An hour with: Carrie Barber of Glossier, Sephora & Violet Grey
Interviewed by Adam Bryce
Carrie Barber shares her art director insights into image-making in the world of beauty.
Adam: I want to go right back to the beginning of your career. Your work is your viewpoint and your job, as an art director, is as much about your level of taste as it is about the way you think. Tell me about your pathway to becoming an art director. And do you feel as if your childhood played a role in that? Do you think that’s linked to how you see things?
Carrie: So, I definitely knew I wanted to be an art director but, at the time, I had no idea what that meant. I would always flip through magazines or watch a movie and say to myself, ‘I want to be the person that comes up with this image. I want to be the person that comes up with the idea and be the one who created the whole image’.
My dad was really creative, he owned a mannequin manufacturing business and he made mannequins for Nike, Abercrombie and The Limited Group. I’m sure you will have seen one of his mannequins. He also studied architecture, so he just had this level of taste and precision that, for sure, influenced my taste. He always said, ‘do whatever makes you happy and make sure that whatever you are doing, you are doing it right.’ So, there’s a part of me that’s a perfectionist. The sense of innate eye, it’s just something I’m sure I grew up with, but when you’re on this path, you see all of these references along the way and they take you on a certain direction.
I remember, when I was in college, I discovered SHOWstudio and Lady Gaga and they exposed me to a lot of references that allowed me to build this level of taste. I’ve probably always had a more minimalistic or elevated approach, but it definitely evolved when I discovered those artists and they shared their references. That’s something I really love about my job — no matter what I’m doing, I’m always learning something and there’s always something I can be doing better. Every re-brand I work on and every project I’m doing, I want to make sure that, although it will have my taste level and aesthetic, it has to be right for them, before anything else.
Adam: That makes sense. That’s the best position to be in, when you have that signature aesthetic and you’re still able to work with a brand in an intelligent way to best-suit their brand structure and what they’re trying to achieve. You worked at start-up phase Glossier, the well-established retail giant Sephora and the independent Violet Grey. How do you see your role or job changing in between those three brands?
Carrie: At Glossier, when I started, I think there were 18 people and we were on only one floor. It was the early days. There was a pretty strong creative team, I was a digital art director, which meant that I was responsible for the brand online, which encompassed social, email and one of my bigger projects was evolving the website forward from its two-page website.
I worked with the other creatives to think about everything from content to ‘video try on’ to FaceTime, really trying to think of all these ideas to digitally push things forward, especially for a brand that didn’t have retail at the time. Glossier was the best job I ever had because everyone was buying into the brand, we were building it together and we were a family. Like any start-up, you do a lot of different things, you have the opportunity to present a lot of new ideas. That’s actually what you want when you’re young, you just have to try. Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what works. When you’re digital, you can also be more agile in that way and if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay.
Adam: Often, as a creative director, you believe that you have to change the brand, the way the brand looks and that’s a much bigger task than most people realise. The cost is so massive and you have to roll that out over years. Whereas for digital, if you come up with a great content idea or a digital innovation, you can make that happen pretty quickly and, if it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. You just change it back.
Carrie: I remember one of the first really interesting digital tools we created was a skin tint shade finder. Sephora’s app is one of the best now but, at the time, there was nothing like it. Glossier had three shades. I remember, when they had their first FaceTime consultations and they still do that now, and it makes so much sense to them. It was fun to be in a place and be able to do things like that, really without trying too hard but changing the way that beauty was presented and how people communicated with each other. They set the standard, in many ways, for how it is now.
Adam: I imagine that, like anything in your career, you’re pulling learnings from each role into your own tool kit, which just makes you better and better as you go.
What did you find the biggest differences were when you went to Sephora? Was it the fact that things were already set in stone or things slower to move?
Carrie: I’ve worked at Sephora twice. I worked there right out of college and, creatively, that was an amazing time for me personally. It was very fashion and edgy and cool. I was on a team which did the Sephora retail channel and then I did a lot of art direction on social, which had just rebranded to be more digitally lead.
Adam: And what about Violet Grey — did you feel like you had to learn new ways of working again?
Carrie: With Violet Grey, more than Glossier or Sephora, it’s such a small team with as much, if not more, original content than Glossier. Glossier were sending out emails daily but not telling stories four days out of the week, where Violet Grey is 100 per cent content and commerce. We’re selling product and we’re selling it through editorial. Every week, there are at least three original stories or posts. It’s me, one other art director and a designer and that’s basically it. We all had to be really scrappy. What I like most about Violet Grey is the taste level, it works for me and is extremely comfortable, I just understand the aesthetic. It’s fun to really execute an aesthetic that is really true to the brand but also something that I love.
Adam: I felt like your aesthetic started to change a bit during that time as well. The images became less soft and things became more attitudinal. I felt like from your personal Instagram and your moodboards, I loved that flash photography kind of feeling you created.
Carrie: I love flash.
Adam: I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I want to go back and shoot things in a really simple, point and shoot way. Make things look like photographs again.
Carrie: It’s funny you say that because I was scrolling through my Instagram and it’s interesting to see how your aesthetic evolves. Violet Grey’s aesthetic has been with them since they started but they definitely inspired me to care more, have better taste and be a little unapologetic for it. I also love point and shoot because that’s all you have to do. For beauty, especially, the lighting is everything but you have to think about the composition or the model’s attitude and energy. Photoshoots in a studio are just so much more put together and, while I like that controlled environment, I also just like snapping a photo. That’s why I like shooting with a Polaroid because that camera does all the work for you.
