In Conversation with Diarrha N’Diaye, Founder of Ami Colé: Clean Makeup for Women of Color

by Chinea Rodriguez

If you don’t know Ami Colé (pronounced ahh-mee, kOhl-lay), we suggest you get familiar. Three years in the making, Ami Colé is an innovative new clean beauty brand made for melanin-rich skin founded by Diarrha N’Diaye. Diarrha cut her teeth working in product development and social media marketing at L’Oreal and Glossier before striking out on her own but before all of that, her love for beauty was born right in her mother’s hair salon in Harlem. 

The salon was a community, a melting pot, a mix of Black women from all over the world of different skin tones with different hair textures. It was the first place she saw beauty and in a way the birth of Ami Colé. For more on the brand and Diarrha’s story read on. 

 

 

 

An Intimate Conversation with Ami Colé Founder, Diarrha N’Diaye

Chinea Rodriguez: I’m really interested in talking about the inspirations behind the brand, especially since you list Senegal as one of your inspirations, where does that come in?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: From the very beginning. That’s why I was so adamant about shooting [these photos] at the shop because I literally grew up there. My mom has had the hair braiding salon in Harlem for 32-33 years now. I grew up around a whole bunch of women, especially Black women coming in getting their hair braided, exchanging stories, and all of that stuff.

 

I was in this interesting melting pot because most of the braiders were straight from Senegal.

 

This was their first job or first livelihood, coming to New York City, working with my mother. Then you have all these women from all over whether you’re ‘Black from Boston’,  ‘Black from upstate’, or ‘Black from Brooklyn’; this kind of pan Africanism took place so innately at the shop. I grew up in the belly of that beast. Then you leave the coop and you go out to the real world and you think, “That’s beauty.” But you get [out] there and think, “I don’t see myself anywhere.” [I had to ask] What is going on here? 

Essentially, I’ve always been inspired by how comfortable I felt at the shop and like how judgment-free and how everyone was able to come there and just be.

 

That was really exciting to me and when I got into the industry first working as a cast member on the floor selling things that I wanted to sell to my homegirls, but they just didn’t have their shades. Later on I was working at L’Oreal, thereafter working at Glossier. Looking back, the shop was a safe space for me. That meant the hairstyles, the food, the music, and my Aunties being from Senegal. 

 

The story kind of weeds from the very beginning all the way to now, where you’ll get the cultural experiences directly inspired by Senegal; the prints, the textures, even the makeup looks. Also, the storytelling component too because, for a very long time, there’s only one version of Black and so I’m excited that we’re able to push that agenda a little bit further.

 

(Pictured: Diarrha N’Diaye as a child in Mother’s Harlem Salon, courtesy of Diarrha)

 

CR: How did your background working in the beauty world help you develop this brand? How did not seeing yourself represented in Beauty impact you?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: It was tough because this is something that you love so much, but it just doesn’t love you back. You know? Like that one guy, he’s just not into you. So it was a harsh reality for me, because I’m genuinely fascinated by beauty. The way things feel, the way people are able to wear an updo or a bun and feel different ways is so compelling to me. Especially having for so long witnessed people come into the hair salon you know they’re saying, “Oh God, let me take off my hat…don’t judge me”; then get those braids or get that look only to walk out and feel different.

 

I’ve always loved beauty, so much so regardless of not seeing myself.

 

I would still grab the magazines, still be aspiring to be in Vogue. Once you get to the table where you finally have the access or opportunity to walk into a L’Oreal and sign in, it’s twofold for me. First I was like, “I’m going to be the person to change everything and I want to show them that it’s possible. I’m going to let them know about what’s happening in Harlem.” Sadly,  after sitting for a little bit – even at a table you were invited to – you’re still not welcome. You’re just another seat at the table but your vote doesn’t count; your voice doesn’t count.

It was a tough pill for me to swallow, among other things that were happening to fellow Black woman working in those environments. It took a toll on me . Ultimately, I just quit my job not knowing what was going to happen or where I would land. I know I simply cannot exist here anymore. It was that visceral for me. That’s not to discount, how much I’ve learned because I have certainly learned. You see the marketing and fully unpack the business trade.

