Is there room in the celebrity makeup artist category for a new entrant?
Gucci Westman believes there is. As she gears up to launch her Westman Atelier brand this spring, she’s confident she’s found white space in the hot sector. She’s joining a new generation of pioneers in the category, led first by Charlotte Tilbury’s namesake range that debuted in 2013 followed by Pat McGrath’s Pat McGrath Labs two years later.
The first products from Westman’s first collection will launch exclusively at Barneys New York and at westman-atelier.com in April, although an exact date is yet to be determined. During an interview at her apartment on Central Park West in New York City’s Upper West Side, she told WWD that “consciously crafted beauty” was her approach to developing an offering that’s part natural ingredients and part clean, innovative synthetics. She believes there is a space in the luxury world for color cosmetics that not only focus on nontoxic and safe formulations, but that also contain active ingredients at efficacy levels.
The six-product, complexion-driven collection is sleek and chic. In a nod to fragrance packaging and travel cases, everything is encased in either pastel pink, dove gray or black matte packaging, juxtaposed with mixed-metal white and yellow gold accents. The compacts are luxe but not gaudy and foundation, blush, highlighter and contour color sticks all have magnetic closures. Prices range from $48 for the Lit Up Highlight Stick and the Face Trace Contour Stick to $68 for the Vital Skin Foundation Stick that comes in 11 shades.
It’s also everything Tilbury’s namesake line and Pat McGrath Labs isn’t. Tilbury is Hollywood glam, McGrath is dramatic and editorial and Westman is elevated “no-makeup makeup” infused with skin-care ingredients.
Plus, the brands speak to markedly different customers. McGrath’s mantra is that glitter is for every day, and Westman’s is definitely not that. It’s highly unlikely that her core demographic — “older Millennials” and above — is clamoring to coat their lips in a high-gloss topcoat on top of a layer of finely ground glitter on top of a matte lipstick accented with gold pigment lining the cupid bow, which is McGrath’s mantra. Tilbury’s in-pursuit-of-glam customer might favor the five-year-old brand’s array of “complete looks” (which is the focus of the collection, versus individual products), while Westman’s complexion-driven range appeals to those who want their skin to look flawless without it looking like they’ve applied any makeup at all (or “You can see the skin versus a full face of foundation,” according to Westman).
This trio – at least until another new entrant arrives – represents Celebrity Makeup Artists 2.0. They are everything Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier and Laura Geller were in the Nineties – plus more, thanks to the proliferation of social media that’s helped amplify their brands and larger-than-life personalities in a way that a traditional department store counter never could.
And the new generation has fast overtaken their forerunners. The original makeup artists who launched their own brands more than two decades ago – starting with Bobbi Brown in 1991 followed by Laura Mercier and Laura Geller in 1996 and 1997, respectively – are all in the midst of a transitional period, struggling to find their point of view and voice in a digital landscape that was just getting its footing when their lines hit retailers.
After Brown departed her namesake company in December 2016, Sandra Main, credited with La Mer’s recent growth, was appointed global brand president and charged with infusing youth into the Estée Lauder Cos.-owned brand. Among her first initiatives at the helm of Bobbi Brown was greenlighting a much-needed influencer marketing strategy and introducing a lower-priced range of lipstick to attract a younger customer. Laura Geller, acquired by Glansaol in late 2016, introduced a brand refresh last spring in hopes of the same and Laura Mercier, purchased by Shiseido in June 2016, is said to be in the midst of a re-brand as well.
Brown, Mercier and Geller might still connect to their original customer bases, largely made up of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who’ve been brand loyalists for decades, but they’ve run into roadblocks when it comes to speaking to a younger customer at the same time.
So why have Tilbury and McGrath hit the makeup scene with a force that’s only second to a Kardashian-founded brand?
It’s definitely not an age thing. Tilbury, McGrath and Westman are all well into their 40s – ages 45, 46 and 47, respectively – which in the eyes of a Gen Z or Millennial is probably not much different than Mercier, Brown and Geller, who are ages 57, 60 and 67, respectively.
