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Why Many Y2K Beauty Brands Aren’t Benefiting From the Y2K Trend

Fashion labels like Marc Jacobs have capitalised on the Y2K trend with rebooted brands and products. But beauty brands of the era, like Laura Mercier and Philosophy need more than nostalgia to capture Gen-Z’s attention.
Laura Mercier pressed powder.
Y2K brands like Laura Mercier and Philosophy need more than nostalgia to capture Gen-Z’s attention. (Laura Mercier)
  • Emily Jensen

Michelle Giguere, a New York-based merchandising executive, first bought Philosophy’s Amazing Grace perfume soon after she started her career in retail in the mid-2000s. She discovered it via an older coworker she thought was cool. Amazing Grace became Giguere’s default scent, something she spritzed on without really thinking about it.

She wasn’t the only one. Beginning in the late 1990s through the 2000s, Philosophy’s offerings, which centred on simple skin care with feel-good names like “Hope in a Jar” and “Purity,” had prime real estate at the front of Sephora stores. For many young beauty shoppers, the brand was one of their first “prestige” beauty purchases.

But on a trip to Sephora last year, Giguere discovered Amazing Grace was nowhere to be found. The brand exited the retailer in 2021, Sephora confirmed. Today, the line can be found in Ulta Beauty and QVC. Coty, Philosophy’s parent company, did not respond to requests for comment.

Philosophy’s trajectory is normal for a nearly 30-year-old brand whose heyday was in the early 2000s. Except the trend of the moment is to revive all things aughts: frosted blue eyeshadow, glossy nude lips and Lizzie McGuire-style crimped hair and butterfly clips have found a new generation on TikTok.

And yet, many of the brands that defined the era’s most iconic looks have struggled to regain their former place in shoppers’ hearts. Stila, Laura Mercier and BareMinerals, for instance, haven’t seen much of a TikTok bump. Some haven’t tried to ride the Y2K wave at all. Philosophy is more focused on modernising its image with products containing Vitamin C and hyaluronic acid.

There are some exceptions — NYX, which was founded in 1999 and never really went away, hosted a Y2K-themed influencer event in March that looked a lot like MTV Spring Break. Gen-Z creators like Mikayla Nogueira wore early 2000s fashion like light wash, flared denim and ruffled mini skirts. The brand’s white pencil eyeliner, first popular in the aughts, has had a big comeback, thanks to influencers like Alix Earle. Clinique has also found favour with Gen-Z, when its Black Honey Almost Lipstick, first introduced in 1971 and a beauty go-to throughout the 1990s and 2000s, went viral on TikTok in 2021.

But beauty doesn’t have the equivalent of a Marc Jacobs or Diesel, which have seen both a creative and commercial resurgence fuelled in part by Y2K-obsessed Gen-Zers.

Engaging with beauty’s rapid-fire trend cycle risks undoing long-term efforts to revive a brand. It’s also not without risk — by the time these companies get a Y2K-themed product to market, TikTok may have already moved on.

“I think they’re worried that it’s just a moment and it’s not going to stick,” said Jeanine Lobell, founder of new direct-to-consumer Gen-Z line Neen and Stila, which she sold to The Estée Lauder Companies in 1999.

Greater Expectations

When it comes to Y2K, Gen-Z wants the look, but they don’t want the mess that comes with it.

Beauty writer Sable Yong recalls an aughts-era It girl makeup trick was putting on eyeliner — like a soft Guerlain Terracotta Kohl liner, now discontinued and available on eBay — then washing it off in the shower before going out.

“It really was part of the lifestyle,” she said. “[We] basically put it on to destroy it.”

Such a crude or unpolished aesthetic doesn’t necessarily appeal to Gen-Z consumers accustomed to higher performance, as Insider Beauty’s Nico Reyes found when revisiting popular 2000s makeup products.

“In the actual year 2000, [makeup] was much less professional-looking,” said Mario Dedivanovic, makeup artist and founder of Makeup by Mario.

Laura Mercier, a hallmark of the 2000s beauty craze, has had to adjust its portfolio faced with rising competition. Known for its best-selling, no-makeup makeup tinted moisturiser, Laura Mercier launched a talc-free version of its translucent powder in July 2022. In February, it introduced its Real Flawless Foundation, which is shown on the Laura Mercier website with male and hijabi models, putting themselves more directly in line with newer brands that have been built on values of inclusivity and “clean” formulations.

Consumers now demand high quality from the start, said Diane Kim, who was appointed brand president of Laura Mercier in 2022.

“They want high performance. They want skinification; they want the hybrid-colour-meets-skincare,” she said. “They want all those things.”

A Changing Consumer Landscape

Stila, Urban Decay, and Philosophy were catapulted to the forefront of the beauty market by a retail and media ecosystem that no longer exists. Magazine recommendations were key to getting consumers’ attention. And landing space at Sephora or a department store automatically helped a brand stand out because there were fewer competitors.

When Dedivanovic started his career as a fragrance consultant at Sephora’s Flatiron location, shimmery eyeshadows like Stila Kitten and Urban Decay Midnight Cowboy and shiny lip glosses like Lancôme Juicy Tubes dominated the makeup aisles.

“A lot of those brands at Sephora were unknown to the masses,” he said. Dedivanovic’s own line, Makeup By Mario, launched in 2020, is sold exclusively at Sephora. But his brand faces a larger pool of competing makeup brands in addition to more discerning shoppers.

“It’s different [today] because everyone has seen [a product] already a million times before they purchase it. They’re so knowledgeable about what influencers said … who said something bad about it, who said something positive about it,” said Dedivanovic.

Lobell recalls that sales associates were one of the few avenues reaching consumers in the 2000s.

“If you were smart or lucky, you could do a little advertising. You could pray that the beauty editors would write about you, and that was the only path,” she said.

Now, that power lies with consumers.

BareMinerals President Sidi Drissi is working to convert BareMinerals’ older superfans to be part of the social media conversation. He sees platforms like TikTok as a way to introduce new products and reorient consumers with its existing portfolio.

“The big question now is, ‘How do you make this database evolve into a more social media world?’” he said.

BareMinerals’ TikTok is made up almost exclusively of user-led tutorials, both users with fewer than 1,000 followers and established influencers like Ava Lee.

Michelle Lee, former editor-in-chief of Allure and a consultant, argues that more 2000s-era beauty items could have bigger comebacks — if enough shoppers rediscover them.

“Tommy Girl or CK One or Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, all of their fragrances, or Love’s Baby Soft, those are so iconically of that era,” she said. “All it really would take would be the power of social media to bring those fragrances to the spotlight again.”

But it’s harder for the brands themselves to make that happen.

“The best thing that can happen to a makeup brand is that your product goes viral because some content creator used it in a creative way, or the right content creator with millions of followers shouted out your product,” said Yong. “Marketing is so out of your hands these days.”

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