I’m not going to lie: I’m nervous when Ghost Democracy founder Rex Chou appears on my screen for our Zoom conversation.
He seems relaxed, but his demeanor is hard to read. It’s nothing he’s done, and entirely my nerves and slight intimidation.
But I’ll cut to the chase: Chou is one of the funniest, wittiest, best “brain dumpers” I’ve met. He speaks his mind but is never mean, jokes but never with malice, and says what he believes with conviction. It’s admirable, really, and I feel extremely blessed to be having this conversation… Until I drop that I have no skincare routine.
But the response I get? Not what you’d expect. But let’s start the story, first.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Rex Chou was supposed to be a suit-and-tie businessman. He went to college for finance and had plans to work on Wall Street. Well, loose plans – he ended up at L’Oreal for a marketing opportunity instead. “I was like, that sounds fun. I’ll do that for a couple of years,'” he starts.
And then a couple turned to 12. “Beauty is something that everyone can relate to, even though the word beauty makes people think, ‘oh, that’s just a women’s industry.’” He laughs. “Guys also sometimes don’t want to leave the house when they have a huge pimple on their nose, you know?”
His love for working in the beauty industry took him all over – New York, Madrid, London – and then, when he got tired of moving every three years, he found himself in New York again. This time, however? He had an opportunity to launch his own brand on the West Coast. Why not give LA a shot? (Time to pick up and move again.)
“We saw the growth of cosmetics during social media; skincare, not so much,” he says. And when people were suddenly obsessing over what’s in their laundry detergent and what they eat and what’s “clean,” Chou says “skincare had really been driving the growth.”
While there is no one definition of “clean” in beauty, there are guidelines that lend themselves to the term. And while clean skincare is now blowing up, “when you walk into Sephora, everything is millennial pink. It’s light, pastel pinks, very feminine, very untouchable, everything’s $90 to $120,” he says.
“I felt that there was an opportunity for a clean skincare brand that was effective to look different, act different, speak to consumers in a different way, and also be gender neutral, because guys are starting to care about their skin as well.”
After working in beauty for so long, Chou was also aware that “skincare consumers are exceptionally smart and they do their research.” He didn’t want to lead them astray or provide them with a false sense of security and knowledge when they applied his products.
“There are big brands that are like, ‘oh, this is a vitamin C moisturizer.’ But really, when you look at the ingredient label, they put one drop of vitamin C in it, and you’re paying for filler ingredients,” Chou says, rolling his eyes.
So, clean skincare that was transparent. Got it. But branding… how do you say you’re one of the first without saying you’re one of the first? How do you stick out among so many other clean brands that claim they’re doing something that you are… when they aren’t actually doing it?
Answer: go against the grain and be unique.
“Skin and beauty brands tend to shy away from blue because they’re afraid that people will think, ‘oh, it’s only for nighttime,’ or, ‘oh, it’s for guys.’ And I think we’re way beyond the binary now,” Chou tells me. So, he ran with his love for the color blue, rather than the whites and Glossier pinks you’re so used to seeing.
“I wanted it to be inclusive,” he explains. “I think that my target consumer is the intelligent, conscientious person who’s looking for quality. My consumer is someone who doesn’t care about levels of masculinity. They just want something gender-neutral.”
And then there was the name. “It was the hardest thing,” Chou laughs. “I was like, ‘what’s clean and transparent?’ The first thing that came to mind was ghost. And I thought, ‘that’s weird, but I’ll stick with it because I think a ghost could be cute, and it’s also transparent.’”
And cute they made it – each bottle has a little ghost on it, and the tissue paper within the packaging is dotted with adorable little transparent guys.
Okay, ghost. Cute ghost. Where did democracy come from?
“My mission is to democratize clean skincare and make it more accessible to more people,” Chou says. “It shouldn’t just be reserved for the elite. I don’t think it should only be for Gwyneth Paltrow, you know? It should be much more inclusive,” he declares. He had a goal of democratizing skincare, and… wait, there it is.
