The founder of a fast-growing beauty chain says women just want to look better.

Jo Horgan reckons persistence - and pity - got her cosmetic empire going. Thirteen years and 40 stores later, the petite English-born Melbourne resident, who began by importuning some of the world's coolest boutique beauty brands to let her stock them, now has companies queuing up wanting to get into Mecca Cosmetica. "For the first five years every pair of trousers I had had holes in them from being down on my knees, begging," she only half jokes.

Before she got her toe in the door, she had been cold calling "all night, every night".

In the case of American makeup firm Stila, she reckons, "I had to leave about 300-400 messages on the answerphone before someone finally picked up." Whiz makeup artist Francois Nars told her he finally agreed to meet her because he felt incredibly sorry for her. The straight-shooter told her: "We're not in Europe, not in Asia, why would we do Australia?"

Turns out some of the newly launched brands were grappling with growing a business just as much as her. While trying to woo Philosophy, its name was televised as a favourite of Oprah Winfrey and the skincare company was overwhelmed with interest. Boutique brands were suddenly experiencing 5000 per cent growth, recalls Horgan, who kept quietly lobbying, convinced this was a wave she wanted to catch. She secured exclusive distribution rights to seven brands and over the years has added a host more, among them leading cosmeceutical ranges Perricone MD and Dr Brandt, luxury gift and fragrance lines such as Diptyque and Serge Lutens, cult favourites Eve Lom and Escentric Molecules and haircare from Bumble and bumble and Frederic Fekkai.

Mecca Cosmetica has featured in French Vogue as one of the world's top destination shops, along with the likes of Liberty of London, Barneys in New York and Japan's Isetan department store. It was an early purveyor of the concept of modern luxury - service that taps into the indulgent, individualised needs of smart, busy consumers. "We wanted to provide the customer experience by bringing in extraordinary brands, impossible to get in the market, in a lovely environment, with trained makeup artists and skin aestheticians." Horgan believes that is still the way forward, with ever increasing attention to customer experience and interaction. At Mecca that means client workshops, sampling of products and the acceptance of returns, plus inviting votes for favourite products, all of which help the stores keep in touch with customer preferences.

But it was a slow build, she explains during a quick trip to Auckland to check how her four New Zealand stores are ticking over. (The answer is nicely thank you - Christchurch excepted, where earthquake damage means staff from the store-within-a-store at Ballanytnes have been diverted elsewhere, including to Australian branches, until it reopens.)

Back in the mid-90s, the science graduate who went on to work at L'Oreal was hooked by what she saw on the shelves of American stores including Fred Segal in Santa Monica and Barneys apothecary in New York.

"I looked at these brands, it was a physical reaction - oooh, this is extraordinary."

That's when the idea formed to bring them Downunder, building a mecca of choice. She knew it would be niche market stuff, though from the start had ambitions for up to 10 stores, but the 42-year-old says the company's growth has surprised her. Intuition, timing and determination, plus a combination of her background in brand management and considerable self-effacing personal charm all played a part.

She lived out the back of her first shop in South Yarra and is still based in the upmarket suburb, but now in a house by the beautiful Botanical Gardens and married with two young children.

Five years ago, thus far in Australia only, she launched a more underground chain showcasing small, quirky, brands called Kit Cosmetics.

Mecca Maxima opened late last year in the revamped Melbourne Central complex, with the mega-store housing over 3000 products from 100 brands.

"My customer research was every single dinner party I went to," she says. Friends told her they didn't like traditional beauty counters, saying, "I feel trapped"and "they don't make me up the way I want to look".

They wanted something new, to mix and match brands in the same way they might wear a $500 pair of jeans with a Bonds singlet. "Freedom and personality come from that mix and match."

Her customer base has expanded over the years, with the groovy young things she expected bringing in friends and mothers. Mecca relies on this word-of-mouth and repeat business - up to 85 per cent in Australia.

"I love to hear this 35-year-old woman bring their 60-year-old mum in and say "Mum, you've got to try this, try that ..."

Horgan believes women are empowered by realising cosmetics can work for them, rather than be an imposed look.

"Now it's about beautiful skin, clear eyes, doing what you want with that, rather than having to pour into an ideal [as seen in shows such as Mad Men]."

In choosing brands she wants to work with, she looks for people with passion and commitment. "Someone who is in it for the money or because they think it's fun, forget it."

Companies need a pedigree and a point of difference. Recent recruits include the beautifully packaged Danish organic line Kjaer Weis and the original range by makeup artist Ellis Faas who bases her colours on those within the human body, from the blood red of veins to the pale pink of a nail.

Horgan is sceptical of how much more the natural skincare sector will grow, saying woman want effectiveness first and foremost.

"Natural has gone from a budding movement to a large minority. Women will buy it if they can find a natural delivery system, but they will not forgo efficacy."

In the increasingly technical cosmeceutical market, she says "the story has to be simple".

Women want to understand what a product is promising and be assured it delivers. As an example she points to the growing popularity of peptide-enhanced lash and brow conditioners, "if it delivers, people will buy into it".

Foundation technology is another area where she has seen change for the better.

"Skin looks more and more flawless and more natural." As people get the basics right, they feel more confident, so she expects a growing interest in colour adornment.

"We see that in the bright orange-red or pink lip in fashion now ... there's also more play on the eyes."

Horgan, who has lovely skin but wears minimal makeup by day, says the base of her business is beautiful, natural and flawless and then women amping up their assets. She likes to book in for an update session herself every so often.

"People just want to look better than they do."

Jo's picks

From a shop full of goodies, Jo Horgan explains why these three are her favourites:

1 By Terry Light Expert, $149
Brush pen foundation by Terry Ginzburg, the makeup artist who created Touche Eclat for Yves Saint Laurent. "She's a genius with colour and light refraction." Horgan reckons this product is "life-changing" for someone like her who is always on the go.

2 Kevyn Aucoin The Mascara (in Curling or Volume), $67
Rubber-tipped lash mascara that can be taken off without eye makeup remover. "It stays on all day, does not ever sprinkle under the eye, but the true crowning glory is at the end of the day it comes off with warm water."

3 Nude Advance Cellular Repair Serum $248
"The pinnacle of natural integrity meets scientific innovation."

* Mecca Cosmetica has Auckland stores on Ponsonby Rd and Broadway, Newmarket, plus within Wellington's Kirkcaldie & Stains department store.