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The Growth and Business of Lashes and Brows

Eye makeup was the most profitable segment in cosmetics last year in the U.S., with a sales revenue of $1.96 billion, according to market and consumer data firm Statista.

In the age of COVID-19, face masks have made eyes — and brows — the focus.

“Right now, the eyes are the thing that is captivating everybody’s look,” said Yasmin Maya, known as BeautyyBird to her more than 1 million YouTube subscribers. “Everyone wants to have their eyes looking beautiful or having them stand out.”

When the beauty vlogger decided to start her own brand, launching with false lashes was a no-brainer, she said.

“Lashes is what does it for everybody right now,” she continued. “Even if you were to go on a date, I mean, you still have to wear your mask, so how can you be flirty and be seductive and all that? It’s just kind of having the eyes speak for themselves.”

She launched Birdy Lashes in December with two faux-mink lash styles and two eyeliners that double as adhesives. The liner-glue combo makes daily false lash wear easier, she said, and her aim is to provide quality and light-weight vegan options at an affordable cost. Everything is priced at $12, and lashes can be reused up to 25 times.

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Innovation in the category has been centered on enhancing the application process of false lashes. Jenna Lyons, for example, the designer turned lash entrepreneur who launched Loveseen last year, has introduced a $34 bespoke tool that looks like tweezers crossed with the curvature of a mascara wand, to make application easier for consumers.

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Meanwhile, Ann McFerran, founder and chief executive officer of Glamnetic, has become a major player with her magnetic eyelashes and eyeliners, which allow for false lashes to be applied in seconds (with both vegan and mink products, starting at $29.99 for a pair). Launched in August 2019, Glamnetic’s revenue doubled month-over-month and reached $50 million in total sales last year. It’s projected to grow into a nine-figure business in 2021, said McFerran, who has grown her team to 70. Along with being direct-to-consumer, Glamnetic is found at Ulta and Amazon and plans to expand into other retailers this year.

Before launching her brand, “magnetic lashes had gone viral for a moment and then went crashing down,” said McFerran, adding that the execution was poor, and as a result, the trend fizzled away. She saw a gap in the market, as someone who regularly used false lashes herself, and developed a magnet mechanism that worked well and offered a variety of lash styles including a “full glam look.”

Eyelash trends, as with all beauty norms, vary across cultures and have changed from decade to decade. The business of lengthening and thickening eyelashes dates back to at least the 19th century in France, where a procedure involving sewing human hairs onto eyelids developed in Paris. By 1911, a Canadian woman named Anna Taylor reportedly received a U.S. patent for false eyelashes, placing pieces of fabric with hairs onto lash lines with an adhesive — a technique that’s similar to the lash strips used today.

These days, it’s not just about products but treatments, too. Salons offer eyelash perms, where a relaxer is used to manipulate and curl natural eyelashes, as well as eyelash extensions, where either mink fur (the hair is brushed off the animal) or faux hairs — typically made of a plastic fiber called polybutylene terephthalate — are manually glued onto existing eyelashes by licensed cosmetologists. Costs vary tremendously depending on the salon but start around $150 for a basic full set.

“There are 34,000 lash services in the U.S., growing about 30 percent a year,” said Philippe Sanchez, CEO of Luum. “And yet it’s still very fragmented. It’s not a very sophisticated service today.”

Luum, founded by Nathan Harding and Kurt Amundson in Oakland, Calif., is looking to innovate the category in the service industry. The company, which is three years in the making, has developed technology and machinery using computer vision, artificial intelligence and robotics to reinvent the business of eyelashes.

The service is “exactly like a manual extension,” Sanchez said. Customers close their eyes as the machine applies the lash extensions, while a certified technician is present.

The benefit, he said, is a much faster service, cutting down what can be a two-and half-hour endeavor to 20 minutes. The robotic element is quick and precise, he said, while the computer vision is able to work on a microscopic level, and AI is used to adapt to the varying types of human faces and eyelashes.

“The way the technology works, it’s extremely safe because the lash is very, very light, therefore we don’t need force to manipulate the lash,” Sanchez said. The arm-like part of the machine that applies each lash is light in weight. “It’s a tool, a technology that transforms the experience for consumers and empowers the expert lash artist to do what he or she is best at, to give stylistic guidance, advice, prep and finish off.”

Wing and Weft leather gloves.
Wing and Weft leather gloves. Chris Miggels/WWD

The company, which raised $10 million and is looking to collect its next round of funding, will open its first salon in the Bay Area in the coming months, offering a premium service “at a competitive price.” Los Angeles — the number-one market in lash extensions, according to Sanchez — is next, followed by locations in Asia.

It was in Asia, predominantly in Japan during the Aughts, that eyelash extensions first boomed. In the U.S., Hollywood has influenced eyelash trends since the days of silent film starlets. Then came Fifties glamour with icons like Marilyn Monroe, followed by the 1960s with more playful looks worn by fashion figures like Twiggy. There was Cher in the ’70s, Madonna in the ’80s, and the supermodels in the Nineties, who repopularized bold, voluminous lashes. But culturally, it was when modern celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez were seen wearing false lashes regularly that the public took notice, and the industry grew in the mass market (Lopez famously wore a pair made of red fox fur by Shu Uemura to the 2001 Oscars).

