a “matcha zen garden” space that also highlights the brand’s bestselling Matcha lip balm. “Spirit guides” keep you moving through the rooms.
Customers can then apply that $10 admission fee as credit toward a purchase in the shop, which features Winky Lux products as well as things like unicorn-shaped piggy banks and other cutesy merch. Products range in price from $14 for various lip balms and glosses to $29 for a gel moisturizer. Mackey anticipates that most customers will use the $10 credit to purchase something. While she didn’t share numbers, she acknowledged that the shop itself will provide a lot of data for the brand going forward, based on purchasing habits of visitors.
The rooms are small, but they serve their Instagram-bait purpose. There’s a wall painted rainbow colors, one featuring a “cloud” you can sit on, a thoroughly disorienting “infinity room” filled with mirrors and lights, and a shrunken coffee room akin to Facebook HQ’s much-Instagrammed tiny conference room. (“That’s so cute!” exclaimed Mabel upon seeing it.)
Mabel loved the whole thing, but she was especially smitten with a lavender room that had the phrase “Namastay in bed all day” painted on the wall in curlicue script. She expertly propped herself up on a ledge covered with fluffy pillows while her mom snapped pictures. The one that made it to her IG feed, however, was the “cloud” room. “Leave me here,” reads the caption.
She had one complaint, though, and I agreed with it. “There are good places to pose but the lighting wasn’t great,” she said. “I would change the lighting if I had to change one thing. Everything else was good!”
Mackey has earned a lot of respect in the beauty industry for her business model, along with $8 million in funding. Dubbing her strategy “fast beauty,” her team scours social media to see what concepts are trending, and then the brand’s suppliers and factories are able to turn around product in 45 days, helped along by proprietary “supply chain management technology” that allows the company to streamline the production process. Traditionally, it has taken one to two years to for beauty companies to churn out new product.
By adding experiential, visual retail to the mix, Winky Lux is doing what a lot of small beauty brands have done recently. Riley Rose, a beauty shop chain launched by the family behind Forever 21 (the chain carries Winky Lux), also features tons of social media-friendly elements, like a furry swing. Glossier’s new LA shop includes a “Glossier canyon,” which was modeled after Antelope Canyon in Arizona, itself a favorite backdrop of the Instagram set.
But will this store concept work for Winky Lux? Based on my data set of one, it seems promising. When asked if it would be worth spending $10 of her own money at the Winky Lux Experience, Mabel said, “I mean, as long as you can get a good Instagram photo and a decent lip balm out of it, most people my age would definitely go for that!”