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 • Opinion  • Exclusive Interviews  • Meet the OG of Makeup Influence Who Shaped Beauty History

Meet the OG of Makeup Influence Who Shaped Beauty History

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Main image – Ruby Hammer

You know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly totally schools Andy on the trickle down effect of high fashion to our everyday lives? (You know the one; “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean”).

Where Priestly makes the point that our clothing choices are actually the culmination of “millions of dollars and countless jobs” at the top of the fashion industry, silently shaping the way we dress?

Well it turns out this “filtering down” effect isn’t unique to fashion.

Because beauty (another multi-billion dollar industry, thank you very much), has its own sphere of influence, its own filtering down of original ideas that then make their way into our everyday lives via drug store shelves and influencer’s beauty hauls.

That brand new launch by one of our favourite companies?  Often a nod to a classic product from decades earlier.  That “clicky” noise you love in your can’t-live-without concealer? The result of years of design research  by the beauty greats that went before.

And while it’s rare to be able to put your finger on exactly who originated a particular idea or fashion, there’s one woman whose influence on the beauty world you will have felt many times over.  You just might not have realised it yet.

Here, we speak to one of the OGs of beauty influence, makeup artist Ruby Hammer MBE, to find out how the woman born the daughter of a 17-year-old in Africa came to shape the way the world uses beauty daily.


Image – Ruby Hammer


A passion for makeup

Hammer’s love for fashion and beauty was inspired by her mother. “She had me when she was 17. We lived in Nigeria so we didn’t have Vogue magazine but whatever magazines we had we’d pour over,” she explains. 

“It was the 60s and she was an experimental young woman so she would try different trends. She wouldn’t have this chi chi Gucci stuff but she would have worn chiffon sarees and the false eyelashes type of makeup, so she was experimental.”

Hammer then describes the transition from watching her mother cooking over a hot stove to getting ready to go out as a ‘power transformation’. “Sometimes she’d look like a Bollywood star,” Hammer says.  “She was still my mom but [I loved] how she would change and wear different clothes and different makeup. So that bit of passion is inside me.”


Image – Ruby Hammer


After moving to the UK and getting a job at Harrods, Hammer was then inspired further by magazines and makeup brands like Biba. “I had a discount, so I was able to buy some of it and I’d do things like that from when I was allowed to wear it, which was around aged 15 onwards,” she says.

“And then I always wore makeup – never the same look two days in a row – all to match my clothes.” 


An unexpected career choice

Though clearly having the skills and raw passion for makeup, Hammer also had a friend who could steer her in the right direction. “It’s only when I finished university, and I got an economics degree that I met my then future husband and his friend who was a makeup artist,” she says.

“It was British Fashion Week and [the makeup artist] had a couple of assistants but one had broken her finger or something and one wasn’t very reliable.” So, Hammer started helping her out backstage, despite not being formally trained as a makeup artist.


Image – Ruby Hammer


The start of an empire

She explains, “I would do any jobs for no money and just kept working and getting my portfolio,” she explains. 

“And then when that makeup artist friend was double booked or she couldn’t do some jobs, she passed them on to me and I climbed the ladder.  I did lots of editorials, I did commercials, I did campaigns and then I found myself an agent and progressed to lots of lovely magazines.”

Building a career like this was no mean feat and Hammer says it was hard work. “You’re scrapping because you’re not established. Plus, I was Asian, and my father was a doctor so there’s no artistic background,” she explains.

“It’s about carving your way out, but I was not scared of hard work or taking an opportunity when it came.” 


Image – Ruby Hammer


Not content with climbing the makeup artist ladder though, at the same time Hammer began working behind the scenes with her then husband to bring some of the world’s most iconic brands over to the UK.

Aveda and Tweezerman, previously only the preserve of US audiences, both went on to become some of the UK’s most successful beauty brands. Yep, the next time you look at your Tweezermans you can thank Hammer for being part of the team to make them available in the UK.

“I was working a lot behind the scenes in beauty too, in ways that people wouldn’t necessarily have seen,” she explains.


