How makeup gets made in the Internet age.
With expectations for beauty-product performance higher than ever, we discover how the most innovative brands deliver.
it’s almost noon in Berlin, and I’m huddled around a makeup station learning about Spellbinder—M.A.C Cosmetics’ very special new metallic eyeshadow. I’m at the company’s global trends presentation, where the biggest beauty looks of the fall/winter season are presented and the brand’s latest product innovations are unveiled. M.A.C’s most senior makeup artists from around the world have gathered here for the occasion to impart beauty lessons both practical and inspirational: Earlier, I watched makeup pro Loni Baur use paintbrushes to transform fashion photographer Perou into a clown you would not want to run into at night. The experience has been the creative equivalent of a triple espresso. Across from me, Isabelle Rovner, the vice-president of global product development, is explaining that Spellbinder is a loose shadow with a difference. “[The formula] has black ionized pigment, and we have a magnet in there,” she says, pointing to the base of the pot, “so the loose pigment sticks to it. You use it, and then it goes back to its original design.” This has the dual benefit of preventing the product from flying everywhere when used and giving it the otherworldly appearance of a sand dune. I swirl the pad of my index finger in the olive-green shadow, picking up velvety metallic pigment. It temporarily flattens the wavy design and then bounces back into formation. “It’s a magic product,” confirms someone to my left, apropos of the supernatural name. I nod—it’s one of several I’ve already seen that day.
As a beauty editor, I see and try dozens of products every week. My desk is currently home to a rainbow-hued K-beauty brush that offers to volumize my hair by creating “air holes,” a conditioner with the texture of shaving h
cream and the Vesuvius of matte-lipstick piles. To my right, our beauty director has stockpiled products to test, including a serum that repairs skin with a peptide originally found in human plasma. Our health editor was recently fighting for cubicle space for a crate of drinkable collagen. It’s our job to know the entire beauty landscape, but we have a low tolerance for the boring, the uninventive and, notably, the ineffective.
It’s a sentiment increasingly echoed by Millennial consumers, who, says Sandy Silva, a fashion and beauty industry analyst with trend-tracking company NPD Group Canada, are always after the next great beauty product. “There’s a sense of immediacy—a sense of ‘I want it now; I’ll have it now,’” she says of those born between 1981 and 1999. “There used to be parallels with fashion in terms of lead times, from conception to when the product hit the shelves, but now everything is at a rapid pace due to social media.” It’s a demand that beauty incubators—think of these as start-ups that focus on launching innovative new beauty products and brands—are doing their best to fulfill.
“I think [beauty is] the easiest category in which to be innovative,” says Brandon Truaxe, the no-holds-barred founder of three- year- old incubator Deciem. The Toronto-based company was named for the advice Truaxe received to not do 10 things at once. (Deciem is a variation on the Latin word for 10.) It now has that same number of skincare, hair-care and beauty-supplement brands in its portfolio, and there are plans for three more this year. The number of developments in anti-aging technology rival those in computer technology (which is to say, very many), says Truaxe, but the ones used in beauty products can be decades old, making “curation much more difficult than creation today.”
While Truaxe is of the opinion that core innovations should be at the product level, he admits it’s not always newness in that area that spurs cutting-edge developments. Sometimes there’s a gap in the market, like the one that inspired the launch of Deciem’s Hand Chemistry brand, which fuses body products with traditional skincare benefits. “If I took a face cream out of my bag and started putting it on my face, you would assume that it had antiaging benefits,” says Truaxe. “If I grab a hand cream, you would just think it’s a moisturizer because the hand-aging category has largely been ignored.” Thus the creation of the brand’s Intense Youth Complex hand cream, which features a copper-peptide complex that performs better than injections at increasing collagen levels in skin and is a bestseller internationally.
Caption At incubators, products are often released on an accelerated timeline. “Speed is certainly a facet of the process that we use,” explains Laura Nelson, co-founder of Seed Beauty, the two-year-old incubator that is home to ColourPop and Kylie Cosmetics. They are conscious of muda, says Nelson, which is a Japanese term for waste—an example being “the time [wasted] waiting for things to happen.” One way Seed combats this is by housing all of its resources, from the marketing team to the lab, under the same roof. “Then, through social networks, we can virtually bring our consumers in here as well,” she adds.
