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‘It’ Bag Chronicles

Why the beauty industry hasn't really cashed in on fashion's money-making scheme.

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Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 06/15/2007

The idea that a handbag could inspire passion and ignite a buying frenzy became clear in 2003 when Marc Jacobs collaborated with Takashi Murakami to create a line of products decorated with smiley-faced cherry blossoms. Vuitton sold a staggering $345 million worth of the line in its first year, roughly 10 percent of the company’s total revenues. No handbag has come close to achieving the success of the Murakami collection, but other designers have minted bags so popular, they’ve been spotted on celebrities and snapped up by the fashion elite. The name for this phenomenon is the “It” bag, and like the “It” girl—that bright young thing who dazzles high society—the “It” bag’s time in the spotlight is fleeting. “It” bags can sell a hundred thousands units or more, but given consumers’ penchant for the new, they’re doomed to obsolescence.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Still, producing an “It” bag is a fashion house’s dream, and one that the beauty industry has occasionally shared. “The ‘It’ bag equivalent is very relevant to the beauty industry,” says Christine Dagousset, executive vice president of fragrance and beauty for Chanel. “That’s what happened with our Black Satin nail polish last fall. Celebrities loved the product and wore it. The buzz factor is what made it so successful.” Chanel wasn’t entirely caught off guard by Black Satin’s popularity. The company’s earlier Vamp nail lacquer, launched in 1995, developed a huge following. Black Satin’s limited edition status practically guaranteed sell-outs and waiting lists. Its cult status was cemented when the $19 bottles sold on eBay for $120.

“It was a global phenomenon,” Dagousset says. “Human nature is such that you absolutely want something when you can’t get it. We didn’t do that on purpose.”

Black Satin’s rise may have been organic, but can a product be developed with “It” status in mind? “I’m not sure you would necessarily get that success if you tried to orchestrate it,” Dagousset says. “A product can be a hit product without any sign beforehand. You could plan it, but I don’t think that guarantees success.”

Lancôme has found something of a formula for creating in-demand lipsticks. International artistic director Gucci Westman thinks the beauty industry is capable of producing “It” products, but “they’re few and far between. It’s easier to do an ‘It’ handbag because you can really see it on an actress who’s wearing it. It’s hard to see a lip gloss on somebody’s lips and [discern] what brand it is.”

That said, Lancôme’s designer special-edition lipsticks have risen to the occasion. The shade by Behnaz Sarafpour sold on eBay for $103.50 and Proenza Schouler’s lipstick fetched $122.50 on eBay, Westman says. A color by Peter Som is scheduled to bow in the fall.

A sought-after makeup artist who works privately with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, Westman debuts an ‘It’ item each season, which usually sells out, such as Pop Cherub, a silver palette with a small angel charm on it.

Even the fashion industry has no surefire method of producing “It” bags. “We would love it if a formula existed for creating an ‘It’ bag, but unfortunately there is none,” says a Dior spokesman. “At Dior the [phenomenon of the] ‘It’ bag started 10 years ago with the launch of the Lady Dior.” The famous bag is still one of the house’s leading sellers, followed by hits such as the Saddle, the Gaucho, and more recently, My Dior. “An ‘It’ bag is a combination of various factors: a unique alchemy between the creator, the brand’s DNA and the needs of women today. It is also a mix of creativity, functionality and quality. When celebrities start wearing a bag then it’s a good guarantee that it will become an ‘It’ bag.”

Reed Krakoff, president and executive creative director of Coach, has an aversion to limited editions and gratuitous celebrity product hook-ups. “For us it’s been the combination of something really functional and wearable and easy and chic,” he says. “Exclusivity is more important if your product line is less varied. We try not to do too many limited editions. It creates some excitement, but truthfully it’s been a bit overused. You see limited editions in every product category.”

“Customers are so smart,” he continues. “I don’t think you can fool people. Seeing celebrities wearing the products gets people’s attention, but so what. One of the ways we’ve been able to be successful over time is by continually evolving and always trying to surprise people with the new and unexpected.”

While some “It” bags get eclipsed by newer varieties, there are always perennial favorites such as Hermès’ Kelly and Birkin handbags, whose appeal remains intact year in and year out. French “It” bag company Gerard Darel even named Jane Birkin’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg as its muse to generate buzz.

Their counterpart in the beauty world could be Clinique’s Black Honey lipstick. Launched in 1971, Black Honey, a shade of Glosswear for Lips, became an instant success. “When Black Honey was launched as an Almost Lipstick in 1989—it was originally packaged in a pot—no one realized the incredible impact it would have,” says Jackie Kelly, executive director of global makeup marketing. “During the decades that followed, legions of devoted women turned it into a serious cult favorite and it quickly evolved into a modern classic.” Black Honey, which has a black appearance but goes on unexpectedly sheer and paints lips a transparent shade of red raisin, is Clinique’s number-one selling lipstick. One unit is sold every two minutes, 852 are sold daily and 310,980 are sold each year.

The notion of an “It” item in the skin care arena is open to debate. “I don’t think treat-ment can be an ‘It’ category,” says Dagousset. “Skin care doesn’t show [in photographs]. In addition, skin care products are supposed to be used for the long term. I am not sure customers are willing to give up a product after a few months. Some treatment products can be bestsellers and buzzworthy, but not like makeup products, which tie into the trends of the season. You can, however, have ‘It’ ingredients, which are very fashionable. For example, at the moment, it’s all about antioxidants.”

Estée Lauder would disagree with the verdict that skin care can’t achieve “It” status. The company
considers its Night Repair a long-reigning “It” product. “At the time of its launch in 1982, it was the first product that talked about how the mechanisms of skin worked,” says Anne Carullo, senior vice president of global product innovation. “It was also the first time a treatment product was patented.” Lauder sells three of Night Repair’s iconic amber bottles every minute, which is 1.3 million annually. In 1990, the product’s name was changed to Advanced Night Repair, and more recently, Advanced Night Repair Concentrate was introduced. Carullo explains Night Repair’s longevity this way: “It’s not a trendy product that uses of-the-moment technology. We’re careful not to expand it too quickly or make it edgy. It’s our very precious little jewel.”

La Mer’s 21-day treatment, The Essence, had “It” characteristics, such as a high price tag—$2,100—and an aura of exclusivity when it was introduced in 2004. Rather than selling at counter, it was presented to the brand’s best customers during one-on-one appointments. “Customers could only purchase the one reserved for them,” said Mindy Grimes, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Each person received a special invitation, many of which were hand-delivered.” News about the product spread and soon there was a waiting list. “La Mer’s enduring ‘It’ status is all about performance,” Grimes said. But celebrity buzz helped too.

La Prairie’s entry into the “It” Hall of Fame, Radiance Pure Gold, launched last fall and quickly sold out. Lynn Florio, president, attributes Pure Gold’s popularity to its formula: Highly-active ingredients and colloidal gold. “The packaging was spectacular—gold is not usually our accent color,” she says. “The texture was beautiful, and the price point was over $500. Probably that was also important.” There was also fortuitous timing. “Gold was the fashion statement of the season, which was really good luck,” says Florio. “Gold shoes and handbags were very chic.”

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