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Has Backstage Beauty Lost its Gloss?

Backstage beauty has become big business, but as access widens and the novelty fades, is it still worth the investment?
Gigi Hadid pictured backstage before the Tom Ford Spring/Summer 2018 show at New York Fashion Week | Source: Shutterstock
  • Sarah Brown

NEW YORK, United States — I started going backstage at fashion shows when I was an assistant in the beauty department at Elle magazine in the late '90s. I'd slip in through an unmarked side door somewhere in the back of the tents at Bryant Park, nod to the headset-wearing guardian, and stand for a moment — tentatively those first few seasons; it was terrifying — on the fringes of fashion's innermost sanctum. To me, it was Oz. Or Wonderland. Or both. Truly: It was a magical, secret world few had ever seen. Tables were lined with endless pans of foundation and eye shadow in every shade, little unmarked jars of mica and glitter, palettes hand-filled with lip pigment, a billion mascara spoolies and makeup brushes unfurled in their rolls. The air was thick with hairspray. Blow-dryers roared. Everyone was in a hurry, as models rushed in late from other shows, the designer darted around surveying the scene, making small changes. I would get shivers from seeing each runway look separately arranged with its accompanying accessories on a rolling rack labelled with the model's name (does that really say Gisele?).

There were only a handful of us from the beauty press (some with photographer in tow) back there in the beginning. Linda Wells had pioneered the behind-the-scenes backstage drop-in when she was a reporter at The New York Times. As long as we stayed out of the way, we could run around and talk to basically anyone — artist, designer, model — who would talk to us back. In my highest heels, I always felt very short. At a certain point (usually first looks), we'd get unceremoniously kicked out.

Backstage is where I met virtually everyone I know in the industry — Orlando, Garren, Guido, Jimmy Paul, Diane Kendal, Linda Cantello, Lucia Pieroni, Eugene Soulieman, Luigi Murenu, Tom Pecheux, Peter Philips, even an up-and-coming makeup artist beginning to make serious waves named Pat McGrath — and it is where we would get the news, the scoops, and the inspiration that would inform an entire season's worth of magazine articles. I would bring my notes and quotes back to my editor feeling like Santa arriving with a sack full of presents. It was in those enchanted, frenetic moments before the house lights dimmed and the first model walked onto the runway that kinks were worked out, crises were averted, a little bit of magic happened and, sometimes, genius struck. And we were there to see it.

The fashion-beauty connection happened organically: As excitement around the backstage machinations built and became newsworthy in themselves, beauty brands sought to align themselves with designers in order to absorb some of the cool and to claim new credibility. Being in the thick of it backstage was a badge of honour. Pro brands like MAC could showcase what they were made of and further cement their equity; those that did not have natural fashion authority could now purchase it via sponsorship. Some provided teams and product. Others kicked in additional financial resources for the honour of just being there and flying their flag. Thanks to those dollars, many young designers could now afford to mount their shows, and with the support of the industry’s leading makeup artists and hairstylists, who were quickly becoming stars in their own right.

It was a different time. The news was on the runway, not peppered across the front row. Trends trickled from the catwalk to the street, instead of vice versa. In the beginning of the backstage beauty boom, there were no gift bags, no press releases ready to go; certainly no hashtags. As the action behind the scenes became a press bonanza for everyone involved, savvy beauty brands also seized the moment as a platform to preview new launches and initiate collaborations.

As fashion weeks have multiplied internationally and social media has blown the lid off of a once-intimate preserve, those glimpses into a gilded, rarefied world feel less… rare. The ballooning global interest in fashion and beauty, and its democratisation via the internet, are wonderful things, to be sure. Interest in our industry and passion for the goods we produce is critical to our growth and longevity. The end consumer is, after all, who it is all for. But when something celebrated for being special becomes ubiquitous, is it still special?

Nobody wants to go to a hair and makeup test anymore; no one wants to come backstage.

A general malaise has set in, amongst both editors, many of whom now approach backstage reporting as a chore (and disdain the competing blogger hordes that have descended), and beauty brands, some of which are cutting back (or discreetly exiting) their fashion week partnerships.

"We're not seeing a whole lot of return," admits an executive from a top beauty company who wished to be unnamed. "Nobody wants to go to a hair and makeup test anymore; no one wants to come backstage. We are not seeing engagement on social." As a result, she says, "We are scaling down our shows. Fashion is important to our business, but fashion week is not necessarily as important. People don't care as much. It doesn't feel new anymore."

