As a teenager Danny Gray wouldn’t leave home without sneaking into his sister’s bedroom and borrowing some of her concealer and foundation to cover his acne.
Gray is now 34 and his face is acne-free. But he has continued his daily make-up routine – primer, foundation and sometimes bronzer – ever since. But the products he uses are no longer borrowed from his sister or bought shyly from Boots, they are from his own company: War Paint for Men.
Earlier this month John Lewis announced it would permanently stock the brand in its flagship Oxford Street store and online after a one-month trial saw sales “exceed expectations by more than 50%”.
Gray launched his make-up range in 2018 after considering it for more than a decade, and took it to the BBC’s Dragons’ Den to find a backer. All five of the TV dragons expressed an interest in backing the business. In its first year War Paint for Men sold more than 50,000 products – more than five times as many as Gray suggested he would achieve in his pitch to the Dragons.
Standing beside the War Paint for Men display in John Lewis, Gray said it was on the first day of the trial in the department store that he knew the brand would be a success.
“To be honest with you, on the first day I was shitting myself,” he said. “As you can probably tell I’m a pretty straightforward guy, I don’t mince my words. On the first day, I was standing there and my whole life was on the line. The first guy looked over and said ‘make-up for men, you have got to be joking’ and walked off. It was not the greatest of starts.”
However, a few minutes later two friends in their 60s walked over. “They were both straight, had never used make-up before and didn’t know we had the brand in there,” Gray said. “They sat down and I explained how the products worked. They both bought concealer, and I knew from that second that this would work.”
Over the trial Gray sold products to customers ranging from 14-year-old boys to a 75-year-old man. “People say what’s your demographic? It must be a 24-year-old who lives at home, goes down the gym every day and has enormous muscles and fake teeth,” Gray said. “But actually our customer base varies in every way. We have all ages and every sexual orientation you can imagine. There isn’t a demographic – this is for all men.”
Related: Men’s makeup: share your experiences
John Lewis’s beauty buyer, Charlotte West, said: “Self-care isn’t just for women. We know that men want to look and feel great too which is why we continue to invest in services in products to help them achieve this. We are delighted to have War Paint permanently on board at John Lewis & Partners following its extraordinarily successful trial. We know that men have used make-up for some time now so it made sense to position War Paint as a permanent fixture alongside other male grooming brands and services.”
The brand is also stocked in Harvey Nichols and Jarrold department store in Norwich, as well as selling directly online to customers in 77 countries last year. It will soon launch in German and Australian stores, and in the last few weeks Gray held discussions with distributors from Japan and Ireland. Prices range from £18 for a tub of concealer to £90 for a full set including foundation, concealer, tinted moisturiser, bronzer, anti-shine powder, a face sponge and brush.
Gray, who lives in Buckinghamshire with his fiancee and two young children, said he decided to take the plunge and set up his own make-up business during a round of golf with his best mate. “I had been talking about the gap in the market for men’s make-up for more than 10 years, and he finally snapped and said to me: ‘Danny will you stop talking about it and do something?’” he said. “I went straight to my car and sat there for three hours calling people and figuring out how to get it off the ground.”
War Paint for Men isn’t the only company to produce men’s make-up. Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel all have men’s make-up lines, and giant make-up producer Mac has launched a gender neutral range.
Gray said those brands might not appeal to men who haven’t considered wearing make-up as it is generally sold from beauty concessions. “Make-up for men hasn’t been on show or accessible for a guy to go and ask for it,” he said. “Am I going to go to the other beauty counter as a 34-year-old guy and ask about make-up? No.”
Gray, who suffers from body dysmorphia, said that learning how to apply make-up gave him a big self-confidence boost. “I was bullied in middle school and when I was getting acne I wouldn’t have been able to get out of the house without make-up,” he said. “My sister showed me how to put on a bit of concealer, and I couldn’t believe what it could do.”
He said men are prepared to spend hundreds of pounds a year on moisturisers and other skincare products but won’t stretch to make-up to cover blemishes. “The reason men do skincare regimes isn’t to prolong their lives but to reduce your wrinkles, make you look better and give you more confidence,” Gray said. “But what they’ve not got is anything to deal with the dark eyes, blemishes and broken capillaries.It seems crazy to me to spend all that money on skincare but then not use a bit of make-up.”
Men’s grooming is the fastest growing segment of the beauty market, and was valued at £500m last year according to market research firm NPD Group. The trend is said to be partly driven by TV shows such as Love Island. Gray said some forecasters are predicting that within five years one in four men will use some type of make-up.
An injection of cash from a family member helped get Gray’s business up and running, before he sought investment on Dragons’ Den last year. All the Dragons competed to invest in War Paint and Gray eventually accepted a joint bid from Tej Lalvani and Peter Jones for £70,000 in return for a 12% stake in the company.
However, he eventually rejected their offer and decided to go it alone. He is now working to secure a first round of non-family funding to help expansion, and has already rejected a takeover approach from a major international cosmetics brand.
Gray said make-up had helped him get out of a “very dark place” and he hoped War Paint for Men could help other men suffering with self-confidence issues.
“I’m not trying to change the world, or save people’s lives but there’s so many guys out there who struggling with stuff they don’t need to,” he said. “There are tools help you get through.”