CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — It’s mid-afternoon on Aug. 22, when Mazdack Rassi strolls into Sephora at Market Place Shopping Center.
He spies store director Maureen Schultz talking with a customer and goes over to greet her. Schultz is all smiles and shows him to the beauty studio, where she has set out products from the cosmetics store’s newest brand — Milk Makeup.
Since making its debut in early 2016, the award-winning makeup and skin care line is now featured in more than 300 stores, from the Big Apple to Beverly Hills.
Rassi, a 1988 Centennial High School graduate, is thrilled to know the line — which he helped create — will be available in his hometown.
“Champaign took my family and me in and helped make me who I am today,” said the 47-year-old co-founder and creative director of the multifaceted Milk Studios, based in New York City and Los Angeles, where established and up-and-coming artists create and collaborate on photography, fashion design, music, art and more.
“Now for the first time, a brand I created 20-some years ago and the products we’ve created are going to be sold here,” he said. “It’s a homecoming story for me.”
Rassi was born halfway across the world from Champaign in Tehran, Iran. He and older brother Barmack were raised in the Middle Eastern capital and England by parents, Jafar and Mahin, who worked in academia.
“We lived a really wonderful life,” recalled Rassi, who was educated in England and traveled abroad extensively due to his father’s job as a diplomat and chancellor in the Department of Education.
“At the time, Iran was a very beautiful and wealthy country. The people were very educated. When you went to Europe, you were very proud to say you were from Iran.”
Rassi’s idyllic childhood was shattered by Iran’s Islamic Revolution. His family was in England when it started.
Jafar was leading the charge to westernize Iran’s educational system, so his wife insisted it was unsafe for him to go home. He reluctantly stayed in England and later moved to Champaign, where he’d lived while working at the University of Illinois and still had friends.
Mahin took her sons home to figure out their next step, but soon realized that was a mistake. When they got to their high-rise apartment, they discovered it had been commandeered by the new regime and was occupied by a religious leader.
They moved in with an uncle and lived quietly under Mahin’s maiden name. Amid the unrest, she sold the few belongings she had on the black market and made daily trips to the U.S. Embassy in the hope of securing the necessary documents to escape the country.
“Finally, a very kind young lady helped my mom get the paperwork we needed to be able to leave. We literally went home, packed our bags, went straight to the airport and waited,” recalled Rassi, who likened the events to scenes from “Argo,” the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of American diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis.
“We were on this crazy flight, but we got out,” continued Rassi, who at the time was 9 and didn’t realize how dire their situation was. “A few months later, they stormed the embassy, took all the hostages and shut down the airport for a year or so. If we had tried to leave a couple of months later, there’s no way we would’ve gotten out.”
At O’Hare Airport, all Iranian passengers were held in a room “until they could figure out what they were going to do with us,” he said.
After a long wait, he heard a name that he hadn’t spoken in a year — Rassi. Then he saw his father walk through the door.
“We left the airport and drove straight to Champaign,” he said.
Once well-to-do, Rassi’s family lost everything and had to start over. They lived in a small apartment in Orchard Downs in Urbana.
Jafar served as an administrator in the UI’s College of Education and published. Mahin earned a master’s of fine arts degree and worked in Krannert Center’s costume shop.
“It was the best place to grow up,” Rassi said of the Champaign-Urbana area. “It just breathed family and community, and it was this crossroads of the world that had so much culture because of the university.
“We didn’t have a lot of money. But we never wanted to go back to the life we had as kids. We traded that for having a really wonderful upbringing.”
Rassi and his brother adapted very quickly to their new surroundings and embraced American culture. They attended Urbana schools until Rassi’s sophomore year of high school when his parents bought their first home near Parkland College in Champaign.
As youngsters, they played on the football, baseball and basketball teams. In their early teens, they got their first job — delivering The News-Gazette.
“My route was on Florida Avenue between Race and Vine, and my brother’s was across the street,” recalled Rassi, who rose before sunup to pick up his bundles and fold and deliver papers.
The brothers had no shortage of friends. Among them was Parham Parastaran and his older brother, Payman, whose family also fled Iran during the revolution.
“Our Persian background brought us together, but we just hit it off,” said Parastaran, a Champaign businessman and commercial real estate manager, who has remained a close friend.
“We were very social and had a lot of the same interests. We were really into alternative music and girls, obviously. We loved to laugh, and we just had a zest for life.”
Rassi, a Centennial Charger, and Parastaran, a Central Maroon, formed a synthesizer band named Noillim Looc — “Cool Million” spelled backward. It covered songs from bands like Depeche Mode, New Order and The Cure.
“We weren’t very good, but we pretended we were,” Parastaran admitted with a laugh.
He played drums. His brother and another friend — Arash Farahvar, now a neurosurgeon — played keyboard.
“Mazda was the frontman,” Parastaran said, using the name his friends back home call him. “He came up with the crazy ideas. We threw a lot of parties and sold tickets to them. We rented out the Urbana Civic Center for one … and the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
“We always thought we were older than we were. You look back and say, ‘How did we pull that off?'”
After graduating high school, Rassi bounced from Parkland to the UI.
“I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be in the creative field.”
Eventually, he decided to go to New York City to try to break into the fashion industry.
“At first, I was very worried and shocked,” Mahin said from her Champaign home, noting that most of their family had advanced degrees and careers in higher education. “Mazdack would be the first dropout.”
