Dillon Peña had just left his post at Bobbi Brown Cosmetics when he started developing his own products, starting with a facial oil. Seven years later, he has one clean skin care range that reflects his lessons from nearly two decades in the beauty industry — and he strives 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 homage to his roots by naming the company after his great-grandfather, Leland Francis. “For me, it’s an extension of who I am. It’s my Mexican roots and I grew up in an environment where nature is central,” he says.
In 2015, as a celebrity makeup artist, Peña made a few bottles of facial oil that he would gift to customers. At the time, he had no ambitions to build an extensive skin care line. While working in New York, he brought a bottle of his product to Shen Beauty in Brooklyn, a popular spot for clean beauty brands, to get some feedback.
“Thirty minutes after I dropped off the bottle, I got a call while I was having lunch, and they told me they’d like to buy some bottles to take with me at the store. I didn’t even have boxes, or a well-established company,” he recalls.
With that first order in, Peña not only registered his company, Leland Francis, but began thinking about branding, packaging, and partnering with more independent retailers. He emailed dozens; many rejected him.
Still, he kept going, doing makeup for artists, models and musicians as his day job and working on Leland Francis in his personal time. It was a passion that turned into a business, because Peña realized that getting the clean, fresh, dewy look so many of his clients crave required a healthy foundation—and it started with skincare. In addition, many of the models he worked with were conscious of what they put on their skin. “They often turned the bottle over and read the ingredients. So I knew clean beauty was important to them.
The pandemic played a vital role in his business. When recordings were canceled and filming and shows stopped, Peña had to take a break from being 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 group of consultants, primarily to help him scale the business. With sustainability and clean beauty becoming more and more popular over the years, Peña felt his business was more relevant than ever.
“As a makeup artist, you see the amount of plastic generated by the beauty industry. And I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to bring plastic into the house. I avoid it if I can. So I did the same with Leland Francis, even though that meant higher packaging costs and more work on our part to find the best suppliers.”
The company’s products are all packaged in glass with aluminum lids if needed, so the containers are reusable and beautiful. The packaging is kept to a minimum with just the essentials, coupled with a note about Peña’s roots in Oklahoma. It’s a classic, luxurious approach to pure beauty, which is what Peña aspired to. “When I first started creating Leland Francis, I noticed that most of the 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 clients.”
Nor does he want to compromise on the sustainability of his packaging. For example, the company’s Body Radiance product was delayed by two years because they couldn’t find an environmentally friendly solution to put it in.
In addition, being Mexican himself, Peña was more aware of how his formulations would fit men and women of color. Working with a chemist who is herself a woman of color, he says, has helped tremendously. “I ask her to try the products on herself as well and if it doesn’t work for her skin, we won’t continue with it. I want this brand to be for everyone, not just a select group of people who already have many options to choose from.”
Until now, Peña has turned down investments, and yet he’s leaned on his mentors, including Bobbi Brown himself, to create a curated selection of products that are premium, he says, but not entirely “unaffordable.” But with increased costs during covid, he admits, he has had to raise his rates to reflect the issues in supply chains, as many companies have.
Tamanu oil plays a major role in its line. “It’s a versatile ingredient that works for so many different purposes,” he explains. “It clarifies, it helps with clarity and removes blemishes. It’s just a great ingredient for the skin.”
Peña calls his collection vegetable. So much of the clean beauty industry, he says, is unregulated due to lax government restrictions, so he prefers the term “plant-based” or “plant-based,” and this applies to his newest addition: fragrances and candles. Most fragrance brands, he argues, don’t disclose ingredients in true transparency: “They probably won’t list all the ingredients and the names of each of the fragrances. We only use natural oils and organic sugar cane alcohol.”
He has more products in the works that will allow him to further share this makeup knowledge. But he’s not yet interested in setting foot with the major cosmetics retailers across the country. He likes his small business approach and prefers to support mom-and-pop businesses himself. “I just love the idea of supporting something small made with thought and kindness. I try to be nice myself. And I think that’s an important value in today’s business world,” he says.