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For Tara Foley, clean beauty isn’t just a passing trend. Through her innovative beauty boutique(s),Follain, Tara has been able to curate and educate consumers on the benefits of the best products in the burgeoning space. Follain was truly one of the first stores of its kind and has pioneered this concept by creating a welcoming, warm environment for people to come in and try and test a highly edited selection of good-for-you skin and beauty solutions. We loved sitting down with Tara to hear how she does it all with a healthy dose of smarts, heart, and her signature pair of Converse hi tops.
MELISSA: You’re a true innovator in the clean beauty space, especially with your marketplace model, how come you chose this route specifically?
TARA: Actually, I started my blog in 2009 and our first store opened in 2013. Essentially, in 2013 I was for the most part “tricking people” into buying clean products. We opened beautiful stores that were tiled and felt like this gorgeous bathroom. I invited people in and told them about these beautiful ingredients and new brands and got them to switch over from the conventional products that they were using. Then we would, as an afterthought, tell them, by the way, these are clean, all safe and all really beautiful products. In the beginning people weren’t really ready for it.
TARA: Then a few years went by and people were seeking us out and other brands in the space because there was more awareness and education. There are these sites like the EWG Skin Deep database and Think Dirty and these things. These are places where consumers are empowered to look up their ingredients, and so they would seek us out. Literally just now in 2019-2020, I think clean is in the zeitgeist, everybody is aware of it on some level, and that’s actually why the line is so well timed. We’ve used basically thousands and thousands of interactions with women over the years in the stores to inform us in making really beautiful products and in a more of an accessible way.
MELISSA: 2009 was obviously very early days of blogging, how did you come about starting that? What was your introduction into blogging and why?
TARA: So honestly, it was really tough time in my life. I was very miserable in my job and the career that I had basically spent my entire life preparing for up until then, so I was trying to figure out what to do. One of the things that made me feel really good was this whole health and wellness thing, which was new for me. I started this personal health and wellness journey. I started cooking for myself. I started focusing pretty aggressively on fitness—all for the very first time. I didn’t grow up in an organic household, so I was teaching myself and it felt so good. And so that was my only feel good thing in my life at that point. And it wasn’t very long after you go really deep into the nutrition stuff that you learned about the issues with beauty products.
TARA: I saw that there was an opportunity because I was always a beauty junkie, obsessed, and I just basically realized that those products that I was using didn’t sync up with this whole new health and wellness thing that I cared so much about. I was living in New York at the time. Now, I live in Boston. I started to seek out some of the brands that existed at the time just to meet with them.
MELISSA: What brands were they?
TARA: Tammy Fender, do you know them? They’re based in Florida, S.W. Basics. Who else? OSEA, RMS (the makeup company), not very many of them and not nearly as many as there are now. I would seek out these brands and talk to them and say, just tell me more about your company, your products…everything. I started a blog as an outlet for these conversations and it was just to learn basically. And in all of these conversations it kept on coming up that they didn’t have a home.
TARA: They were too high performing and needed too much education to go into Whole Foods, right? But they didn’t really make sense in a spa either because that’s kind of hidden and too clinical. These products were really special and they didn’t have a home. I became fixated and passionate about giving them a home. And these were all really passionate people just like myself about this side of the industry. I kind of wanted to partner up with them to build a community center for this—for clean. So then I spent many years kind of giving myself a fast, mini-education on this. I worked on a lavender farm in France for a while. I worked for a skincare developer up in Maine. I got an MBA. I just wanted to be able to do all the things. It was a hyper very fast education, the “Cliffs Notes” version. I came out of that and there still weren’t any other clean beauty retailers in the country. So, I decided to give it a shot. We opened our first store in Boston the summer of 2013. We basically hit all of these mini milestones we gave ourselves pretty quickly like repeat customers, paying back my little investment of selling my car to open the store, and all of it. It was so impactful and got me so emotional, quite frankly. Women were coming in and switching off of their current routines to these clean products. They were taking a risk on us.
