By  on November 9, 2007

An ever-increasing number of beauty brands use the runway to cloak themselves in the aura of designers both established and emerging. It’s become a backstage bonanza for fashion companies — but is the consumer paying any attention?

Makeup artist Bobbi Brown remembers the days when she could turn up to do a fashion show, wet hair in a ponytail, sneakers on her feet, her face devoid of makeup. After all, the cameras were in the front of the house, not backstage, trained on the models, not the makeup artists.

Those days are long gone. “After one season of doing that and seeing myself on the 6 o’clock news,” Brown remembers, “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m wearing eyeliner tomorrow.’”

Today, the scene backstage is as frenetic as that of the front row, populated with a gaggle of editors, photographers, stylists, publicists, agents and assorted other hangers-on. Hair and makeup artists are as famous as the people they work on and the runway has become a key incubator of beauty trends. For Brown and many other leading beauty brands, backstage has become a major business opportunity. “Everyone wants to know what’s happening this season,” she says.

Whereas once fashion designers would have paid top artists top dollar to do their shows, now it’s the beauty companies who are paying designers sponsorship fees, eager to be affiliated with emerging and established designers. “The runway used to be so elitist,” says Bill Boraczek, senior vice president of marketing for Sally Hansen. “High-end designers weren’t accessible to most Americans, both because they couldn’t afford it and couldn’t see it. Now, there’s an accessibility and an excitement that goes on in fashion that was never there before. It used to be that trends took a year or two to travel from the runway to the mass market. That time line has tightened up.”

Credit the Internet, which allows the hoi polloi a virtual front-row seat to the hottest shows mere minutes after the fashion cognoscenti have viewed them live. The influence of reality TV and shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, which give viewers a voyeuristic, behind-the-scenes peek into glamorous industries previously shrouded in secrecy, has also had a major impact. And as more and more high-end designers migrate from the lofty realms of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus into the democratic environs of Kohl’s and Target (see Vera Wang, Proenza Schouler, et al), the impact is clear: “Everyone wants to know what’s happening this season,” says Brown, who now makes sure she’s camera-ready before heading off to do a show.

“People used to look at beauty and fashion as entirely separate entities,” says Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure. “Beauty was seen as a footnote or an industry, as opposed to being a creative force. It didn’t have a platform in the same way. The runway gives beauty a great forum.”

That new reality translates into an ever-increasing number of beauty companies aligning themselves with designers, all of whom hope to monetize their runway involvement into retail sales. MAC Cosmetics has perhaps the highest profile and longest-lasting association with fashion weeks around the world, both in its capacity as an official sponsor of New York Fashion Week and as a sponsor of myriad designers in New York, London, Milan and Paris. But it is hardly alone: Shiseido, Max Factor, Lancôme, Bobbi Brown, Jane Iredale, Mally, Aveda, Redken, Bumble and bumble, CND (Creative Nail Design), Sally Hansen, FHI, GHD, T3—all have a notable presence backstage and the list gets longer each season, as established brands seek to reinforce their fashion-forward positioning and emerging brands look to define theirs.

“A crowd draws a crowd,” says John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Cos., who, as head of MAC since 1998, has been the primary architect of the brand’s fashion-forward positioning. “Clearly, everybody now wants a piece of it. There are a lot more people vying for this space.”

Take the scene at designer Tracy Reese’s spring show, held during fashion week in September. In one corner, makeup artist Mally Roncal, back in the fray after giving birth to twin girls in the spring, is mobbed by reporters and cameras as she dabs bronzer and pink gloss on a model’s face. Roncal pauses in mid-brush stroke to answer a question about her inspiration, carefully enunciating into the tape recorders shoved in her face, then resumes her ministrations. Her p.r. people are stationed nearby, making sure VIEs (very important editors) get as close as possible, while discreetly shepherding lesser beings away as soon as their notepads are tucked back in their bags. A few feet away, the Sally Hansen team, which created eight nail shades in collaboration with Reese, intercepts editors as they make their way over to Edris Nicholls and her squad of hairstylists. Nicholls’ assistants are combing and braiding hairpieces, which Nicholls then works into Forties-inspired side swoops that graze the models’ foreheads before descending down the side of their heads. Jared Wood, her salon manager-cum-publicist, hovers, making sure journalists have the answers to any questions they may have, while a marketer from FHI, a sponsor of Nicholls and manufacturer of the blow-dryers being used today, hands out cards to editors, touting the merits of her products.

The pace is dizzying—and so is the speed with which the information is assimilated by the press and the public. “We’re living in a media world of instantaneous gratification,” says Demsey. “Information is shared instantly around the world. Makeup is something that, like celebrity, gets you a lot of visualization fairly quickly.” Demsey has seen firsthand the explosion of the scene. “Fashion is the core driving force of how our brand is conceptualized and how product is developed and sold at point of sale,” he says. “More and more companies are involved with backstage, some in a very real way, some in a commercial endorsement way. Anybody can put their name toward something, but for it to be real and inspire the people who work for you, you need to be part of the process. It takes a lot of work to stay authentically in the flow.”

