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Marla Malcolm Beck is set to change the face of the beauty business. Photo by Joshua Cogan

Good Chemistry

by Lauren Sloat | DC magazine | August 27, 2012

Sure, DC may not seem like the city in which you’d expect to find a booming beauty business. But Bluemercury founder Marla Malcolm Beck doesn’t see it that way. The California native-turned-longtime-DMV resident thinks her multimillion-dollar business of serums and scrubs makes perfect sense in a city known for its intellectual prowess. And if her 500 employees and 40 retail locations don’t have you convinced, consider her latest launch, M-61. The in-house beauty brand, which recently debuted, touts itself as “the next intellectual frontier.”

“It doesn’t get any more intellectual than creating something out of nothing,” says Malcolm Beck, who, together with her husband, Barry Beck, bought out DC’s first freestanding beauty retailer in 1999. They then turned the Georgetown storefront into a national business that, today, competes predominantly with mega-chains Sephora and Ulta.

The former analyst, whose résumé includes degrees from Berkeley and Harvard, in addition to her 13 years at the helm of Bluemercury, named her latest line after a galaxy discovered in 1779. “It’s one of the few that scientists totally understand,” she says. “There are so many product lines created by marketing people who have no understanding of the science behind it. This communicates a sense of breaking new ground, but also a level of understanding.”

M-61 is the product of five years of poring over dermatology journals and naturopathic studies. Just before the recession, the retailer began to see a spike in the so-called natural movement, but even these products weren’t as pure as she hoped. As part of the process, Malcolm Beck created a list of 100 components, such as synthetic fragrances, that were off-limits for M-61. An explosion of new research in the last two years finally allowed the makeup maven to create a high-tech line that’s scientifically effective, and completely all natural.

Natural, but powerful, the ingredients—many of which are inspired by Asian skin-care regimens—combine plant-based products with strong skin science (think vitamins and glycolics). Bluemercury sales associates are known to demonstrate by slicing an apple in half, treating one side to M-61’s gallic acid-spiked Vitablast C serum and marveling as it stays white and fleshy hours after the other has gone brown.

Malcolm Beck ultimately expects to open 300 Bluemercury locations nationwide and to add more brands to her name. There are already 10 more additions to the M-61 line in the works, including a Hydraboost eye cream, followed by a moisturizer and a Power Blast mask. And Malcolm Beck says to keep an eye out for knockoffs infiltrating the market. Sales associates have spotted beauty-industry execs buying up the goods five at a time.

Bridging the worlds of the natural and technical may be revolutionary to the point of rip-offs in the beauty world, but how has it fared in Washington, where there’s a notion that women don’t have time or interest in the art of allure? “DC always gets a bad rap and it’s unwarranted,” says Malcolm Beck, citing an international, well-traveled clientele with discerning, high-end taste. “It’s full of some of the most sophisticated beauty consumers in the country.”