‘Make-up madness, like movie madness, was here to stay.’
Make-up saved Max Factor’s life. At the time, he was still Maximilian Faktorowicz, cosmetician and make-up artist to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera and the court of Czar Nicholas II. He was, writes Fred E Basten in his (2008) book Max Factor: The man who changed the faces of the world, ‘forever on call, at the whim of the court favourites who wanted him to attend to their beautification, to create a new hairstyle, or to correct cosmetic problems, so that their eyes might sparkle, cheeks glow and hair gleam when the Czar of all Russia looked on them’.
But Max was under surveillance in another way, too. As a Jew, he was considered an interloper, constantly watched by the Czar’s secret police. He had witnessed the passing of anti-Semitic laws, and was aware of riots and pogroms in the Pale of Settlement. In strict contravention of the rules of court, he had married in secret and fathered three children. ‘I was a slave,’ he said. ‘All I wanted was to be free.’
Typically of the beauty pioneers, it is impossible to separate embellishment from reality in the early life of Max Factor. But here the story is so ravishing, so full of detail and incident, that one wants to believe. Max had a friend at court – an important general, perhaps a little vain, whom the cosmetician had aided with a tip or two. This man – his hair blacker than it might otherwise have been, his beard more trim and dashing – helped Max to escape. He put it around court that the cosmetician looked ill. A physician was duly dispatched. He found an ailing Max in bed, his skin the yellowish hue of old parchment. Pronouncing jaundice, the doctor recommended a cure of 90 days at Carlsbad, a Bohemian spa.
The jaundice was faked: the sickly skin an undetectable cosmetic preparation.
The guards left Max at Carlsbad railway station. Shortly afterwards, he reunited with his family. They slipped into the forest around the ancient spa town and headed for the coast – and a ship to the United States. It was February 1904.
The Czar’s beautician
Max Factor does not seem to have been seduced by glamour. Rather, he created it. He was born in 1877 in Lodz, Poland, and if he had any schooling he never spoke of it. When we meet him as a small boy, he is selling fruit and bonbons in the lobby of the Czarina Theatre, his ‘introduction to the world of make-believe’. Soon after that, we find him working as an assistant at a local apothecary. At the age of nine, he is apprenticed to a leading wigmaker and cosmetician. He has talent, and rises quickly: he works with Anton of Berlin, a hairstylist and creator of cosmetics; he travels to Moscow to work under Korpo, wigmaker and cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera. By the age of 18, when most of us are still dithering about a direction, Max is skilled in the arts of wig-making and, crucially, stage make-up.
There was no other kind. It was a period of history when face paint was distinctly unfashionable; in fact, it was considered wicked. The ravages caused by lead-based whitening products and other toxic powders that were widely used before the 19th century had led to a demonization of cosmetics. Ordinary women might apply creams to soften their skin, a subtle blush of rouge, perhaps even a dab of lip pomade. Anything more daring was for actresses and their semi-equivalents, prostitutes.
After obligatory military service, Max almost escaped the gravitational pull of the imperial court. He opened his own boutique on the outskirts of Moscow: wigs, rouge and creams of his own making. But news of his talent spread. A theatrical troupe engaged by the imperial family became his largest client. Soon, he was back at the imperial opera, leaving his store in the hands of an assistant, under orders to return only once or twice a week to gather make-up supplies. It is astonishing that he found time to meet and clandestinely court Lizzie, the woman who became his wife.
There is a picture of the Faktorowicz family in Basten’s book: three serious young children in matching smocks, Lizzie dark-eyed, her hair pulled back, big hoop earrings giving her a gypsy exoticism but otherwise serious, pale, distinctly unmade up. Max sits beside her, slim and dapper in his sombre suit and wing collar, his wavy black locks brushed back with brilliantine, lustrous and just at the edge of rebelling. His moustache curls jauntily: appearances matter. The picture was taken in 1904, only weeks before they fled to America.