The ante for authenticity is being raised each season. Aveda, for example, which in the past has sponsored as many as 28 shows, scaled back to six this year. Its president, Dominique Conseil, felt that the brand’s fashion week participation wasn’t aligned with its mission of caring for the world and the environment. Consequently, Aveda laid down three stipulations for the shows it did sponsor: Designers had to commit to not using fur in any iteration, all backstage food had to be locally sourced and they had to commit to not using bottled water, opting instead for recyclable aluminum water bottles. “We wanted to extend our sphere of influence from beauty into fashion,” says Ellen Maguire, vice president of global communications for Aveda. “We know being backstage helps drive product sales. We also knew that in an increasingly competitive green business world, we need to break out of the fray, so from a branding standpoint, it was invaluable.”

As an example, Maguire points to backstage pictures of models holding the Aveda-branded recyclable water bottles. “Because of the environmental focus, we had no trouble getting people to hold the bottle,” she says. “When you have someone like a supermodel, who is not under contract to your brand, actively engaged with your product, it resonates with consumers. It’s a more compelling image because they know the celebrity isn’t being paid to use the product—it’s a choice they made.”

Not everyone is scaling back, however: MAC continued to increase its sponsorship this season, to 177 shows between New York, London, Milan and Paris; Redken, 36, and Shiseido, 18. Sponsorship includes providing a leading hair or makeup artist for a show, enlisting and paying for a cadre of trained artists and stylists to assist them and virtually unlimited quantities of products to be used backstage. Depending on the designer and his or her financial wherewithal, there is often a monetary contribution toward the staging of the show, as well as providing products for guest goodie bags.

In all, most beauty companies estimate the cost of sponsorship to be anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000-plus a show.

The cost of sponsorship buys a brand the opportunity to be part of the trend-making process, rather than just a spectator. Take the alliance between makeup artist superstar Pat McGrath, whose roster includes Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci, and Procter & Gamble Color Cosmetics, which named McGrath its global creative design director in 2004 for its Cover Girl, Max Factor and SK-II brands. “Pat helps influence the direction of the shows and the defining beauty looks come from that,” says Esi Eggleston Bracey, vice president and general manager of global cosmetics for P&G. “We get early insight into the looks women are going to want and we get to highlight how to create the looks with our products.”

For example, McGrath helped develop the shade range of Max Factor’s double-ended Vivid Impact mascara, which has a traditional color on one end and a more vivid highlighter on the other. “I’m always looking for products that can make backstage makeup more dramatic and exciting,” says McGrath. “If I can’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll make it,” she continues. “Sometimes I use very strong eye shadows in bright, bold colors. Consequently, P&G added bright bold shadows to the Max Factor line. The shadows did extremely well and Max Factor created Vivid Impact. Cover Girl is even coming out with bold shades of the Eye
Enhancers 1-kit eye shadows in June 2008.”

McGrath used Vivid Impact at the fall Dolce & Gabbana show last spring, and it’s set to hit mass market shelves this month. “So when it launches,” Eggleston Bracey says, “we know we’ll be on trend. And that helps create consumer demand for the product.”

Anne Collinet, assistant vice president of makeup marketing for Lancôme, agrees. That brand’s international creative director is makeup artist Gucci Westman, whose shows include trendy young designers like Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler, Thakoon and Behnaz Sarafpour. “If you look at lipstick trends, seeing bold color on the runway season after season contributed to the return of lipstick,” says Collinet. “Fashion magazines base a lot of their trend reporting on what happens at the shows. You cannot underestimate the importance of being there.”

Still, to the chagrin of many a marketing executive, American fashion magazines tend to give only cursory coverage to backstage beauty. “I hope beauty will continue to align itself with fashion,” says Betsy
Olum, senior vice president of marketing at Sephora. “But the magazines have to make room for beauty
to be considered as innovative. Beauty has always followed fashion and we have to recognize it’s right in there with it when it comes to launching new trends.”

“I don’t think any brand gets a tremendous amount of press on the looks of the season in the U.S., but it does help a lot internationally,” says Maureen Case, who oversees Bobbi Brown Cosmetics as president of specialty brands for the Estée Lauder Cos. “The international editions of Vogue and Elle are much more articulate in their coverage, especially of the New York shows. We find that in Malaysia, in Russia, in [South] Korea, our involvement is a strong way to portray Bobbi’s work and products.”

