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As Honolulu’s winter rains and 70-degree “chill” (hey, it’s all relative, right?) give way to spring sun and ripe mangoes, I decide it’s time to get out of my makeup rut. Plus, my mushrooming freckles—signs of a life lived on a sun-drenched island—need to be squelched. So off I go in search of a new spring look.
In Honolulu, there is an undisputed star of beauty departments—and it lives in Neiman Marcus at the Ala Moana Center. Tourists from Asia flock to the big luxury houses here, but they can also buy locally made jams or a handcrafted jewelry box fashioned from indigenous koa wood. For residents, Ala Moana is a sort of community center, where gangs of senior Korean immigrants have morning get-togethers and curb-squatting musical delinquents jam on ukuleles.
Entering Neiman Marcus, I prepare for the dance all women know so well—the compliments, smears on the back of the hand and makeovers. A salesperson walks by, every one of her upswept hairs in place, and I ask, “Is there anything new? It’s been a while since I’ve been here.” She tells me Chanel is doing makeup sessions.
“Any new brands or services, anything like that,” I prod. She thinks another second and I see the lightbulb go off. “Oh! Yes, we just started carrying Sulwhasoo—it’s Korea’s most popular skin care line,” and she leads me to the counter, where a row of six golden bottles and jars stand like toy soldiers.
The Sulwhasoo specialist walks me through the regimen, then asks if I have a few minutes for a demo. Everything smells natural and feels light—I’m ready to drink the Kool-Aid. But I remind myself that I’m a 10-minute-morning-routine gal. When the associate tells me that the one product I should get—a serum made with extracts from giant Japanese bay trees—is $320, I know it’s time to move on. I explain to her that due to my budget and grooming habits, Sulwhasoo is not the best choice for me—“but I like it a lot!” She smiles, says she understands and hands me her card, allowing me a dignified exit.
I head to Chanel, where a sales associate asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. “I’m hoping to find a new look for spring—and I prefer a natural look,” I say, explaining that I’m slouching toward middle age and want something appropriate. The associate immediately accepts the challenge—“You want that glow. I know what you mean.”
More than once have I asked for a “natural look” and come away looking like I’m ready to take the Broadway stage as Evita. But I give it another go.
The associate scrutinizes me, asks questions and begins pulling things from the displays. One of them is foundation. “Uh, I don’t wear foundation. It’s too hot here—I don’t like to feel or look like my face is melting off,” I say, but when she explains that the makeup needs something to adhere to, I concede that I am open to something lighter. We compromise on Double Perfection Natural Matte Powder Makeup. It doesn’t offer as much coverage as she would like, but I like its barely-there feel. She then picks an eye shadow set from the spring line that alarms me—it includes a dark purplish hue!—but I shut up and go with the flow. She continues to work, explaining all the while what she’s doing and why.
When she’s done, I look in the mirror and see just what I asked for—me. But a perked-up me with eyes and lips subtly enhanced against a more even skin tone. Across the way, a girl 25 years younger than me is getting a completely different look that is perfect for her. These specialists live up to their title. I buy most of what she used on me—the powder, eye shadow, blush, bronzer (for contour—I learned something), blue eyeliner, mascara, lip pencil, makeup brush and eyebrow pencil for a cool $332. That meant I also get the gift of the day—a camellia-shaped bookmark and samples of Chanel No. 5 body lotion, a lipstick and an antiaging cream. Hurrah!
The next day, I head to Honolulu’s newest Sephora, on the ground floor of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. Back to my bare-faced self, I browse the shelves a good 10 minutes before someone asks if I’m looking for something in particular. When I tell the salesman about my natural-no-foundation quest, he immediately thinks “tinted sunscreen” and takes me to the Nars corner where he squirts some Pure Radiance Tinted Moisturizer in Annapurna on the back of my hand. It’s a good match. Then he takes me to the other end of the store and recommends the Lorac Unzipped palette of neutral eye shadows, and says to grab him if I need anything else. After all the pampering at Neiman Marcus, I feel like an abandoned waif. But I persevere and continue browsing, reaching a “Color of the Year” display, a collaboration between Sephora and Pantone. A young man with a megawatt smile asks if I’d like a 10-minute makeover, and presents me with a portfolio, asking me to pick one of the four looks created. I choose No. 2, the most subdued of the lot. He gets to work, and says he can play the look down to meet my request for natural. Ten minutes later, I look in the mirror. On my left cheek is a big brown block, and there is a wide space between lash line and eyeliner. “Um, are you going to blend the blush on this side?” I ask. He complies and swishes me with his brush. The session doesn’t leave me hyped to buy like my previous experience, but I do like the soft texture of the eyeliner—gorgeously packaged in a box of three—and the tinted moisturizer, and get them both. “Oh, he did an amazing job! Don’t you love it?” one of his colleagues gushes. I smile feebly.
In paradise, like anywhere else on earth, beauty is subjective.