Democratization was too intense, so he ran with Ghost Democracy – weird, but usable, at least temporarily. “Then, as I floated it around the office and with some friends, they’re like, ‘ghost, what?’ And that’s exactly the reaction that I wanted.”
So, the name stuck. With brands like “Green Pure” running the clean circuit, “now we’ve got this bold brand that’s blue. That has a weird name,” Chou says excitedly. So, when his target consumer is mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, they’re immediately drawn in. “It’s kinda like ‘ghost what? and they sell what?’ and then they click through, and that way you break through the clutter.”
It’s breaking through the binary. It’s breaking through the barriers. And it’s also breaking through the bullshit.
I mention to Rex Chou that skincare has become oddly inaccessible, even when the price is almost too nice. The Ordinary is the brand I bring up as an example – it’s ridiculously affordable, but its wording is not. Or there are the fun, lighthearted, easy-to-understand brands that charge $18 for a 0.13-oz. lip balm (cough looking at you, Drunk Elephant).
“[Ghost Democracy] talk[s] a lot about ingredients. We educate a lot. We are very straightforward and we say exactly what the ingredient is, and what it does,” he responds. “We cut all that romance copy, because no one has time for that fluff anymore, and I think that consumers are smarter than that.”
I reflect on our conversation so far and how many times Chou has complimented consumers of skincare and beauty in general. Whereas some brands utilize trickery like a strength, Chou relies on his experience in the beauty industry – what works, what doesn’t – and, with help from his investors, does what he thinks will best serve the consumer.
Why is he so dedicated? It’s simple: “because, ultimately, everything I do is for the consumer,” he says point-blank.
Coming back to the education: Ghost Democracy combines the best of both inaccessible worlds to create a ridiculously-accessible line.
“My target consumer just wants great, simple, straightforward skincare, and doesn’t have time to mix eight different products. But yeah, you don’t need to say it works on the lower level of the epi– no. Just tell me what it does and what my skin’s gonna look like afterward. Let’s start from there,” he says, and I snap at the camera. He’s saying what many beauty consumers are saying: we’re smart, we care, but we don’t necessarily know what every product on a bottle is unless you tell us what it is, as well as what it does.
This vision of his consumer guides his process. “The way that I approach product design is, ‘Hey, I wanna make the best hyaluronic acid serum. This is exactly what I want to put in it. I also want it to be soothing. So let’s put 4% niacinamide in it,’” he tells me, outlining the process. While first submissions usually aren’t so great, they work through them until they have a formula that meets his and the brand’s standards, “rather than going ‘hey, I only have $2 to make this formula – what can you put in it?'”
Each bottle has every active ingredient listed front and center, so you know exactly what you’re putting on your skin, and each ingredient serves a purpose. All products are fragrance-, essential oil-, dry alcohol-, silicone-, and paraben-free, as well as vegan and cruelty-free. High quality is of the utmost importance to Chou.
In fact, he divulges to me, “when I first approached the labs, they were like, ‘these are the most restrictions we’ve ever had.’ And I said, ‘yeah, because I want it to be really, really clean. Take out all of that nonsense filler and replace it with active ingredients that work. But don’t irritate the skin.’”
So uh, yeah, the products are clean, in case you couldn’t tell.
He tells me that it matters so much to him to make the formulas correctly because he loves hearing what they’ve done for people.
“That’s what gets me up in the morning every day: reading reviews that say things like, ‘oh my God, I’ve never used a vitamin C that didn’t burn my skin. This is amazing.’ Or, ‘Oh, my God. It’s only been three days and I have already started to see results, what is in this?’’
It’s here where I have to ‘fess up to Rex Chou. I don’t want to, but I have to. That vitamin C serum I asked for, which he sent to me… along with the cleanser, moisturizer, and hyaluronic acid serum?
… It’s the first I’ve ever owned. I’ve never had a skincare routine.
I prepare for the outrage. The apocalypse. A bloodbath between those who would die for skincare and those who still use soap – if anything at all.