What Tilbury and McGrath do have that the Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier and Laura Geller brands lack is a digital savvy that only comes with building a brand in the Instagram age. The two have used social media to their advantage, engaging authentically with followers and building cult brands in the process.
Given she has jumped into the race years after those two – and others – Westman has big shoes to fill, but contends she isn’t worried.
“I’m choosing my own road, and I’m sticking with it. I’m not too concerned with all the noise,” she stated. “I just wanted to build a company how I live my life, and I live my life with a healthy 80/20 attitude.”
Westman prioritizes eating “clean” and as natural as possible, but she also doesn’t deny herself a glass of wine or bowl of pasta, she explained. She doesn’t think it’s healthy to be totally strict and regimented, and that’s the spirit she’s passed onto her products. An example: after doing extensive research on ingredients and formulation, she came to believe that sometimes it’s better to use a synthetic ingredient over a natural one.
“It’s about making a conscious choice, having all the facts and making a good decision with integrity and positivity,” she said.
The makeup artist got to work on her brand three years ago, after spending four years at Lancôme as international artistic director and seven years at Revlon as artistic director, a gig that ended in 2015. Westman wanted to do her own thing for more than a decade, she maintained, but the way her brand eventually materialized is different than the path she started on.
Westman was candid about a pivot in the direction of her initial vision: she initially wanted to create natural and organic cosmetics, which mirrors her wellness-first, vegetarian lifestyle (she handed out mini loaves of seed “bread” after interviews that wasn’t actually bread: just a potpourri of sunflower seed kernels, flax and chia seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, quinoa flakes and psyllium seed husks).
“I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. I needed to have the performance and the innovation. That had to be in the foreground for me. I had too many lab rejections and finally I was like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ I don’t want to deny anyone of luxurious colors or textures,” said Westman, adding that she has a big list of ingredients that she won’t allow, including silicones. Instead, she used coconut oil and camellia oil as silicone alternatives.
She also employed a biomimicry pigment technology that prohibits synthetic color pigments from coming into direct contact with the skin by encapsulating the molecules with clean ingredients. She called it the best of both worlds, as her makeup could now have the color payoff that she couldn’t achieve with organics – while never actually touching the skin.
“I’m looking for transparency and authenticity. I try to combine makeup and skin care, which is actively doing something, but in a gentle manner. I don’t see the need to just color and correct. I want to fix,” Westman emphasized. “I’m so tired of the glossy, retouched pictures. I just want to go back to real. When I first started working in fashion and with big actresses I always just wanted to choose something about them that they had not seen a certain way – but not transforming them. It’s an amplified version.”
This was the goal in creating a foundation, the product in the line that was “the most urgent” for Westman. A combination of developing rosacea and previous foundations she wore that clogged her pores led her to a formula that wasn’t simply covering or a coloring agent. The result was a foundation that protects from pollution, has hydrating properties and contains phytosphingosine, a skin-identical plant extract that’s known to have antiredness and anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, the texture had to be just so, with a buildable coverage and “nice luminosity.”
When asked why she started with a complexion focus, an unusual choice for a makeup launch, she quickly replied: “It’s the most important thing to me in my personal life currently but I’m most known for skin as a makeup artist. I had to use those guns.”
She wants laypeople to be able to achieve the type of skin she does when applying makeup professionally. And while the foundation launches with a tight 11 shades, she plans to add more once she’s able to get consumer and retailer feedback.
But when it came time to figure out what to call her brand things got a little sticky, according to Westman, who isn’t allowed to use her first name “in any way, shape or form except in a signature.” Eventually, she made a conscious decision to come up with something that didn’t box her into beauty and gave her the freedom to expand into home, pajamas, lingerie, wallpaper or anything else she wants to create.