The novelty has certainly worn a bit thin. As the floodgates have opened, adding waves of bloggers and selfie-taking influencers to the original mix of beauty editors and reporters, the prized concept of access — and thus the ability to share original stories with one's audience, whether via printed page, web post, Snapchat or Instagram — has been diminished.

“There are so many lists now, so many ways to get in,” notes Kristie Dash, a freelance beauty writer who masterfully straddles the social and editorial worlds. Whereas, in the past, establishment sponsors like Nars, Redken, MAC, Aveda, and Bumble and Bumble were the gatekeepers who controlled the flow, now people can gain entry “through a hot tools brand, a nail line, or a skincare company. It’s extra crowded.”

Backstage at the Tom Ford Spring/Summer 2018 show | Source: Shutterstock

“There is no longer any exclusivity backstage,” says a veteran beauty director who oversees both print and digital for her publication. “Without exclusivity, why am I trying to get into Pat McGrath’s face, wrestling with three bloggers who have a fraction of the reach I do, for the same quote?”

“Social has taken that away,” says Dash. “It’s a race against the clock to see who posts first — there you go, that’s the exclusive.”

Add to that the fact that, over the last several seasons, there hasn’t consistently been much “beauty” to report, plus, what counts as breaking beauty news these days — when a celebrity cuts her hair or is photographed wearing a new lip shade at the airport — frequently happens far from the runways. For one online editor, who is tasked with writing three-to-four articles a day, “a lot of the time, I’m just back there scraping for any kind of story,” she says. In the recurring instances of “clean skin” and “real girl hair”, Dash says she still finds ways to get good material (“everyday tips”) from the artists and models, “but the brand isn’t always a part of that,” she admits. So, if you’re a brand that has paid dearly for the privilege of being backstage, and the content that is generated has to do with the new smoothie place all the models go to for breakfast and the far-flung detox retreat where the chic makeup artist recently spent a month — all things I want to know, by the way — was it worth your investment?

There’s always the hashtag (#marketing), which brands hope and pray editors and (unpaid) influencers will voluntarily use, though as the veteran beauty director notes, “it starts feeling really forced — the opposite of what people say they want right now, which is authenticity.” Some will add the hashtag — though frequently in the comments, not the caption (“seems more subtle” says the online editor) — if it’s a moment they know people are searching for online. I.e., if it helps them, not necessarily the brand at whose invitation they are backstage in the first place.

And as editorial teams shrink and demands increase, the time commitment required to go backstage at a single show — three hours can be standard — is just not economical for some. “It takes too much time and energy, and all of the content is available for you,” says the veteran beauty director, referring to the photographs, product recaps and technique breakdowns, which are now provided by most brands with astonishing speed. “If you were in your office, you’d be able to post that information from your desk. It takes longer to tackle the craziness backstage than to produce the content. For digital, it makes absolutely no sense.”

Blasé (and stretched-thin) editors and ROI-minded brands are not the only ones feeling fashion week fatigue: The scrolling public, flooded with content — how many Instagrams of the same winged eyeliner or snaking runway finale line can one look at before tuning out? — seems bored, too.

Change is a good thing. It gives brands new ways to explore doing business.

"Fashion week coverage does not perform on digital whatsoever," says the online editor. In fact, she continues, "It's pretty commonly known that too much fashion week coverage will make people unfollow you. The articles are the lowest performing of the day, and Instagrams get the least 'likes', unless they're of Hailey Baldwin or Gigi." Post-show how-to's — that staple of backstage reporting, detailing technique and showcasing the products brands paid so much to place — might garner engagement, says the online editor, "if there is a photo of Bella Hadid leading the article. People might click because of her."

So, what are the brands still in the game today deriving from the experience, and the expenditure? Press is still part of it, as is buzz building and fan acquisition via the influencer piece, but as brands reconsider objectives and recalibrate expectations, internal benefits top the list of priorities.

Amy Focazio, VP of global fashion relations at MAC, maintains that, "Fashion week has never been a branding exercise for us. We see it as something much deeper. We've been backstage since the '90s; it's part of our heritage and DNA and it feeds many different areas of the brand." As the backstage scene evolves, MAC's investment, philosophically and financially, remains unchanged. "We're supporting a similar amount of shows, but with the shift in designers showing in different markets, they're in different cities and at different times." All told, says Focazio, MAC sends 400 artists to fashion weeks around the world, supporting 40 percent of the shows in the four cities; about 200 each season. In New York this Fashion Week, a smattering of their superstar keys include Dick Page at Michael Kors and Adam Selman, Tom Pecheux at Oscar de la Renta and Brandon Maxwell, and James Kaliardos at Rosie Assoulin and Baja East.

