LIHA Beauty is spearheaded by friends Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan, who started the brand in their kitchens in 2017, hand making the products. Since then, they have gathered many loyal fans – 25,000 and counting on Instagram – with the lockdown and the powerful resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement shining a well-deserved light on the company. Liha advocates the importance of self-care, which she defines as ‘honouring my pace’ and supports other women with this journey, holding workshops with Rape Crisis and Women’s Refuge.
At the heart of the brand is Yoruba philosophy and the desire to venerate their culture. Liha and Abi founded the company with the aim of introducing people to the amazing raw ingredients native to Nigeria. They have undoubtedly succeeded in this aim; their products are the type that you have to recommend to friends after trying, which is how I first found out about the company. Using their Idan Oil after melting it in the bath, massaging the Ivory Shea Butter into elbows and hands and then lighting the Queen Idia Candle have become essential parts of my day and have gone some way in assuaging the anxiety that has become second nature to this moment in time. I had the pleasure of talking to Liha about her journey into the beauty industry, her interest in natural beauty and aromatherapy, stemming from her childhood, and the exciting projects they have coming up.
How was your first lockdown? And what was your experience like as an independent business?
It’s been a roller coaster. At the beginning of the pandemic I reconciled with the idea of not having a business in a few weeks. I took a ‘whatever will be will be’ attitude. I’m a go with the flow person. Worrying won’t help. We had just scaled up and got our first office and had to get rid of that. Get rid of the tiny staff – went back to the skeletal team of me and Abi. [But] surprisingly online really went crazy even before BLM. Everyone had time to use our products – melting the oil and burning the candle; things slowed down. People wrote in saying that they loved it after they found it in the back of their cupboard. NHS workers emailed in to say that the shea butter was the only thing that worked on their cracked hands. It was emotional! There were so many times that highlighted bits of owning a business that gets lost in the everyday. We got a deep connection with our customers. And then the whole BLM thing happened. It put us into news and we were featured in Vogue and every single black owned list. I woke up and we had gone from 7k- 20k followers. My answer to that question … it was a lot I would say. I feel very lucky. The business is there but for the grace of God. If I had a food truck or a restaurant, things would be different. I am grateful that we were in the self-care area.
What’s your team like currently?
There are three of us. We are all mums. Clare [their Commercial Director] is a mum of 3. I am a single mother to a 16 year old. Abi is a single mother to a 2 year old.
You and Abi came from totally different career paths. Can you talk about your decision to start LIHA Beauty together?
We were in completely different career paths. We both had like 2 other jobs which is crazy to think about now. Abi was doing corporate social responsibility and Olympic speaking engagement. I had an art publishing business where I used to sell posters of retro book covers of first edition books and I worked in museum education. I was doing community outreach for my local museum, working with in need kids and hard to reach groups. LIHA Beauty was the third thing on our list. We were like let’s just do a soft launch and do it from our kitchens. We will build it really slowly. We thought we had all the time in the world to tinker away at it but it was like a snowball down a hill. It launched us. It’s been great but kind of crazy not having time to stop and think. [Lockdown] has been good for slowing down and regrouping. We properly launched 3 years ago and we only went full time in 2018. When we tell people we are still making all of our things in this small windowless room, they are shocked. It worked against us sometimes.
What is your and Abi’s working relationship like? Do you feel like you take different roles in the business?
We are very different, I always say we’re kind of like Yin and Yang. The pandemic helped us get into a different workflow. Before it was like I am the slower one and she is the faster one. But because everything slowed down so much it was like we both worked in our own bubbles and sometimes our bubbles come together. In a weird way it was kind of helpful. We have an amazing working relationship in terms of she pushes me forward and out of my comfort zone. And creatively if one of us has an idea we will sit and it will be like if we did that we could do that. We have a really good dynamic energy. It’s been great talking through ideas and the charities we want to work with going forward. I managed to sit down and do some organisational stuff. We have worked with Rape Crisis and Women’s Refuge because of how domestic violence has risen in lockdown. I am a survivor as well so it’s close to home to think of still being in that situation. We’re rolling out the workshops to Rape Crisis in a different way and giving women times to themselves. It’s kind of like a crash course in aromatherapy. It always ends up being about self-care; we share our stories and give each other remedies. It’s a space to heal, make something with your hands, and not think about things.
