How an Olympic legend and an ex-model paralegal became the year’s surprise beauty entrepreneurs. By TRACEY WITHERS
Blaq and beauty’s surprising new entrepreneurs.
It’s not easy reinventing when you’re an icon. Sometimes it’s best done in sort-of secret. So, surprise!you know Blaq, that juggernaut brand of black peel-away charcoal-infused masks, eye patches and cleansing cloths that everyone, from that girl at work with the beauty blog to the Kardashians’ makeup artist, is into? That’s Ian Thorpe’s side-hustle. It’s fair to say the ex-swimmer didn’t see a beauty job coming — it started as free labour for love, really — but hear this Olympic great talk game plans for taking Indigenous Australian ingredients international and it’s pretty obvious that he’s found a happy place, both personally and with skincare.
For explanation, we have to backtrack to the beginning. It must be said, and Thorpe often does, that Blaq really is his partner, Ryan Channing’s brainchild. A few years ago, the couple was on a ski holiday and, while digging around in one of those Japanese stores where weird wonderfulness is so often discovered, Channing zeroed in on an intriguing black ingredient.“i couldn’t even tell what it was at first, just that it’s good for you,” he recalls. It turned out to be charcoal, which is now a byword for deep-detoxing our faces, but which back then was still a low-key hum on the radar. A lightbulb went off and Channing, a paralegal who was about to begin a pro bono internship in human rights law in Paris, brought the black stuff home to Sydney. He called in a formulator, set up the brand in spare time, put his first product, the Blaq Mask, on the internet and flew to Paris.
“I’d expected to maybe sell a thousand if I was lucky,” Channing says of the experiment. But, just then, the pore-peel black mask trend went boom. Socials exploded. Orders crashed in. “I had no choice,” Thorpe, the dutiful boyfriend, says with a laugh. “Ryan was in Paris and this thing was just taking off and I had to pick up
the slack here … I was packing boxes at the kitchen table, which I actually became very good at — I was like, How fast can I go?” Channing came home and pressed pause on law.“i didn’t want this to just be a moment in the sun, so I went all in,” he says. “Ian was an amazing sounding board and support.” Thorpe’s first job was convincing Channing’s parents that following this new passion was a great idea. He pulled it off. And so a full-fledged beauty founder and his head of strategy were born. Entrepreneurial spirits, this is your case study in making it happen. Blaq’s now six products deep, having sold more than a million masks to fans from Iceland to the UK and US, where it’s sold in Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie and online at Net-a-porter and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.channing andthorpe have “done all the jobs” — filling orders, product development, guinea-pigging products.“we do have an expert formulator who takes our big ideas and fine-tunes ingredients and the [science],” Channing says. The upskill has been steep, but Channing says rather than be intimidated by what you don’t know (yet), flex what you’re already good at. “I was doing IP law before, so I knew all about copyrighting and I’m good at assessing business risk,” he says.
For ex-elite athlete Thorpe, this gig, which he’s doing alongside ambassadorial roles with The Star casino, adidas, Parley for the Oceans plus business coaching with ex-cricketer Shane Watson, is less of a career dogleg than it appears. “I’ve been working with brands for most of my career,” he reflects.“so I come in around the creative side of the brand, the tone.” Channing adds:“ian’s certainly my backup on a personal level, but he brings so much to the brand.”
We’ve all seen the struggle sports stars have to find a new niche after they retire.thorpe has been open about the depression he experienced in his transition out of the pool. In this with Channing, who is also the first love with whom he’s gone public, it’s a beautiful thing to see him so in the pocket.“i guess the decision to stay behind the brand, not so visible this time, was conscious — it gave us more freedom to be creative and take chances,” he says.
Thorpe is especially psyched about Channing’s new baby, Generation Clay, a line-up of colourcoded masks that riff on Indigenous Australian ingredients inside skincare built for faces that go bush, to the beach or to work in a sun-aggressive city. The clays are spiked with native extracts from the Daintree rainforest.“a botanist took us through the plants and what Indigenous people use them for,” Channing explains. “That’s what really inspired us.”the Ultraviolet Brightening Purple Clay Mask features Davidson plum, a gentle natural Aha.there’s the black Detoxifying Charcoal Clay Mask with anti-inflammatory, spot-defying old man weed. Infused with Kakadu plum for a heavy dose of vitamin C, the Urban Defence Purifying Pink Australian Clay Mask sold out the week it launched locally.
So now onward to global domination. “There’s an abundance of natural resources here that have thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge behind them, and we really want to promote that, fusing that heritage with our modern lifestyle,”thorpe says. Both are really proud to be behind an Australian brand, doing right by local suppliers. “Exporting Australia to the world is what I’ve always been passionate about,”thorpe continues.“there’s a thing the Foreign Minister calls sports diplomacy — the first cultural contact people have with a country is often through sport.” Beauty diplomacy, then, perhaps? It’s not got a bad ring to it, actually.
Blaq Body Scrub, $17, and Mask, $25, blaq.co. Ryan Channing (left) wears Acne Studios T-shirt, $135; Jac+jack pants, $369. Ian Thorpe wears Jac+jack jumper, $399; Giorgio Armani pants, $1450.