After a dream career working on product development for Mecca Cosmetica, the Sydney-born beauty insider took a leap of faith and recently launched her own beauty brand Ultra Violette. As the daughter of a fashion editor (her mother is Nicole Bonython-Hines) and a fashion photographer, you can say Ava Mathews had a very creative upbringing. Finding her passion in beauty, X-Files speaks to Ava about her career path to beauty entrepreneur...
Your parents are both celebrated in the Australian fashion industry. Tell us how that shaped your own career path?
It did in ways I think no one would have expected. I didn’t really want anything to do with fashion as a result but liked being on the periphery. Looking in but not actively involved, which is why I’ve always loved beauty - there’s crossover but not too much. Both of my parents are creatives; my mother a fashion editor and my father a fashion photographer. I just don’t have the eye my parents do…although I’ve always loved beauty. Obviously, their connections helped at the beginning and enabled me to start my career perhaps faster and more easily than others, although I had to prove myself very quickly once those doors were ajar.
What was it like growing up with a fashion editor for a mum?
Interesting - ha! Both my parents worked and travelled a lot, so I had a fairly unconventional upbringing in some ways. I’d wake up for school many days to find a whole production crew at our house complete with models (Miranda Kerr, Naomi Campbell – to name a couple) in my backyard getting hair and makeup done, or after school I’d go to Fashion Week (back when it was at Fox Studios) or my mum couldn’t be at my birthday party because she had to dress Kylie Minogue for Mardi Gras. Really normal stuff. When I was a teenager my mum put an actual punch-coded security lock on her bedroom door (like they have in back rooms of a retail store) to stop me “borrowing” her makeup, accessories and clothes. She was a bit horrified when I became super into makeup. She’s very “fashion” (minimal makeup and hair) and was always telling me to pare back the tan/lashes/brows. Mum and I have literally polar opposite style, and I’m a lot curvier than her so it’s not like we’ve really been able to share wardrobes. Although I do generally ask her opinion on outfits (unless I know she’ll hate it, in which case I won't).
Do you remember the exact moment you fell in love with beauty?
Probably when I was 6 and started wearing my Granny’s hot pink lipstick. I still wear a similar colour!! It’s just a lot more inclusive. Everyone feels amazing after a blow-dry or buying a new lipstick.
How did you decide on your career? What was the first step after school ended?
Before year 12 started, I’d become obsessed with ‘Sex and the City’ and thought Samantha Jones was the best: glamour, sex, great outfits. I loved being around people (and chatting), and I liked English, public speaking and writing so I assumed that I’d be okay at PR. I’d done some work experience the year before in a PR agency and an event agency and realised events weren’t for me – too much detail. So, I was guided towards a Communications (Comms) degree and the best comms degree (I’d been told) was at University Technology Sydney (UTS). Which is where I ended up going. While I was finishing my degree, I was working full time for Gary Saunders at what was Worling Saunders PR and the rest is history!!
Did you have any mentors who were instrumental in your career? What did they teach you?
Gary Saunders who was my first boss, and he really was amazing, letting me work on things and do tasks that someone at my level possibly may not have otherwise – let’s just say I wasn’t only getting coffees and cleaning out the beauty cupboard (although he did once introduce me to Cate Blanchett, in jest, as “his bitch”). He is the most honest person I know (sometimes brutally so!) and would always speak up if he thought something wasn’t right or couldn’t be achieved and he wouldn’t take on work just for money. He taught me to stand my ground if I believed in something and he is super creative and encouraged that trait in me. Lucinda Pitt who was my boss at Napoleon and is still getting me work to this day! She taught me a great number of things, too many to list here but she is honestly the best operator I’ve ever seen, and super brilliant. She was very encouraging of my individual skillset, would push me where I needed to be pushed but not for the sake of it. She has an amazing work ethic, which I definitely tried to emulate. I guess I learned truly what my strengths were from working for her, and always to play to those and don’t waste time doing something I’m not great at.
Tell us about your career start including your Mecca Cosmetica roots.