Iconic moments

So, with so much going on, what are some of Hammer’s earliest, most thrilling career moments? “Seeing your stuff published with your name credit. That was thrilling,” she says. 

“I was getting better known and more opportunities came my way. Different doors opened. You start working with a better photographer. Then you work with this model that you love, and you work with that model that you’ve heard of and suddenly you’re working with the supermodels, doing a magazine shoot with Cindy Crawford.”

And it’s not just Crawford she’s worked closely with either. “I’ve worked with Cindy. I’ve worked with Christie. I’ve worked with Naomi. Kate came towards the end.” No biggie.

“It was an era that was being established and you’re part of that wave,” she explains. “It’s not as though I created the wave. You’re riding the wave and then you look back and you realise how big the whole thing was.” 


The first of many big firsts

The hard work paid off further in the 90s when Hammer became part of the duo to be the first to put their own name on a beauty line. (Yes, while today we may be used to seeing our favourite celebrities and influencers put their name to a line, in the 90s not so much a thing).

Alongside Millie Kendall, Hammer launched the iconic Ruby & Millie in Boots stores across the UK.

Anyone born in the mid 90s and before will instantly recognise the brand’s classic minimalist packaging and massive shade range.


Image – Ruby Hammer


Because at a time when diversity wasn’t on most brand’s radars, Ruby & Millie’s line of over 360 products genuinely offered both shade range and options for both younger and more mature skins.

“Although you hear people talk about diversity and inclusivity, it was probably the first truly inclusive brand in the UK,” Hammer explains. 

The packaging too was a first.  All clean lines and transparent plastics that allowed you to see not only the product’s mechanism but actually how much was left before you needed to buy more (a genuine no no at the time among beauty brands).

And it was that attention to detail that led to possibly one of the most ubiquitous features of modern makeup, the click up stick.

While we may take that satisfying click of concealer or lip gloss brush for granted now, it was Ruby & Millie that started that. “We pushed for things, like the clicky lip gloss – I had always wanted that clicky thing,” Hammer says. 

Since the technology wasn’t yet available, Hammer and Kendall spent months searching for a way to make that happen.  And the answer wasn’t completely straightforward. “The outer packaging was from Mitsubishi from Japan and then we filled the pens with mechanisms from somewhere in France,” Hammer explains.


Influencing the influencers…

Those design and product features inevitably led to an influence on other brands. And when you look back at Ruby & Millie, it quickly becomes apparent just how much they’ve shaped some of our modern favourites.

Take Milk’s new viral jelly blushers, for example, whose texture, deep shades and swipe on functionality take me back instantly to Ruby & Millie’s classic blusher sticks. How does Hammer feel about the influence she still has on newer launches?

“It’s actually lovely when you’re copycatted. I’m not taking away from other brands but that’s actually happened many, many times in our lives,” Hammer says. 

“When I saw those Milk jellies, they did remind me of our blush sticks- although their technology is more advanced- and I really loved it.”

And it didn’t stop at blushers either. “I also remember we had a huge range of nail polish colours. It was 1998 and there just weren’t loads of options and we had a particular shade,” she explains. 

“I remember a few years later when Chanel brought something similar out and everyone was talking about it.” You know you’ve made it when you can say that you’ve influenced Chanel, and not the other way around.


Bringing luxury mainstream

The other consequence of Ruby & Millie’s huge commercial success is something else that we all now take for granted; the availability of independent luxury brands on the highstreet.

As Hammer explains, “I’m not saying that was the only good cosmetics launch, it wasn’t, and we had people like Laura Mercier and Nars. But they were French artists who had gone to America then and had B Corporations bringing them in. When we launched Ruby and Millie it was the first British cosmetic brand since Mary Quant.”

Basically, in the 90s, unless you had the backing of a huge group like Estee Lauder behind you, your luxury beauty brand wasn’t going to be widely available.

