When makeup lovers are looking to go down a beauty rabbit hole, they can simply search “#GRWM” on Instagram and TikTok and the options are practically endless. But truly no one is doing “get ready with me” tutorials like CTZN Cosmetics. Their one-of-a-kind spin on the trend is their trademarked Culture-Torial series, in which creators from around the globe make user generated content for the brand, showing how they put their faces on. But instead of talking through the step-by-step breakdown of their beauty tutorial, they chat about their culture as they apply makeup.
“We’re living in this cancel culture era at the moment where everyone is focusing more on the disappointment of not being understood,” says Aleena Khan, co-founder of CTZN Cosmetics. “We’re an optimistic brand and we want to focus on the solution. Travel isn’t accessible to everyone. Meeting a multicultural friend group isn’t even realistic for everyone. That exposure is not only just a privilege, but it’s actually difficult. We wanted to focus on the solution of how do we make it approachable in bite size. For us, that was by making it easy on social media by making it fun.”
CTZN (pronounced “citizen”) Cosmetics was launched in 2019 by three LA-born Muslim sisters—Aleena, Aleezeh and Naseeha Khan—who now live in Dubai. Celebrity makeup artist Sir John serves as their Chief Creative Officer. They aim to champion the intersectionality of beauty meets culture, which is why the brand is all about inclusivity and spreading cultural awareness. “It’s the heart and soul of CTZN,” Aleezeh says. That’s what makes the Culture-Torial series so crucial.
“We want to make this not like a history lesson, but as if a friend is telling you about people in their culture, food, nightlife, mannerisms of the people,” Aleena says. “That’s what culture means. The history book will tell you when the country was formed and all of that, but what will actually make this world so much more united is nuances and behavior, what people are like, what inspires someone because that’s what they grew up eating or learning or thinking. That’s what culture means to us.”
Traditional GRWM videos are known for holding viewers’ attention, a rarity in the crowded social media world these days. With that in mind, the Khan sisters wanted to take advantage of an engaged audience for two to three minutes to educate and raise cultural awareness. “Even if someone learned just one new thing about someone’s culture, we felt like we did our part,” Aleezeh says. “We’re not trying to fit in so many different facts about that person’s culture in one video. It’s truly so conversational. It’s their perspective of how they’ve experienced their culture. That’s why we don’t mind doing more than one video for one culture because there are so many different perspectives within one culture.”
Since it’s not a history lesson, there’s no right or wrong. Aleena points out there are over 3,000 cultures that exist in the world, which means the Culture-Torial series can be a lifelong evolving goal, with so many stories to explore. So far they’ve covered quite a range, from Barbados to Peru, Nigeria, Mexico and Holi to name a few, as well as Culture-Torials for events like Black History Month and AAPI History Month. The Khan sister recently posted a video of themselves in celebration of AAPI History Month. “People in general crave connection, so this is a way that we can provide connection with our customers, and we’re really happy with that,” Naseeha says.
The process for creating a Culture-Torial is very collaborative. At first, as an emerging brand, CTZN invited friends and colleagues to create them, but now they receive DMs and requests from followers, customers and creators to get in on the fun. “We also appreciate when people want to do it because it’s not easy trying to cover whatever you want to say about your culture in under a minute while putting your makeup on,” Aleena says. They have a briefing document, which focuses more on technical aspects like lighting, but creators are largely given free rein to discuss whatever they’d like.
“From day one, CTZN was always meant to be more of a movement and a community,” Aleena says. “We want to sell our products, because that should be a non-negotiable for starting a brand today. Beyond that, we want to have a larger purpose, if a beauty brand could be the tool for how you know about places you would never have learned about. Being the first brand at the intersection of beauty meets culture, it’s such an exciting space.”
The idea for CTZN was sparked in 2016. The sisters were shopping at a major beauty retailer when they realized that though the campaign images were more inclusive than in the past, they still didn’t feature a single Asian or South Asian person in the entire store, and the shade ranges didn’t include everyone. That aha moment still inspires them to ensure that CTZN is for everyone, regardless of their skin tone, gender, ethnicity, ability or sexuality.
The Khan sisters believe in what they call 3D diversity, so it’s not just their campaign images, but behind the scenes that includes a wide range of people. “Our team is diverse with age, ethnicity and genders as well, because if you don’t have a diverse group, then you’re not going to think you’re doing anything wrong,” Naseeha says. “It’s so important for every company to have a very diverse team on the backend and front facing.”
DIYing was essential for the Khan sisters to get a match for their unique undertones, so they’d often buy multiple products to mix shades that suited their skin tone and undertones. “Middle Eastern and South Asians are such big beauty consumers,” Aleezeh says. “We’re spending so much on your makeup.”
With that in mind, they created their first product, CTZN’s award-winning hero Nudiversal Lip Duo, which has the widest nude lip collection from any brand on the market. “Pigmentation levels for lipsticks were clearly made for a fair complexioned consumer in mind,” Aleena says, noting that more melanated people have brown and purple in their natural lip color. “We love saying our lipsticks are a one-swipe wonder because that color payoff has been challenging for a lot of people of color, where it almost feels sheer on the lips. We went back and forth so many times with our formula because we were such perfectionists about our pigment. That was something that was so lacking, especially for South Asians.”
That’s also why nude lipstick looks different to everyone. Aleezeh says, “A dark brown color could be a nude to someone, so that’s really important too in our messaging.” Naseeha adds, “There’s so much unlearning that still has to be done. Some people with more melanated skin gravitate toward the beige lipstick because they’re so used to that being nude, but we have their exact shade.”