Much of MAC’s authority comes from its identity as a true makeup artist’s brand, rooted in fashion and forever at the forefront of the latest trends and techniques. “We can’t claim that unless we’re backstage,” says Focazio.

MAC views its designer relationships as long-term affairs. "We aren't interested in one-off experiences," says Focazio. "We know a relevant partner today goes well beyond support at fashion week." Indeed, memorable capsule collections include Zac Posen, Prabal Gurung, Giambattista Valli, Proenza Schouler, and most recently (in partnership with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund), Chromat. In 2018, there are more to come.

In addition to planting seeds for future collaborations, the brand uses backstage as a product testing ground, with artists providing feedback on shade and formula to the product development team, which can tweak products before they hit the market. It’s also an opportunity to inspire and educate the artists MAC depends on to sell its products at retail. “Fashion is aspiration, and our artists see fashion week as an incentive. Backstage they can learn from the best of the best, and bring that back to the stores and share it with other artists and with our customers,” says Focazio.

A MAC makeup artist's setup backstage at a fashion show | Source: Shutterstock

Nars, which is supporting shows from Alexander Wang and Delpozo to Erdem, J.W. Anderson and Christopher Kane this season, sees similar benefits for its artists. Each year, the brand holds auditions in London and New York, where makeup artists from its stores, counters and editorial rosters around the globe vie for a coveted spot on the fashion week team. "We select on skill set, not experience or seniority," says Julia Sloan, SVP, global communications and digital strategy. "It's about honouring the craft of artistry, and giving key artists like James [Kaliardos], Marc [Carrasquillo] and Diane [Kendal] the best possible team backstage. The artists are honoured to be there, and it helps them build their profiles and portfolios when meeting customers. For us, it is very meaningful internally."

As a brand distributed through a salon network, Redken also requires a robust backstage presence in order to maintain its credibility as a professional line and style leader. The brand hit the jackpot twelve years ago when it struck up a partnership with Guido Palau, undeniably the industry's most prolific editorial hairstylist. Guido is at the top shows in each city (Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, McQueen, Balenciaga, Dior, Valentino), which means Redken is, too. "It's huge for us," says Darienne Kennedy, VP, integrated marketing communications. "It gives us the authority in fashion, because we're the ones creating the trends, through Guido. It allows us to go out to other hairdressers, salons, and the end consumer, with the looks for the season."

And while Guido provides the elite editorial prowess, Rodney Cutler, a hairdresser with four salons in New York who has been working with Redken since 2002, helps to further translate looks for the real world, especially with the in-depth runway tutorials he creates for the brand. “With Rodney,” says Kennedy, “it’s where fashion hits the salon in a very literal way.”

British indie Nails Inc. has used assets created backstage to help sell its products into retailers — like the glove hand mask pictured on models backstage at Coach's Fall 17 show — and to create immediate excitement on the selling floor. Last season in London, the brand previewed Cambridge Grove, a creamy high-shine lilac polish, at Erdem, and started selling it the next day ("straight from the catwalk") at its Selfridges and Harvey Nichols counters, bolstered by video on the stores' digital screens of the application details and accompanying fashion look.

The collections are undeniably still important hunting grounds for beauty news and inside scoops. Even if millennial-centric (and generated) “unicorn makeup” and “mermaid hair” is the beauty content currently performing best online (according to Dash), the lofty looks and new directions forged backstage as fashion’s fickle pendulum swings are certainly newsworthy. For the beauty obsessed public, an inside look at the industry’s top talents creating fresh looks in front of their eyes, and against a backdrop of jaw-dropping product porn, is exciting. In a crowded landscape hovering near saturation point, figuring out how to package this content as something original, urgent, cool — and click-able — is the challenge.

The sea change is that instead of relying solely upon members of the press and influencers to get the message out, the brands themselves have assumed the role of editor and publisher, pushing out content they create through their own channels.