They arrived in New York aboard the Molka III. They were not in steerage, or even in third class: Max’s slavery had come with gilded chains, and his family was among the more well off on the vessel. They did not see Ellis Island, but passed through immigration on the pier, where the customs official inevitably barbered the family name. From then on, the make-up artist was known as Max Factor.
He hated New York from the first: too rushed, too aggressive. Stopping a man on the street, he asked ‘if there was any place in America without so many people, and not going someplace so quick’.
Max himself was going places fast – but not to a language school. He posed his question in Polish. He would never learn to speak English properly: one imagines him with an amiable, movie immigrant patter, like Carl the head waiter from Casablanca.
Faintly comic though his accent may have been, Max Factor was a sharply intelligent entrepreneur. On the ship, he’d convinced a young man who spoke English to help him set up a stall at the forthcoming St Louis World’s Fair. This enabled him to test his preparations on the US public: ‘cosmetics, perfumes, combs and hair products created by the former beautician to Russia’s royal family’. The pitch was sound, the seven-month engagement a success. Max stayed in St Louis to open a barber’s shop; make-up was not used widely enough to sustain a business, but everyone needed a haircut from time to time.
Tragedy nudged him towards Hollywood. Lizzie died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage on 17 March 1906. In August that year, desperate to find somebody to help him look after his children – there were now five of them – he married a Russian girl, the daughter of a friend. It was a disaster; they were neither in love nor compatible, and divorced within two years. A helpful neighbour, Jennie Cook, offered to mind the children. She became Max’s third wife on 21 January 1908.
At around this time, customers in the barber’s shop began talking of a new form of entertainment: ‘photoplays’ – moving pictures, the same nickelodeons that entranced Florence Nightingale Graham, the future Elizabeth Arden. Max paid his nickel and was enchanted too. But, unlike Arden, he did not wish to enter the dream world of movies. He scrutinized the badly applied make-up, the unconvincing wigs, the laughably false beards – and realized that he could work for them.
Making up the movies
The popularization of make-up in the 20th century was directly linked to the development of cinema and its alluring stars. Max Factor was at the leading edge of this evolution. The word ‘visionary’ is entirely appropriate: Max was always one step ahead, constantly innovating, unafraid to take risks. His biggest gamble was also his smartest: he opened his first store at 1204 South Central Avenue in Los Angeles on 11 October 1908. In January the following year, Max Factor & Company was officially founded.
The store stocked theatre ‘greasepaint’ by brands such as Leichner and Minor, alongside Max’s own powders, creams and pomades. In his spare time he visited the makeshift movie sets where directors like DW Griffith were forging a new industry. The actors generally used stage make-up, which looked heavy and fake on screen. Writes Basten: ‘Stage make-up had to be applied one-eighth of an inch thick, then powdered. When it dried it formed a stiff mask and often cracked, which wasn’t a problem in the theatre where audiences were seated far away from the performers, but onscreen, especially in close-ups, it didn’t work.’
Some actors were experimenting with their own flesh-coloured concoctions, like ground brick dust mixed with Vaseline. Max gently urged them to drop by his store: his powders were far more comfortable. In the meantime he set up a laboratory out back, where he worked on adapting stage make-up for the screen. As his store became busier, he found himself in demand for his wig-making skills too: he kitted out dozens of Indian braves for Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man, the first feature-length movie ever made in Hollywood.
The year the movie was released, 1914, Max perfected his ‘flexible greasepaint’. This came as a cream in jars, rather than in the old stick form, and was far thinner and easier to apply. It was available in twelve different shades designed to mimic the skin tone of the wearer. Max was already well known thanks to his work with Griffith and DeMille – now stars like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle visited his store personally to buy their make-up; many of them also asked him to apply it. For the remainder of his Hollywood career, Max would ensure that his boutiques were equipped with dressing rooms for the stars.
