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The Luxury Brands Pushing the Upper Limit of What Makeup Can Cost

Designer houses are marketing formerly disposable beauty products into collectibles, with prices to match. Welcome to the age of $500 lipstick.
Dior Rouge Premier
Dior Rouge Premier (Courtesy)
  • Kristen Bateman

Encased in a ceramic tube handcrafted by the 160-year-old French house Maison Bernardaud and printed in a Toile de Jouy print, Dior’s new Rouge Premier lipstick, which is infused with hibiscus extract and 24K gold, looks like something that would have been on Marie Antoinette’s vanity.

And that’s the point.

“We wanted to do lipstick that you can also hand down, and make it a whole couture piece that is expensive and precious,” said Peter Philips, creative and image director for Christian Dior Makeup, as he sat on a couch inside a custom Dior-decorated room at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. “Maybe you save for it, or maybe you buy it for yourself, for a special moment.”

The average customer would certainly have to save up. Retailing for a little over $500, the lipstick, which comes in 12 special edition shades, is available in select Dior boutiques in Europe, and will launch on and in a handful of Dior boutiques in the US this September. While the ceramic case will only be sold in a limited batch — only a few thousand were produced globally — lipstick refills will be available indefinitely.

Lipsticks, compacts and eye shadow palettes priced from $200 to $1,000 were once rare, but are becoming more common. Beyond high-end ingredients like the 24k gold extract found in Dior’s Rouge Premier lipstick, luxury lines are positioning cosmetics as high art or keepsakes that are meant to be collected. Valentino’s Go-Clutch Refillable Radiant Setting Powder, launched in 2021, comes in a red lacquered case with a gold chain, which can be worn as a necklace or bag. The price is $205. Earlier this summer, Chanel debuted Codes Couleur, an artful limited edition collection of matching nail files, mirrors and brush sets with pouches in nine brilliant pop art shades, retailing for upwards of $160.

While expensive for the beauty category, ultra-pricey designer makeup is still less than a collectable Panerai watch or a Hermès bag. For now, one-off items are unlikely to move luxury houses’ bottom line, but ultra-collectable cosmetics follow the same philosophy as extensions into homewares and even accessories: It gives new, high-end customers, especially Millennials and Gen-Zers, entry into their world.

Past in Present

Philips likes the idea of dressing lipstick in couture.

He said Rouge Premier was inspired by Christian Dior’s obsession with outfitting a customer’s complete life — stockings, bags, accessories, hats, home decor and more — with extreme colour coordination, much like the original Christian Dior boutique in Paris.

For the most part, luxury cosmetics like Dior’s Rouge Premier have a strong connection to the world of fashion, allowing brands to tap into large budgets, historical references and archives.

“These sorts of limited-run products encourage brands to consider long-lasting materials and concepts that will stand the test of time,” said Megan Bang, a beauty analyst at trend forecasting firm WGSN. “Artful objects can also serve as a connection to heritage through traditional crafting techniques, ingredients or aesthetics.”

High-end makeup is trending. According to data from Circana, designer brands are growing at a faster rate of 21 percent year-over-year versus total prestige makeup as of May 2023.

A nod to history is a selling point for Gen-Z and Millennial consumers who otherwise may not have the means to buy from a luxury brand, noted Bang.

Compelling Storytelling

A luxury price point alone doesn’t solve the problem of limited-edition cosmetics appearing like a cash grab. Weaving an authentic story is crucial in ensuring high-end beauty products feel like a branch of the brand, not a gimmick.

“It makes sense that brands are cutting through the noise via high concept items,” said Jessica Matlin, Moda Operandi director of beauty, noting that luxe, stand-out products are just one response to the overcrowding of the beauty market. “The product itself has to work harder, from a PR perspective, than it did five or ten years ago.”

For Dior’s part, it plans to use Rouge Premier as a vehicle to do future “collaborations with craftsmen, artists and all kinds of creative people,” Philips said. “There’s always storytelling, especially with your first lipstick.” According to the house, a premium coffret featuring the entire Rouge Premier line will be available starting in October, with more to come next year.

“Having these luxurious pieces in their portfolios help maintain a couture image for brands,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at Circana.

Because Dior and other houses are intent on keeping these items limited in nature, they can take creative risks. It is a chance to work with an out-of-the-box creative or use ultra-expensive materials. And preserving brand image is something that luxury lines are willing to go above and beyond for.

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