As Told By: Christopher Skinner, Founder & CEO of School House NYC

Last updated on: 2023

As Told By

Meet Chris Skinner!

Find Chris at: School House NYC

How did you begin your career in beauty?

I’ve always been a very true generalist, so I’ve never kept myself to one thing. I started as a Stock Associate overnight at Sephora while studying Design at school in Georgia. Eventually, Sephora gave me a job in Animations and even let me plan events which led me to move into working with beauty industry leaders at SpaceNK, Fresh, and more. I was a kid that was ready to kill it but didn’t have the technical skills to really take on the marketing world, and these experiences really helped me to get a jumpstart on a career.

What inspired you to start School House?

I had learned from my in-house work how to scale brands, build creative structure, and manage a team, but I felt really siloed and was looking to do more. I hadn’t thought of starting an agency until I pitched some creative work during an interview to lead Global Design for a certain brand. This brand couldn’t offer me the job, but could offer their partnership as my first client if I decided to start an agency, and the rest is history!

Your creative identity is often tied to a “storytelling” you bring to your strategy. Can you speak more to the power of storytelling in the beauty industry?

Funnily enough, I’ve never marketed myself as a “storyteller,” it’s just always been associated with me. I come from a line of storytellers. My grandmother and fathers have both been writers, my brother is a writer and comedian (and fellow generalist), and my mother was an attorney. I grew up respecting art and commerce, which is probably why I feel like a Creative that drives commerce more than like an Artist or a Businessperson.

We bring experiences with us anywhere we go. Story is a universal truth of connection — if you can tell a story, you can connect with anybody. The power in storytelling is its multi-dimensionality and you can feel when a brand has that, when a brand wants to wrap itself out into the world. The best stories are truth and fantasy. No one is wearing makeup to be more “truthful,” necessarily, but for play and experiment and expression. The best stories have this play while still doing some problem-solving, too.

What is the most important thing a brand can do to establish its identity?

The more a brand can reach out, the more people can connect to it. While mentoring brands, I emphasize focus and simplicity. The more focused a brand is, the easier it is for the consumer to recall the brand and rally around it. Keeping it simple adds to this — we can tell simple stories, but a lot of them at one time because there’s so many channels where we can tell those stories now. It’s about thinking episodically, starting with being known for something and then expanding from there.

What does your typical creative process look like? Is there a method to the madness or do you just trust the process?

The method IS madness! You can try to make the creative process as riskless as you want, but it always feels like a risk. You always get to that point as a creative where you hate what you’re doing, but you have to keep working through it. You have to know it’s just going to come to you! It can be difficult to differentiate when you’re approaching the finishing line and becoming fatigued or when just a little bit more waiting can give you the moment.

I’ll take free association from as many people as possible around the table; I want to hear their perspectives. Funneling and sifting and narrowing down from larger ideas is always a successful strategy. If I’m supposed to go to a client with 3 directions, I start with 15. And surrounding yourself with people who are better than you — smarter than you, more creative than you — to build out a great team is great for any method.

How do you attempt to cultivate the most productive environments for the creatives you work with?

It’s my job to be a Conductor. I’ve never felt comfortable as Creative Director, I’d rather be a Conductor of people. I believe in trusting people to do what they do and giving them autonomy. I’m a pusher, too. I’m very kind and personable upon meeting me, so people can be thrown off when I start pushing them in creative spaces. But the creative process is hard! You need someone to continue pushing you through the darkness who knows you have more to give.

What accomplishments are you proudest of? What are your biggest “pinch-me” moments?

I have two accomplishments I’m proudest of! We have so many great and talented people at School House. I’ve been working with them for 8 years and to see the evolution of these people in their craft and their leadership and their know-how is a major accomplishment for me. I’m honestly getting emotional thinking about people taking a chance on me and letting me lead them, and now they’re off doing amazing things.

Secondly, I’m proudest of School House’s DEI initiatives. 40% of our business was lost overnight in 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and #BlackLivesMatter protests, we did free work for Black-owned and Brown-built brands as part of the 1000 Hours Pledge. The whole team rallied around it when we were struggling and some of our best work came out of that. I think we were driven by a motivator to change the industry for the better. School House isn’t a marketing business, but a beauty business. Everyone in beauty needs to do better across diversity, transparency, inclusion, and not just brands, but everyone who touches the industry, even service providers.

What are your must-have beauty or lifestyle products you cannot live without?

Natura Bissé’s Stabilizing Facial Cleansing Gel + AHA has been my longtime cleanser for 10 years. Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum, too; I learned long ago from someone much wiser that oily skin can still have oil added to the face for counterbalance. It will help!

I can never give up Fresh Lip Balm. And although I hate that it makes me sound like a snobby New Yorker, I wear Le Labo AnOther 13 every day.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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