She also worried whether he could support himself financially.
But “I slowly understood this was his passion and encouraged him to understand and study the business side of this, as well,” she said.
Mahin had recognized her son’s talent much earlier. He had worked as her “assistant,” helping her cut, sew and bead costumes for Krannert and National Academy of Art shows.
“He once made 25 tulle hats for the ‘Nutcracker’ performance,” said Mahin, who was delighted by his creativity and skill.
He also designed and sewed his prom date’s dress and some of his own clothes.
“Eighties’ Miami Vice-style shirts and jackets,” Mahin said with a laugh.
In 1994, Rassi moved to New York with her blessing and a $500 loan. He worked several jobs — including bartending, waiting tables and folding khakis at The Gap — and crashed on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn until he could afford a small apartment in Manhattan’s West Village.
He started interning for casting companies, where he met young photographers, directors and other creative types. At night, he studied for his real estate license.
By chance, the fledgling agent rented an apartment to a New York-based entrepreneur who, along with a business partner, had purchased an eight-story, century-old brick building in the Meatpacking District.
“I had this idea to do a photo studio there,” said Rassi, who became friends with owners Moishe Mana and Erez Shternlicht and convinced them to open a studio and let him run it.
“That’s how Milk was born,” said Rassi, who established the business with partners Mana and Shternlicht two years after arriving in the city. “I was very lucky and was in the right place at the right time.”
An architecture and design enthusiast, Rassi chose the name “Milk” not for its meaning, but the clean lines and aesthetic of the company’s logo. The company started out as a production and event space.
Rassi envisioned it as not just a venue, but a place where all forms of the creative process could be nurtured from start to finish. Under his leadership, it transformed into a full-service creative agency with 10 divisions, including studio and event spaces, film and print production services, casting and rental agencies and an editorial platform, employing about 200 people in New York and 80 in Los Angeles.
He’s been credited with helping to launch the careers of young designers, among them Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra and Hood by Air creator Shayne Oliver — and helping to breathe new life into the Meatpacking District.
“We work with the biggest creative minds in the business,” said Rassi, who was given the Innovator of the Year Award by Kanye West at the Fashion Los Angeles Awards in 2015.
Creating a consumer product for the Milk brand was the next, natural step, said Rassi, who is always looking forward.
He conceptualized Milk Makeup with wife Zanna Roberts Rassi — a stylist, senior fashion editor at Marie Claire, fashion correspondent for E! News and a mentor on “Project Runway All Stars” — and Georgie Greville, co-founder of Milk’s film production company. They brought in Dianna Ruth to develop a full line of products, designed for an on-the-go lifestyle and made with “the best possible ingredients … and minimal to no preservatives” and without harming animals.
They made their debut in 50 Sephora stores in March 2016 and are now in 250 in the U.S. and Canada, as well 50 stores of another retailer.
“It’s just took off,” Rassi said, adding the company has had trouble keeping products on the shelves, “which is a good problem to have.
“Our brand redefines what beauty is,” he said. “It’s about self-expression. It’s very gender fluid, and it’s built for every skin color. That resonates with this new generation that’s coming up and thinking about the idea of what beauty is in a new way.”
While the line was rolled out in bigger cities first, Rassi always pushed to bring it to the Champaign shopping mall, where he hung out with friends and worked as a kid. (Maybe you saw him as the assistant manager in the old Man Alive clothing store.)
“Finally, the team sent me an email, ‘I think we’re going to be in Champaign,'” said Rassi, who’s excited to see the full Milk Makeup line on display in its signature 6-foot-tall gondola.
While he flew back east late last week to get ready for New York Fashion Week, which starts Thursday, an art exhibition opening the day after Labor Day and Vogue’s Forces of Fashion Conference in October, he’s already looking forward to his next trip home.
“I want to come back (to Sephora) and throw a big party and invite all the people I went to school with,” he said, excitedly.
Folks back home are thrilled but not surprised by Rassi’s “incredible” success.
“I knew he had the capacity to do anything he wanted to,” Mahin said. “He always had the mentality to go for it.”
“He’s one of those guys who when he’s really passionate about something and puts his mind to it, he does it. It might be that immigrant thing,” Parastaran said, adding Rassi’s success and the perks — including his jet-set lifestyle and famous friends — never went to his head.
“We joke they’re the power couple,” Parastaran said of Rassi and his wife — who along with the couple’s 3-year-old twin daughters, Rumi and Juno — can be found hanging out with his family on their visits to Champaign. “But she’s very sweet, and he’s the same guy he’s always been — just older. They like to come back here. It’s a different speed of life. We like to share a good bottle of wine and eat and talk.”
Since their children’s birth, Rassi said he and his wife prefer spending time with them over the parties.
“You realize how important family is,” he said. “That’s why I’ll never lose my connection to Champaign. That’s where family is.”
While Rassi’s father passed away several years back, his family tries to get back a few times a year to spend time with Mahin and catch up with Parastaran and other friends.
“We like to go to Lake of the Woods. I also want them to know Orchard Downs,” Rassi added, with the same enthusiasm he has when talking shop. “When it snows, I want them to go on the hill we sled down … and play on the playground where I used to play as a kid.”
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, http://bit.ly/2wYUmXR
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Champaign) News-Gazette.