 

Where I am now is the product of marrying the art and science of it, having worked at several positions in Beauty.

 

For instance Glossier, as a startup offered a talkative experience in a space that truly shifted the narrative. L’Oreal on the other hand is very much Parisian; when it comes to New York, we translate it. Glossier marketing, however was hands on coming from the customer directly online, bringing them in and offering products to them. Everything always happens for a reason. I don’t regret going through these spaces. I am grateful to come out on the other end and marry all these experiences together.

 

 

CR: So much of your brand seems to be community-based and transparent like sourcing packaging ideas on Instagram via polls, why is that so important to you?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: Personally, I learned the most from my girlfriends. I can read any book, any article in the world but it’s really at the brunch table where we are talking about beauty. I feel like that is pretty much the case especially for women of color for many reasons. One is that you know there isn’t, or hasn’t been a centralized place that we convene and talk about beauty. We have Essence magazine but it’s lifestyle and I don’t know if people are going there to find their beauty secrets. I’ve always just been on Instagram, talking to people, meeting editors like yourself or like Brooke Devard from Naked Beauty podcast through the internet.

 

It was very natural to say if I’m going to create something for these people, then, of course, I need to talk to them. 

 

For a very long time I just did not consider Beauty until the Glossier’s of the world had appeared. At Glossier, I learned the kind of tactics of talking to people online. I’ve always been a social media marketer from the beginning. Before anything else, I was a social media marketer. I had to constantly ask myself, “If I were to create this, what would I want? I would hate to create something and no one shows up to the party. What can I create that will get you excited? What’s missing in your beauty routine?”

 

Success came in the form of a lot of questions and a lot of listening.

 

We had conducted a survey asking people everything from what’s your skin type? to what do you consider your undertone? to what’s the last brand you personally connected to? Why? So that way when we’re creating this baby, we understand that we’re kind of putting everyone’s DNA to it, to create this thing. My goal and my wish is to be able to scale that because that’s really important too.

How do you get this from New York to London? From London to Ghana? How do you get this from Ghana to South Africa; where the cultures are different, but there is an underlying thread of similarity. Community is integral. The community has been so generous to me as well. People were like, I’ll try it! So that’s been really exciting. We have a waitlist of 6000 people.

After three years in the making, we finally have this waitlist of people who are like,  “I will sign it. I’ll wait. Let me hear you out.” That’s exciting. The surveys were crucial to everything, even down to investors. They think that they know your brand, saying, “You should do blah blah I [say]” – well, no we’re not doing that because my audience said no. I know them better, because I’m talking to them. This is why we can’t do it. At the end of the day when it comes down to business, it’s all about data and those data inputs, so the community has been very important for us and I hope it continues that way.

 

 

CR: What was the development and testing process like? How did you decide on shades and shade ranges?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: Shades are really really hard. The last thing you want to do is be the inclusive brand that doesn’t feel that inclusive. We did a few things, especially when it comes to the Skin Tint. Skin tints in general are usually five shades, 12 shades. From your ivory pale all the way to your deep darks, South Sudanese skin tones. I said let me just concentrate my effort and focus only on darker skin tones. When I say darker skin tones I mean darker than like ivory. I don’t mean darker, as in my complexion I’m actually on the deeper end of the range.

 

We start off at Medium Two which is likely your Hispanic, your Puerto Rican even Saudi Arabian. One of my friends is from Saudi and she’s Medium Two religiously. It’s the idea of putting melanin-rich first not just melanin-rich storytelling. We went through that we surveyed a whole bunch of people (400 people to be exact) for a skin test. It was a massive project to identify their shades; literally printing out every single chip to see where the color heat map really existed. Once we had that we narrowed it down and had a group of interns come together (pre-Covid-19) to just map it all out. 

 

We went through community, we went through product development specialists, and then later on with the actual makeup artists as well because they get makeup in different ways.

