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Unpacking the Fenty Frenzy

Sarah Brown examines what the blockbuster success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty says about the industry’s race problem.
Cover FX's Nude is Not Beige campaign, and Instagram images from Clinique, Fenty Beauty, Estée Lauder | Illustration by Nerea Verdejo Blanco for BoF
  • Sarah Brown

NEW YORK, United States — Beauty is universal, but the definition put forth by popular culture has historically been woefully narrow. Like many other industries (fashion, Hollywood), the beauty world has long had a problem with diversity. It is well documented, from lack of inclusion of non-white models in magazines and ad campaigns to limited product assortments. The message, even if unintentional, from many establishment cosmetics brands to women of colour has long been, overwhelmingly: This brand is not for you. How could it be when there are no products that address a broad range of skin tones or hair types? Women of colour have become accustomed to going elsewhere for what they need. They have become accustomed to shopping in a different part of the store—mass retailers, mostly—for products that meet their needs.

Finally, the conversation is opening up, broadening the definition of not only what is beautiful, but what is frankly mainstream—what accurately reflects the world in which we live. It's not just about being inclusive, or at the worst, politically correct—it's about being real. The world is not white. It never was.

So, no one should be surprised that when Fenty Beauty launched this past September — in 17 countries simultaneously —  it created a groundswell felt around the world. Part of the excitement was due to the Rihanna-ness of it all—yes—but this was not Rihanna, backed by the LVMH-owned incubator Kendo, making makeup for the long-neglected dark-skinned consumer. This was Rihanna making makeup for everyone: Trophy Wife highlighter, a universal lip luminiser, 40 shades of Pro Filt'r foundation. Right out of the gate.

When the products hit Sephora, social media platforms were flooded with women of all backgrounds posting proud selfies, showing off their perfect shade match. Among them were a number of touching Instagrams from women with albinism. Shades on both ends of the spectrum immediately sold out. Accolades poured in about the richly nuanced mid-range tones as well, acknowledging that women who are, say, Dominican, Arab, or Indian represent many distinct complexions within their own groups, too. And with that, Fenty Beauty is on track to generate more than $100 million in revenue in its first year in business, according to market sources.

Isn’t that what diversity and multiculturalism is really all about? It’s not a question of benevolently cranking the door open another inch or two, catering, suddenly, to an overlooked population, dribble by dribble. It means thoughtfully addressing everyone. All skins. All people.

Fenty’s gesture of total inclusion magnified the exclusion that can be felt in many areas of the industry: the feeling of being treated as an afterthought, a separate fringe category. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census reports that the African American, Asian American, and Hispanic community—which, as of 2015, comprised more than 120 million people, 38 percent of the total population—is projected to increase by 2.3 million each year, becoming the numeric majority by 2044.

"The buying power of the ethnic community is massive," says Sir John Barnett, the makeup artist and L'Oréal brand ambassador known for his work with Joan Smalls, Chrissy Teigen, Serena Williams and Beyoncé. According to Kline & Co, growth in the multicultural personal care space, which expanded by 3.7 percent in 2014, continues to outpace the rest of the industry. "Black and Hispanic women buy a lot of makeup, and they're a loyal customer. They're always in pursuit of that thing that works for their hair or skin," says Barnett.

"For a long time, women of colour have felt invisible," says Julee Wilson, fashion and beauty director at Essence. "My heart is singing because someone is thinking of us — and such a luxury company, Kendo," she says. "It feels a little crazy to be excited about something that seems like a no-brainer, but it really holds a mirror up to the rest of the industry, saying, 'Look, there's a whole community of women you're missing.'"

Indeed, the rest of the beauty world appeared slightly taken off-guard, embarrassed even, by the celebratory Fenty frenzy, and a number of makeup brands hustled—with varying degrees of success, and finesse—to be part of the social media moment. Arm swatches abounded. Shade ranges were touted.

A common response from the Twittersphere: Oh, now you want us as your customer? If so many brands have always had such extensive shade ranges, why, asks Latin beauty authority and brand consultant Milly Almodovar, did it take Rihanna for them to start publicising it? "Why weren't you proud of this before? Why didn't you talk to us before? It's ridiculous," she says. "We were never considered until you saw the potential," posted one woman.

