The glow getter behind cult brand Ami Colé
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Diarrha N’Diaye-Mbaye is recalling the conversations that led to the launch last year of her make-up line, Ami Colé. “I had all these black women saying to me, ‘I’d love to have my skin but better,’” says the New York-born and raised N’Diaye-Mbaye, formerly a marketing and product-development professional. These women, especially those with darker skin, were finding the products on the market too light, too powdery or too sheer.
Her response is Ami Colé, a cosmetics line that has created a “no-make-up make-up look” for black women. The range is bursting with covetable items. Standouts include the award-winning Skin-Enhancing Tint ($32) and Lip Treatment Oil ($20), an item so popular that one website asked: “Is this the Telfar bag of lipgloss?”
N’Diaye-Mbaye is all glossy skin and Harlem charm when we speak over lunch at one of her local haunts on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Her hair is neatly pulled back from her face and she is wearing a chic, all-black outfit: the perfect canvas for the signature Ami Colé “rich but not overly done” make-up she’s sporting. We are a stone’s throw from the hair salon owned by her mother (after whom the brand is named). The salon was where N’Diaye-Mbaye first observed black women cultivating their relationship with beauty; some of them have appeared on Ami Colé billboard campaigns.
What comes naturally
“It’s about representation: being able to release a campaign and plaster our girls all around New York,” she says. “This is our version of beauty and we actually see you. We are literally on your block.” Indeed, much of the credit for Ami Colé’s success can be attributed to community. “We built this together… it’s what makes us different from a Fenty,” she says. “We ask [our community], ‘What are we doing next week? Next year?’”
It took N’Diaye-Mbaye some time to find her direction. After majoring in English at Syracuse University, she got into social media and marketing, including a position at Rebecca Minkoff, where did some ghost-writing (“I would wake up pretending to be a white Jewish woman who had just had a baby,” she laughs). The brand’s social-media strategy warranted a feature in the New York Post; it also meant N’Diaye-Mbaye’s work caught the eye of L’Oréal Paris.
Going on to work at the beauty giant was a dream come true, but she explains: “I realised quickly that I am a very ‘hands-on’ girl.” She also understood that it was important for her to “advocate for change in terms of our stories and what we were offering from products”. After a spell in product development at Glossier, N’Diaye-Mbaye finally developed the confidence to launch her own brand.
In the early days, N’Diaye-Mbaye was frequently told by investors to give up or attach herself to an existing cosmetics manufacturer. The Black Lives Matter protests totally changed the conversation. “I didn’t change the name, didn’t change the product line-up, didn’t change the pricing, literally couldn’t have been more the same. And the exact same investors came back, being like, ‘You know, we would love to invest a million dollars.’” Did the backpedal make her angry? “It’s a double-edged sword, because here I am.”
The brand is now available on Net-a-Porter in the US and is seeking a major retail partner with which to launch this year. It’s a far cry from the girl once scrambling around for an internship. “Since 2019, I have never looked back. Every single day, whether it was one email, one meeting, one slide on the pitch deck, I kept going, kept trying.” And with that, she raises a beautifully manicured hand for the bill.