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Cue the warrior women. At the dawn of the new decade, members of the fairer sex are on a power trip, toughening up the way they present themselves to the world and tossing traditional notions of “sexy” into the beauty abyss.
Emerging during the spring 2010 ready-to-wear collections in the U.S. and Europe, this new aesthetic—this of-the-moment spin on femininity—paired a cropped, boyish haircut; sculpted cheeks, and a muddied makeup palette with one of the few bona fide directions in fashion: men’s wear for women. At show after show, “the new sexy” powered down the catwalks in New York, London, Paris and Milan. To wit: Narciso Rodriguez, Ruffian, Christopher Kane, Versace, Givenchy and Dolce & Gabbana were just a few of the houses that put forth this powerful, don’t-mess-with-me vision of bold femininity.
Central to the season’s agenda were the rising runway stars who embody the look, including Tao Okamoto, Ranya Mordanova and this issue’s cover model, Iris Strubegger. [For more on Strubegger, see “Iris in Bloom.”]
These are the models over whom insiders are swooning, and for good reason: Collectively, they’re pushing the parameters of what it means to look confident and sexy, circa 2010. “It’s about strong faces, a sense of power,” says salon owner Sally Hershberger. “It’s a powerful look.”
Not merely an androgyny redux, the new sexy is a brilliant mash-up of boyishness and glamour. According to beauty gurus, it owes much to legendary women who aren’t afraid to pair a swipe of crimson lipstick with a tuxedo and a crisp white shirt. Makeup superstar Dick Page rattles off a tidy list of inspirations, from Coco Chanel, Lauren Hutton and Isabella Rossellini to Brit ubergallerist Sadie Coles. “She has a little boy’s haircut,” Page says of Coles, “and a chic way of dressing—a simple suit, nice blouse, a good loafer. It’s a bit Jil Sander–y, in a sense. She’s incredibly smart and very, very chic.”
In Page’s opinion, Strubegger and company recall the Nineties, when minimalist fashion ruled and artifice was roundly shunned. “These new girls who have this toughness—or at least this kind of apparent toughness—hark back to what I always think of as that Peter Lindbergh/Helmut Lang stable: Tatjana Patitz, Cordula Reyer, Lynn Koester,” he says. “Those were women who looked like they could really f–k you up.”
To make room for spring’s tougher beauty gestalt, obviously something had to go. And for the moment, it seems lush curls, pink lips and cheeks and any outward vestiges of girliness just aren’t cutting it as a way to soldier through a world rife with economic collapse, terrorism, climate change and all that other worrisome stuff.
“Through tough times, women are asserting their strength by ditching pretty pastels and girly hair,” says Linda Cantello, who notes that Giorgio Armani, for whom she now serves as international makeup artist, has long celebrated strong, confident women. “Wearing red lips and having short hair is the new cool,” Cantello says, “a badge of confidence in unsettling times.”
For Guido Palau, Redken creative consultant and the stylist who created the looks at Calvin Klein, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin and Balenciaga, among many others for spring, the shift to shorter hair was both inevitable and a refreshing change. “For so long, we’ve seen long hair,” he says. “It was only a matter of time before someone decided to cut all their hair off in rebellion. And it’s these kinds of rebellions that can seem quite liberating.”
Of course, not every model is chopping her hair off. (At least not yet.) So to that end, slick, scraped-back styles ruled on spring runways. At 3.1 Phillip Lim, for instance, coifs were clipped, rather charmingly, with barrettes. At Celine, sleek buns set the stage for sharp cheekbones, carved with neutral blush. For Versace, boyishness played out in a round of rockabilly, Elvis-esque pompadours. And when hair was left loose, as it was at Burberry, that undone vibe—manifested in the soft pink lips and those sculpted cheeks again, too—telegraphed a strong, “I’m too busy to endlessly fuss” message.
Although it bucked the men’s wear trend in favor of graceful, apocalyptic tatters, Rodarte came down squarely on the side of powerful women with its stunningspring show. According to Laura Mulleavy, who designs the line alongside her sister, Kate, the beauty look was informed by the haunting, end-of-days story the duo was weaving with the clothes: “There’s a girl who’s lost in the desert, and the only place she can find for refuge is this abandoned house. And all that’s in it is tattered wallpaper and a worn-out quilt—anything that would actually be a material that she’d put her clothing together out of. So it was all ragged and ruined. And then she crawls into a cave, spontaneously combusts and becomes a California condor.”
As anyone in fashion will tell you, you had to be there. Literally. Courtside seating at Rodarte is one of the hottest tickets in town. Where else would you see such an unlikely beauty icon—a hideous bird that’s on the verge of extinction—be translated by hairstylist Odile Gilbert and makeup artist James Kaliardos into some of the most compelling beauty looks of the entire season? Think locks scraped off the face and shrouded in wool, warrior-esque tribal art snaking around bare arms and tough-as-nails black cherry lips.
“For the lips, James and Kate and I always envisioned an East L.A. girl—someone who has a slightly tougher attitude toward everything,” Mulleavy notes. “When you’re creating a show, you have to think about beauty as a way to take people to new places. That’s the really exciting thing about even the lipstick tone you choose. It really lets people believe something.”
If looking tough—via either Rodarte’s shredded tunics and tribal tattoos or a razor-sharp Dolce suit, slicked hair and bright lips—serves as visual shorthand for female confidence, economic independence can help women move the needle from aspiration to reality. Whether borne of fiscal necessity or genuine career lust, women are staking their claim on the job market in record numbers. According to recent stats from The Economist, females now account for more than half of the global workforce—a fact the magazine hails as “one of the most remarkable revolutions of the past 50 years.”
In the ramp-up to this seismic shift, traditional societal roles have gradually flip-flopped. “One very strong movement of recent years is the feminization of men and the masculinization of women,” says Choong W. Park, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and an expert on consumer behavior. “We used to think that men needed to be very strong, but now society is more appreciative of their soft and sensitive side. Now that women are competing with men for jobs, we tend to admire those who are more independent and very active.”
While it’s ostensibly easier for women to latch on to male trappings (i.e., any of the chic men’s wear looks served up for spring) than vice versa, Park points to the co-opting of facials, plastic surgery and earrings by men as support for his theory that we’re drifting toward a type of nebulous gender neutrality. “Androgyny is the tidal wave of the future,” he says. “I don’t think this is a fad. It’s a sustainable movement.”
Page is in full agreement that the new sexy is here to stay. Not every woman will embrace a shift away from overt girliness, he says, but plenty will. “If you’re a woman who enjoys all the stuff—all the bits and bobs, the lash extensions, the nails—you’re not going to give that up,” he concedes. “But what this whole new direction suggests to me is simplicity and modernity. And that is incredibly glamorous.”