On one now infamous Instagram, Make Up For Ever (also owned by LVMH) noted that 40 shades “is nothing new to us,” inciting the immediate, and unforgiving, ire of the Internet. It got the attention of @badgalriri herself, who replied, with typical casual cool, “lol. still ashy”—a comment since deleted by the brand, which did not go unnoticed by her legions of fans, who filled the comments with column after column of #StillAshy.

Which brings up the issue of nuance. Just because a brand is offering a palette of medium-to-dark shades does not necessarily mean they are the right shades. Some brands have been falling short without even noticing. "The undertones are massively different. That's where the companies are failing," says Barnett. "Women like Iman, Liya Kebede—from the Arabian Peninsula through East Africa—have really olive undertones. They might look like they have a similar complexion to someone like Kerry Washington, but Kerry is a lot warmer, peachier. The same foundation shade on Iman will look ashy," he explains. "If you go to Home Depot, you'll see a ton of blue paint samples. Some read grey, some read cloudy—and that's just looking at paint for your wall. Skin is so much more complex."

Cover FX addressed the issue head-on with the recent Nude is Not Beige campaign promoting the company’s Natural Finish Foundation (40 shades, by the way), and featuring a South African and a Sudanese model.

“We are the masters of DIY, mixing and matching, constantly concocting our own blends that compliment our skin,” says Wilson. “Black women have been saying this forever: Give us something that works. There’s such a hole in the market. It’s money left on the table.”

It's especially frustrating when one considers the wide range of shades—and the thoughtfulness, time and money that went into developing them—that are available to fair-skinned consumers. This past summer, when YSL Beauty used Instagram to trumpet the debut of a new long-wear foundation—"22 shades, from light to dark, to suit all skin tones"—they were quickly besieged with #50ShadesOfWhite comments. "They got killed," says Almodovar. "Twenty-two shades, and like 20 were beige." It was glaring.

Barnett suspects that many brands are simply working with too small a focus group when developing cosmetics for deeper skin tones, and thus missing the subtle (or not so subtle) shades in-between. Moving forward, he says, “If you really do the work, and have 30 women in a similar complexion try it, you’ll hit the nail on the head.”

And once you’ve hit the nail on the head, talk about it. Women of colour frequently do not feel understood, catered to, or seen by brands because there is nothing in a company’s communications to suggest otherwise.

It’s actually—ironically—part of the reason why some brands have such limited offerings: Darker shades sit on shelves; they go bad; eventually they are discontinued. The brand thinks there is no customer for them, but why would a customer who has never been courted seek out a company she felt had nothing to offer her?

“You have to be on her radar,” says Larissa Jensen, NPD’s global beauty analyst. Otherwise, she continues, “even if you have these shade ranges, you’re not in the consideration set for that consumer, versus, say, a Fenty, where the embodiment of the brand is ethnic.”

When Frank Toscan and Frank Angelo launched M.A.C—Makeup. Art. Cosmetics—in Toronto in 1984, they laid down the credo All Ages, All Races, All Sexes. “The notion that we’re hitting all skin tones, and keeping in mind all skin types, has been important since the beginning,” says senior vice president of global product development Nick Gavrellis, who started with the brand as an artist in 1991. “There are people of all skin tones living in almost every pocket of the world,” he says and, as follows, M.A.C is constantly refining and adding to its shade range as a result of conversations with its makeup artists and store managers, a network that stretches across 120 countries worldwide.

When a specific need is identified, “we immediately go to the lab,” he says, recalling a flight to Paris, where he hand-carried 15 test shades requested by the St. Denis store, which counts a large Ivory Coast community among its clientele. Six ended up being added to Studio Fix Fluid, the brand’s flagship foundation, currently available in 46 shades (the compact version, Studio Fix Powder Plus Foundation, comes in a whopping 53). Still, Gavrellis is careful to point out that nothing is permanent. “You can’t say there is a perennial shade range forever. All ethnic backgrounds are blending and creating roots. It’s evolution—not just of the brand, of humankind.”

“M.A.C has done a really amazing job,” says Wilson, “and I feel like Becca is getting there. They have about 20 shades and have put a lot of focus on darker skin tones. Cover Girl Queen is great,” she continues, and, “Iman, Black Opal, Fashion Fair—those heritage brands have always been so close to our hearts as black women. They were created for us, by us.”

