Dillon Peña had just left his post at Bobbi Brown cosmetics when he started developing his own products, beginning with a face oil. Seven years later, he has a clean skincare range that reflects his learnings of nearly two decades in the beauty business—and he’s aiming to make it plastic-free and suitable for men and women of all skin tones.
Born and raised on a farm in Oklahoma, Peña pays tribute to his roots, naming the company after his great grandfather, Leland Francis. “To me, that’s an extension of who I am. It’s my Mexican roots and being raised in an environment that’s centered around nature,” he says.
In 2015, as a celebrity makeup artist, Peña made a few bottles of a face oil that he would gift clients. He had no ambitions then of building an extensive skin care line. While working in New York though, he dropped off a bottle of his product at Brooklyn-based Shen Beauty, a popular spot for clean beauty brands, to get some feedback.
“Thirty minutes after I’d dropped off the bottle, I got a call while I was at lunch, and they told me they’d like to buy some bottles to carry in the store. I didn’t even have boxes yet, or a company properly set up,” he recalls.
With that first order secured, Peña not only registered his business, Leland Francis, but started thinking about branding, packaging, and working with more independent retailers. He cold emailed dozens; many rejected him.
Yet, he kept at it, doing makeup for artists, models, and musicians as his day job and working on Leland Francis in his personal time. It was a passion turning into a business because Peña realized that to get the clean, fresh, dewy look that so many of his clients were after required having a healthy base — and that began with skincare. Plus, many of the models he worked were conscious of what they were putting on their skin. “They’d often turn around the bottle and read the ingredients. So I knew that clean beauty was important to them.”
The pandemic played a pivotal role in his business. As shoots were canceled, and filming and shows came to a stop, Peña had to hit pause as a freelance makeup artist. Instead, he used that time to develop Leland Francis.
Using his savings and earnings, he invested in more inventory, and a small crew of consultants primarily to help him scale up the company. With sustainability and clean beauty becoming more and more popular over the years, Peña felt that his business was more relevant than ever.
“As a makeup artist, you see the amount of plastic that’s generated by the beauty industry. And I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to bring any plastic into my home. I avoid it if I can. So I did the same with Leland Francis even though it’s meant higher costs on packaging and more work on our part, trying to find the best suppliers.”
The company’s products are all packaged in glass with aluminum lids, if needed, and thus, the containers are reusable, and beautiful. Packaging is kept to a minimum with just the essentials, coupled with a note about Peña’s Oklahoma’s roots. It’s a classic, luxe approach to clean beauty, which is what Peña was striving for. “When I first started out creating Leland Francis, I noticed that most clean beauty brands could only be found in the Whole Foods beauty section, which is great. But they didn’t have that luxurious experience that I wanted to offer my clients and customers.”
He’s also not willing to compromise on the sustainability of his packaging. For instance, the company’s Body Radiance product was delayed by two years because they could not find an eco-friendly solution to put it in.
In addition, Peña, being Mexican himself, was more mindful of how his formulations would sit on men and women of color. Working with a chemist who’s a woman of color herself, he says, has helped immensely. “I ask her to try the products on herself as well and if it’s not working for her skin, we don’t continue with it. I want this brand to be for everyone, not just a select group of people who’ve already got many options to choose from.”
Till now, Peña has declined investment, and yet leaned on his mentors, which includes Bobbi Brown herself, to create a curated selection of products that’s premium, he says, but not completely “unaffordable.” Yet, with increased costs during covid, he admits, he’s had to raise his rates to reflect the issues in supply chains, like many businesses.
Tamanu oil features heavily in his line. “It’s a versatile ingredient that works for so many different purposes,” he explains. “It’s brightening, it helps with clarity, clearing away blemishes. It’s just an all-around wonderful ingredient for the skin.”
Peña refers to his collection as plant-based. So much of the clean beauty industry, he says, is unregulated due to lax government restrictions, so prefers the term “plant-derived” or “plant-based” and this applies to his newest addition: fragrances and candles. Most fragrance brands, he argues, do not disclose ingredients in true transparency: “They’re unlikely to list all the ingredients, and the names of each of the scents. We use just natural oils and organic sugar cane alcohol.”
He has more products in the works that will allow him to share this makeup knowledge further. But he’s not interested in stepping foot in the major cosmetics retailers around the country just yet. He likes his small business approach and prefers to support mom-and-pop businesses himself. “I just like the idea of supporting something small made with thought and kindness. I try to be kind myself. And I think that’s an important value in business today,” he says.