The global false eyelashes market size was valued at $1.1 billion in 2018, according to market research firm Grand View Research and is expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2025. The entire eye market, which includes both eyelashes and brows, was estimated at $14.52 billion in 2018, the company reports. In the U.S., though eye makeup sales dipped in 2020 due to the pandemic, the category was the most profitable segment in cosmetics last year, with a sales revenue of $1.96 billion, according to market and consumer data firm Statista.

On the retail side, Sephora saw success last year in both brow and lash categories, as clients “prioritized above the mask beauty,” said Alison Hahn, senior vice president of merchandising in makeup, in a statement.

“Specifically, we saw increased demand for brow and lash enhancements,” she said. “Prior to mask-wearing shifting client’s beauty habits, we saw a new trend developing toward a more natural, fluffy brow look that helped drive heightened interest in the category….We anticipate continued growth for brow and lash products as clients remain home without regular access to salons. Clients will continue to prioritize above the mask beauty — like focusing on the eyes and tending to brows and lashes.”

Eyebrow trends, too, have shifted throughout the years, yo-yoing between the influence of full brows with pop culture figures like Brooke Shields and Cara Delevingne or pencil thin variations, most notably seen on Pamela Anderson and Gwen Stefani — who now has fuller brows.

“The greatest eyebrow makeover of all time is Gwen Stefani, because she had this uber thin brow in the 2000s when she was going through her rock stage, her solo artist debut,” said Natalie Plain, founder of Billion Dollar Brows. “If you look at her now, she’s completely transformed her brow.”

Plain launched her brand in 2004 with Brow Boost, a brow primer and conditioner. While there were eyelash serums on the market at the time, there were few brands focused on brows.

“It just took off,” she said. Plain then released the Universal Brow Pencil, formulated with a creamy pomade to fill in the brow. “It’s our number-one selling product to date and always has been.”

Billion Dollar Brows saw growth in 2020, she said: “We closed our year as our strongest year yet.”

Big names in brow include Anastasia Soare of Anastasia Beverly Hills, who parlayed her signature Golden Ratio brow technique into a billion-dollar beauty brand and social media superstardom status.

“By ’94, I had a line outside of every celebrity you could think of,” she said. “I was working 16 hours a day six days a week, sometimes seven. On Sundays, I used to do house calls.”

A significant change in the industry throughout the years has been the influence of social media and how it has morphed and accelerated trends in brows, she said.

Young consumers are experimenting more than ever, like removing the wing of their brows for a #foxeye look, as popularized on TikTok, or opting for the “feathered” style — which was made fashionable by celebrity brow artist Kristie Streicher of Striiike. When it comes to services, consumers can now get semi-permanent shaped brows using the lamination technique, a perming treatment that keeps a look on for six to eight weeks, or microblading, which is more invasive and lasts one to two years.

“It’s human nature that people get bored and want to play around with their brows, but all of us that have gone through all the trends of brows know better,” Streicher said. “It takes a long time to grow back or may never grow back.”

Alexander McQueen antique silver, gold and pavé ear hook set.
Alexander McQueen antique silver, gold and pavé ear hook set. Chris Miggels/WWD

Though she’s now based in L.A., she moved to New York City in 2001, when thinner brows were the trend. Coming from Northern California, she brought natural, fuller brows to the city and to her clientele.

“It’s like eyelashes,” she said. “The more eyelashes that you have, the more youthful and beautiful you look. Same thing with eyebrows…I have [clients] grow the hair and work with what they’ve got and embrace whatever it is that they have, whether they’ve over-tweezed — how to cultivate the best shape working with what hair they have and tools like pencils — or have a giant unibrow.”

Embracing individual beauty is where the industry has been heading. And it’s the motto at TooD Beauty, founded by CEO Shari Siadat — who makes a point of celebrating the unibrow.

“I grew up in a very small town in Massachusetts,” she said. “I had less than 3,000 people in my town. I like to say that I grew up in a sea of blond hair and blue eyes. I loved playing with Barbie, too, so I definitely thought having dark hair there was something quite different about me. Before I really had an opportunity to truly understand how different I looked, my classmates made it quite apparent to me that I looked different than them.”

She was bullied for her darker skin, unibrow and “just my overall hairiness,” she said. “All I wanted to do was fit in.”

In her teens, she got rid of the unibrow, made her eyebrows “as thin as humanly possible” and bleached her facial and body hair.

“I did anything I could do to look more and more American, Euro-centric, to fit the norm of what I saw in the media,” she said. “I was obsessed with it.”

Things changed after she had her third child. While her first two daughters were blond and blue-eyed, her youngest daughter was her spitting image — which kicked off a turning point. Becoming a mother made Siadat reflect and changed her point of view. “If my kids don’t see a woman who really loves herself, they really don’t have a chance.”

She let her eyebrow hair grow, and it felt liberating. She hopes to offer the same with her brand, TooD, a clean d-to-c color cosmetics line launched in January with products like the Brow Color Cream (made in bold colors) that can be worn anywhere on the face or body. There are no rules, Siadat said.

“TooD is short for attitude,” she added. “It’s about understanding and honoring that at any moment you can pivot and you have the opportunity and agency to change how you feel about yourself, change what you think is a beauty standard of how you wear makeup, where you wear makeup and who it’s for.”