I started in PR at Worling Saunders got to work on some great accounts: SK-II, Mecca Cosmetica, Aesop, Olay, Pantene, Jurlique, Essie Nails and then realised I LOVED luxury beauty (and specifically Mecca) and so after a while Gary gave me that account (well, I think I may have bullied him into it). Worling Saunders became Saunders & Co and there I stayed for close to 5 years – primarily on Mecca Cosmetica. But I then decided I needed a sea change. So, I put the wheels in motion to move to Manhattan which I did in early 2010, first working in marketing for a boutique hedge fund and then working in a lifestyle PR agency – also an amazing learning experience. Then after a year and a half in NYC, Lucinda Pitt had made the switch from editorial to brand and asked if I was interested in a job at Napoleon Perdis as their PR manager working under her. This was probably the most instrumental move in my career, and I learned an enormous amount – professionally and personally – working for Lucinda. I worked as PR manager for 1.5 years and then transitioned to Communications and Strategy Manager for over 2 years. In this role, I worked across PR and marketing strategy as well as product development. It was a HUGE learning curve for me, and I had the opportunity to work across a lot of projects and areas of the business I wouldn’t have had I worked for many other brands. Fast forward to Mecca Brands – and Melbourne – where I worked for 3 years, met my now business partner Bec. I was a Brand Manager there for the Mecca Cosmetica private label, and my role encompassed: product development, marketing, creative, finances, sales, inventory. It was a pretty varied role, which is part of the reason I loved it so much. So, I basically conceptualised, created and marketed every product we produced – from the very start (recognising a product need), the packaging, the name of the product, the cost of it, to the copy, the marketing, the logistics and operations, how it looked in store. I then went on to be the head of marketing at RATIONALE skincare, where I learned a lot from Richard Parker on the importance of truly knowing your brand and not diverting from that for any reason. And then I launched Ultra Violette!
What were some highlights during your time at Mecca?
I think all of it was a highlight. A large part of my role was Product Development and there was something SO satisfying about dreaming up a product in your head and then 12-18 months later seeing it on shelf in store. Plus, Mecca went through some incredible growth over the time I was there, so witnessing and being a part of that was really amazing. Additionally, the people at Mecca are an incredibly inspiring, intelligent, collaborative and supportive bunch. I made so many close friends.
When did you decide that you wanted to launch your own product line? How did you experience help you on this journey?
I’ve always wanted my own brand - I’ve been thinking about it for probably 15 years. If someone told me 15 years ago it would be about SPF, I’d have laughed in their face. But the idea came to my business partner and I while we were at MECCA and saw the opportunity for a dedicated sunscreen brand that ticked all the boxes of what women want and how it’s actually worn. My entire career experience has shaped me for this - from PR and marketing strategy to product development and learning how to balance creative with commercial. Working with suppliers, negotiating. I feel like everything I’ve done and all that I’ve learned has allowed me to do this. When people ask me how long Ultra Violette has been in the works I say 3 years, but the reality is more like 14...
What is the best part of having your own beauty brand?
Ummm being able to get out of bed at 8am and wear activewear all day??? In all honesty, there are so many highs (but also lows) but the best part is really being able to shape a brand into something that people want to own, and also because we’re dealing with the sun — and with it, skin ageing and health and cancer — it’s a serious topic. So being able to shape behaviours and educate people to wear SPF every day is rewarding because I feel like we’re helping change the dialogue about sun and SPF.
Share your own morning beauty routine:
I’m usually out of bed by 8am but awake from around 7am. I’ll spend that hour emailing, checking sales and having a read of news/skim over the @Ultra Violette Instagram and then I’ll usually do a bit of a to-do list of what I need to get done that day. I’ve started making my boyfriend breakfast in the morning which is very charitable of me, I think. Sometimes I’ll have a celery juice in the morning (totally sucked in by the Instagram craze) which I feel gives me some energy but it’s usually a 50/50 chance because I’m inherently lazy and HATE cleaning the machine. And then I’ll shower and brush my teeth and do my skincare which involves 2 RATIONALE serums and a moisturiser and then Queen Screen (duh). And I’m usually out the door by 9.15am to whatever kind of active thing I feel I have to do - at the moment it’s a bit of Pilates and some HIIT. To keep up with Ultra Violette, follow the brand on social media here. All images supplied by Ava Matthews.