What does self-care mean to you?
I get asked this question all the time! For me it’s about honouring my pace. It took me a lot of years; I am 41 in November. It took me a lot of years and a lot of stuff I had to go through for me to go ‘this is my pace and this is the only pace that works for me’. It’s about finding that perfect balance and doing whatever it is I have to do to maintain that balance. Even if that might seem sabotaging sometimes it’s actually not. Saying to the entire world and this is my pace and you’re going to have to deal. The surprising thing is that people do deal because what are they going to do?
You seem to be keen on educating your customers on the benefits and importance of your products, like shea butter, Idan oil and aromatherapy. Where did this motivation come from?
I used to work in the beauty industry: my first job was in the Body Shop when I was 16. It was when Anita Rodick still ran it and she would pop her head in the door which was kind of surreal. Then I worked in Space NK and I have always been really obsessed with beauty. When the natural beauty movement started happening around 2013-2014, I realised no one knew what shea butter was. Abi and I look kind of young for our age and people would ask what we used. Abi would be asked a lot about her favourite products too because she was an athlete. We would say shea butter and black soap and literally so many people didn’t know what it was. We wanted to introduce people to it because it’s amazing. It’s used in so many products but is cut with chemicals like lanolin. We wanted to show people the amazing raw thing and what people could do with it. We didn’t think people would be this excited about it! What’s so great is people always tell their friends and they don’t just tell one they tell four.
Can you talk more about the importance of tradition to your brand?
For me everything is tied up with the spirituality of it. The culture of it as well. A big part of why we wanted to name everything Yoruba names was to venerate our culture. It’s such an amazing culture. I feel like it’s survived in so many fascinating ways and transformed itself by going to the Americas and Brazil or Cuba. You can still see it, Yoruba culture is so strong. It might be Catholicized when they have had to hide it within the Catholic religion but it’s still there. We wanted to pay homage to that. Our newest offering goes a bit deeper when we have started to talk about the names of the Yoruba Goddesses. There is such a stigma around African spirituality within every culture. It’s like it’s Voodoo, it’s Juju, it’s this and it’s that. It’s just an Earth religion and it’s a very old belief system. It all comes back to grounding to me and wanting to venerate the culture.
Skincare and beauty is a booming industry. What are your thoughts on the skincare industry as it is? Are you optimistic?
It’s great that everything is becoming more diverse. My daughter is sixteen and to see her experience as opposed to mine growing up in ‘96 is crazy. Sometimes she sees pictures and she asks why is this model ashy? And it’s because there were no colours! There was no Fenty. It’s really amazing to see how diverse it’s become but then it’s crazy that it has only happened in the last five years. You’ve got these massive brands trying to include this and that and plus-size. I like it but then sometimes it’s really cringey – like finding an old diary – it feels disingenuous. There are certain brands where you can tell it’s real. It’s difficult as someone who has been really into natural beauty for a long time, going way back to when all rubbish and none of it worked. My mum was selling aromatherapy back in the 1970s and 1980s and everyone thought she was a witch. It’s like anything, like seeing your favourite brand go mainstream and it’s like I love them but sometimes it’s a bit icky with certain brands. It’s positive to see how many small brands are thriving in this space and seeing them supporting each other. It’s also good to see bigger brands being held accountable for whatever it is that they shouldn’t have been doing. My daughter puts me onto stuff – there are so many new trends. Especially with hair. That was another huge struggle and another reason why Abi and I got to know each other because we both have natural hair. There wasn’t this big community and there wasn’t a Ted talk about it. You had to struggle and be a weirdo for walking around with natural hair. That’s what’s fantastic and empowering about this generation and the internet is they’ve got each other. Whatever problem you’re having, you can find someone else who has the same problem and you can talk it out and figure it out.
What projects are you working on currently?
We’ve got a lot of plans for next year. We’re really excited about doing a facial range launching in spring. Personally, what I am really excited about is bringing more raw ingredients from Nigeria specifically because there’s so many. Shea butter is only the tip of the iceberg. That’s going to be challenging because a lot of them are so new to the market that we’re going to have to do all the testing. We’re going to have to get all the logistics in place. But the thing that gets me most excited about expanding is there’s so many other ingredients that are going to blow people’s mind.