By  on February 2, 2007

The lines between fashion and beauty, art and commerce, continue to blur. Today marks the official start of New York Fashion Week, and for many top beauty companies, it represents the chance to highlight their brands’ fashion positioning even as they increasingly sign celebrity faces.

But fashion doesn’t come cheap. Just for the privilege of working backstage, companies invest $30,000 or more per show, according to estimates by industry sources — which can add up to more than $1 million for a brand like MAC Cosmetics, which will do 70 shows in New York this season.

Some beauty companies, such as Shiseido, pick up the tab for a designer’s entire show, which can cost $100,000 to $500,000 or more.

But for brands like MAC, which does little advertising, the investment is clearly cost-effective. MAC is the official makeup sponsor of the New York shows and one of the first brands to successfully link runway and beauty in consumers’ minds.

Although MAC officially assumed the sponsor role three years ago, the shows have always been part of MAC’s DNA, noted John Demsey, global president of the MAC Cosmetics and Estée Lauder brands at the Estée Lauder Cos.

“Fashion week, artistry, creating looks and exploring the way that makeup can be used — as well as being commercial — is what this brand has always been about,” said Demsey. “MAC has been involved with the shows for at least 15 years because it makes sense. It originated as a makeup artist brand, and there is a strong association in terms of backstage support. Fashion is in the veins of MAC.”

On the other hand, noted Demsey, “Estée Lauder [the brand] derives its fashion authority from reinforcing an aspirational lifestyle. Could Estée Lauder do shows? Sure, a lot of brands could. But the Lauder brand relates to fashion in a different way, which makes more sense for that brand. It’s a core defining difference.”

Demsey views MAC’s involvement with the shows as a creative partnership, one which allows the brand’s artists to do professional outreach while enabling designers to realize their visions. “If we couldn’t do that,” he said, “we wouldn’t be asked back. People can sense those things that emanate from being real, and those that don’t.“We were already there, we were doing 50 to 70 shows a season, and there was reason from a press outreach standpoint to legitimize the work we did backstage,” continued Demsey. Each season, the brand sponsors a MAC Lounge where visiting journalists can grab a cup of coffee, review trends and charge their computers.

But while direct show involvement is MAC’s way, sister brand Estée Lauder relates to fashion week in a decidedly different way. “Estée Lauder revolves around the woman who sits in the front of the house, beginning with Aerin Lauder [senior vice president and creative director for Estée Lauder]. Aerin uses her style and good taste, as well as her aspirational lifestyle, to help shape the brand.”

Demsey added that Aerin Lauder also is a friend of many of the designers and their top models.

And that’s a role she relishes. “The shows spark wonderful ideas, and often they confirm what we’ve already got in the works for our upcoming makeup collections,” said Lauder. “Our strategy now is very much both model- and celebrity-oriented; these days, you really need to have both. The shows offer the opportunity to see it all.”

The brand’s stable of spokeswomen includes model Hilary Rhoda, named last week; Elizabeth Hurley; Gwyneth Paltrow; Liya Kebede; Carolyn Murphy, and Anja Rubik. “For instance, Hilary — who walks in a number of runway shows — is a muse to many designers, and seeing her in that context sparks ideas and connects the brand to fashion,” said Lauder, noting the Lauder brand invests heavily in traditional advertising such as TV spots and national magazine ads to promote its projects.

When it comes to matching a model’s face to a particular beauty brand, the cosmetics companies focus on the fine points. At Lauder for instance, Carolyn Murphy was assigned to be the face of the company’s venerable, high-end Renutriv brand because the model was always thought to have a Grace Kelly quality. Her recent move to the tony California community of Brentwood solidified that impression.

Added Demsey: “The faces of the models who represent the Lauder brand help to project the profile of the brand to the outside world.”For MAC, that face is a little less defined. Save for its Viva Glam print ads (and an occasional spot for its yearly MAC Icons) the brand doesn’t advertise; the shows, in essence, become a major advertisement, along with training and public relations.

Demsey’s brands are far from the only ones to recognize the power of the runway in promoting their fashion chops. Sister companies Bobbi Brown — whose founder is doing the Rachel Roy, BCBG, BCBG Max Azria, Sass & Bide, Tory Burch, Brian Reyes and Heart Truth Red Dress shows this week — and Aveda, which is doing the hair at Thakoon, Marchesa, Monique Lhuillier, Temperley London and Tory Burch, among others, are heavily involved in the New York shows as well.

And two of the world’s largest beauty powerhouses, L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble, are in on the act, recognizing how a little glitter can positively affect the brand. L’Oréal’s Redken, Matrix and Lancôme subsidiaries are all backstage regulars. One of Lancôme’s spokesmodels, Shalom Harlow, walked the runway during the recent Paris couture collections. She said her favorite moment was wearing a John Galliano gown, which was a Madam Butterfly-inspired composite of origami pieces. Wearing the dress was a spectacular and daunting experience. “It was like a float,” she joked. “It took some maneuvering.”

Also this season, Gucci Westman, Lancôme’s makeup artist, will unveil a custom shade made for Peter Som at the designer’s show, and she and her team will helm the makeup at Proenza Schouler, Behnaz Sarafpour, Rag & Bone and Thakoon. Vincent Longo, founder of the makeup brand that bears his name, will show off an understated, elegant look at Yeohlee’s show this afternoon, and the Nars brand has created a custom makeup palette for 3.1 Phillip Lim.

Procter & Gamble has makeup artist Pat McGrath promoting its beauty brands backstage at shows including Calvin Klein and crème de la crème names of Paris and Milan’s runways, while Dior staged a spectacular comeback in the U.S., in part by hitching its star to fashion and the slightly outrageous Galliano. Terry Darland, general manager of Dior’s U.S. branch, credited the designer with art directing the Charlize Theron TV commercial for J’adore that sparked strong sales at Christmas. “He feels that sensuality comes from within and he works to bring it out,” she said.Bourjois is featuring famed French makeup artist Stephane Marais at the Alice Roi show, while Shiseido’s color creator, Tom Pecheux, is a backstage regular at top shows. Frédéric Fekkai regularly uses the products that bear his name at Diane von Furstenberg’s ready-to-wear show.

The shows also provide the opportunity to do good while looking good. At her Baby Phat show tonight, Kimora Lee Simmons — who also runs KLS Cosmetics — will preview its Fabulousity Glossamer lip gloss in Sangria, a plum-fuchsia shade that will retail for $17. All proceeds will benefit the G&P Foundation, founded by songwriter Denise Rich in memory of her daughter, Gabrielle, who passed away from acute myelogenous leukemia in 1996.

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