Max Factor & Company expanded as Hollywood grew from a bucolic suburb into the hub of the movie industry. The business moved into larger premises in the Pantages Building in downtown Los Angeles. Max created false eyelashes out of human hair for the actress Phyllis Haver; this started a trend among young women. In 1918 he launched a revised version of his ‘flexible greasepaint’, which he called the Color Harmony line: he believed that make-up should complement not only skin tone, but also hair and eye colour.
He used dark eye shadow to give Gloria Swanson a languidly sexy gaze, turned her frizzy hairstyle into the sleek cut of a femme fatale – and made her career. Rudolph Valentino may also have owed his stardom to Max, who trimmed the Italian actor’s eyebrows, slicked back his hair and subtly lightened his complexion. In the 1920s, Max began using the theatre insiders’ term ‘make-up’ instead of cosmetics in his promotional material, helping the phrase towards wider adoption.
Stung by the cold reception he received at Leichner when he visited the greasepaint manufacturer’s headquarters in Germany on a rare vacation – he was kept waiting in reception for an hour – he cut his ties with the company and began marketing his own brand aggressively. Max Factor began selling greasepaint in collapsible tubes in 1922: this time it came in 31 different shades, including ‘white, very light pink, sallow, sunburn, dark brown and black’. Visitors to Hollywood began to notice that actresses were still wearing make-up after the day’s filming. The seductive ‘bee-stung lips’ of actresses like Clara Bow were particularly desirable. They were the simple result of a technique Max had developed to rapidly apply lip pomade, before the invention of the lipstick tube. ‘[H]e dipped his thumb into the pomade and pressed two thumbprints onto the upper lip. Then he turned his thumb upside down and pressed another thumbprint on to the centre of the lower lip. Finally, he used a brush to contour the lip.’
In polite society, the resistance to make-up began to break down. Fred Basten writes: ‘As more and more women sat in darkened theatres thinking Clara Bow’s bee-stung lips and Theda Bara’s daring rouge and shocking mascara looked irresistible, they began testing the limits of old-fashioned respectability. Worse, the immoral word “make-up” had replaced the more refined and acceptable “cosmetics”… Make-up madness, like movie madness, was here to stay.’
Hollywood inevitably had an impact on hairstyles too. Max understood that the luminescence of the silver screen was particularly flattering to blonde hair. After he dyed Jean Harlow’s hair an almost white – ‘platinum’ – blonde, the look became more desirable than it had been since women struggled to bleach their locks in Renaissance Italy.
He adapted to every change the movie industry threw at him. When talking pictures required a new kind of lighting – silent tungsten lamps rather than juddering carbon arc lights – he perfected make-up suited to the softer illumination and the more sensitive panchromatic film that went with it. In 1928, his giant new establishment near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue opened.
Up to this point, Max Factor & Company had never done any advertising. Instead, make-up demonstrations were held in the foyers of cinemas: ‘Try Max Factor’s famous cosmetics of the stars and see how lovely you really can look.’ The products inevitably sold out.
Now the company teamed with a sales and distribution operation called Sales Builders, which suggested that national advertising was required. Max Factor & Company struck a celebrity endorsement deal with the studios. It would use the leading ladies of the silver screen in its advertising in return for promoting their latest films. The cost of this arrangement to Max Factor, according to Fred Basten, was one dollar per actress. The grateful stars – all of them genuine users of Max’s product – included Mary Astor, Lucille Ball, Madeleine Carroll, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Myrna Loy, Ida Lupino, Merle Oberon, Maureen O’Hara, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner… the list was endless. ‘By the 1950s virtually every major actress and aspiring starlet had signed on to be a Max Factor Girl.’
Meanwhile, Max had unexpected competition on his hands in the form of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, who had made their names in skincare but were now tentatively exploring the territory of make-up. However, their elitist impulses made them wary of a world that, for them, was still tainted with vulgarity. This put them at a disadvantage. As Basten puts it, they ‘asked famous society women to endorse their products in advertising, but most women in America were more interested in looking like Greta Garbo than Mrs Vanderbilt’.
