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Kylie Cosmetics Tries to Evolve Beyond the ‘Instagram Makeup’ Era

Under Coty, Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics and skin care lines have expanded internationally. But the brand that kicked off the celebrity beauty boom seven years ago may be showing its age.
Coty agreed to buy a majority stake in Kylie Cosmetics in November 2019.
Coty agreed to buy a majority stake in Kylie Cosmetics in November 2019.

Kylie Jenner’s European promotional tour for her beauty brand, Kylie Cosmetics, got off to a rocky start last week.

On Instagram, the influencer posted photos of herself, dressed in a white lab coat and peering into a vat and weighing a beaker full of shimmering loose powder. “In the lab creating new magic for you guys,” the caption read. Some of her 365 million followers quickly pointed out she wasn’t wearing a mask, gloves or a hairnet. Those would have been necessary in a facility manufacturing cosmetics for commercial use, but not in a testing lab, a person familiar with the matter said.

It was a minor controversy, especially for a member of the Kardashian family. But it was also the latest sign of how the landscape has changed since Jenner kicked off the celebrity beauty boom with her Kylie Lip Kits seven years ago.

Now majority owned by Coty, Kylie Cosmetics is stocked in thousands of department stores, beauty stores and drug stores on multiple continents. It still ranks among the most-searched-for celebrity lines online, running neck and neck with newer rivals like Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty and Millie Bobby Brown’s Florence by Mills.

Jenner may have pioneered the model that those celebrities and many, many others have followed on their way to becoming beauty moguls. But despite a much-publicised relaunch last year — with “revamped vegan, cruelty-free formulas with ‘clean’ ingredients,” according to the brand — Kylie Cosmetics itself hasn’t changed much since the days when Instagram alone dictated beauty trends, and TikTok wasn’t available outside of China. As the Milan incident shows, she can’t count on the goodwill of her followers to keep her brand on top.

“She has an incredible collection of fans that probably want to see her succeed because they’ve been using her [products], but they’re calling her out for not delivering,” said Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research. “The world has moved, and it doesn’t seem like she’s moved enough.”

The 25-year-old founder was in London ahead of the opening of her first international pop-up, Kylie Cosmetics by Kylie Jenner Glam Park, in Covent Garden (Jenner, who left London before the pop-up opened, will not attend the activation). For three days, shoppers can receive makeup and skin care consultations, virtual try-ons and 20 percent discounts on certain products via a tie-in with Boots, which launched Jenner’s makeup and its skin care in stores and online last year.

The pop-up, one of the brand’s first major experiences outside the US, is the latest indication of where it’s headed under Coty.

International expansion has been a big focus for the brand under Coty, which agreed to buy a majority stake in November 2019. In addition to Boots, Kylie Skin entered Harrods and Selfridges in 2020 (Kylie Cosmetics entered both department stores the following year) and the brand’s e-commerce site ships internationally. In 2019, Kylie Skin launched in 2,500 Douglas stores in 25 countries (the retailer launched Kylie Cosmetics last summer), and Kylie Cosmetics and Skin entered Sephora in Mexico and Brazil in the spring.

The product itself hasn’t changed nearly as much. Jenner is still pushing the “Instagram makeup” look, including overlined matte lips, that peaked in the years leading up to the pandemic. Jenner’s annual birthday drop on Wednesday, as she turned 25, feels like a throwback to that era: lip glosses and lip crayons with silver sprinkles printed on tubes.

That’s appears to be good enough for Coty, for now. In May, the company cited Burberry, Gucci and Kylie Cosmetics as bright spots in a prestige cosmetics business that “nearly doubled” year-over-year. Kylie Jenner and Coty declined to comment on Kylie Cosmetics’ business.

Expanded distribution may be making up for declining consumer interest. Web searches for Kylie Cosmetics have fallen steadily over the last five years; even after a recent uptick around Jenner’s trip to Europe, they’re off by about 80 percent from their peak, according to Ahrefs, a search insights company.

The Coty machine can certainly provide the infrastructure and scale required to build a true global operation — but the onus is on Jenner to sustain buzz beyond pop-ups or limited drops.

“She can certainly sell the product one-off, but where we see doubt is if she can sustain the continued sales,” said Pravani Pillay, senior manager in the beauty practice of Kearney, a consultancy. “She is the brand — and that’s the value that [Coty] pays for.”

The brand needs to take some risks and surprise Jenner’s fans, Driscoll said. She cited the Kylie Cosmetics vending machines, which appeared at certain American airports in 2019, as one such experiment that worked. Pillay said another “Kylie Original” — like Jenner’s Lip Kits that “brought back lip liner” — could reel in new customers, re-engage existing ones, and most importantly, “rebuild some trust.”

Jenner is also contending with consumers’ expectations that celebrities appear more “authentic.” It’s an area where she has struggled: Forbes rescinded her self-made billionaire title, there was the video promoting her skin care where she appeared to be wearing makeup and that Milan lab snafu.

“She’s trying to take her ‘lifestyle of Kylie’ and expand that too much, and the way consumers might be perceiving that is, ‘Does she know who her customer is or is she trying to be everything to no one because of her name?’” Pillay said.

But the public’s perception may not matter in this case — the Kardashians and Jenners have built their brand around being authentically inauthentic. The 16-year-old who bought a lip kit in 2016 is now in her twenties and perhaps looking for a deeper celebrity connection. But there are plenty of people who are still buying what the mega influencer is selling.

“The people who like her don’t really think she’s authentic. They don’t care. Does the makeup work and do they get to participate a little bit in the Jenner Kardashian fame?” Driscoll said. “For people who care about authenticity, I don’t know that they would have gone along with her brand anyway.”

And though Kylie Cosmetics may be playing to a smaller audience than it did five years ago, it is still massive by the beauty industry’s standards. Even now, the brand is searched more than SKKN by Kim or Rhode Skin, this year’s biggest celebrity launches, according to Ahrefs.

It’s a credit to Jenner and the brand that it’s continued to grow without evolving — but the landscape has changed too much and too fast. You can’t stand still for too long before getting overtaken. Maybe even by your older sister.

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