Back in 2016, Wearside make-up artist Kim Cattin was working on the Game of Thrones set, as well as on other film and TV work. Noticing a gap in the market, she asked her mum Donna McCann-Turner if she could help her design a product, which became Soap Brows, a wax that helps to keep brows in place and create the fluffy look that is now a global beauty trend.
From humble beginnings in Donna’s kitchen, the wax snowballed into the multi-million pound West Barn Co business, that employs 28 people, with a range of beauty and skincare products, stocked by high-end retailers such as Harrods and worn by the likes of Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Perrie Edwards from Little Mix, Laura Whitmore and countless more celebrities.
Despite being a huge product in the USA and the Middle East, as well as in Britain, West Barn Co, or WBCo as it’s known, has stayed true to its North East roots, with its headquarters in County Durham and its product colour range named in honour of the region: Sand, Clay, Brew (after a cuppa), Roots and Coal.
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Speaking at their stylish new offices in Belmont Industrial Estate, Kirsty McCann, events and PR manager at WBCo, and Kim’s twin sister, said: "My sister had been working on the Game of Thrones set and she needed a product to keep eyebrows in place. My mum did cosmetology and used to hand make products for friends and family as a hobby, so my sister asked her if she could come up with something.
"It was picked up by London Men’s Fashion Week soon after and it went crazy, the trend really kicked off. Before then, no one really knew what fluffy brows were and before we knew it, it was absolutely everywhere. It got picked up as a real fashion statement.”
The family soon realised they had hit upon a winning formula and as demand grew hugely, they would work until midnight hand-pouring and packing the Soap Brows in Donna’s kitchen, with everyone from siblings to grandparents helping out.
It started at a grassroots level with industry make-up artists falling in love with the product and its durability for filming and the catwalk. They would use it on A list models and performers who, in turn, began shouting about it on their own platforms.
Social media, in particular, has played a key role in the marketing success of the brand, which has amassed 120,000 followers on Instagram.
Former St Anthony’s school pupil Kirsty says the family always had belief in their product, and set out their intentions for the brand early on.
"We knew what we wanted from the beginning and set out a vision board of stockists we wanted to work with,” she said. “Places like Harrods and Selfridges and Urban Outfitters, as Kim loves that shop, and we now work with every single one of the companies on that list. We’d found something that worked, and we wanted to take it all the way.”
Donna, who raised her family in Barnes before moving to West Barn in Durham, after which the brand is named, says she too was confident in the benefits of the product.
She explained: "In the old black and white Hollywood films, the stars would use soap to lift their brows and keep them in place, but that’s a product that’s meant to be washed off, not left on the face. So Kim needed a product that was designed to be left on the face, that wouldn’t dry or damage the skin or the hairs.
“We did a few testers before we found the right wax. We did all the necessary licenses and safety measures and Kim started taking it on sets. The other make up artists loved it.”
The new WBCo headquarters have an on-site laboratory where all products are rigorously tested before being sent out around the world. The larger site, which they moved into from smaller Durham premises last autumn, means they have also been able to invest in a WBCo Clinic where people can enjoy a range of beauty and skincare treatments in luxury surroundings.
Many of the products used include the brand’s own skincare range which now includes cleanser, glow oil, skin prep sprays and a range of eyebrow pencils, pens and pomades, as well as an eyebrow brush with their own trademarked angle to create the perfect sweep.
Kirsty says the clinic is a great way for them to meet customers in person, many of whom have used the brand for years. The new site will also be hosting pop-up shops so people can buy the products at source.
She said keeping the brand as Northern as possible has been a major part of their business strategy.
“We rave about the fact we are from the North East and have kept the business here,” she explained. “A lot of people are surprised when they find out where we’re based, as they assume we’re based in the USA.
"But we are proof you don’t have to be in places like London to succeed. We’re very proud of our roots and we do as much business as we can up here, such as photo shoots and launches in Newcastle.”
Another key component of the business is to foster opportunities for women in business, and to support its staff who juggle work with parenting.
Donna said: “You do have to work harder as a woman, and you don’t get the same opportunities, but that is changing.”
Their open approach to business, including being as eco-friendly as possible, has earned the brand a loyal following.
“There’s a lot that’s hidden in the beauty industry, but we’re really honest about our products and what’s in them,” said Kirsty. “Our team works really hard, and we get great feedback from customers, which really matters.”