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NEW YORK, United States — Walk into a Sephora, and you’re almost guaranteed to see a display of Fenty Beauty foundation or Pat McGrath Labs’ eyeshadow palettes, two black-owned brands that are among the global beauty retailer’s best sellers.
Head further into the store, however, and finding products made by black-owned companies is much harder.
“There is Pat [McGrath] and Fenty — and that’s about it,” said Jihan Forbes, a beauty editor at Allure. “There are so many black-owned makeup brands that the girls are going to purchase if you give them shelf space in Sephora. … Where are these brands?”
In the beauty industry, good placement on shelves and in displays at Sephora, Ulta Beauty and a handful of other retailers can make or break a brand. Many, like Forbes, have long argued that black-owned brands haven’t had the same access to that prime real estate — or even been stocked at major retailers at all — unless they happen to have been started by a celebrity or world-famous makeup artist. (Fenty was developed by LVMH’s beauty incubator, Kendo Holdings, and is sold exclusively at Sephora in North America. Rihanna is the founder and minority owner.) This disparity has gotten more scrutiny in recent weeks, as mass protests against racism and police brutality have spread to dozens of cities.
On Wednesday, Sephora announced it would sign onto the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign started by Aurora James, founder and creative director of Brother Vellies, that urges retailers to dedicate shelf space to black-owned labels.
The LVMH-owned retailer hasn’t said how it will meet the 15 percent target, or what share of products in its hundreds of US stores come from black-owned brands currently.
“Ultimately, this commitment is about more than the prestige products on our shelves, it starts with a long-term plan diversifying our supply chain and building a system that creates a better platform for black-owned brands to grow, while ensuring black voices help shape our industry,” Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, said in an email. “We recognise we can do better.”
Ulta did not respond for comment on whether it plans to join the 15 Percent Pledge. The retailer carries Beauty Bakerie and Juvia’s Place, two popular black-owned makeup ranges.
If this pledge is adopted, these stores could soon offer 50 to 75 black-owned brands, depending on the retailer — significantly more than the current offering. It’s a departure from their traditional offerings, but the brands exist. Earlier this month, influencers, publications and editors started to call attention to these companies, publishing lists containing hundreds of black-owned beauty brands. Julee Wilson, beauty director at Cosmopolitan and former global beauty director at Essence, compiled “125 Best Black-Owned Beauty Brands to Support Right Freakin’ Now...and Always!” and Stephanie Saltzman, Fashionista’s beauty director, created a database of more than 350 black owned beauty brands.
There are so many black-owned makeup brands that the girls are going to purchase if you give them shelf space in Sephora.
These directories highlight lines that already have a retail presence, such as Beauty Bakerie, to Raynell “Supa Cent” Steward’s The Crayon Case, a multi-million dollar direct to consumer makeup range.
Though there are lines created with black women in mind, the “overwhelming majority” of black-owned brands are designed for everyone, said Wilson.
“Just because it’s black-owned doesn’t mean it’s for black people,” she said.
Briogeo’s hair oils, for example, work for fine, thin hair and thicker, coily hair, depending on how it’s applied.
Nancy Twine, the brand’s founder, who is black, said Sephora picked up her products in 2014 as part of an earlier effort by the retailer to carry brands with more diverse founders.
“Being clean and having cool, differentiated packaging isn’t why we got into Sephora,” said Twine. “We allowed [Sephora] to be the first [to stock a] haircare brand that would appeal and serve such a diverse community of not only hair texture types, but ethnicities.”
She said she was surprised to learn that many people didn’t realise Briogeo was black-owned. Twine has made herself “more present” on social media, Instagram specifically, the past two weeks.
Twine said she is aiming for the whole market and not just a slice. Her brand features all types of people and hair in content and imagery, and communicates through online video and via in-store associates how a single product can be used by a “spectrum of hair types.”
Often, black-owned brands are grouped together, such as in sections dedicated to textured hair.
“It still seems a little segregated,” Forbes said. “You have your OGX and certain parts of the Pantene line, and [then it’s like], ‘Now we’re going to section off the Mielle Organics and Shea Moisture.’”
Under pressure, retailers are going public about their efforts to increase the amount of black-owned brands.
Sephora has pledged to add more black-owned brands at a time when the beauty retail landscape is changing rapidly. Online sales have soared during the pandemic, and though Sephora and Ulta have reopened some locations, they aren’t able to offer the same “try before you buy” proposition that once powered the brick-and-mortar shopping experience.
Just because it’s black-owned doesn’t mean it’s for black people.