 

After the culmination of three years, we finally got the skin tints. It’s a range of six shades but they’re very, very flexible shades so you’d be surprised how many people can fit in that first, second,  or third cohorts. We have the Medium, we have the Deep (which is more than deep true brown color) and then we have the Rich; which is really the South Sudanese, West African, perhaps Haitian, or covering the diversity of shades within the Dominican Republic. All incredibly rich skin tones.

 

CR: You have put a lot of thought and care into it and I think that’s great. Sometimes people just don’t. 

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: People don’t. Shades and complexion forever evolve. The way America is represented today versus 100 years ago is completely different. I never want to say that I’m coming out with the “best shades ever” or “the best on the market”. We were very thoughtful and diligent and above anything else, we’re great listeners. We wanted to start really strong with a careful curation based on what people told us. 

As more people explore us, I’m so excited to get more input to produce even better products. Essentially, shades are tough and I didn’t believe in creating 100 of them. You can make 100 shades and to your point, it’s too much white, too much gray in the formula and you don’t get the color. You can tell when it’s simply a marketing ploy. I just didn’t want to do that. We try to be as thoughtful as possible in the process with products that perform.

 

CR: I was reading some of the statistics you shared, about how one in 12 products marketed to women of color are deemed toxic; that’s huge. Why is it so important for your brand to be clean?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: It’s a long story and a lot of it, honestly started off with my personal journey like straying away from relaxing my hair. I’ve been natural since L’Oreal actually so maybe four years ago my homegirl said ,”Girl, cut out the creamy crack.” I come from a salon era where you know if somebody wanted a pixie cut you got a perm. I want to be very clear that it’s not a stance on shaming people for what they’re using, but rather trying to provide better options. I’m not saying get rid of every single thing in your makeup bag. Instead of it’s ‘one in 12’, maybe it’s ‘one in 24’ so that we can make progress towards living a better lifestyle. 

 

The whole idea of clean is a very tricky and nuanced space.I 100% agree with it and recognize that truth. What we wanted to do is create products that that would not interrupt your endocrine system. Toxins will disrupt or trick your body into thinking they are hormones when it’s not hormones. It doesn’t allow your body to do its best job by disrupting your reproductive system. Cancerous cells that your body can’t fight because it’s really confusing, the whole system is kind of out of whack. Ami Cole, down to the packaging to the website to just the communication, I really did want to provide the best brand experience for the customer.

 

It was important for me to solve, “How can I create the best experience for that brown girl who never had one?”

 

If I were a woman – a Caucasian woman – quite frankly, I can walk into Goop I can have a good time. I can shop and I can feel like I’m not doing myself any harm. I ask myself, well why don’t we have that? Why can we not experience that at an accessible price point? Why can’t we go ahead and do that? That was really the key driver from my personal experience trying to segue into being better about my body. Reading those EWG reports made me heartbroken. I want to make sure that whatever we put out there is going to benefit our women versus, looking good but then at the end of the day. Five years from now, what does this mean for my body? 

 

CR: What products are you most excited about with the brand launch?

 

Diarrha N’Diaye: We’re launching with a Skin Tint is called the skin-enhancing Skin Tint. There is a lip oil treatment coming out; skincare for the lips but it gives you a glossy finish that I’m really excited about. Then we have what we call the light-catching highlighter because you literally put it on the plains of your face, wherever the light will catch you. It’s a translucent base with a little bit of glaze. I’m really excited about that one.

 

The Skin Tint is perhaps the most exciting, because it’s been so long in the making. So many batches gone wrong, so many batches lost because of Covid-19. Even having different experts come in and give their “yes”, just feels good. It feels good to have people try it on and say it looks like my skin but better. You see that all the time, “my skin but better” but it actually happened so I’m thrilled about it. We were really careful even less about the tones and more about the undertones because the formula is so forgiving and flexible. It’s also kind of magical I hate to say this since I’m being biased. It’s not the MAC Face and Body, it’s not the Glossier Skin Tint, it’s a buildable coverage you can go light or you can go medium and have that coverage if you need it. 

 

Photography by Katherine Pekala.

 

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