Design is a series of creative choices. It’s editing and adding, it’s a dialogue, it’s a collaborative effort,” says Marc Jacobs.
It’s a late Thursday afternoon in May, and Jacobs is talking about his creative ideation process with around 90 beauty editors, who sit captivated in little gilt chairs in a room where the black-and-white geometrically patterned marble floors bear a striking resemblance to the designer’s spring collection. They’re gathered here for the unveiling of Jacobs’ color cosmetics collection, a 120-stock- keeping-unit line which Sephora has developed and will sell exclusively in its stores beginning August 9. “Of course, me, I’m in a director role,” Jacobs goes on, “saying, ‘that works or doesn’t work,’ ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘maybe we can tweak this into that.’ It’s about putting things together. It’s an evolutionary process.”
The editors have just seen the line in its entirety—supershiny black compacts with slightly rounded edges and mirrors inspired by the idea of an infinity pool; nail lacquers in colors ranging from moody to vivid, all named by Jacobs himself; and elliptical blushes stamped to look like faille, a favorite fabric of the designer. Lip glosses in two different finishes reflect his love of texture, Blacquer eye liner his penchant for the blackest black imaginable and unisex products with quirky monikers like Makeout lip balm are a nod to his love of humor. “I wanted to do makeup because I love the entire ritual of getting dressed,” Jacobs continues, who today is wearing a pristine white shirt, black cotton trousers, white leather Adidas sneakers and black-and-white striped socks. “When we create a fashion show, we think of a spirit, a mood. We choose colors, textures, fabrics. We think about the set, the spirit of a girl and we even try to send out a new message. We couldn’t do that without thinking about the hair and the makeup. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts.”
Jacobs isn’t the only designer with makeup on his mind. Alber Elbaz, Michael Kors, Matthew Williamson, Pierre Hardy—each has affixed his name to cosmetics projects that are launching this year, joining the likes of Tom Ford, Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana, all relatively recent entrants to the category. Meanwhile, shoe designer Christian Louboutin signed a joint venture with industry veteran Robin Burns’ Batallure Beauty to enter cosmetics and is reportedly readying a launch for later this year, while P&G is said to be working on a Gucci line to launch in 2014 and Lancôme is collaborating with Jason Wu, the designer who shot to fame after First Lady Michelle Obama wore his gowns to both inaugurations.
“It’s baaaaack,” says John Demsey with a laugh, when asked about the designer cosmetics category. A group president at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. who oversaw the launch of Ford’s line, Demsey is a virtual walking encyclopedia of the modern-day beauty industry. “The last time we saw such an iteration of designer cosmetics was in the Seventies, when you go back to the years of Halston and DVF. From that, we went into the designer as megabrand, which translated itself more into fragrance than the experiential aspects of the cosmetics business,” Demsey says. “Then we went into a strong celebrity dynamic for the last 10 to 15 years, where the aspirational nature of the business was either celebrity or based on authenticity, which begat the growing of the makeup-artist brands,” he continues. “The knowledge of the makeup artists became aspirational, because they know what makes you look best.”
While the makeup-artist brands haven’t lost their cachet, and collectively are the largest-selling group of brands in prestige cosmetics (led by MAC, which Demsey also oversees), it is the designer brands which are outperforming the overall category at the moment, according to The NPD Group. Established French brands like Chanel, Dior and YSL are driving sales, but more recent entries like Giorgio Armani Beauty and Tom Ford are showing strong gains too. “We’ve seen that while it’s been difficult for a designer to break in, those who have become entrenched have become color authorities,” says Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst of NPD. Noting that designer brands represent about 12 percent of prestige color cosmetics sales, Grant says designer brands gained 14 percent in the face category versus an overall market gain of 6 percent in 2012, and 14 percent in the lip category versus an overall gain of 10 percent. “Throughout the market, we continue to see them leading the way and they are also helping to push the premium end of the marketplace,” she says.
Still, as Grant notes, for every hopeful entry into the market, the landscape is littered with those who didn’t make it. Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, Versace and Calvin Klein have all tried to crack the color code in the past, some numerous times, most with scant success, particularly in North America.
The hurdles for a designer to establish a viable presence in the cosmetics department are as high today as they’ve been in the past, point out market experts. “Beauty is a natural extension of a designer’s creativity,” says Luigi Feola, vice president of the luxury pillar of P&G Prestige, who oversees Dolce & Gabbana The Make Up. “The challenge is to link the creative vision with the high level and pace of innovation required. It takes a great deal of investment to make this a reality. You have to get the in-store experience perfect, with the right real estate, packaging, etc., to not only bring customers in to shop, but to leave them with an exceptional experience that they’ve come to expect from a luxury brand.”
“It is very complex and expensive, and you need to be prepared to invest for the long run,” agrees Louis Desazars, the chief executive officer of Nars, which launched a limited-edition collection with cult footwear designer Pierre Hardy this spring. “Space in department stores is very scarce and it’s difficult to survive for the long term if you don’t have a real point of difference. The problem with lots of brands that we’ve seen come and go is that they didn’t have a point of difference versus what exists today.”
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