TARA: So basically over the years, in the beginning I was pretty fastidious about recording what products and ingredients were working best for different skin types and concerns. There were no books and this was so different from conventional beauty, if that makes sense. You go into a department store and you’re really familiar with everything there in some capacity. You’re familiar with the brands, you’re familiar with the formats. It’s just easier to find the right thing for you. In clean, it’s a little more difficult because it’s all brand new. It’s very different textures, smells and really beautiful experiences but very different. Also, certain ingredients work really well for certain skin types, but not for everybody. I was recording all of this and basically all of those years of working with customers and recording that stuff ended up in my line. But along the way we opened more stores. We have six stores across the country, we have a pretty legit eCommerce business and we ship all over the country and world.
MELISSA: Are different products offered in different stores and do you feel that there are differences in the markets?
TARA: Totally. We’re based in Boston and we’re kind of like the smart girls of beauty. We lean into education, all of those things. We opened in Seattle and they got it immediately. Like Seattle just crushed it out of the gate and they got it. They were ready for it. They were excited about it. We opened in Dallas, Texas and we had to start from scratch. We were starting from ground zero, teaching people about clean beauty and honestly those are the opportunities I look forward to the most. I mean we pioneered this space in many ways. So we get how to talk to people just at the beginning of their journey. It’s an honor in many ways. It’s a bigger learning curve and it takes more samples, more conversations and more time. There’s definitely a difference in each of the markets. That being said, our assortment is pretty similar in each store.
MELISSA: You obviously have a very rigorous testing process to accept the lines carried in the stores. Can you walk us through what that process is?
TARA: Yes! Maybe you wouldn’t notice, but we don’t carry any full brand portfolio. We just carry what the brands are best at or what fits our portfolio specifically. So we’re highly curated. So, our stores even are set up to reflect that. Our cleansers are all grouped together in the cleanser section, you’ll see there’s the purifying cleansers, the calming cleansers and the brightening cleansers. When a customer comes in, you’re having a conversation about what speaks to you. You’re not having to go all around the store to search and find what you need. To answer your question, there is a five-step approval process to even get onto our shelves.
TARA: The first thing that’s probably the most unique thing about our stores which sets us apart from other beauty retailers is our restricted list. That means no products in here can have any ingredients on our restricted list. We were the first retailer in the country to debut this concept of a restricted list.
MELISSA: How many items are on this restricted list?
TARA: It’s actually full classes of ingredients. So, it’s hard to say how many items. It will be well over a thousand. We have parabens on our list, but parabens actually means six different ingredients like methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, and onwards. So when we’re looking at a product to bring in, the product can’t have anything on our restricted list. Second of all, they need to meet a very specific need for the customer and from our portfolio because we’ll never be over assorted. We’re highly curated.
MELISSA: For example, you only have 25 cleansers.
TARA: Yes, 25 cleansers for a specific skin type, not just 25 in the entire category. We have the best of each product and that product needs to speak to something specifically. It also needs to do what it claims. We go through a lot of testing for each of the products before we bring it into the stores. One of the things that people believe about clean beauty, which is not true, is that it doesn’t work. We need to be able to stand by every single product.
The last thing that we don’t talk about much either is that we have to align with the company because clean is becoming a trend right now and we need to know that the company’s in it for the right reasons. We partner with these companies in a really deep level, so I know the founders of most of the brands. It’s a very unique space in that way. It’s very founder driven.
The name, Follain, is a Gaelic name which means healthy and wholesome.
MELISSA: Speaking of beauty, what is your beauty regimen? We love hearing about what people do in the morning or evening.
TARA: It’s all over the place because I’m always testing new stuff. I mean, honestly, I’m either testing a new product to bring in by another brand or I’m testing an iteration of one of their products. So, it’s honestly always different, yet it’s kind of rooted in the same product types, if that makes sense. I guess I could speak to that, I have pretty dry skin actually. I usually use a balm oil cleanser. I’m now using our hydrating cleanser. When I wear more makeup it removes makeup incredibly well without being over drying. Anyhow, so I’ll use a balm oil or our new Follain cleanser then I’ll dry my skin and apply a toner. Most moisturizers in this space have some element of oil in it, which is easier to absorb it if you use the right toner, and not use an old-school toner like Sea Breeze.
MELISSA: I’m not toner person, what is the point of toner?
TARA: So, old school toner was very stringent. It was meant to dry out your skin and get off all the bad stuff. But the toners today, help your skin to absorb the products deeper. First, you wash your face, dry it, then put on the toner when your skin is still dewy from the toner, then you put on your oil, balm or moisturizer. I feel like I don’t give toner enough credit because it has a bunch of antioxidants that have structure which are able to really able to penetrate the skin deeply.