Arden, who had the same relationship with cinema that many people have with chocolate, made a bold incursion into Hollywood in 1935, creating a division called Stage and Screen. She was, writes Lindy Woodhead, ‘seemingly oblivious that Max Factor was the übermeister in the field’. Indeed, she launched just as Max opened his revamped premises, a US$600,000 Art Deco beauty palace inaugurated with the kind of glittering party that only Hollywood can throw. Searchlights panned the sky and flashbulbs popped as celebrities waved their way down the red carpet before a baying press pack. Inside, ribbons on each dressing room were cut by four movie stars: Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Rochelle Hudson.
In addition to being entirely overshadowed by Max, Arden had distribution problems: stores did not want to make space on their shelves for the Stage and Screen line next to her existing, more premium products. The project was ‘ill thought-out, costly, and quietly folded’. Both Arden and Rubinstein remained in their ethereal, luxurious space, leaving the glitzy world of the entertainment industry to others.
With the field clear once again, Max and his sons – Frank and Davis, already closely involved with the business – began to address the latest evolution in the history of cinema. Technicolor had arrived, bringing with it a whole new set of make-up challenges. The solution was a range of makeup named ‘Pan-Cake’, after its flat containers and cake-like consistency. The tints were even subtler and more flattering than before. When it was used during screen tests for the film Vogues of 1938, extras ran off with US$2,000 worth of product in just one week. Even before the film was completed, Pan-Cake was used in another: The Goldwyn Follies. And this time there was a screen credit: ‘Color Harmony Make-Up by Max Factor’.
The films premiered within months of one another. At the same time, Pan- Cake in a special, lighter formula devised by Frank Factor was released to the general public through stores. It was backed by the brand’s first colour advertising campaign, which sparkled with star names and debuted in Vogue. The result, according to Basten, was ‘the fastest and largest selling single make-up item in the history of cosmetics’. (Elizabeth Arden briefly launched a copycat product called Pat-A-Kake, changed to Pat-A-Crème after a threat of legal action.)
Max Factor’s extraordinary life came to an end with an incident as bizarre as any depicted on screen by the Hollywood he had conquered. He was on his way to Rome to investigate the possibilities offered by the new Cinecitta studio there. Breaking his journey in Paris, he received a note threatening him with death unless he came up with the equivalent of US$200. The extortionist proposed a meeting at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Appropriately, the French police sent a stand-in made up to look like Max, with a false moustache and glasses. Nobody showed, but Max was badly shaken by the incident. Weakened, he returned to America.
He died on 30 August 1938. After all he had lived through, one might imagine that he was in ripe old age. But he was only 61.
Factor after Max
The magazine Glamour (cited by Basten) summed up Max’s contribution to the world of beauty:
If you have ever… tried a powder brush, admired a screen star’s makeup, harmonized your lipstick with your hair colouring, used a lip brush, sent for a mail-order wig or hairpiece, said ‘make-up’ instead of ‘cosmetics’, then your life has been touched by the vital Factor known as Max. For all these things were invented or coined or perfected by Max Factor, who came to symbolize beauty on and off the screen, in this country and a hundred and one others.
Cosmetics would have made their way down from stage and screen without Max, thanks to the sheer hypnotic beauty of the stars and the emancipation of women, who adopted make-up as means of self-expression and a statement of independence. Let’s not forget that Elizabeth Arden saw women from the suffrage movement marching in bright red lipstick. Nevertheless, it’s hard to overestimate the role Max Factor played in making cosmetics not just acceptable, but desirable.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Frank Factor changed his name to Max Jr. Demonstrating a flair for self-publicity, he insured his hands for US$50,000. He set to work devising a new ‘indelible lipstick’, inventing a hand-cranked ‘kissing machine’ that smooched two pairs of moulded rubber lips together to test the staying power of the product. Tru-Color lipstick was launched in 1940.
