Inside David Chung’s Vertically Integrated Beauty Wonderland

Although he’s behind some of the most vibrant ideas in beauty, David Chung favors a low profile.

The man behind myriad beauty businesses — none of which bear his name — steers his end-to-end beauty operation in an inconspicuous office building in Mahwah, N.J.

But don’t let the facade fool you. Inside, it’s a beauty wonderland.

Cosmetic chemists, packaging manufacturers and marketing experts all work in symphony at Chung’s ILabs, a contract manufacturer-slash-beauty-incubator that can support an idea from inception and creation through to product development, packaging and marketing. It’s where The Rootist is also based, the Sephora-exclusive hair care brand Chung unveiled earlier this year, after selling Farmacy, the skin care brand he founded, to Procter & Gamble in 2021.

“We want to be an innovation company,” Chung said, speaking in a conference room flanked by the products he creates, both for his own brands and as a manufacturer. The room reads like an archive of beauty’s greatest hits, from Supergoop sunscreens to Farmacy’s Cleansing Balm.

No wonder when he bought the building, he overhauled C-level offices to turn them into a playground of cosmetic chemistry. He also built his own internal IT company, installed packaging manufacturers headquartered on-site and can churn out a full-fledged brand without ever leaving the grounds.

Chung’s differentiator is that he still thinks as a merchant, a brand founder and a product creator. “All these things happened along the way because I couldn’t find somebody who is doing them the way I would want to,” Chung said. “I’m a perfectionist. There’s a saying that if you want your car to be really clean, you have to clean it yourself.”

David Chung

David Chung and Cosmetic Chemists

Masato Onoda/WWD

How did your upbringing and early career impact your sense of entrepreneurship?

David Chung: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My mother was a very driven entrepreneur, and I grew up in that environment all of my life. After school, I never worked for anyone else. I started a small retail store called DC Enterprise, and from there, started in fashion. From fashion, I started studying skin care brands, and I launched the retail store Cosmetic World. From there, I went onto Englewood Lab, contract manufacturing and research and development, then back to the brand side with Farmacy.

Now, we have ILabs, and we have a few more brands coming out. I also just purchased a company, a mental wellness company called Amare.

Your career has touched on retail and brand building. Was manufacturing always part of a bigger vision?

D.C.: When I launched 3Labs Skincare, we were using a third-party contract manufacturer, and we always had delays on shipment. Quality was always an issue. We moved to another manufacturer and there were the same issues, which is how I ended up in manufacturing.

I launched an internal IT company, and I purchased a packaging company called Mortar Packaging. We became vertically integrated such that I could do all of it in-house as a complete turnkey service. Now, I’m working with many different brands to support their innovations, concepts and ideas so they can become successful as well.

You acquired Amare Global, a direct-to-consumer wellness brand, last year. How are you thinking about the intersection of beauty and wellness?

Amare Global is a mental wellness company that started way before the pandemic. I got passionate about it because I wanted to give them my experience of 30-plus years. This is an opportunity for me to partner and help them become successful, and to help people with the products. The products are natural, and are meant to work on the gut-brain axis to make you not only mentally healthy, but physically healthy as well. It’s a very different business from anything else I’ve done.

How you look, how you feel — mental wellness covers it all. In our bodies, all of those are directly connected. We’re going to start looking into more innovative ways to work on mental health. It’s important to take care of our brain as much as you take care of the muscles in your body. 

You’ve created a business that allows you to brand-build without even leaving the building. How do you stay attuned to culture and the pace of the market?

I’m surrounded by people who know what’s going on, and who are always involved. And I’m not a typical contract manufacturer. I’ve done retail, so working with Sephora was different because I was a merchant. I’ve done branding, so I know what it’s like to run branding. All of these things I can advise, guide and make sure everything’s streamlined. Most other contract manufacturers can make products for you, but don’t know the whole picture.

What is your philosophy on team-building, and how would you describe your leadership style? How has it evolved over the course of your career?

My philosophy is that everything we do is about people. People are the ones who are going to make you successful, or make you fail. When you have talented people around you, it’s important you make sure that they’re taken care of.

As a businessman, I challenge myself every time I’ve done poorly, and try to come back and do it better. We all have issues, problems, employee headaches or people stepping behind your back. I used to go crazy when things bothered me. You get upset. Now, when it happens, I just make sure it doesn’t happen again; we put systems in place to prevent mistakes. As you do business through more and more change, you become more wise.

You recently launched The Rootist, which is billed as kombucha for hair. From an ingredient point of view, which technologies are the most exciting to you?

We evaluate innovation around clean beauty and natural products, and we also look at more science-drive brands that have more stem cells or peptides, which is totally different. What I see right now between all of that is the idea of the microbiome, fermentation, probiotics, postbiotics — the whole area is growing and there’s a lot more opportunity there.

After your successful exit with Farmacy, what made you want to brand-build again? How has your approach to brand building changed?

I’m going to work until I die. I just enjoy working. Building a company, for me, is no different than a hiker climbing Mount Everest. It’s not about how much money I make; I really enjoy being a part of it — coming up with ideas, bringing the team together.

I learned a lot from Farmacy, and with the Rootist, I wanted to start by putting a lot of money behind the innovation. We have something we’re launching next year that we’ve never seen done in the market, and I want us to be a company that does things first.

How have you seen consumers evolve?

The pandemic turned everything upside down, and now, it’s back. Color cosmetics before was a complete disaster because no one was going out, and now it’s coming back extremely fast — faster than before the pandemic. But there’s a lot of beauty out there, and people are getting confused. So what we need to do is simplify: simple packaging, simple brand stories, and it has to work. The consumer is extremely smart, and they know what a good product is and isn’t. The future needs to be much more about simplicity, and that’s the direction the consumer is taking.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in business?

In business and in anything else in life, the secret recipe starts with reputation. Underpromise and overdeliver. Make sure you have a good reputation — all I’ve done is make sure my clients are taken care of.

What’s your favorite skin care product you’ve ever made?

I have a new product I’ve developed just for my personal use. As I get older, I get dark spots and have sun damage. My chemists in Korea made me a vitamin C serum, and it really works. I asked them if we could put it on the market, and they said we’d have to charge $2,000 per unit because of the raw materials costs. I just started using it, and it’s amazing. I told them I’d try it for six months and if it gets rid of my dark spots, I’ll sell this serum for $10,000 each.

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