Despite having been the head of cult cosmetics company Barry M for 30 years, Barry Mero is something of a man of mystery. So much so that when I meet him at his north London headquarters he jokes: "They do ask me if I write the songs," in reference to that other famous Barry – Mr Manilow.
At first glance, Mero, a smartly turned out 66-year-old, has none of the flamboyance of the performer. Once he starts talking, however, an old-school charm becomes apparent. Born in Dalston, east London, Mero's upbringing was working class but not poor. His mother was a stallholder on the Ridley Road market – the garden plots at the front of his home were cemented over to become part of the bustling marketplace. At the age of 16, Mero began selling hairspray and cosmetics there before setting up his own shops in Dalston and Brixton. Ever the entrepreneur, he spotted a disparity between the outlandish fashions of the time and the more conservative make-up that was available.
"I wanted to be innovative. I wanted to have different products that were more glitzy and sparkly. I wanted to be more fun and wacky. One of our biggest sellers was black nail polish – and still is – because nobody else did it."
And so, in 1982, Mero's first products – nail polish in 72 colours and dazzle dust, a finely milled glitter – went into production. "In those days I would do everything," he says.
"We used to mix dazzle dust on the kitchen table, it was a fun item that everybody liked because there was nothing else like it. I was always quite good with colour – everybody had nail polish, so we called ours nail paint just to be different."
More recently Barry M was the first brand to introduce crackle-effect nail polishes to the UK market. The bestseller tapped in to the re-emerging appetite for nail art, at "pocket money prices".
"We never wanted to serve the nail studios," explains Mero. "The girls can do it themselves and can afford it."
Keeping cost down is important to the brand: cheap items attract a loyal customer base, from teenage girls who experiment with the huge range of products to women who want to find just the right shade of nail colour.
Despite the price, there is little snobbery about Barry M. The nail polishes are as likely to be featured in a tabloid newspaper as a glossy magazine , not least because of the reliable quality of the formulations.
"It's partly so cheap because it is manufactured here," says Mero. "And partly because that's the way we want it to be. I want to work on a smaller margin. People think that because it's cheap it's no good – that's nonsense. Other companies are expensive because they want to be, because they want to make massive margins. I've never worked that way."
Though he began by selling from his own market stall and shops, Mero's success really started when he was taken on by Superdrug.
"They were very good to me, but it got to a stage where I became a one-trick pony. If Superdrug said 'bye, I've had enough', I'd be in trouble. So I went in to Boots, which nearly took our hand off to take it."
"Most people love Barry M – and I'm not talking about me!" he jokes. "They think it's fun. Barry M is a successful brand and we've recently had some enquiries from people who want to buy it. Thanks, but no thanks – we're just not interested."
Barry M HQ houses Mero's distribution and development departments in offices upstairs, while downstairs the bright lotions, potions and powders are produced in an on-site factory.
"We don't have a lot of staff, but we move very, very quickly," says Mero. "There really are only a few of us to make the decisions and they're not difficult."
Mero's son Dean, who spent his summer holidays working in the warehouse, officially took the reins as managing director in 2004, and is in charge of expanding the company beyond the UK.
"I've always been in the business," he says. "New colours were tested on my sister Joanna, and – when she wasn't there – me. Thirty years later nothing has really changed, I wear less make-up, but the essence of the company is still there."
It is clear that the Barry M brand is a great source of pride for the family. "I enjoy it, there's so much passion here," Dean says. "I think that's why we're so successful. Half the population is our market, and the drag queen community really like our products too. There's so much to do, we're only scraping the surface." That may be the case but affection for Barry M's products runs deep.
Barry M is available nationwide
Nail paint in Mint Green and Acid Yellow, both £2.99; liquid eyeliner in black and electric blue, both £4.79; nail paint in Cherry Red, £2.99; all by Barry M, available nationwide
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