A trail­blazer of the Aus­tralian beauty in­dus­try, ModelCo founder Shel­ley Sul­li­van has pulled off one of the most ex­cit­ing make-up col­lab­o­ra­tions of the year. And she shows no signs of slow­ing down, says Remy Rip­pon.


ModelCo founder Shel­ley Sul­li­van on her make-up col­lab­o­ra­tion with Karl Lager­feld.

Aholo­graphic lip gloss topped with a pink Karl Lager­feld bob­ble-head ap­pli­ca­tor, or an eye­shadow palette in the sil­hou­ette of Choupette, Lager­feld’s fa­mous pet cat, are prob­a­bly both items you didn’t think you would ever need. But that’s ex­actly what Shel­ley Sul­li­van, founder and CEO of beauty brand ModelCo, has built an en­tire ca­reer on.

“Creat­ing some­thing women want be­fore they know they want it is a phi­los­o­phy we use ev­ery day,” says the 44-year-old. For Sul­li­van, that man­i­fested in a first-tomar­ket heated eye­lash curler, which she launched in 2002 and which be­came an im­me­di­ate sell-out. The curler was closely fol­lowed by a nifty aerosol self-tan – revo­lu­tion­ary in the early naughts, when fin­ger-paint-ef­fect tan­ger­ine faux tans ruled. A can of ModelCo’s ground-break­ing Tan Air­brush in a Can now sells ev­ery 36 sec­onds.

“It’s my in­tu­ition that has been my driver my en­tire ca­reer – I can tell you now, when I got the email that we were go­ing to do this Karl Lager­feld deal, I just had that feel­ing,” says Sul­li­van, who sold 3,000 units of the 50-piece Karl Lager­feld x ModelCo col­lec­tion on the web­site on the day it launched in May.

It isn’t dif­fi­cult to rea­son why Sul­li­van was cherry-picked from a pre­sum­ably over­flow­ing pool of beauty brands to bring Lager­feld-anointed prod­ucts to fruition. Her CV is im­pres­sive. At just 21, the Syd­neysider founded a suc­cess­ful mod­el­ling and tal­ent agency, be­fore turn­ing her at­ten­tion to beauty after spot­ting a short­age of quick-fix, ac­ces­si­bly priced prod­ucts, the sort that might be found in the back­pack of one of the mod­els on her books. “Back when I started the brand, there weren’t any kind of cool, in­no­va­tive, fash­ion-for­ward brands, and so I knew I had to cre­ate some­thing in­no­va­tive and unique to ob­vi­ously get fea­tured and loved by the beauty edi­tors,” she says in her char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally forth­right man­ner. In 2002, she side­lined her mod­el­ling agency and turned all of her at­ten­tion to ex­pand­ing ModelCo; the busi­ness now boasts more than 150 make-up, skin­care and tan­ning prod­ucts.

Al­though ModelCo is al­ready stocked in in­ter­na­tional re­tail­ers, in­clud­ing Boots and Ur­ban Minx, col­lab­o­rat­ing with team Karl – the brand and the man – was an op­por­tu­nity for Sul­li­van to ce­ment her place among the make-up kits of a pre­vi­ously un­tapped throng of beauty buffs. “We met at his of­fice in Paris and he thought it was very fun and loved all the prod­ucts that I pre­sented,” she says. “He’s a lovely man, he’s very hon­est and has a fan­tas­tic sense of hu­mour and he’s ob­vi­ously a ge­nius at what he does.” For the launch mo­ment, Sul­li­van pulled off per­haps her big­gest stunt to date. One hun­dred ‘beauty but­lers’ dec­o­rated in black tuxe­dos and full-faced Karl Lager­feld car­i­ca­ture hel­mets swarmed iconic Parisian land­marks (Champs-Élysées, Saint-Ger­main-des-Prés, Palais de Tokyo) in a flash­mob-style takeover; a text­book ex­e­cu­tion for so­cial shar­ing.