The behaviour of women during the war was testament to the power of beauty: in London, lipsticks were equipped with flashlights to help women see during the blackout; Max Jr was among those who offered tips to women who were forced to paint on stockings. Like other beauty companies, Max Factor’s expertise was sought to develop effective camouflage. And the men who decorated their barrack rooms and aircraft with pictures of leggy, scarletlipped pin-ups reinforced the idea of Hollywood beauty as a symbol of liberty.
In 1947, Max Factor & Company launched its best-selling Pan-Stik makeup. Even more convenient than its predecessor, it came in lipstick-style tubes. By the 1950s, Max Factor was a global empire, with worldwide distribution and 10,000 employees. It was not left behind by the arrival of television:
Lucille Ball’s immensely popular show I Love Lucy included the line ‘Makeup by Max Factor’. The company was now so powerful that it was able to buy its long-term distributor, Sales Builders. In a pleasing twist to the beauty tale, it acquired a perfume company called Corday. It’s one of those moments when worlds intersect: the brand had been created in Paris by Blanche Arvoy as a more aristocratic version of her playful Jovoy range
In 1959, Max Factor & Company celebrated its 50th birthday with a stream of advertising and press releases, as well as a party that had nothing to envy the Golden Age of Hollywood. Yet this was the start of a bumpy, uncertain era for the brand. In the early 1960s, Max Factor became a public company, with a listing on the New York stock exchange. Cosmetics had become a giant industry – it was no longer run by visionaries with odd Central European accents, but by financiers and marketing professionals. The Factor family slowly withdrew from the company. Max Factor Jr retired in the 1970s, but not before witnessing the enormous success of a range of perfumes in the name of the fashion designer Halston – for a while, its worldwide sales were second only to those of Chanel No. 5. (Max Jr died in 1996.)
In 1973 Max Factor merged with Norton Simon – a strangely diversified company that included Hunt Foods and Avis Car Rental, among others. Thanks to successive mergers and acquisitions it passed into the hands of Esmark, then Beatrice Foods – which merged the brand with its Playtex lingerie division – and then investor Ron Perelman, who since 1985 had been the owner of Revlon.
Finally, in 1991, it was sold to Procter & Gamble. At the time of writing it is in a sort of suspended animation in the United States, available only online via the website Drugstore.com, as P&G prefers to focus on its CoverGirl make-up range. But the Max Factor brand remains well known internationally, where it has a young target market and is positioned as ‘the make-up of make-up artists’.
MAC and company
Max Factor has an unlikely competitor in Great Britain in the form of Rimmel. The brand’s origins are intriguing: it started life in London in 1834 as a perfume house founded by a Frenchman named Eugène Rimmel, whose father had also been in the fragrance business. An enterprising marketer, Rimmel operated from prestigious premises in Regent Street and established an upmarket reputation with lavish illustrated mail order catalogues and advertisements in theatre programmes. He commissioned the French illustrator Jules Chéret – famous for his posters for the Folies Bergère cabaret – to design the labels of his bottles. He even wrote a book about the history of perfumes and had it printed on scented paper. An inquisitive traveller and natural innovator, he is said to have devised one of the first non-toxic mascaras (eye make-up remains a house speciality to this day).
Rimmel’s two sons inherited the business after his death in 1887, and the brand continued to flourish under their leadership before entering a long period of mixed fortunes. After the Second World War, it was resurrected by advertising executive Robert Caplin and his sister Rose. They downplayed the brand’s luxury heritage in a move that anticipated the 1960s democratization of fashion and beauty, launching the first self-selection counter dispenser. It was one of the moments in history when London quite legitimately considered itself the world capital of style: fashion designer Mary Quant popularized the era’s emblematic garment, the mini-skirt, and went on to launch make-up in startling metallic hues.
Rimmel bounced between various owners in the 1970s and 1980s, before ending up in the grasp of Coty in 1996. Just as L’Oréal appropriated the persona of New York City as a brand identity for Maybelline, Coty associated Rimmel closely with the youth, energy and colour of London. ‘With Rimmel, changing your look is as easy as hopping on the London Tube and switching from Soho to Camden, from Portobello to Notting Hill,’ reads its website eagerly. In 2001, Rimmel signed up the ultimate British supermodel, Kate Moss, as its official face. It has since added other names to its roster, but it retains its ‘streetwise’ London-centric image and accessible pricing.
