Trinny Woodall on Starting a Beauty Business in her 50s

Sarah Halliwell talks to Trinny Woodall about launching her beauty brand Trinny London, dressing to impress and the power of sequins …

When she was turning 50, a friend told Trinny Woodall: “Your 50s will be so freeing – you won’t care any more about stuff.” “It was so true!” says Woodall. “I think I had so much fear in different decades of my life and now I’ve let go of a lot of that. And although I had some huge challenges in the last five years, I feel much stronger dealing with them.” 

A style expert on television for the past 20 years, Woodall was best known for co-presenting makeover show What Not to Wear. More than ten bestselling books and further shows followed, with more than 20 series filmed abroad: “It was a tough schedule, but that’s where we could find work. And I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else. People don’t see you in another way.”

Until she launched her beauty brand Trinny London in 2017, that is. We discuss it over coffee in her garden, in between a shoot and packing for Australia to promote the brand. “I always had that urge to do my own thing,” she says. “But it takes a lot to step out there and reveal yourself; I had to get to the stage where I loved myself enough to do it. I think lots of women have an idea, and when it’s in your head you protect it, the dream. Once you get it out there, then it’s warts and all, and you have to be ready for people to critique it.”

The Trinny London collection is a series of click-together pots of cream make-up, from concealer to lipstick designed for fingertip application. It’s portable, easy make-up for busy women. “I’d always stacked my make-up – taken bits of different things, say Chanel Aqualumière plus Bobbi Brown Stick Foundation, and mixed it to make exactly the consistency I wanted.
I’d do the same with every single product and put them in little Muji pots (which always broke). People would ask me about it and so I decided to try and make my own.” Sold online on (and in occasional pop-ups), the key is personalisation. Online tool Match2Me helps customers find the right shades. When an investor questioned her target audience, she told them: “I don’t believe it’s about age any more, it’s about an attitude. And I think this attitude and concept will resonate with women of every age.”

Until recently, Woodall ran the business from a tiny house with twelve people around a kitchen table. Now with 45-plus in shiny offices in Chelsea, Woodall gets a kick from stepping out of a lift with her name on it. “I never imagined that, and sometimes it’s important to just be mindful of how far you’ve come.” She is adjusting to the expansion: “I think delegation is really tough when you start your own business. I’ve always wanted to literally be in every conversation, and when we were in the smaller office I was on top of every tiny detail. Here, it’s harder to do that, and there are a few things now that go on without me. And then you start employing people who know more than you in a segment, who show you a new limitless place you can get to and that’s so exciting!”

Woodall ran her idea past a fellow school mum, Jane Henderson, who happened to be head of Mintel Beauty: “She said I had four out of five upcoming trends, personalisation, portability, premium and a natural look”, and became an early investor. Also key was getting COO Mark McGuinness-Smith on board. Woodall did an Enterprise Investment Scheme and paid for prototypes. But she was living in a house she couldn’t afford and feeling the strain. Two sales of clothing raised £60,000 “which kept me going for another nine months, by which stage Mark and I went out with an investment deck, raised £2.5m and then we launched nine months later.” She describes this time as “weirdly similar to when I was trying to conceive Lyla [her daughter, now 15]: when you do IVF you think it might never work but you never imagine you won’t get pregnant, and you sit in this weird in-between land. And there were times when I really felt like that.” 

Trinny Woodall-Trinny London

Having good contacts has helped, but she also has sharp instincts. “I went to see [Net-a-Porter founder] Nathalie Massenet who said, ‘Act like it’s already international – when you launch it, feel that it has a global reach. Because if you launch something and feel like it’s just a little small brand, you won’t feel that globalisation. If you want to grow quickly, you have to feel that.’ There are certain things you keep in your head on that journey, and I always had that in my head.” 

She is amusing about investor meetings and the challenge of selling the idea to a panel of “eight or nine men”. Did she dress for success? “Oh yes! If I was meeting a potential big investor I’d think, let me light up this room like Brighton Pier! I don’t want them for a second to think afterwards, what did she look like? I would plan an outfit like a military operation, and I always wore the brand colours – yellow, silver and grey – so they couldn’t forget.” Even if the men didn’t get it, the one woman on the panel always did – one even called Woodall after a failed meeting to invest her own money.

Woodall clearly adores clothes, and the effect they have on your mood and attitude. She talks me through her clothes rail, from a 1980s Prada coat to a huge fluffy lilac coat she seized in a recent sale. Her daily style is a mix of flamboyance and practicality: “I realised recently that I don’t go out much at night, so my dressing-up is reserved for day. I wear all my best bits during the day – I want to see a return on my wardrobe investment. So I might wear a sequined Alice Temperley jumpsuit at night twice a year, but then I’ll wear it with a white shirt and white trainers for day. So sequins for me are about dressing them down, and just wearing something that makes you happy.” Sequins also reflect the light back onto your skin, she adds.

Social media is a key aspect and driver of the business. Supremely comfortable in front of a camera, Woodall started by propping up her phone in the bathroom and just chatting. “And suddenly all these women popped up saying ‘Hi Trinny.’ It was incredible.” Her audience grew along with the business to a current 1.2 million across the different platforms: “At some stage, for the business to move forward, you have to have a way of creating organic growth. And we don’t want to give all of our money to Mark Zuckerberg for ads.” There are now Facebook groups around the world known as “Trinny Tribes”, a real community; there are more than 1,900 in the Irish Tribe alone. It’s time-consuming – “but you can’t switch off when it’s your own business”; she produces some six hours of content a week, from “Outfit of the Day” to skincare Q&As. “Which I adore, as it’s all part of the brand. I feel like I know these women, because I discuss a lot of things on Facebook Live and they all partake. Just by being inside the minds of other women daily teaches me a lot and helps me with my business.” 

Woodall is disarmingly honest about everything, including challenges and her learning curve. “One thing I’ve had to really learn is when things are going well is to acknowledge who’s making them go well. And when things are going badly, not to critique so much that it brings them down. It’s a really tough balance.” The hardest thing? “Getting the right people … and making those really difficult decisions.” If someone in a team is not performing, “You have to let go slightly of your love of people for their experience – because if they’re not going to be able to step up to the table as you grow your business they just can’t stay with it. And that’s the hardest thing … in marketing, for example, we have 22 people, and practically all of them are still in their 20s, so they’re like my kids.”

Woodall thrives on relentless activity. “I always need to be doing something,” she admits; she rarely switches off. Now 55, she’s aware of needing to look after herself; stress can make her forgetful. Her mother suffers from vascular dementia so it’s something she’s acutely aware of. To recharge, she meditates, “or I do something mad with Lyla or listen to music. Charles [Saatchi, her partner of six years] has this phenomenal music knowledge … I’ve never met someone with such a good memory.” 

Fiercely determined and ambitious, Woodall is a real force of nature. “My ex-husband once said that 99 per cent of what you worry about never happens, and I really believe that – if we just spend time worrying a little less … And the other thing is, you don’t know what is behind a closed door. That to me is incredibly important. Because when you’re wanting to start your own business, you think of all the reasons not to – ‘no one will invest’ and so on – but you just don’t know, the next day somebody could call you, anything might happen. So don’t put yourself into a corner of self-doubt, which you can’t come out of. That’s one thing I always tell myself.”


Photographs by Luke White

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