She explains that now we have lots of luxury, makeup artist-led brands to emulate like Charlotte Tilbury and Lisa Eldridge. “But we were the ones who did something no one had ever done, where you launch luxury prestige, it’s sold in Boots six months later, and it can hold its own against Chanel.” 


What Ruby did next

After creating one of the UK’s most groundbreaking cosmetics lines, you think Hammer might have been content to enjoy some time off, but no.

Moving straight into a new career- and one she had no previous experience of- Hammer moved into another first, becoming one of the first MUAs to film live makeup tutorials on mainstream TV. 


Image – Ruby Hammer


“It started with The Clothes Show,” she says. 

“I was doing the makeup and they said, ‘we love your work, we love what you’re doing, would you be able to do this live?’ I’d never done that but I thought I’d have a go.” 

Makeup artists are used to it now but what was it like doing makeup on camera back then? “You have to learn so much about where to put your head in front of the camera so you’re not blocking the girl and everything,” Hammer explains. “But they loved it and then you get a call from another TV show, and then some of it is actually live, like This Morning.”

Did she enjoy it? “I had a natural inclination that I could do it and you get better over time learning all the technical sides to things like the cutaways,” she says. “And you’re not naturally good at every single thing you do but I’m the sort of person who’s going to find a workaround. I’m just going to be creative about it.”


From TV to MBE

Quite deservedly, in 2007 Hammer and Kendall were awarded an MBE, one of the UK’s highest honours. “You know, that’s a really big thing,” Hammer says. “Lots of people have had it in our industry since, but we were the first to get it for the contribution to the cosmetics industry.”


Ruby Hammer (left) and Millicent Kendall after collecting their MBEs. Image – Ruby Hammer


Apart from hard work, passion and sheer determination, what else does she put it down to? “It was working with someone like Boots with such a big supply chain. It allowed us to push the boundaries of our industry in some ways.”

But there’s a personal achievement in there for Hammer too. “I’m an immigrant. I wasn’t born in this country, I came when I was 12 years old.

“As an immigrant to have had that is big kudos because it means the country that you have adopted has adopted you, and you’ve fitted in and excelled in some way. So there’s a very deep emotional attachment to that on many levels.”


Going it alone

Hammer now has her own makeup range simply called, Ruby Hammer. “It’s much smaller, much more niche, much more curated, and I’m self-funded. It’s a startup but it’s very functional. They’re hybrid formulas so they have a pop of colour but with skincare ingredients in the cheek and lip formulas.”

Makeup that caters to the consumers’ need for quick and easy application, as well as kind-to-skin ingredients? I like it. “Everything has to be functional. It has to have a use and work well. But it also has to take care of you and do it with ease.”

What was her inspiration for the packaging? “I love the colour ruby and we based the colour for the packaging on a lip gloss I bought from Japan about 35 odd years ago,” she explains. 

And she says the range encapsulates how she works as a makeup artist. “It bears similar things to what I hold dear. It has to look nice and it’s got hybrid qualities,” she explains. 


Image – Ruby Hammer


“But I’m also an artist and I don’t just work with my own brand. I’ve always worked with a whole array of products and brands that are from luxury down to Vaseline so I will always have that. Anything new I see I want to sniff and play with it and when I look at it, it’s still excites me. You know the day I don’t feel that anymore is the day to put my tools down.”

So, what’s next for the range? “We’ve just expanded with a double ended mascara and the cheek colours,” she says. “But it’s all about money. So, I have to probably find the next level of investment. But there’s always a desire to add things like shade extensions.” I can’t wait to see it all unfold.


The takeaway

So, you see Ruby Hammer MBE isn’t just a famous makeup artist with commercial success behind her. Hammer is living proof of the extra work, negotiation and patience that goes on behind closed doors to ensure a better future in makeup, that we as consumers don’t often get to see. 

All those unseen stages of bringing brands like Aveda to the UK, or creating something brilliant like Ruby & Millie, continue to shape some of the products, trends and diversity that are available to us today. Meaning we now have access to better innovations because of the groundwork that experts like Hammer have put in behind the beauty scenes. Lucky us.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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