A conversation with cosmetics powerhouses Gun Nowak and Martina Arfwidson
Founded in 1982, FACE Stockholm is the only Swedish cosmetics company offering makeup and skin-care products that are true to the standards of Swedish beauty: natural, simple, and stunning. Most important, with its spectacular color offerings and delightful owners—mother-and-daughter team Gun Nowak and Martina Arfwidson—the word that best describes FACE Stockholm is fun. The two women share a passion for color and design, and have grown FACE into a cosmetics powerhouse with more than 100 locations worldwide.
Q: How did FACE Stockholm come about?
Nowak: Really, Martina created FACE Stockholm. I wasn’t at all planning to get into cosmetics. I used to wear makeup, but it wasn’t my interest at all.
When I was married, when Martina was about three, I opened a fashion store. We eventually had three stores. My business partner and I did very well and traveled a lot to find the latest trends and one-of-a-kind products.
When my business partner and I split up, she took one store, and I took two. It was hard work. After I met my second husband, I realized I had to stop; otherwise, I would be doing nothing else for the rest of my life.
When Martina was 14, she took a trip to New York and came back with a powder she’d bought at Bloomingdale’s. She thought it would be fun to sell it in the stores.
Arfwidson: It was the terra-cotta powder in the terra-cotta pots [that were] popular in the 1980s. My mother got the rights to bring it to Sweden and that was really the beginning.
Nowak: Then on another trip to New York, I met a manufacturer with a private-label company who gave me some samples. When I showed them to Martina, their bright colors, she said, “Mom, this could be fun for you.” So my girlfriend suggested putting a counter in her store, and we opened FACE Stockholm.
I still wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do. In fact, we got a big write-up in a fashion magazine, and I went home to my new husband and cried. Eventually I realized how much fun it was, how creative—the bright neon eye shadow and lipsticks. It was like a candy store!
Arfwidson: If you [grow] up in a trendy, dressy environment, you behave the opposite—so I had a plaid flannel skirt and didn’t wear makeup. I was set to go to Africa and be a doctor. All this fashion stuff was totally beneath me [wink].
Nowak: Once a teacher asked Martina about her parents, and Martina said, “My mother is in fashion, but that’s OK because she can’t do anything else.”
Q: How did Martina end up as president of FACE?
Arfwidson: When I was 18, I moved to New York to pursue a music career. I had a girls’ vocal trio. We sang three-part harmony and did a lot of recording and ended up at Columbia [Records]. Then they signed Wilson Phillips, and that was that.
But I loved New York and did every kind of job. One time when my mom came for business, we got this crazy idea to open a shop in New York. At no point did we think we were creating a brand. We were just opening a cosmetics shop. That was the first store. It was 1990 on the Upper West Side. I was 21 and didn’t know what I was doing. But I started to get to know the customers and ended up with big celebrity clients.
Q: Gun, you totally reinvented yourself midlife.
Nowak: I got divorced when I was 30 and happily had 10 years with Martina and our friends, having a lot of fun. I remarried when I was 40 and the same year opened FACE Stockholm.
Q: How did you become a Solo Mom?
Nowak: Martina was six when I divorced, and her father is still a good friend. We always remained good friends.
Arfwidson: It’s very different in Sweden. Divorces are quite civilized—not like in the United States with big divorce battles. I was fortunate in that my parents were supportive of me throughout the process. It was about me, not them. Throughout my life, I had two sets of parents. My father and his wife and my mother and her husband would come together for me.
Nowak: When we first got divorced, my ex-husband was very sad, so he decided to travel for about eight months, which was hard on Martina. When he came back, he lived across the river. She lived with me but had a room in his apartment and could stay with him whenever she wanted.
Q: Martina, how did having a working Solo Mom affect you?
Arfwidson: The fact that she was working was never an issue. I’m grateful to have had an entrepreneurial environment to grow up in. It’s a very positive thing when your parents are role models and passionate about their work. I was in school and had a lot of activities myself. I did [go to] therapy later because of my father disappearing. I needed some healing.
But the positive side was I grew up in the most inclusive household. I can’t think of a weekend where not only were all my friends at our apartment, but all of Gun’s friends [were] as well. It was a giant women’s club.
Nowak: Martina would tell us when it was time to go to bed!
Arfwidson: The intimacy and close connection that my mom and I had, plus the multigenerational group of women, made for an amazing home environment.
Q: How do you inspire each other?
Arfwidson: My mother is a remarkable woman. A mother-daughter relationship is very intimate. We’ve gone through a long journey together. She’s an artist and one of the coolest people I know.
Nowak: I’m a blessed woman. Martina is so much smarter in so many ways. We joke, she’s the head, and I am the feet. She’s more organized and better at business. I run around and do my colors.
Arfwidson: I think the success of FACE Stockholm is because we have different strengths, and we each care for a certain section of the company.
Q: Gun, did being a Solo Mom affect your career?
Nowak: No! It’s easier in Europe than it is in the United States. If you have a baby in Sweden, you don’t work for a year. Here, you go back immediately.
Arfwidson: Having two children myself I’ve noticed logistical differences. In the United States, you have to drive. Whatever you do with children there is transport involved. In Sweden, you take the bus or walk. Kids all go to the same school and child care. Granted, in America, it’s easier to have help at home—someone to clean your house—but it’s culturally different. With all the after-school stuff, the overly booked kids, and the amount of paperwork that goes along with it, you have to be a secretary to keep up.
Q: Gun, besides Martina, what are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?
Nowak: I am proud of the life I’m living—that I had the courage to come to America. Every day I wake up and think it’s an absolutely amazing life.
Q: Martina, what are you most proud of as the daughter of a Solo Mom?
Arfwidson: Mom and I have always valued lifestyle, and I’ve been able to create a beautiful life where home and work are intertwined and remarkable. Today we are sitting across from each other with our computers—in my mother’s beautiful living room overlooking the mountains— and having tea.
Q: Gun, what was your key to being a Solo Mom?
Nowak: We spent a lot of time with other single mothers and friends, so we always felt safe. We created a family around us.
Curious how other Solo Moms make it work? Sister Chat is a great place to post confidential questions.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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