The company is a joint venture with husband David Neville, cofounder of Rag & Bone, who will handle all business aspects of Westman Atelier. Neville has a proven track record with growing a successful global brand, and since he stepped down from his day-to-day role at Rag & Bone in 2016 (he remains a shareholder and on the board), he will serve as business partner to Westman, whose official role is that of founder and creative director.
Reluctant to steal his wife’s thunder, insisting that the brand is Westman’s “baby,” Neville drew parallels between building an apparel company and building a beauty brand. Regardless of the sector, he explained, one has to design and manufacture product, which then has to be sold and marketed. He admitted that makeup has its own set of complexities, from formulation to packaging design, but overall, both categories share certain “fundamental elements.”
It’s apparent that he still very much values traditional retail as a distribution channel, despite the fact that so many brands today either go the digital-first or direct-to-consumer route.
“I’m very much from the school of Andrew Rosen,” Neville explained of the Theory cofounder who helped back Rag & Bone. “Wholesale still has a big part to play and it gives you exposure in markets that otherwise wouldn’t see the product. Given the way we decided with this complexion story, for people not to touch and feel the product at the same time [would be a miss]. We clearly have to embrace the modern way of doing business.”
He detailed that the business model is a hybrid of direct-to-consumer and strategic retail partnerships.
“One gets so many questions about digital, and clearly brands need to embrace that that’s happening and learn and evolve, but I think being product-first is still essential. Desirable product that has a lot of integrity is the basis of everything; the rest will come,” Neville continued. “That’s why being in the right stores and being in front of the right customer is so important. We’re in no rush. Everything needs to reflect Gucci and her taste and her philosophy on how she leads her life.”
While there are questions as to whether Westman is coming too late to the category, at the end of the day it comes down to the personality of the makeup artist. That’s the view of David Olsen, Cos Bar chief executive officer and former Net-a-porter global vice president, who recalled meeting with Charlotte Tilbury and her ceo Demetra Pinsent well before they launched the brand.
“I said, ‘You know it’s going to be really hard. It’s going to be a big struggle.’ I basically tried to dissuade her – and boom, it just exploded. I told them they were in for a rough ride, but they’ve been on a rocket ship the whole time,” Olsen said, quickly adding, “The personality is critical. Her [Tilbury’s] success hinges on her and her relationships with celebrities and Gucci has it too. They all have it.”
Part of the issue with the original makeup artist brands is that the founders, for the most part, are either no longer with the brand or not active in day-to-day operations. Once a company loses the face of the brand, he explained, there is a natural struggle and a decision to be made about where the brand goes next.
“It’s important that the founder has significant input into the line, especially in today’s day and age of authenticity and transparency. With any brand it’s important that they’re heavily involved. To Charlotte’s credit in particular, they’ve been transparent that she’s been actively involved in every step of the way. They will have plans and she will say no to them. She will pull the rug out from under their plans.”
Gemma Lionello, Nordstrom executive vice president and general merchandise manager for beauty, maintained that customers look to celebrity makeup artists to translate the “tricks of the trade” and make seasonal and runway trends accessible in their everyday lives.
Lionello said that this group of artists has a responsibility to understand in real time what consumers like and dislike, and in turn, put out products reflective of this. With social media, there is daily interaction between artist and customer, resulting a customer expectation that’s higher than ever.
But there are also competing influences from a variety of platforms. Beauty influencers on Instagram and YouTube who have millions of followers are also vying for the attention of this consumer.
“This means the celebrity artist has to work even harder to ensure their content and product is relevant, engaging with the customer by creating an affinity not just for the product but for the artist’s overall identity,” said Lionello who, like Olsen, cited Tilbury as prime example of the new generation of celebrity artists.
“Charlotte connects with her customer across all touch points through her work in the industry – in person, [through] social, awards shows, publications, fashion week, etc. – delivering her expertise to the customer daily,” said Lionello. “She has her finger on the pulse of what the customer wants and delivers the exciting and relevant products the customer can’t live without.”