A life-threatening illness spurred Indie Lee to create her own clean beauty label

When Indie Lee found out that she had a rare brain tumour 10 years ago, doctors told her that environmental factors and the things she ate or put on her skin could have all contributed to her condition.

Given only six months to live, she underwent a successful operation and survived against all odds. Spurred on by her second chance at life, the 47-year-old has since created a cult beauty label that's effective and safe for all.

We sit down with the down-to-earth founder and CEO for an intimate chat.

What does Indiee Lee (the brand) stand for, in a nutshell?
Indie Lee (IL)
Indie Lee is a clean and effective skincare line for faces of all combinations, from repair and renew, to sensitive skin. Our products are grounded in nature, supported by science and inspired by life.

Do you have an all-time favourite ingredient?
IL I’m known as the squalene queen, because I love to formulate items with squalene. Our own bodies produce it in abundance, so why shouldn’t we try to boost it naturally? I’m also a big fan of glycolic acid, and we have it in our new peel pads from the caviar line—I love a good exfoliation!

Given that Indie Lee is a clean beauty brand, what's your take on novelty "ingredients" in beauty products?
IL Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about putting salmon sperm or snail slime on my face. We’re a Leaping Bunny, cruelty-free company, and we are vegan, with the exception of our I-Awaken Eye Serum because it has beeswax. I do think ingredient technology has come so far even compared to when I started 10 years ago. There are now many interesting ingredients, but I think we do need to ensure that they are safe, so especially for us, you’ll probably see a lot of older ingredients being reworked differently.

What’s your travel beauty routine like?
IL Before I fly, I wash my face with the purifying Brightening Cleanser. After cleansing, I tone, put on a serum and double moisturise (I really slather it on!). I also have a travel toner that I use as an essence that I spray on my face mid-flight. I also always have my travel-sized squalene oil which I press onto my face, and I have a Lip Treat because my lips get so dry, followed by my eye serum. Typically, I don’t wear foundation anyway so I don’t put that on for a flight. 

Do you have any advice for someone looking to break into the beauty industry?
IL The most important thing is to really be passionate about what you’re doing because you’re going to work more than you ever thought you could work as an entrepreneur. Go after your dreams, don’t worry about failure. Mistakes are how you learn, just make sure you pivot and get back up again. In a crowded marketplace, especially for beauty, you need to know what your unique selling proposition is, and what’s going to make you different from any other brand. Be authentic, and just keep going, just like how the character Dory in Finding Nemo always says, “just keep swimming”.

Was there a time where you felt like you wanted to throw in the towel?
IL Yes! I’d be lying if I said no. There were a couple of times when I questioned myself and asked why I was doing this. There have been instances when things went wrong and I had to redo everything from scratch, but then something else happens that reminds me why I’m doing what I'm doing, and it’s always something that’s so incredibly fantastic as a result. Now, I’m at a point where I feel like I’m never going to stop.

Tatler Asia
Above Indie Lee Active Oil-Free Moisturiser

For someone who’s planning to switch to an all-natural skincare routine, what’s the easiest way to do it?
IL The best way to start going clean is as you’re running out of that product, make that switch. You spent good money on it, so use it up—unless you have an irritation! But if you really want to start anew immediately, I think the most important step is probably your moisturiser. Don’t forget the rest of the body too because your skin is the largest organ.

Let's talk about your all-time favourites.
IL The COQ-10 toner—love it, can’t live without it. Right now, I’m obsessed with our I-Awaken Eye Serum, especially since dark circles are a regular part of my life because of all that travel! It’s really lightweight and it just seeps into the skin without leaving any residue. The name also refers to a literal 'awakening' for me because, after my surgery, I opened my eyes and woke up feeling grateful. Personally, it symbolises the need to live life fully every day. Plus, the Gentle Daily Peel, because I love a good glycolic acid, and it’s gentle enough so that you can use it every day. It also has salicylic acid so it’s also great for controlling breakouts.

Some people have misconceptions about doing a peel every day.
IL It all depends on the formulation. If there’s too much glycolic acid, it will definitely strip the skin, but a gentler formulation is safe enough to use every day. For example, buying chicken from different farms or suppliers could mean that it tastes different—not all ingredients are created equal. You have to look at how it was sourced, what’s the manufacturing process was like, and what are the levels (of potency). But if you have sensitive skin, do a patch test first.

What does wellness mean to you?
IL Wellness is not just about beauty. To me, it’s being centered mind, body and soul. It goes from what you’re eating, to what you’re reading and putting on your skin. I meditate every day. Wellness is about finding that balance and equilibrium between all the different phases of your life. And that doesn’t mean I’m always perfectly balanced—sometimes I’m at 80 per cent or 20 per cent. But I find that if you don’t seek [wellness] out, that’s usually when you fall ill and your body tells you that something isn’t right.

What’s next for you?
IL The last 12 months has been phenomenal. We launched in Sephora in the US, we just launched in Sydney, and we’ve launched in Singapore. We’re going to continue to build on our distribution internationally, but you’ll also see us rounding out the products lines, so you’ll see us filling it with products that cater to everybody, regardless of whether you’re struggling with acne, or need repair. You’ll also see more wellness products as well!