Okay, dramatic, yes. But a skincare founder being told, “hey, you sent me this nice stuff, and I don’t know what to do with it?” Not the best feeling.
Rex Chou is excited.
So excited, in fact, that he walks me through the entire routine, so I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s so obvious that he loves this, as he recites the ingredients in each product without looking and explains what they do. “I can’t wait for you to just start this skincare journey,” he says, smiling.
He tells me about how the vitamin C serum. That filler? None here – the vitamin C serum only requires a few drops for your entire face, because it’s one of the few on the market that’s entirely waterless. Still, it won’t burn your skin or irritate the epidermis – Chou made sure of that.
He also loves “slathering” on Ghost Democracy’s hyaluronic acid – like, uses an entire pipette to slather it on – because it calms, plumps, and makes your skin dewy.
Chou isn’t wearing any of his products, as I had called for an early meeting on his day off. (Sorry, Rex.) But he is absolutely glowing, only emphasized when he moves closer to the camera. “You can see, it just naturally gives your skin that moisture that it loses.”
Chou is glowing, yes, but it’s more than a healthy slathering of hydration – he also emanates joy as he talks about Ghost Democracy, and it comes through in his skin’s radiance. The twinkle in his eye and huge smile are small indicators, as well.
I ask Rex Chou what’s next for Ghost Democracy: adding more products? Growth? Just chill’ and seeing what happens?
One thing is certain: it’s not to rush to put out 20 new products, something most skincare companies can’t relate to.
“If I see opportunities in the portfolio, great, but at the same time, If I don’t see that something makes sense necessarily – for example, an acne spot treatment – I’ll always recommend another brand that I trust,” he says. “Ghost Democracy is all about simplicity and we really believe in our core values, and part of that simplicity is not being a brand that has 80 products.”
Not having 80 products means being at odds with other rapidly-growing skincare companies. But it also gives Ghost Democracy the chance to better their line – including when it comes to sustainability. “We’re focused on improving our existing products, improving our sustainability, our carbon footprint, everything that we’re doing, we want to do better before we start to branch off and launch body care or hair care and other things.”
Plus, with conversations opening up between brands and consumers – “it’s a two-way conversation and they do want to know who’s behind the brand” Chou says of consumers – Ghost Democracy is also focused on nurturing relationships with its current customers, not just promoting to potential customers.
“I think it’s just getting the word out, speaking to people like you, and partnering with other people and getting the word out about our little brand,” he smiles. “It’s not about being everything to everyone. It’s about being the best for whatever that person needs from our brand.”
Speaking of which. I call Chou the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain of Ghost Democracy – I had to google and find him on LinkedIn to reach him, I couldn’t just click on the “About” on the site. Is this on purpose?
“I have a story to tell, but I wanted the brand to really be front and center. I didn’t want to be a founder brand,” he says. I reflect on other unmentioned brands that sell with a face, rather than with a product. He emphasizes: “I do wanna share my story of how it is being a man in the beauty industry, what it means being queer in the beauty industry, and also what it means when you don’t really see a lot of Asian people in the boardroom.”
To see a person who is not your stereotypical skincare consumer (though that is changing!) NOT actively try to prove themselves as experts (or as a Rexpert, as I refer to him in my review of his skincare products), is a breath of fresh air. Instead, it’s exciting to watch someone come in and say, “I have the skills, the accolades, and I’m gonna do this right” without plastering their face everywhere, or resorting to gaudy, inaccessible marketing practices.
“I don’t believe in flying influencers out to Morocco to take a selfie for a new product launch. I want to use that money and put it into my formulas to give the best quality to my consumers,” he says adamantly. “Whatever your economic situation is, it shouldn’t prevent you from feeling confident.”
I tell him that Ghost Democracy is changing the game, because affordable, effective, informative, high-quality skincare isn’t really out there.
He smiles and looks down, glow coming out in full force when he looks back up and meets my eyes.
“Thank you,” he says, genuinely. And then: “I’m really glad that Ghost Democracy is able to be a part of that.”