Some analysts say the shift toward e-commerce will benefit black-owned brands, which won’t need to rely on gatekeepers at Sephora or Ulta to get their products in front of customers.
“Retail is going to be a bloodbath for beauty over the next one-and-a-half years,” said Sharon Chuter, founder and chief executive of Uoma Beauty, a makeup range sold at Ulta and Selfridges. “What was part of a victimisation is now turning into an advantage. For all the black businesses that have been homegrown now, just go hard [online].”
Chuter recently started the Pull Up For Change campaign, which urges beauty companies to share what percentage of their employees are people of colour and black.
One reason black-owned brands don’t get picked up is that the people doing the picking are not diverse. Sephora revealed that six percent of US leadership are black. The retailer didn’t break down how many black staffers hold executive level positions within corporate headquarters, as opposed to stores or warehouses.
"We agree that being transparent about our workforce is a necessary step forward,” read Sephora’s Instagram post, which listed plans to broaden the recruitment of black employees and elevate them to leadership roles.
The Crayon Case’s Steward may not even need Sephora. The founder has proven she can sell eyeshadow palettes that look like old-school Crayola crayon boxes, as well as other school-supply inspired items that are riffs on notebooks and highlighters — all without the support of a retail partner.
“Sure, it would be nice to be seen by these big, mega beauty stores,” said Cosmopolitan’s Wilson. “But at the same time, you can make millions of dollars just within our community and without that amplification.”
On several occasions, The Crayon Case has done $1 million or more in sales in an hour, including a “Taxmas” sale in March of 2019 and Cyber Monday last year.
Chuter’s advice to black founders: focus on building your own e-commerce site and direct business instead of vying for subpar store placement.
E-commerce isn’t a level playing field, she added. Big brands with enormous marketing budgets still have the advantage.
But even if an emerging label catches the attention of a leading retailer, being picked up is only the beginning.
Small brands aren’t always equipped to enter hundreds of stores, or have the cash to order higher volumes of product and provide samples and in-store merchandising. Chuter said going into Ulta last spring cost her $800,000.
She pointed out that once a founder of a smaller line gets in the door, they have to show there is demand and that they can sell. Even if a founder “makes a name,” she said, it’s hard to compete with the promotion and placement of “big” brands at the front of the store, which only helps to make big brands bigger.
“How many black owned brands are in all stores?” Chuter asked.
THIS WEEK IN BEAUTY
Black-owned brands, makeup artists, hairstylists and influencers to follow. As beauty industry players come under increased scrutiny for failing to diversify their organisations and amplify the voices of black people within the industry, publications are sharing information about black writers, editors, brand founders, stylists that consumers can support.
Estée Lauder promises to hire more black employees. The cosmetics company also pledged to donate $10 million over three years to the NAACP, a move that comes after employees spoke out against board member Ronald Lauder’s support of Donald Trump.
Sephora agrees to stock more black-owned brands. The beauty retailer has signed Creative Director Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on major retailers to dedicate more shelf space to black-owned brands, and is also putting aside $1 million to support black designers through other avenues.
Walmart to stop locking up black beauty products behind protective glass. The policy, which meant black personal care products featured additional anti-theft measures in certain stores, has seen renewed attention after a racial discrimination lawsuit against the practice was dropped last year.
Ulta rethinks its brick-and-mortar strategy. The beauty giant’s plans to close, remodel or move its 1,254 stores has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s Chief Financial Officer Scott Settersten said it may shutter some of its physical sites in the coming months, while also potentially benefiting from the decline in retail spending by securing lower lease rates.
The beauty industry is under fire for its lack of transparency. The Pull Up For Change campaign on social media, which encourages brands to make public the number of its black employees at corporate and executive levels, resulted in several brands coming forward. Meanwhile Instagram account Estée Laundry posted messages from employees disputing the data provided by brands like Anastasia Beverly Hills and Estée Lauder Companies.
Influencers cause outrage after posting images in blackface. Several influencers decided to post images of themselves in blackface on social media claiming to do so in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Socio-political activist and satirist Saint Hoax took to Instagram to condemn these racist posts as well as providing information about the history of blackface.
Beauty retailers in New York are slowly reopening. After months of lockdown, New York entered phase 1 of its reopening on June 8 and many beauty companies have slowly initiated plans to resume operations by offering curbside pickups for orders placed online.
The pandemic is accelerating much needed change, says former Sephora CEO. Howard Meitiner, who was president and chief executive of Sephora in 1998, says retailers are realising they need to adapt and find new ways of helping customers make purchases. He predicts the relationship between landlords and retailers will change because companies will start using data to assess the level of sales required to ensure a physical retail site pays off.