For its part, MAC often paves the way for entry into a market by becoming involved with the local fashion week. Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, São Paulo, Mexico City, Madrid, Shanghai—the list is long. “We launched Brazil by being involved in a good chunk of São Paulo’s fashion week for three seasons before entering the country,” says Demsey. “We did Shanghai Fashion Week for two years prior to entering Mainland China. Where appropriate and where there is a creative fashion touchpoint, we use it to tell the brand story. Every affiliate of ours around the world, about 50 in all, has some sort of fashion activity,” he continues. “We have an expression for the MAC AIDS fund that every day is World AIDS day. Every week is fashion week at MAC.”

While MAC uses fashion week to cement its brand positioning, others use it to help build theirs. Jane Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, for example, a 14-year-old brand, has sponsored fashion shows in New York for three seasons, targeting emerging designers such as Cat Swanson and Eventide. The company’s goal: To create buzz by getting their wares in front of fashion world influencers. “Being involved establishes us as a fashion-forward, beauty-oriented line in the minds of other professionals in the industry, in the minds of consumers and especially in terms of people who know about fashion, like stylists,” says Theresa Robison, vice president of sales and marketing. “We get a lot of exposure to people on the fashion side and a lot of stylists and agents, versus just the beauty press.” That exposure is key, says Robison, because of the influence wielded by stylists and others beyond the tents. “They have input with celebrities, who drive what people buy.”

Sally Hansen’s Boraczek agrees. “If you see a trend on the runway today, you’re going to see it at the Oscars tomorrow. A lot of celebrities go to the fashion shows and then they walk the red carpet and thus influence a wider set of people. With so many more channels of communication, the trends are quicker.” In other words, while the runway appeals to hard-core beauty junkies, the red carpet still sets the trend agenda for mainstream shoppers.

“There’s such an influx of celebrities at fashion shows,” notes Shae Kalyani, vice president of integrated communications for Redken. “They’re not just looking at the clothes. They’re looking at the entire look, including hair and makeup.” Redken, which works with A-list hairstylist Guido Palau, has been able to quantify—as well as qualify—the success of its backstage involvement. After each season, the company chooses three or four trends and creates podcasts detailing them. Vogue beauty director Sarah Brown interviews Palau, who explains his inspiration and technique. Then Redken spokesman Rodney Cutler gives a blow-by-blow account of how to achieve the style in a salon. Popular with stylists looking for new tips as well as civilians looking for the latest styles, each podcast from the previous season has a download rate of about 100,000. What’s more, traffic to’s salon-selector section increased 91 percent, to about 280,000 searches, during the monthlong marathon of fashion shows, according to Kalyani.

As important as backstage trend ideation is, product creation and feedback is equally key. After all, notes Jennifer Balbier, MAC’s senior vice president of global product development, “If we can’t sell a product to our makeup artists, we’re never going to be able to sell it to consumers.” To that end, companies use their backstage teams as elite focus groups, giving their makeup artists and hairstylists the newest products and then soliciting feedback about what works and what doesn’t. “We might test as many as three or four new formulas in New York,” Balbier says, “get some comments and narrow it down by the time we get to Milan and Paris. From there, we do roundtables with different artists.” Balbier and her team synthesize the information, make changes where appropriate and the product moves further down the development pipeline.

Marketing teams also pay assiduous attention to backstage comments, tweaking launch plans where necessary. For example, when Redken launched its Urban Experiment line of four styling products, executives didn’t know which would be the standout performer. Introduced to stylists backstage a season before it launched, there was one clear standout: Velvet Gelatine, a trend that held true with consumers. “So the marketing team said if this is the one the stylists love,” Kalyani says, “this is the one we have to ramp up on.”

For his part, celebrity hairstylist Frédéric Fekkai used the opportunity of doing the Diane von Furstenberg show to launch a product specifically themed as a backstage item. “It’s going to be limited edition,” explains Jill Scalamandre, chief marketing officer of Fekkai’s parent company, Chrysallis. “It will literally be themed to the runway shows, and we’ll market it as a backstage accessory, with pictures of Frédéric backstage on in-store counter cards and on our Web site. It gives us a real fashion edge.”

Timing-wise, though the spring shows were held in September, the product itself won’t hit retail counters until early next spring. And maintaining the excitement of backstage from the time when it actually happens to the time when consumers will be able to access the products and trends is where the rubber really hits the road. “If a brand or retailer thinks they can go to a show, do the makeup or hair and get immediate widespread exposure, it’s a really challenging thing to do,” says Sephora’s Olum. “If you don’t have a strategic plan to utilize the assets from the show, the actual press and ROI is pretty short.”

Be that as it may, executives consider the boost a brand’s employees get from its backstage involvement to be priceless. “Our makeup artists are our key ambassadors and they have to love our products and feel secure about the products and our color directions,” says James Gager, MAC’s senior vice president and creative director. “What I love about fashion week personally,” he continues, “is the opportunity to see if we’re on-trend with the color collections we’ve created for an upcoming season. I love the feeling when the answer is yes!” he exults.

And if they’re not?

Laughs Gager, “Thank God that’s never happened.”

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