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“The beauty story of black women in this country is incredibly complicated,” said Desirée Rogers, chief executive officer of Johnson Publishing.
This story first appeared in the June 1, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“The concept of black beauty has been widely discussed within the African-American community for years and represents a window into the socio-philosophical dynamic debate caused by years of oppression and self-hate,” continued Rogers, adding that the evolutionary self-appreciation time line of black women has been closely associated with others’ perceptions. “Images depicting black women as mammies ultimately started to change with the ascension of caramel beauties like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge,” said Rogers. “At the same time that things were beginning to change in Hollywood, Negroes, yes I said Negroes, were entering the middle class in record numbers.”
Rogers showed a 1953 film which purported to tell marketers how to talk to “millions of new prospects with $15 billion to spend…the new Negro family.” The film goes on to say that “the secret of selling to the Negro is expressed in one word; that word is recognition…most Negroes buy by brand. They’re quick to turn down off brands.…Symbols of quality and prestige are very important to the Negro customer…because he’s had experience with cheap merchandise, the Negro resents being offered a substitute.”
“This quick snapshot gives us a sense of how simple transactions conjure up cultural and philosophical attitudes of the African-American consumer,” said Rogers. “Many of the underlying themes that you saw in the film still exist today…although the African-American market currently is close to $1 trillion.”
Rogers noted that the Seventies marked a watershed moment for black women. “The Seventies were all about ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and in Chicago, John and Eunice Johnson of Johnson Publishing created Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a prestige brand for black women,” she said. “The brand was born from Mrs. Johnson’s Ebony Fashion Fair Show, a show launched in the Fifties. She wanted to celebrate fashion, style and beauty as seen through the eyes of black women.” The show traveled to 150 cities each year and raised $55 million for local charities, she added.
While in the Seventies black women were beginning to celebrate their beauty, in the Eighties and Nineties a more conformist view took hold, she said. “Today, it is truly a brand new world,” she said. “Black women are inspired by whoever captures their hearts, unfettered by social norms and judgments of the past. In other words, the inspiration does not have to have black roots. And most importantly, we feel confident for the first time in record numbers to actually put our own spin on the general market…there is a new premium on being who you are.”
And success with the African-American market doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach, she said. “From the First Lady to YouTube do-it-yourself videos about hair, makeup and fashion, they’re looking for a woman who they can respect for beauty advice,” she said. “In order to stay with the younger consumers, the iconic images have to constantly change to reflect the looks of the day. Those companies that choose a cookie-cutter approach without developing a real relationship with these consumers will ultimately lose. Social media is playing a particularly important role in quickly passing beauty opinions and a great dialogue between this younger group. It really is the new word of mouth and the new stamp of approval….Those companies that take a stand and create a real sense of familiarity and excitement with this consumer will be the ultimate winners.”