It wasn’t the first time Sul­li­van has gone against the grain. Be­fore pink pack­ag­ing was prac­ti­cally a pre­req­ui­site for any beauty brand want­ing to land in the hot hands of the mil­len­nial mar­ket (see Glossier, Go-To, Her­bi­vore), Sul­li­van chose the bold­est in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the hue – hot pink, which couldn’t have been more at odds with the mono­chrome as­sort­ment lin­ing the beauty shelves at the time. “When I started the brand, I wanted to make it a hot-pink brand and I had so many peo­ple say to me: ‘You should never cre­ate a brand that’s pink: it’s not cool. It’s got to be black, sil­ver or white,’” says the mother of two.

Much to Sul­li­van’s de­light, con­sumers re­sponded favourably, and within a few years of launch­ing she could fill up a suit­case with the slew of busi­ness

ac­co­lades she was awarded. Per­haps it’s her staunch model-agent per­sona shin­ing through, but, de­spite this, Sul­li­van is re­fresh­ingly hon­est and re­al­is­tic about the strug­gles of re­tail: “The en­tire land­scape and the way women con­sume me­dia has changed. We used to have two or three chan­nels to com­mu­ni­cate and now there are so many dif­fer­ent ways. It’s been a huge chal­lenge for our busi­ness.”

It’s not Sul­li­van’s style to dwell on it. She’s at once re­al­is­tic – bru­tally hon­est, even – while ooz­ing charm and warmth. She’s di­rect with­out be­ing rude; ef­fi­cient with­out be­ing hasty. The fact that she sub­scribes to a uni­form of stylish head-to-toe black tai­lor­ing only fur­ther il­lus­trates her prac­ti­cal, no-non­sense ap­proach. She’s peren­ni­ally golden (from a can, of course) and her plat­inum crop is al­ways im­mac­u­lately styled; she is­sues broad, pearly smiles lib­er­ally.

While her brand cre­den­tials and stel­lar prod­ucts speak for them­selves, it’s per­haps Sul­li­van to whom peo­ple are most drawn. Her knack for tap­ping re­lat­able blonde bomb­shells (if there is such a thing) to front the brand over the years has pushed it out­side the Aus­tralian beauty strato­sphere. Elle Macpher­son, Rosie Hunt­ing­tonWhite­ley, Hai­ley Bald­win and Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret model Stella Maxwell (who fronts the Karl Lager­feld cam­paign) have all lent there fa­mous faces to the brand.

“There’s this cult, cool feel around Aus­tralian brands … so we’ll con­tinue to fo­cus on our home mar­ket, but the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket is our ab­so­lute fo­cus for the next cou­ple of years,” she says. Just a few days after one of the most an­tic­i­pated beauty launches this year, with en­tire SKUs branded with ‘sold out’ ban­ners on Modelco.com, it would be un­like Sul­li­van to put her feet up. “I don’t have time to tell my­self con­grat­u­la­tions; I’ve never ac­tu­ally got to a point where I’ve said: ‘I’ve made it,’” she re­flects. “I’ve had mile­stones along the way that have been mo­ments when I know I’m on the right path … Where do you go from Karl Lager­feld? I mean, to tick that box is huge. The phone is go­ing to ring – who’s next?”

“I wanted to make ModelCo a hot-pink brand and I had so many peo­ple say to me: ‘ You should never cre­ate a brand that’s pink: it’s not cool’”

Shel­ley Sul­li­van wears a Bal­main jacket, from Cos­mopoli­tan Shoes. Camilla and Marc pants. Her own ring.

Karl Lager­feld + ModelCo Lip Balm, $20. Karl Lager­feld + ModelCo More Brows Fi­bre Brow Gel and Crayon Duo in Light Medium, $35. Karl Buki Brush, $35. Karl Lager­feld + ModelCo Long-last­ing Liq­uid Liner and Karl Beauty Stamp, $28. Karl Lager­feld + ModelCo Lip Balm, $20.

Beauty but­lers take over Paris for the launch.

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