Well groomed: Baxter of California

by Harry Sheff

Forward-thinking men’s grooming brand Baxter of California is almost 50 years old and still a pioneer.

When we were working on the July and August issues of MR, I noticed that one particular vendor—Baxter of California—kept coming up in conversations with retailers. Whether it was Haberdash or Sir & Madam in Chicago, Unionmade in San Francisco, Martinpatrick3 in Minneapolis or Blackbird in Seattle, some of the best menswear retailers went out of their way to tell us that Baxter was part of their men’s grooming business.

It’s no coincidence that Baxter is in some of the top independent men’s specialty stores. Owner and CEO Jean Pierre Mastey went out of his way to build those relationships, skipping the traditional department store and beauty supply distribution many grooming lines seek.

This forward-thinking company is actually almost 50 years old; in fact, it was a pioneering brand when founder Baxter Finley launched it in 1965. Finley, a New Yorker who moved to California in the early 1960s, was irked that all the moisturizers on the market were made for women so he started his own line of skincare products dedicated to men. Finley ran the company until 2000 when Mastey acquired it. I spoke with Mastey recently and learned how Baxter became such an important part of the men’s grooming market.

How did Baxter start? Was it really the first ever men’s skincare line?
Other companies were making shaving creams and aftershaves for men for centuries but this is really the first business that brought the whole skincare category to men. Finley started in 1965 with one product called Super Shape, which was a skin conditioner and moisturizer that was marketed specifically to men. On the heels of that, he realized this could be a full-fledged skincare line. He came out with night cream, under-eye cream, shampoo, conditioner, a mask, a scrub, bar soaps—he had a full line of men’s grooming products by the early 1970s.

When did you get involved?
I knew Mr. Finley because my dad had a hair salon in Beverly Hills that was two doors down from Baxter’s headquarters. So as a little kid, I grew up at that hair salon on Robertson Blvd. and Finley used to pay me 50 cents to walk his dog.

Around 2000, I was a menswear buyer for a few Japanese trading firms and department stores. I wanted to have a brand of my own, and people recommended I go visit Mr. Finley. As soon as I walked in the door Finley told me I’d be the perfect candidate for taking over his company. We went to lunch and within ten minutes, we had a deal.

Did you change much when you took over?
For the first year, I operated it just as Finley had done. The traditional model was to sell to stores like Sephora, department stores and beauty supply stores. But I wasn’t very confident about that: I was taking a men’s brand and putting it in stores that I don’t go to. My friends would ask me where they could buy my stuff and I’d have to point to a store with a pink awning. Around 2004, we decided to make a shift. That’s when we came out with the blue bottle we’re known for now, along with a new retail strategy. It was a big risk, and I knew I might be totally wrong to try it, but we said we no longer wanted to sell to beauty-oriented stores—after all, we’re not a beauty brand, we’re a men’s brand. Cutting out mass and beauty accounts, we lost about 45 percent of our business, but I felt very confident doing it.

How did you refocus the distribution?
I presented the brand to Fred Segal in Los Angeles, showed them the new packaging and new formulations and then told them where I wanted to go with distribution. Everyone was thrilled with it. So we got into Fred Segal, Barneys in New York, Colette in Paris and Isetan in Japan. Once we did that, we decided we really wanted to own the men’s lifestyle category. So we started presenting to stores like Blackbird in Seattle. Ultimately, the stores like Saturdays Surf in New York, Unionmade in San Francisco, Ball & Buck in Boston, Haberdash in Chicago and Stag in Austin have all had a lot of success. I’m proud to say we trail-blazed that method of distribution.

We endorse the category, not just the brand, to survive in the marketplace. We encourage retailers to carry other brands; we actually think it’s a good idea to round out the selection so that customers take men’s grooming more seriously when they come into your store.

What are your top selling products?
It’s a combination of skincare, shaving and hair care. Our top products are the hair pomade, the face wash, moisturizer, shaving cream and aftershave. If a guy on a limited budget is going to spend $18 on one product in our line, it’s going to be the hair pomade. He can put it on and instantly see the results, whereas a moisturizer or scrub takes daily use to see the change, so I think that’s why the hair category does really well. The others are products that guys use on a daily basis, so that’s where there’s a higher sales velocity there.

What do you say to retailers that might be skeptical about the men’s grooming category?
Every retailer is different but I think a lot of it came to our distribution [in independent menswear stores]. They’d say, wow, we’re a store like that. We would explain them that if a guy cares enough to spend $200 on his denim and $300 on his boots and comes into your store on a routine basis, this customer is very style conscious. His look doesn’t end with his clothing—it’s also having clean skin, a great shave and good product for his hair. It’s odd to think that a guy would spend that kind of money on his apparel but then go to the drugstore for $1.99 grooming products.

And on the other end, how do you convince customers to try out things like night creams, masks and other products traditionally associated with women?
That’s an excellent question. When I first came on board, I said, okay, we’re not making under-eye and night creams; these are not products that guys buy. But over the first year, as I studied our sales, night creams and under-eye creams were some of the most consistent sellers to slightly more mature men, Baby Boom-generation guys who don’t want to look old. Unlike a shaving cream, it’s not a product that a guy will go into his office and say, hey, I found the best night cream, you should all try this! It’s something he’ll put in his drawer and not talk about. It comes down to function. If they see a product that’s a solution to a problem, they’re going to buy it. A night cream, for a man who is starting to see fine lines on his face, is a potential solution. He’s going to read up about it or learn from a woman in his life.

Guys my age—I’m 37—grew up with Oxy and Stridex. We know what masks and scrubs do. It’s not something we want to go shopping for with clear plastic bags, but we know what these products do for our skin. There’s a lot of vanity in American men.

You’ve done a fair number of collaborations with menswear retailers.
Collaborations are something we learned about from the men’s fashion arena. We saw cool brands working with other cool brands, and nobody was really doing it with men’s grooming. It was something that we really believed would help the brand a lot while telling the public that we’re not a stuffy, old-fashioned company.

Most of our collaborations are with retailers we’ve had a lot of success with: the relationship was there, and one of us would say, hey, we’ve got a great idea. We did a candle with Colette, a very high quality candle with a great scent that sold out quickly. We did soaps with Saturdays in New York, inspired by surf wax in two kinds, Atlantic and Pacific. We did candles with them as well, and with Unionmade in San Francisco. We did a soap with Stussy that was modeled after a skate wheel—that was a lot of fun.

What trends are you seeing in menswear retailers?
Haberdash in Chicago and Ball & Buck in Boston are doing barbering now as a shop within the shop. Most retailers started doing it on Sundays and grew to a section of the store. We’re able to drive their business by giving them back bar product and helping them curate the whole selection of men’s apothecary items, and we use our Los Angeles barber shop as an example of how to do things right.

I think this is something we’ll be seeing more. For instance, Saturdays in New York put a coffee shop in their apparel store, and it made it feel so much different. You can go in there and get more than just a shirt—you can hang out, have a cup of coffee and feel like you’re living the life. I think the barbershop does the same thing. It says that this is exclusively for men.

Guys don’t visit their menswear shops with the same frequency that they see their barber. This customer gets his hair cut every two weeks. You could never get a guy in so often just to look at clothing. But if he has to walk through it to get to his barber…