Maybelline, the official makeup sponsor of New York Fashion Week since 2009, is committed for "the next year or two", according to Amy Whang, the brand's SVP, marketing, with 17 shows — including Brock Collection, Jason Wu, Monse, Public School, and Philip Plein — confirmed for this season. The brand's overall mission is "to represent fashion and trends at the forefront of everything we do," says Whang. As follows, her top priority at NYFW is to connect directly with consumers, sharing their exclusive access, featuring their products in action, and documenting beauty news immediately as it unfolds via Facebook Live, Snapchat and Instagram.

In an effort to be more than a supporting actor, and in a bold display of sponsorship muscle, Maybelline’s new Makeup First initiative, which the brand is debuting this season, turns the tables on how things have traditionally been done and offers the designers they sponsor makeup direction — as opposed to the other way around.

This past July, the brand met with the four designers with whom they are partnering for the program — Jonathan Simkhai, Bibhu Mohapatra, Naeem Khan, and Rochambeau — and presented them with mood boards of “some trends we’ve been seeing,” says Whang. Themes ranged from Ethereal Light, “a lot of glow, holographics,” to Wanderlust, “oxides, rust, rich orange-based colours,” and were conveyed via a collage of textures, pigments, fashion and beauty references, which align with new products Maybelline is launching this autumn, as well as those in its existing portfolio. “A lot of times, the designers do their collections, and the makeup is an afterthought,” says Whang. “They’ve seen where we’re going and where we see makeup going, and have taken that into consideration.”

Guido is particularly valuable for Redken’s Facebook Live feeds and Instagram Stories clips because “he comes up with alternative ways to use the products, so that gives us additional content and recommendations for stylists and consumers,” notes Kennedy. “It’s a great platform to showcase the products.”

Indeed. While most editors report that it is the familiar corps of Insta-friendly model-celebrities (Kendall, Gigi, and new addition: Kaia) who are their proven web winners, the brands cite traction on their social streams from something much simpler. “Product, product, product,” says MAC’s Focazio. “Product images really resonate with our fans — versus a model, or a model wearing clothes. They like to see product being used in an authentic way backstage; they love how the artists set up their stations. It’s important to the millennial and Gen-Z consumer.” MAC’s "Get the Look" video tutorials, which highlight the top five hero products used to achieve a particular look (and which may be purchased via the brand’s website and shoppable Instagram posts) have yielded an uptick in sales, says Focazio.

While Nails Inc.’s consumers are looking for nail trend inspiration, what they’re really hungry for, notes founder and chief executive Thea Green, is basic advice from a professional. “When we ask our customers what they want to know, it’s not always about creating a crazy nail look; it’s, ‘how do you apply topcoat to make it last that little bit longer?’ ‘How do you file your nails in the right shape?’ ‘If there is one colour I should be buying right now, what colour is that?’” For this, the brand’s fashion week footage has proven to be a gold mine. One of their most viewed videos ever is a slow motion clip filmed on an iPhone last season of a manicurist painting the brand’s 45 Second Top Coat onto a nail. Easy.

In an age when exclusives are harder and harder to come by, Redken managed its own coup last season, producing exclusive imagery for the Wall Street Journal's Instagram from Raf Simons' debut collection for Calvin Klein (where backstage was closed to the press). "For us it was a huge moment," says Kennedy. "It showed the images in the way we wanted and Guido wanted."

Which brings us to another critical pivot point: When you remove the middleman — the independent reporter — you control the message.

Where does this leave editors? Brands still appreciate, and seek, coverage (prestige, legitimacy), and shout-outs (eyeballs, cool factor), but they have shown that they are marching forward with their own agendas. A reporter's instinct and editor's eye can never be replaced by a marketing brief, though, and the best outlets are finding new ways to create rich, original content with the authority and distinct point of view that could only come from them. Vogue, where I was previously beauty director, has mixed things up recently with endeavours as simple as enlisting Amber Valletta to serve as backstage correspondent at Dries Van Noten's 100th show last season, and as complex and high-production as July's (instantly viral) two-minute film of Céline Dion slinking glamorously around the Ritz and bâteaux mouches in Paris wearing hot-off-the-runway couture in the ultimate fashion fantasia.

“Change is a good thing. It gives brands new ways to explore doing business,” says Focazio. “We’re getting a lot out of fashion week. This is what we do best.”

“For me, I still find the joy in backstage, and I can still curate the image,” says Dash. “Even though it’s not as exclusive, we’re all jaded to think it’s not. To the average follower in the middle of America, it still is, and I enjoy sharing it with those girls. I got into the industry to be a magazine editor. I didn’t see all of this coming, but it happened, and I’m part of it.”

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