When all the girls at a sleepaway camp in Portland, Maine huddle around the bathroom sinks at night—their shower baskets and toiletry kits stuffed with Neutrogena facial wash, Clearasil pimple creams, and other drugstore brands—one will stand out.
This is 12-year-old Willa Doss, who’s achieved beauty-mogul status with her eponymous natural skincare line for the tween set. Currently sold at Target, Target.com, Drugstore.com, and J.Crew’s Crewcuts, Doss’s products are a breath of fresh air in a market saturated with candy-scented body butters and sparkly lip glosses. Take, for example, Willa’s Face the Day SPF 30 tinted sunscreen. Stylishly packaged, formulated with zinc and titanium dioxide and priced in the piggy-bank range, it rivals luxury products with tongue-twisting names like Chanel’s Précision UV Essentiel Multi-Protection Daily UV Care SPF 50.
Fans of the brand, dubbed “Willa Girls,” praise her products on social media outlets. “If you’re like me and you have very pale skin, you have to put sunscreen on a lot,” says one freckle-faced tween in a YouTube post. Like a home shopping network salesperson, she puts a dollop on the tip of her finger like and rubs it on her cheek to show how well it blends in.
Over the past four years, Doss has balanced school and friends with creating a skincare line for girls aged 7 -14 with help from her mother, Christy Prunier. The idea came to Willa in 2008, when, during bathtime, she asked Prunier why she had to use her younger sister’s “babyish” products. The mother-daughter duo set out in search of something more age-appropriate for Willa, scouring the aisles of CVS, Duane Reade, and Target. They found nothing except for what Prunier calls “pink bubblegum” products typically marketed to tweens.
“I was pretty bummed because it’s really important for girls to take care of their skin,” Doss tells The Daily Beast over the phone one afternoon while packing for camp. “I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to use, and I just realized the best way to fix this problem was to make something myself with my mom.”
So they set out to formulate the 17 products that currently make up the Willa line, conducting surveys amongst other girls at Doss’s school in New York City and finding that only one in 10 washed her face. Most associated moisturizer with greasy skin and clogged pores.
The chemistry began with a potent mixture of grape seed extract, aloe and eucalyptus in a moisturizing serum (though they don’t market it as a “serum,” since, Doss explains, that sounds like something moms use.)
“It’s so cool being able to design products and go to the lab and send redirects and stuff,” Willa said, throwing out lingo like a seasoned skincare mixologist. (For those who aren’t familiar with this particular jargon, a redirect is a memo sent from a client to the lab with updates and improvements on “drafts” of products.)
“The products were formulated so that at the start and end of the day, Willa and her friends are reaching for them because they want to take care of their skin, not because their mothers are nagging them,” says Prunier, a former Hollywood producer who has worked on A-list films with directors such as Oliver Stone and Darren Aronofsky. “The more Willa and her friends take ownership of these important decisions, the more confident they feel.”
Sleek packaging was equally important, so Prunier enlisted a former babysitter who studied at Parsons to work with Willa and her friends on the logo. “These girls are very design-oriented—they love Apple products—so the look is aspirational,” Prunier says of the white packaging with royal purple and silver hologram accents.
“Today’s tween generation is very information-savvy, and I think the smart skincare brands are addressing this with personality-driven products like Willa,” says Eva Chen, beauty director at Teen Vogue. “They’re also doing it with as much online content as possible, which I know is part of the Willa M.O.”
Doss frequently updates her Facebook page and Twitter account with everything from press coverage of her products to simple, DYI skincare tips and photos of herself and friends mugging for the camera with Willa products in hand.
“I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to use, and I just realized the best way to fix this problem was to make something myself with my mom.”
“Whether they’re buying a new pair of jeans or a skincare product, girls like to identify with the brand, but they also like that it’s stylish and cute,” Chen says. “Today’s generation is very into the cult of personality, and Willa is a remarkably well-spoken girl. Talking to her is kind of like talking to one of the Fanning sisters.”
Naturally, Doss is inspired by the Fanning girls. “I really like Elle Fanning’s style,” she says, “but I don’t want to be her. I want to be myself but still get ideas from others.”
“I love love love Converse,” she adds, briefly sounding her age. “I like clothes that are practical and comfortable, but I like wearing things that are a bit different from what everyone else is wearing.”
Creating Willa has been “such a cool experience,” she enthuses, adding that she’s loved collaborating with friends and “Willa Girls” around the country.
“One of the most satisfying things about making Willa is the positive feedback I’ve gotten from the Willa Girls,” she says. “They’ll contact me and thank me and tell me I’ve really taught them the importance of taking care of their skin. That’s nice because it really feels like we’re making a difference.”
But the accomplishments haven’t come without sacrifices. She and her family moved from New York City to Connecticut to cut back on expenses and better fund the business. Doss admits it was hard leaving her friends and the excitement of New York City, but she likes how Connecticut is more “outdoorsy.” She loves wakeboarding and all water sports, and says looking for sea glass on the beach near her summer home in Maine is one of her favorite hobbies.
It’s comforting to hear Doss talk enthusiastically about going rock-climbing with her friends and other activities that 12-year-old girls normally partake in. But when the conversation returns to Willa, it’s all about carpe diem ambition.
“I want to create more when I get older and maybe even be a CEO of a company. Anyone can create something,” she says. “They just have to be really determined.”