Another brand that might be described as a ‘relative’ of Max Factor is MAC, originally founded in Toronto in 1984 by Frank Toskan and its innovative marketing director, the late Frank Angelo, who died at the age of only 49 in 1997. Two years before the tragedy, they had sold 51 per cent of the business to Estée Lauder. William Lauder told them, ‘The day I understand what you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong’ (‘Cosmetics company soars by making its own rules’, Toronto Star, 5 October 1995).
The pair knew only that they wanted to do things differently to others. Their company was originally called Make-Up Art Cosmetics. Like Max Factor, they aimed for the professional market first.
Born in Trieste, Frank Toskan had arrived in Alberta with his parents at the age of eight, and then wound up in Toronto when they visited a cousin and decided to stay on. After school he started working as a photographer, making up his models too. As is often the case, dissatisfaction drove his desire to start a business. He disliked the narrow range of colours available to him – ‘among other things, many of which didn’t work on non-white skin’ – and which he felt were being foisted on women by beauty companies that were obliged to push ‘this season’s colours’. He hated the glossy finish that reflected too much light in photographs.
He teamed up with Frank Angelo, an entrepreneur who was running a chain of beauty salons. They dreamed of a make-up brand for everyone: ‘All ages, all races, all sexes.’ Their plan was to begin selling ‘to professional makeup artists and models, and then branch out from there’. Toskan recruited a second-year chemistry student who was dating his sister to help him cook up his product. ‘I didn’t have to ask anyone whether it was good enough. We were working in the business. We knew how it looked on the streets, we knew how it looked on a runway.’
Rod Ulmer, of a chain of department stores called Simpson’s, was one of the first to spot the potential of the brand and give the Franks the space they needed to bond with their customers. ‘I knew that this was a new generation of entrepreneur that reads the consumer a lot more accurately than the big corporations,’ he told the Toronto Star, adding that MAC genuinely put service before profits. ‘When you talk about servicing the customer without getting sales – that’s radical.’
Ulmer had to reassure store managers who were sceptical about the look of MAC’s sales staff. These were hardly pristine white-lab-coated ‘beauty consultants’: they dressed in black and often had pierced noses. Ulmer soon found that MAC was outselling established brands. It appealed to a young, hip audience by talking their language. For one thing, it refused to test its products on animals. It was an early proponent of recycling, offering customers a free lipstick if they brought in six empty tubes. Before long, supermodel Linda Evangelista and superstar Madonna were wearing MAC colours, without any endorsement deal or advertising campaign. The Franks did not do any advertising.
Except when they were helping others. Shortly after the brand was founded they launched the MAC AIDS Fund. Part of its income was derived from Christmas cards designed by children with AIDS. But the most significant initiative was the launch of the Viva Glam line of lipsticks and lip glosses, all the proceeds of which go to the fund. One of its early faces was the leggy black transvestite entertainer RuPaul, a choice that underlined MAC’s allembracing attitude to beauty. More recently, Lady Gaga took over. The buzz provided by her immense social media presence – more than 20 million Facebook fans and over 8 million Twitter followers – turbocharged the traditional print advertising to such an extent that Viva Glam raised US$34 million in 2010, equivalent to the total amount raised by the line in its first 10 years (‘The Lady Gaga effect’, Fast Company, 18 February 2011).
MAC took beauty out of sleek but staid salons and made it alternative and fun. Others in the industry began to notice the single-colour pots that allowed users to mix their own preparations, the camera-friendly formulas, the black packaging and the sales staff who looked as though they belonged in a funky downtown tattoo parlour. Estée Lauder was smart enough to snap it up first.