Almodovar gives kudos to Too Faced for enlisting makeup artist Jackie Aina, a YouTube star who has consistently called brands out for not catering to more women, to help them formulate darker shades. Almodovar loves Bobbi Brown’s foundation sticks, and feels Estée Lauder, which just signed ballerina Misty Copeland as a spokesperson for Modern Muse fragrance, is “a champion for women of colour.”

Her heart, though, belongs to Lancôme. The brand has worked over the years to create an authentic foothold within the multicultural community. After they signed Mexican-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o in 2014, they immediately featured her in a foundation campaign—Teint Idôle, originally launched in 28 shades, now available in 40—highlighting the deepness of her complexion. Lancôme had won over Almodovar earlier, in 2008, when they signed Dominican model Arlenis Sosa. “As a Dominican woman, that was such a proud moment for me,” she says. “They support me; why would I not support them? That’s why so many Latin and black women love Lancôme—they see themselves in their ads.”

As Barnett sees it, beauty’s opportunity with diversity extends beyond makeup. “Let’s celebrate by opening up the casting,” he says. “Let all women see themselves, in ads and on the runway.” Of the larger-than-life Fenty Beauty campaigns currently blanketing Los Angeles, he says, “The fact that you have albino and Senegalese skin tones in the ad, the idea that they could see themselves on a billboard—this is not just about the shade extensions, it’s about who the brand is reaching out to.”

The significance of seeing relatable, aspirational, diverse faces in campaigns goes far beyond the ability of a company to sell more things to more people. It can’t help but expand what we—as a society, no matter how currently fractured—consider beautiful, aspirational, even just normal. This powerful imagery is “not just for the consumer now,” says Barnett, “these are the messages we show young girls.”

Foundation and concealer shades may be where the conversation begins; it’s certainly not where it ends.

“I do feel we’re moving in the right direction,” says Wilson. The way forward, she says, is for companies to consider more diversity in their diversity. “I think that sometimes the thought process is, ‘We’re good, we’ve got the girl who can speak to a multitude of ethnicities.’ But that’s not how we feel personally. There has to be some range and consideration that we’re not some monolith of colour. America is browning. If you want to make money, talk to women of colour. We are willing to invest in the companies that are speaking to us in a thoughtful manner.”

If you want to make money, talk to women of colour. We are willing to invest in the companies that are speaking to us in a thoughtful manner.

Real progress will occur when brands stop thinking solely in terms of shade extensions and products made especially for the ethnic aisle and, as Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter, the skin and hair care brand acquired by L’Oréal in 2014, says, “just develop from a place of beauty and fun.” I.e., when they treat the multicultural consumer like any other. “Once we get past looking at the potential customer as the poor thing who, ‘Oh, for so long has never had this or that and it’s such a struggle,’ and instead say, ‘what fabulous thing can we make for her?’—that’s the next evolution,” says Price.

Opportunities abound. Wilson, for one, has tons of ideas. "Do you understand how important edges are to black women? Our hairline! We put so much stress on our hairline. Or if John Frieda came up with the perfect braid spray, or braid rinse—sold out, guaranteed. Or products for transitioning from chemical to natural hair. That can take years." It's not that excellent products for textured hair don't already exist—"Cream of Nature, Carol's Daughter, Shea Moisture have done it; they get what our needs are," says Wilson—it's that there is an enormous opportunity for the rest of the industry to get involved, too. Provided they are authentic about it, cautions Wilson, citing Pantene's well-received Gold Series, formulated by a team of ten black scientists, as a good example.

Companies that currently make products for a multitude of skin and hair types have to get better at communicating that information, too. Wilson recalls being told at a beauty launch event that a temporary hair colour was safe for all hair types, but the box only featured pictures of white women. “If they don’t demonstrate that it can be used it on a model with textured hair, I’m not putting it in my hair,” she says. “You can’t just say, ‘this is universal.’ It goes back to us feeling invisible. You might think you’re speaking to us, but you’re not.”

“We’re woke now, as the millennials will say,” says Barnett. “When you know better, you do better. I’m in LA, walking past a billboard on Sunset of an albino woman in a cosmetics ad—that’s progress.”

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