When Kilner co-founded Deciem, The Abnormal Beauty Company, at age 24, the most atypical thing about it was the fact they launched 10 beauty brands at once – including cult-favourite The Ordinary. Kilner’s Canadian co-founder Brandon Truaxe (who she first met in 2011 when she was working as a buyer at UK pharmacy chain Boots) was driven by an ambition to prove all the haters wrong. When they told him, “You can’t do 10 things at once,” Truaxe said, “Watch me.”
Together Kilner and Truaxe built Deciem (which is Latin for 10 in a sequence) to be one of the most influential beauty companies in the world, with more than 50 products in 15 markets and backing from Estée Lauder, who invested in the brand in 2017. Kilner was the business and operational mastermind, while Truaxe was the creative genius – passionate and fun, but tough and quick to anger.
“In the early days, Brandon and I did it all: we swept the floors, met with investors and everything in between,” reflects Kilner, who studied business management at Nottingham Trent University in England, where she is based, travelling to Canada every month. “Brandon was the best entrepreneur on the planet. He always used to say, ‘We don’t want to be in the safe place with everyone else. We have to be on the edge.’” However, working so close to the edge, Truaxe eventually fell.
The “abnormal” antics started in January 2018 when Truaxe, then CEO, announced he was taking over the brand’s Instagram account. Over the next year, his erratic behaviour increased: he started fighting with customers in the comments section of Instagram, unceremoniously dropped brands in posts without alerting them first, and stripped team members of their titles. He binned his mobile phone and email, allegedly took psychedelic mushrooms in front of employees, and fired the company’s human resources director. When Kilner called him out, he fired her – and then begged her to come back six months later. She did, mostly out of concern for her friend. “I was five months pregnant when Brandon asked me to come back. It was a really hard time because I had a human growing in me, but I could see how much Brandon was in a bad place. He was my family and you need to be there for your family.”
Despite Kilner’s calming presence, Truaxe’s unpredictability continued. He was reportedly committed to hospitals four times in three countries. In October last year, he geo-tagged an Instagram post at The White House announcing he was closing down Deciem until further notice, accusing his employees of being involved in “major criminal activities” including “financial crimes”. In the same post, he threatened people including Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg, and brands such as It Cosmetics and Too Faced.
Three days after shutting the website down, Truaxe was removed from the company by a court ruling, and Kilner was tasked with the role of interim CEO. At seven months pregnant, she took on the mammoth job of running a company with more than 700 staff, who had felt the brunt of Truaxe’s turbulence. Kilner set about blending his creative genius with the structure the company desperately needed, introducing HR policies, plus a legal and finance team. When she gave birth to her daughter Mila in late December, she didn’t take any maternity leave and was answering emails from hospital. All the while, Kilner maintained her aforementioned sunny disposition, despite Truaxe’s anger at being removed from Deciem, his increasing paranoia and obsession with US President Donald Trump.
“It was horrible watching Brandon’s behaviour during that time. I could see he was struggling, and I would have given my life to make him better, but I felt helpless and like there was nothing I could do,” explains Kilner. “We all had this belief that he’d get better and that we’d all be reunited. It didn’t happen that way.”
In the early hours of January 21, 2019, Truaxe was found dead after reportedly falling from his Toronto apartment. Kilner was breastfeeding her daughter when she found out after journalists emailed one of Deciem’s publicists for comment. She is still dealing with her grief and has found solace in keeping Truaxe’s Deciem dream alive. “It’s difficult. I still have sad days at the office, but we also cry happy tears because we’re surrounded by what he built, his legacy,” she says. “He’s still very present in everything we do. He is our DNA – and that’s something that can never be deleted.”
Instead of remembering Truaxe for the tabloid headlines he made, Kilner remembers him as a friend. “He was just the best person to have in your life,” she says, her eyes glistening.
Determined to honour him, Kilner has taken Deciem from struggle to strength. Today, Deciem has sold more than 65 million units. They now sell one product every second, have 50 stores across the globe and are set to become a billion-dollar-per-year business thanks to their legions of devoted customers. She jokes that Truaxe would have revelled in the brand’s triumph but hated the structure that came with it.
Kilner puts her success down to one thing: kindness. “Everyone is capable of being kind and it goes such a long way. You never know what someone’s going through; look at what we went through. Last year was not kind to our team and because they showed so much love during that time, we want to give it back to them. We want them to feel safe and happy again,” says Kilner, who is excited to lead Deciem to greater heights in 2020 – and launch her pet project, a baby beauty brand called Hippooh, in April. “If you show people respect and kindness, they show it back to you,” she says, shining her trademark sparkly smile.
This article originally appeared in the January issue of marie claire.