John Legend plans to go deep with a new skin-care line
John Legend, the award-winning artist, activist, philanthropist, and investor, has been thinking about his skin, and yours.
“Of course, I’m in the public eye, and so there’s a bit more of a premium placed on making sure we take care of ourselves and present ourselves well to the public,” he tells Fortune, on a late-night, post-performance Zoom call from Hanoi, Vietnam. “But everybody has skin, and everybody cares about their skin, and everybody cares about presenting themselves well in every situation, whether it’s, you know, family, community, or wherever they are.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s such an important part of who they are, and how they present themselves to the world, and how they feel.”
That everyone wants to feel good in their skin is only part of the thinking behind Legend’s new skin-care line, still in development, which will be focused on the unique needs of darker, melanin-rich skin. The line is necessary for so many reasons, says Legend, which leads to broader conversations about beauty standards, the racial wealth gap, and some of the insidious reasons why people with darker skin need specialized products.
These conversations are happening within a new partnership that Legend has forged with Los Angeles-based holding company A-Frame Brands, announced today exclusively in Fortune.
A-Frame, which was founded in 2019 by actor and activist Hill Harper and executive and entrepreneur Ari Bloom, has given itself an unusual market focus.
“The entire purpose of the business is to create products for people who need them the most,” says Martin Ekechukwu, A-Frame’s charismatic chief brand officer. “And we’re defining ‘people who need them the most’ as Black, Brown, Asian, and [people with disabilities] … anyone for whom there has been nothing specifically created for you, from the ground up.”
In the past year, A-Frame launched Kinlo, a sun-care brand with tennis star Naomi Osaka, and are currently developing Proudly, a baby-care line, with Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade. “We think it’s okay to be talking about Black, Brown, and Asian, we’re about 150 million people in the U.S. and globally we’re billions,” says Ekechukwu.
This mission resonated with Legend, who has been watching the skin-care space for some time. He was an early investor in Tristan Walker’s flagship brand, Bevel, which first focused on meeting the needs of Black folks who shaved. Despite being turned down by traditional venture partners, Walker was able to grow the brand into a health and beauty juggernaut that was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 2018.
With A-Frame, Legend feels that he’s found a partner he can trust. “I love that they have a really diverse team and are concerned with making the world a better place, concerned with listening to a myriad of voices who are often marginalized and left behind, concerned about creating something that is affordable and accessible to all kinds of people, truly loves people of color and wants to provide people of color with the care that we deserve,” says Legend.
Scratch the surface of the unmet skin-care needs of A-Frame’s target audience, and you find a host of other thorny issues.
Ashy jokes aside, Dr. Naana Boakye, A-Frame’s board-certified dermatology director, says that melanin-rich skin loses moisture at a greater rate compared to non-melanin-rich skin. Darker skinned folks are disproportionately plagued by pigmentation disorders, Black Americans suffer from eczema at a higher rate, and worse, people of color are more likely to live in areas of untreated industrial pollution.
“Because we’re dry, we tend to have this more intense itch, and a lot of brands don’t take that into account when they’re making skin-care products,” she says. “So the [A-Frame] product development team and I are very intentional about what ingredients we put into our products because it can impact our skin.” That includes non-toxic and sustainably sourced ingredients.
If presentation matters for everyone, imagine what’s at stake for people of color who face barriers to entry in school, work, and credit markets. Having itchy, uncomfortable, or unhealthy skin is not helpful.
The wealth gap drives the appearance gap, which further separates people of color from opportunity, says Ekechukwu. “Most of America doesn’t necessarily have the means required to get the tiny little $60 bottle of face cream,” he says. But put affordable, thoughtfully designed products in the hands of consumers of color, and it gets them closer to putting their best faces forward in a world that is often unwilling to see their strengths and potential.
Legend has become adept at linking his personal brand with broader unmet needs, some in pure advocacy, others in his commercial interests, like his still unnamed skin-care line. I asked him how he navigated his options.
“I always think back to when I was 15-years-old. I wrote an essay — it was actually for McDonald’s Black History Month essay competition,” he says laughing. The prompt was simple: How do you plan to make Black history? “And I said that I was going to become a successful artist, successful singer/songwriter and use that success to try to make my community better and give back as soon as I possibly could. And so, I’m literally living my dream of doing that.”
He talks about the money he and his wife, author, chef, and media personality Chrissy Teigen, give away, but also his need to speak out. “There’s Free America speaking about mass incarceration, humanizing the people that are caught up in the criminal punishment system.” And there’s HumanLevel, a new organization he founded to address systemic racism on a local level in communities across the U.S.
“I get to make music for a living. I love doing that. I get to put more beauty on the world,” he says. But Legend believes that you don’t have to be a global star to listen to others and amplify the needs and solutions around you. “I believe that even folks that aren’t as famous as me, aren’t as well-known as me can use whatever influence they have, use, whatever passion they have, whatever knowledge they have to try to make the world better.”
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