How Sephora helped launch Canadian cult beauty favourite Ilia into the stratosphere

Sep 20 2021, 2:00 pm

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Ilia is one brand online beauty gurus can’t get enough of — and it turns out the cult favourite was born and raised right here in Vancouver.

OG fans fondly remember when the line was a collection of just six lip tints, launched by Sasha Plavsic in 2011. Housed in sleek aluminum cases with a minimalist branding, the chic tubes were trailblazers in more ways than one.

Today, Ilia has become a full-fledged beauty line that boasts Sephora’s #2 complexion product in the US: the cult SPF 40 Super Serum Skin Tint.

Sasha Plavsic launched Ilia Beauty in 2011. (Courtesy of Ilia Beauty)

While Plavsic had suffered from cystic acne throughout her life, it was a conversation with her mom that lead her to think about what she was putting on her skin.

“When I went to go think about better alternatives… I saw a big gap,” Sasha remembers.

After reaching a creative director status — working freelance with brands like Urban Decay and celebrity favourite eyeglass brand Oliver Peoples — Plavsic took a step back to evaluate what she wanted to do next.

In 2008, the recession brought her back home to Vancouver after studying in London and working in both New York and California as a graphic designer.

Ilia’s first-to-market product was their tinted lip conditioner, pictured here in shade “Sister.”(Courtesy of Ilia Beauty)

“I took a job at [South Granville’s] Misch Boutique,” she shares, noting they were her second-ever account for Ilia. While there, she began conceptualizing the brand.

“The whole time, I’m still working to save money,” the Vancouver Film School alum says. “I tried to find labs that would want to recreate that had been trying to recreate a product that had not been done before. It was a lot of trial and error to get to this tinted lip conditioner.”

With two credit cards and a $2,500 co-signed line of credit from her dad, Sasha “bootstrapped” Ilia the entire way. “We were really careful…there was [no funding] until 2018,” she explains. Sasha kept a hand in other creative projects, even rebranding Saje Natural Wellness.

Ilia’s Limitless Lash Mascara is another cult favourite. (Courtesy of Ilia Beauty)

2014 was a major turning point for both Sasha and Ilia. Her father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in just three months and she got married and found out she was expecting her first child.

“There was a lot of pressure on me personally with my family… so I had to make the decision to make this a real business,” she remembers of the frenetic time.

Ilia had already been noticed by Sephora, and a meeting with the company’s head of colour helped change the course of the business forever.

“She told me you’re not a lip brand, you’re a complexion brand,” Sasha recalls. After an introduction to Bobbi Brown‘s former SVP of sales — who is now Ilia’s CEO — Plavsic set out to create complexion products rooted in the company’s mission to protect and revive skin.

Ilia’s Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40. (Courtesy of Ilia Beauty)

“That was where we became more clean than organic,” she notes, adding she discontinued nearly 75% of the brand’s products to start fresh. “We say not every natural ingredient is good for the skin, nor is every synthetic bad…for me, what clean beauty is where the best if natural and the best of synthetic collide,” she explains from California, where the brand is now-based.

“60% [of our sales] used to be lip, now 70% is complexion,” Plavsic shares, crediting Sephora as a “brand builder.” Vancouver-born Ilia can be found in the LVMH-owned cosmetics realtor throughout North America. The lip tints have remained a popular item, along with the balmy nights lip exfoliator, the lip and cheek multi-stick and the limitless lash mascara.

“I helped write the ‘Clean at Sephora’ [ingredient] list which is tiered. They were getting more and more restrictive on their ingredients year by year,” she tells Daily Hive. “They have a consortium of brands doing that and move brands forward in a way they wouldn’t be able to do themselves.”

Ilia’s complexion products make up 70% of their sales. (Courtesy of Ilia Beauty)

Sustainable and simplistic packaging was also key for Sasha, whose studies at the London School of Printing inspired the look of the brand.

“Most of the students in my class were Scandinavian,” she explains, acknowledging the influence on Ilia’s sleek and simple packaging. “There was a good sense of aesthetic and style that was brought there. In America and Canada, it’s so much more technical — whereas there it’s more artsy and open thinking.”

The beauty mogul still has plans to make the packaging more sustainable by “reverse engineering” the simple designs to be strictly one material, making them more recyclable. “I believe from a sustainability standpoint packaging — you still will always have to use plastics for now…some plastics have longer durability than glass,” she explains.

Offering refillable products is also a move Sasha wants to make to encourage less waste — but in the meantime, Ilia has partnered with TerraCycle to encourage customers to send their empties for recycling via free labels provided.

A decade later, Sasha credits both her relationship with Sephora and getting funded (“It was the best thing we could have done,” she says) for Ilia’s success and growth. “I wanted to create better products for the skin that were safer and more organic derived ingredients,” she says confidently. “Our mission is to really create products that work and betterment of the skin,” she concludes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the product from entering the Canadian market, Ilia is currently working with Health Canada to get approval to sell Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 as a mineral sunscreen in Canada.

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Cassandra GillCassandra Gill

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