Lesley Thornton has always loved beautiful things. It all began during her childhood beauty pageant days when she was just six years old. She distinctly remembers her aunt or mom (that detail is fuzzy) sweeping colorful eyeshadow on her eyelids while she got ready backstage. “I loved how soft the brushes were, and how transformative it was,” Thornton recalls. “It was like a boost of confidence. I felt ready for the stage as soon as they put the makeup on.” Little did she know that makeup would be the thing that jump-started her career.
But we’re not there yet. Like many good career journeys, it’s not a linear one. “My goal at the time was to be a window dresser for Barney's,” explains Thornton, who studied visual arts and visual communications at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. During her morning commute to campus, she would take a shortcut through Macy’s. “I made retail friends at the MAC counter and the Clarins counter,” she says. “Eventually, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to work here in this retail environment. I love making people feel beautiful. Even though I was studying visuals, maybe I can do makeup to get me through school.’” Shortly after, she got a job at Estée Lauder, and when the brand got acquired by MAC, she was recruited to work for MAC Cosmetics. “And that was the start of my beauty career.”
With every makeup transformation at MAC, Thornton’s calling became clear. She wanted to keep helping people look and feel their best. So, she went back to school to become an esthetician in 2010. “All of the esthetics programs were either booked up or too expensive, so I registered for the cheapest program I could find,” says Thornton. “I’ll never forget. I was in Pier 1 buying a lamp, and I got a call. There was a woman on the other end and she said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that we started class yesterday but we had someone who didn’t show up. If you want to start tomorrow, we have an opening. You will have already missed two days.’ I went ahead, I jumped at it. I couldn't believe I did it. And then I just decided it was going to be what I would do.”
Being in class with a group of women who shared the same passion as her was very different from her college experience. For most of the students, they either had another job, or they were pivoting their careers entirely. “That's the beauty of being an esthetician: I'd already been in the beauty business, so I understood the value that it had in people's lives and what it could represent,” she adds. “But when I learned the science, the protocols and the practices of being an esthetician, I knew that I wanted to start a business.”
And Thornton did just that. She opened a small facial studio in LA called Clear Skin Aesthetics in 2013 (if you dig deep enough in Google, you might be able to find old Yelp reviews, Thornton tells me). “It was nothing fancy. It was tiny. You didn’t have any room to walk around,” she says. “People don’t talk about this, but it’s very difficult to run a service-based business where people trust you with their face. I scrambled to keep the business afloat.” Through the hardship, she discovered her true passion: skin. “The skin is the thing that really enhances our beauty. Makeup is beautiful but it washes away,” says Thonton.
While running her facial studio, she started formulating products of her own. She had made tons of connections with other people in the industry while at trade shows during esthetician school. Even more impressive? This was before the age of social media dominance, where it wasn’t de rigueur to DM someone on LinkedIn to “pick their brain” over coffee.
Thornton wanted to give her customers all of the skincare basics they needed, right in her studio: a daily cleanser, a daily moisturizer, a spot treatment, and a vitamin C serum. But then, Clear Skin Aesthetics hit a roadblock. She realized that doing facials wasn’t a scalable business. “I really looked at my products as not only an extension of the brand that I was building, but as a way to touch people's lives all over the place,” says Thornton. “I could actually get my products to more people than I could service people. I was just kind of going with what I felt was in my gut.”
In 2014, she started selling her products—yes, the first iteration of Klur, called Klur Skin—to Urban Outfitters. That allowed Thornton to gain capital to build the brand that you see today. Then just two years later, she made the tough decision to pull all of her inventory out of 200 UO stores. “It was essentially just too young. I knew that my customers would not be shopping at Urban Outfitters after a couple years,” she explains. “I wanted a grown-up brand for people that felt like they wanted something a little better. It wasn't really the best fit for me, but it was the best experience that I could get in retail.”
Thornton decided to take some time off, and worked on rebranding her skincare brand from 2016 to 2019. And Klur came back, better than ever. “I wanted to be more of a legacy brand. I was thinking about how I could make this something that would last a lifetime—not just a short time. How can I build a brand that is special and that feels really communal? In Swedish, ‘klura’ means ‘pondered’ or ‘given a second thought.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I’ve done.’”
Today, Klur is a clean skincare brand that prides itself on science-backed botanical ingredients and simple luxury. Klur has 10 essential products for every step of your routine, like the rich Elements of Comfort Body Oil to the Supreme Seed Purification Mask for congested pores and the Brilliant Light Repair Serum with 20% Vitamin C. Plus, the minimalist packaging makes Klur’s products instantly recognizable on your bathroom counter.
“The idea of luxury is so much more than just things that look fancy,” says Thornton. “The luxury comes out of the education that I put into this, the years and years of trial and error. It's the knowledge, it's the time, it's the care, it's also being able to pay people a fair wage. So, that’s luxury in a way—we're built by you.”
Thornton is a pioneer in the clean beauty space as a Black founder with a formal esthetics background. “My biggest goal is for all beauty to become clean beauty,” she says. And if you thought she was slowing down any time soon, think again. “I’m working on our very first eye cream,” she tells me. “It won't be coming out till later this year, but we're in the testing phase. So the product is probably like 90 percent done.”
When asked how her definition of success has changed over the years, she has her grandmother to thank. Growing up in Compton, California, “I thought seeing rich people in Beverly Hills was success because I saw poor people in my own neighborhood,” says Thornton. But her grandmother—who was a full-time stay-at-home caretaker who raised 13 children, 100 grandchildren, and even some of the neighborhood kids—made her reconsider what she wants her own success to look like. “Success has nothing to do with monetary value,” she says. “Success, for me, is when I can claim every hour of my day as my own. I used to think that all the kids in Beverly Hills had it really good and little did I know that it was me who had it the best.”
Who are you inspired by?
How do you unwind at the end of a long day?
“A magnesium bath.”
How many unread emails do you have?
“Six. Today I’m doing well.”
What are some qualities you look for in an employee?
“I don't ever look for skills. I look for vision. If they share the same vision and values as my company.”
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Pay your bills on time and get in the habit of being financially responsible.”
Worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“To keep my Land Rover. It was falling apart!”
What does “girlboss” mean to you?
“I think it's a good term. I think it's changed, it's evolved. It’s anyone who is not afraid to take a chance and not afraid of failing.”
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