Consider ColourPop Cosmetics’ Churro highlighter, which went from idea to consumer in two days this past June. On social media, customers were asking for tie-dye highlighters, so the company provided them with the option of three different combinations of existing highlighter shades remixed in tie-dye form. Fans voted for their favourite on Snapchat, and they crowdsourced the shade name. It sold out in a minute. The subsequent #becauseofchurro campaign to bring back the limited-edition product inspired memes and thousands of enthusiastic, hyperbolic comments such as “#because ofchurro I’ll be able to reflect the world’s negativities off my highlight and bounce them back into haters’ souls.”
Getting products out quickly means capitalizing on trends when they’re still fresh, but being ahead of the trends isn’t always an advantage. As senior vicepresident and creative director for M.A.C Cosmetics, James Gager oversees special collections and collaborations. (This year alone, these have included Ariana Grande, designers Charlotte Olympia, Chris Chang and Zac Posen and Trolls—yes, like the dolls—to name a few. A collection inspired by Selena, the beloved Latina singer who died more than two decades ago, launches in October.) It’s Gager’s job to be aware of what’s up-and-coming in the cultural zeitgeist. Sometimes, he says, being the first to spot a trend really works. In 2015, when M.A.C was set to launch its collection with Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, Rihanna showed up at the Met Gala in one of her designs. “It was a total coincidence. We didn’t know Rihanna was going to wear it,” says Gager. “But maybe it’s no surprise: When you’re in touch with what’s going on, you’re not the only one, and that’s a good thing because at least you get substantiated somewhere and it can become a bigger trend.” Other times, says Gager, “we [look] back on a collection and say ‘We were a little too early on that one’ and somebody else did it better because the timing was maybe more relevant or the audience was more ready.”
M.A.C Cosmetics is the original beauty incubator—and has been ever since founders Frank Toskan and Frank h
“There’s a sense of immediacy— a sense of ‘I want it now; I’ll have it now.’”
Angelo set up a counter in Hudson’s Bay in Toronto 32 years ago with the declaration that their products would be for “all ages, all races, all sexes.” This meant shades of foundation for people darker than “tan,” putting African-American drag queen RuPaul in advertisements and donating 100 percent of the price of Viva Glam products to combat HIV/AIDS. (This was at a time when some people, recalls Gordon Espinet, senior vice-president of makeup artistry, were of the opinion that “[the disease] doesn’t even affect women.”)
At M.A.C, newness can also be trend focused—colours and finishes, for instance—or a product innovation, like the ionized Spellbinder eyshadows that Rovner tells me M.A.C is the first to bring to market. All new products, from lipsticks to eyeliners, are tested by the company’s extensive network of makeup artists. “When we have the product ready, or almost ready, to go, it goes back to our artists,” says Rovner. “We ask different regions—North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America—‘How do you feel about this product?’ If our artists don’t like the product, we will not launch it.”
One example of a product that was reworked after artist feedback is Vamplify lipgloss, says Juliet Falchi, director of global product development. Artists reported that the product was bleeding, so the formula was adjusted to be more jellified and the applicator was changed. “We had been using a simple doe-foot applicator,” says Falchi, “and we gave it to [our artists] and asked: ‘How can we optimize this? What’s the best delivery system?’ We worked with them to develop this pointy-leaf-shaped applicator. It has a well in the centre that loads the product so you really get a precise application.”
Cristina Carlino, founder of Philosophy skincare, gave products names like Hope in a Jar long before everyone was toting bags reminding them to breathe deeply and sweat every day. Now, as founder of BIG Beauty (the “BIG” stands for Beauty Incubator Group), she consults with growing brands at a time when “everything matters.” “It can’t just be one thing that’s great about the brand. It’s got to be everything,” she says, from the formulation of the product to the packaging to the company values.
“The barriers to information and [product] reviews are gone,” says Nelson. “You have this amazing free flow of information that’s immediate and unfiltered happening out there. The consumer is becoming more educated; they have more and more access to different points of view.”
While our standards for beauty products—richly pigmented shades, packaging that makes our lives easier, skincare that does what it says it will—are unlikely to waver, the voracious “I want it five minutes ago” appetite won’t last forever, says Silva. Carlino agrees: “When there are too many choices, people like simplicity.” Silva predicts that we’ll see a return to natural products that take time to cultivate. “You’ll end up seeing this kind of climax,” she says. “[It] can only go so fast, until you can’t go any faster.” n