MAC’s close relationship with make-up artists has fused it with the worlds of entertainment and fashion. The MAC Pro program is open to ‘makeup artists, aestheticians, cosmetologists, hairstylists, fashion stylists, nail technicians, costume designers, models, on-air talent/performers, and photographers’. Members receive discounts, access to professional products and invitations to master classes and networking events. MAC also has a team of make-up artists who work backstage at runway shows and movie sets all over the world.
The result is that, when consumers buy MAC products, they feel empowered and creative. It’s as though they are part of the fabulous world of professional make-up artists.
Making up is hard to do
The lipstick was on the wall: after MAC a whole generation of make-up artists became entrepreneurs.
Take Bobbi Brown, who by the early 1990s had worked with photographers like Bruce Weber, Arthur Elgort and – in her breakthrough assignment – Patrick Demarchelier for an American Vogue cover featuring rising young model Naomi Campbell. Like Toskan and Angelo, Brown was dissatisfied with the products on the market, which delivered an overly artificial look. She wanted make-up that looked natural – almost as if the model wasn’t wearing any make-up at all. ‘Make-up was really extreme in the 80s – white skin and red lips and contouring. I loved more of the healthy, natural, simple skin,’ she told Inc magazine (‘How I did it’, 1 November 2007.) ‘I… hated most of the lipsticks on the market. I wanted it to be creamy and not dry, to stay on a long time, to not have any odour at all, and to be colours that look like lips.’
She shared this idea with a chemist, who helped her devise her first lipstick, Brown Lip Color, which was in fact a pinkish brown. Nine other brown shades followed. A chance meeting with a Bergdorf Goodman cosmetics buyer at a dinner party led to the line being sold at the store. It made its debut in 1991, and 100 lipsticks were sold within a day. The range expanded to brighter and bolder colours, as well as foundations, which were yellow-based instead of pink – an innovation. From her work Brown knew that most women – be they black, Asian or Caucasian – had yellow-toned skin. In 1995, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics was acquired by… Estée Lauder, which wanted a stable of hip beauty brands to counterbalance its establishment image. According to Brown, Leonard Lauder told her: ‘We want you because you’re beating us in all the stores… and you remind me of my mother when she started.’
Under Lauder, the brand ramped up its marketing. It shifted its New York headquarters to ‘a cool downtown loft’ and created advertising with more drama and movement than the conventional portraits. Brown said, ‘Our advertising photographs were more editorial, like we were working for a magazine. A regular brand would never do an advertisement with smashed lipsticks. Now you see it all the time. We were one of the first brands to regularly use black models and show them as brides.’ Like MAC, Bobbie Brown acknowledged the wide diversity of ethnicities in the United States. She showed young America a face it recognized.
Another make-up artist who launched his brand in the slipstream of the MAC revolution was François Nars, a Frenchman who’d grown up in the 1970s reading French Vogue and being inspired by the edgy fashion shoots of photographers like Guy Bourdin. He studied at the Carita make-up school in Paris and went on to work for the very fashion magazines he’d so admired, forming a glamorous trio with photographer Steven Meisel and hairstylist Oribe Canales.
Forced to combine different brands to achieve the dramatic looks he wanted, he created a range of nine lipsticks and launched them in 1994 through fashionable department store Barneys. The line quickly grew, jumping off shelves thanks in part to hip, minimalist black packaging designed by Fabien Baron. Nars shot the advertising himself, drawing on techniques he’d learned from Meisel and others. He chose unconventional models – like Alek Wek, a stunning Sudanese-born British girl with an oval face and shorn hair, or Karin Elson, a translucent redhead – and made them look ethereally beautiful: not so much natural as supernatural. Another crucial touch was the provocative nomenclature of the line: shades called Orgasm (a bestselling blush), Deep Throat, Striptease and Sex Machine.
It’s a high-fashion, nightclub kind of brand, but apparently Nars remains in touch with reality. ‘On the runway you sell a fantasy – it’s very theatrical… But when I create the colours in my line, I think about the women who are actually using them,’ he told the website Style.com (‘Beautiful lives: François Nars’).
