BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Inside Sephora’s Attempt to Bring Back the Beauty Festival

Once the source of industry buzz and revenue, the experiential beauty event space flatlined when Covid-19 restricted large in-person gatherings. This year, a number return, including Sephoria, which makes the case that the festival is bigger and better than ever.
Milk's activation at Sephoria.
Milk Makeup's activation at Sephoria. (Sephora)
  • Yola Mzizi

In a queue that followed the natural curve of the Skylight at Essex Crossing building in Manhattan, beauty-obsessed New Yorkers braved the rain on Saturday in hopes of gaining entry into Sephoria: House of Beauty.

“I am so drenched but I have to see Patrick Ta,” said Krishna Patel, an auditor who stood in line under an umbrella with her older sister, Ruhi. It was Ruhi’s 36th birthday and Patel thought “it would be a cool experience to do together” as Ruhi was picky with gifts.

Patel was lucky to have purchased tickets for Sephoria’s second day. The event’s first sessions on Friday, which included masterclasses by Charlotte Tilbury, Tracee Ellis Ross of Pattern Beauty and Dr. Dennis Gross, were cancelled due to a torrential downpour and flash floods that resulted in a state of emergency declaration from New York Governor Kathy Hochul. Sephora was expecting 6,000 in-person attendees and over 40,000 virtually. The retailer refunded Friday’s ticket holders (entrance was $119 and $369 for the Sephoria’s silver and gold attendees, respectively) and promised to send beauty bags worth over $500 to their homes. As of publication, Sephora did not confirm how many people attended Sephoria.

When Sephoria debuted in 2018 in Los Angeles, it was no doubt taking inspiration from experiential pop-ups like the Museum of Ice Cream or rival convention Beautycon, which created hysteria among fans for its array of free beauty samples and roster of star studded talent like Cardi B. and makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic. Quickly, beauty and wellness festivals were at their peak, with offerings from Goop, QVC, Ipsy, PopSugar and more. But just as consumers grew tired of the same circuit of celebrities and brands rotating from event to event, the pandemic flatlined all beauty festivals and exacerbated problems for some models, like Beautycon, entirely. (Beautycon returned in September, under new ownership, Essence Ventures.) Sephora, meanwhile, has operated Sephoria virtually for the last two years.

On Saturday, Sephora was intent on proving that the beauty festival was back — at least its version. Even with planned programming cut in half, the retailer had the buy in of beauty’s buzziest brands and the 50 participating lines were focused on one-upping one another in real time. Nars debuted a hyper-realistic tech-generated virtual human to give beauty recommendations (one attendee was convinced it was an actual human behind a curtain offering advice). Elsewhere, Milk Makeup and Oui the People both designed larger-than-life booths with nods to New York’s bodegas, complete with boxed cereals, hero products and even a cat lying on shelves.

Sephora’s in-person activations won’t stop in New York: Sephoria will make its international debut in Paris on Oct. 6. The retailer plans to take the festival to more markets in 2024, said Jessica Stacey, senior vice-president of external communication, events and experiential marketing.

“Consumers expect more out of events following the pandemic, and this is another way for us to show up, show out and win them over,” said Mary Yee, chief executive of Tatcha.

Bringing the Beauty Aisle to Life

For some, Sephoria felt like the TikTok “For You” page come to life.

Attendees were revved up to meet beauty founders and influencers like Tower 28′s Amy Liu and makeup artist Patrick Ta, and score touch-ups and snag free samples from brands like Laneige and Charlotte Tilbury, which are both runaway successes on the app.

“I’m not a diehard for any specific brand, but I like individual products,” said Ashley Otto, a nurse. “I’m always interested in whatever is trending on TikTok. Sephoria is the best place for someone just looking to try things.”

Sephoria’s return, in New York, virtually and soon Paris, marks a new era for the retailer, said Stacey.

“Beauty festivals remain as relevant as they were back in 2018,” she said. “People from all over the world have attended virtual Sephoria these past few years.”

Most New Yorkers, like teacher Marissa Giammarusco, were just happy to be there. “I’m so glad we were able to make it here and didn’t have any problems,” she said of Friday’s cancelled sessions.

Brands, meanwhile, had to jockey harder for customers’ attention. Fable and Mane founder Akash Mehta bopped around the event space in a head-to-toe tiger costume, the brand’s emblem.

Sephora individually invited some of its brands to participate in Sephoria. Even with an invitation, beauty labels had to pay to play. In Sephoria materials viewed by The Business of Beauty, $5,000 granted emerging lines access to multi-brand activations whereas larger labels paid $40,000 for a 20-by-20 square foot booth and a main stage masterclass. That’s on top of the costs associated with staffing the event, travel, product samples and of course, creating brand footprints. According to sources, booth fabrication cost at a minimum $10,000 on the lower end and was well over $100,000 for larger activations.

Some brand executives said the activation was on par with a multi-day, out–of-home activation, but with a built-in audience.

“If you put it into perspective, holding a pop-up in New York would cost roughly the same amount, if not more,” said Tiffani Carter, chief marketing officer at Danessa Myricks Beauty. “The ability to encounter new customers who came to an event interested in your competitor, but stayed for you, is priceless.”

“It is not a cheap endeavour, by any measure,” added Liu, Tower 28′s founder and chief executive. She showed up to Sephoria with a team member dressed as the line’s hero product, the SOS Rescue Spray. “There are a number of costs associated with showing at a festival of this scale. Brands have to weigh the benefit over cost.”

The Los Angeles-based Tower 28 team relied on third party fabricators to build and ship its booth across the country and enlisted the help of an out-of-work set designer (due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike) to build the brand’s booth.

But the weather did put a damper on some activities. Though silver ticket holders were meant to have open access to masterclasses hosted by celebrity founders or their teams, only attendees with higher priced tickets were ultimately granted entrance.

“It’s a bummer because we had to wait in the rain to be told that only Gold ticket members could go to the masterclass,” said Giammarusco. “I still got to see Patrick Ta though and he signed my lipgloss.”

With contributions from Priya Rao

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 2 to amend Jessica Stacey’s title.

© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

More from Beauty
Analysis and advice on the fast-evolving beauty business.

view more

Subscribe to the BoF Daily Digest

The essential daily round-up of fashion news, analysis, and breaking news alerts.

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The State of Fashion 2024
© 2023 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Cookie Policy and Accessibility Statement.
The State of Fashion 2024