Adam: Removing a lot of the technical elements allows you to just let you capture a moment. I feel as though that Violet Grey look and that look you’ve started to develop yourself is much more in tune with that. More life in it, more things happening and more attitude.
Carrie: There’s an energy to it, if you create the right mood it feels like you captured a moment in time and, even if you did, it doesn’t look like you put it all together.
Adam: I love that idea that you do still have to spend a lot of time and effort, yet it just looks like you’ve turned up and that’s it. I’ve always thought that since I was a kid. The things that are cooler are the things that look like they don’t try.
Carrie: I feel like that too.
Adam: Now, obviously with that transition to working more freelance, working in creative direction as well as art direction, how are you finding that?
Carrie: I’m still a contributing editor with Violet Grey because I really like to write stories and visit all the LA doctors and write about it. I’m still obviously close with all them, but I’ve decided to only take on one client.
For the first time, in a long time, I’m only doing one thing. It’s just the right time, especially with everything going on. I tend to do too much and get burnt out so quickly so it’s a good time for me to have one thing and not worry about working 60 hours. Just working smarter, not harder.
Adam: It’s kind of the best time for that too. In some ways, we’re in a kind of reset mode, so you may as well take advantage of it. I feel like everyone is learning a little bit of that right now.
Carrie: The timing is very interesting and it’s not necessarily my energy to be slow and do less, but it’s now turning into that. I feel more relaxed and less stressed, in some ways. From here on out, I want to make decisions that are right for me. I feel, sometimes, like I get into business relationships or sign onto products where I’m not totally in it. As much as possible, I want to do things that I really care about. It’s nice to be more relaxed and not to be constantly working, it’s exactly what I needed.
Adam: Yeah, I think so too. It sounds like you’ve just been super busy for so long and it’s reached that point now of needing that balance.
Carrie: There have definitely been times where I’ve just been so exhausted and I can’t think of one more creative idea. Although that happens sometimes, I don’t want that to be what work is for me. I want work to be exciting and busy and give me energy, not take energy.
Adam: I think that’s really important. Wellness and your health are so important to be creative.
Carrie: I think so too, you need enough time where nothing is done, nobody needs anything from you and you’re alone. You need time to breathe and have space and relax. A lot of times, there’s a lot of pressure and, while that has helped me create good work, you can’t do much after that. There’s a burnout.
Adam: And you begin to not enjoy it. I think that’s pretty important because I don’t think any of us got into these jobs purely for the money, we do it because we love it. And if you reach the point where you are not loving it anymore, then you might as well have been a lawyer. You might as well just make money instead.
Why do you always end up in beauty brands? How did you become the art director for beauty?
Carrie: It definitely wasn’t planned that way. I wanted to go to fashion school and, at one point, I wanted to be a designer. Really, I mean, it was my first job at Sephora, that was it. I thought I was going to move to New York, work for a magazine, be an image-maker. Then, someone I knew at Sephora was like, ‘we need a digital designer’ and I was like, well, that’s the coolest thing in San Fransisco so I’ll take it. I just realised that beauty can also be fashion, I feel like they have meshed now more than ever. There’s just something about beauty that is so personal. You have an emotional connection to these brands and these products. I love talking to people about it because you’re sharing this piece about you.
Adam: With beauty, there’s more of a community. It’s all about sharing your experiences and helping each other out. Whereas fashion is kind of opposite in a way. Fashion is kind of like, ‘I have this thing and I don’t want anyone else to know about it.’ Beauty is more accessible too, right? Because of the price point. We are talking about a different level of expenditure.
Carrie: With beauty, you can find a common ground. You feel like you’re not alone and you have this sense of community, where you’re kind of like ‘this person likes this sort of moisturiser and so do I and now we’re friends’.
Adam: Seeing your work has given me an interest in beauty that I didn’t have before because you bring a fashion aesthetic to it that makes sense to me. Having that fashion angle to it has kind of elevated beauty, in a way. I’ve never really seen it before, it was just really interesting to see beauty from that angle. Even on your Instagram, you’re looking at it from a beauty kind of angle and I start to understand the reason behind that image. Speaking of Instagram — I have this real love/hate relationship as I’m sure many people do. I find so much inspiration from it but I also despise it in many ways. I feel like you’re probably the same, right?
Carrie: I definitely feel the same. I go back and forth between thinking that everything is the same and that there’s so much bullshit and, now, that might be changing a little because people are so tired of the bullshit. But, at the same time, I’m on Instagram a lot and there are so many people that I’ve met and are connected with on Instagram, which I really think is amazing. But I want to make sure it’s something I use and I want to remain myself as much as possible.
Adam: The other thing, about Instagram that I really like, is that you do manage to find like-minded people. People that are into the same sort of things have the same kind of aesthetic. What are your future plans?
Carrie: I’m in the midst of working on something with a new business partner and I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be what I always wanted, in terms of being the one to have the final say. It’s just nice to be at the point in my career where I have the experience and I feel confident to be the one to have the say and make the decisions and build and guide a team of people. I really love to mentor and help people when they’re young. I think that, more than anything, it’s so important to support young people and get them excited and also learn from them too because they’re young and they understand Tiktok and… they think about things differently. I love that aspect of being able to be in a senior role. Building a relationship and mentoring somebody to help them come up with crazy ideas.
Carrie Barber by Jessie Andrews.