MELISSA: You have stores on the east coast and in Texas and we know you travel a lot, what is in your plane travel kit?
TARA: What a big question! On the plane, I always make sure that I take off all of my makeup. Then I’ll apply a hydrating mist or toner and then I’ll put on something like this Follain hydrating mask. We have a number of hydrating masks, but this is the one I’ve obviously been using the most. This mask goes in clear and you don’t have to wash it off. So, some people with more combination or even normal skin will leave it on for 20 minutes and then wash it off or just use it as a normal hydrating mask. I leave it on all night. I don’t wash it off until I wash my face again. I can tell a huge difference in my skin when I wear this mask on a plane versus not. So, I’ve become a big plane masker! It’s funny because I used to be a sheet mask person on the plane, which was really weird. I just let this mask sit. You know, on the plane the humidity is 15% as opposed to right now it’s probably 60% humidity in here. So, your skin gets very dehydrated very quickly on a plane.
MELISSA: Are there any products in here that you would use on your children?
TARA: So on my kids, I’m very minimal. Probably more minimal than most people. I didn’t use any kind of soaps. And this is just my personal opinion and I always recommend people talk to their doctor to figure out what works best for them. I’ll dilute down our Everything soap. I like products with fewer ingredients. I just keep it really basic.
MELISSA: Do you have a daily uniform you wear? What are you most comfortable in?
TARA: I usually wear sneakers unless I have a meeting with someone, who I don’t think will like the sneakers then I wear Doc Marten boots.
MELISSA: What are your top favorite sneaker brands?
TARA: I wear Converse. I have 20 pairs of Converse, always high tops. I have every color under the sun. I have blues, reds, whites and creams and another different cream. But I have a lot of sneakers. I have low tops, I have Nikes, I have Pumas. It’s funny, there’s a lot of sneaker brands based in Boston—Converse, New Balance, Reebok and Puma are all based in Boston. Because of all the sneaker brands being based in Boson, we get access to interesting off-market sneakers. Plus, I’m a mom and looking for comfort. Honestly, I started wearing sneakers a lot because I was the sole person in the stores in the beginning days. So I was always on my feet.
MELISSA: What’s up next for you?
TARA: We are launching our own skin care line, aptly named Follain. The name, Follain, is a Gaelic name which means healthy and wholesome. It also very conveniently sounds like my last name. People think my name is Tara Follain but its actually Tara Foley. The packaging is interesting. This store (in New York) is actually the store with the least amount of flowers. Most of our stores have these massive floral installations hanging from the ceilings. The idea is that we are creating this really inviting, warm environment. When you walk it gives people a chance to take a deep breath and allows you to create a ritual in the moment for yourself. We are the opposite of clinical and the cool girl beauty store. We know that it’s really special that we get to have this opportunity to meet with customers and help them find a new clean product. So, the flowers have always been a huge part of our brand. When we were looking at packaging, we created many different approaches. If you look in the space you’ll normally see color blocking or single colors and we thought that the florals would really make them stand out. Actually, a young woman on our team, sketched these by hand and we brought them to life on the packaging. That was really fun. Our products truly stand out on the shelves. Any of these you can just slot into your current clean beauty regime.
MELISSA: Say that you somehow misplaced your dopp kit on a trip and you had to make do with only conventional big box store choices, what are some brands or products that we can make do with on a temporary basis?
TARA: Increasingly, there are many more products now than there have been in the past. So, if I had to choose, I would probably go for coconut oil out of the food section and Burts Bees products. But, honestly that is a tricky question!
Another exciting part of our new product launch is that we will not only sell them in our stores and on-line but in March we will be sold in Anthropologie and Ulta. This will give people access to our products who have never even thought about clean before. Ulta has done a great job creating a clean seal and they so we’re going to be a part of pioneering it with them, which is really great.
MELISSA: Tell me one last thing. What are your go-to accessories in life?
TARA: My sneakers, I actually wear these earrings quite a bit and earrings by this designer who is local to Boston. She makes all this brass stuff. I really like unique pieces, I also really like brass pieces. I like knowing a lot about the brands that I shop from. If I find a person or a brand that I connect with, I usually ended up getting everything from them.