Shiseido Cosmetics acquired the Nars line in 2000. To celebrate, Nars bought an island in French Polynesia, called Motu Tané. But he held on to creative control of his brand, opening its first stand-alone store in New York in February 2011. Characteristically, the space combines distressed black wood floors with a blazing splash of red lacquer. Summing up the brand, Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan described it as ‘tough chic… memorable, anti-conformist’. He added, ‘François offers women drama and definition with graphic brows, bold colours. He offers them a little idiosyncrasy, self-expression and individuality. Think Frida Kahlo, Ava Gardner or even Simone de Beauvoir!’ (‘François Nars: behind the makeup, a low-profile artist’, New York Times, 9 February 2011).
Cosmetics have been linked with fashion for decades, but what make-up artist brands offer – apart from the stardust of their links with designers, photographers and models – is a promise of professionalism. If the products have been designed for the hectic, artistically demanding environment of the runway, there’s no reason they shouldn’t deliver in everyday life: creativity and efficiency in one slick package.
Never one to miss out on a good story, Chanel also sells the fantasy of the ‘star’ make-up artist. It spends a great deal of time promoting the global creative director of its make-up line, Peter Philips. The Belgian make-up artist graduated from the Antwerp Academy, which is historically linked with avant-garde Belgian designers like Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester. He turned to make-up after a stint helping backstage at the Paris fashion shows. ‘I saw the make-up teams and realised you could make a living out of doing that… I always did my friends’ makeup in the 1980s; they’d ask, “Can you do my eyes?” and I was good at it. So when I realised that in fashion you could also do make-up, I was intrigued’ (‘Peter Philips: Chanel’s golden boy’, Independent, 17 August 2008).
After a successful career working for style magazines and fashion designers, he now collaborates with Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld on the brand’s runway shows and advertising. Philips says he once ‘associated make-up with beauty parlours’, which is exactly the point. Linking cosmetics to the work of make-up artists in a fashion show context ensures that they seem thrilling, dynamic. It justifies seasonal collections and constant renewal, as well as a harmonizing of hair, make-up and clothing that Max Factor would have recognized.
The glamour of the catwalk goes hand in hand with Chanel’s pricing – a Rouge Allure lipstick costs US$32 from its online store – and opulent packaging. One veteran beauty journalist told me:
packaging. One veteran beauty journalist told me: If it’s value for money you’re after, you might as well use a lipstick from [French supermarket chain] Monoprix. When you buy Chanel, you’re paying for the logo engraved into the tip of the lipstick, the gorgeous gold tube, and the mythology of the brand. Nobody can see any of that on your lips, but it makes you feel good to have the object in your handbag.
She adds that lipstick is a recession-proof treat – an affordable luxury, a way of boosting your confidence without breaking a 50.
Of course, MAC is not the only pure beauty brand to align with professional make-up artists. Estée Lauder signed up Tom Pecheux as its creative director in November 2009. Other names include Gucci Westman at Revlon and Aaron de Mey at Lancôme.
Besides lending credibility and cachet to brands and offering makeupapplication tips, these artists often create internal training videos, talk to the press, make appearances and aid in product and packaging development. They generally make it their job to perpetuate the idea that any woman can be a paragon of pulchritude and happiness if she can find the right shade of foundation.
(‘It’s your makeup artist’s autograph that I want’, New York Times, 20 March 2008)
One of the most successful make-up artists in the world is Britain’s Pat McGrath, who rose to fame working with fashion editor Edward Enninful at the influential style magazine i-D in the 1990s. She collaborated with John Galliano on some of his most outrageous catwalk shows and was chosen by Giorgio Armani to create his cosmetics range. McGrath is black, which is important, because she caught the cosmetics bug from her mother: ‘She was always mixing up colours because there wasn’t anything out there for black skin’ (‘The shape of things to come’, Time Style & Design, Spring 2003).
McGrath is global creative director of Max Factor.