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What to Watch: The New Wave of Italian Digital-native Beauty Brands

WWD rounded up the most promising indie companies, ranging from unfussy and quick approach to beauty routines to high-tech formulations.

MILAN — There’s no such thing as too much beauty.

While the industry is questioning if the global beauty market has reached a saturation point, a new wave of indie brands is on the rise in Italy, a country best known for its strong supply chain and leading cosmetics manufacturers rather than blockbuster labels.

But as the pandemic accelerated the digitalization in the market and local consumers became increasingly familiar with online shopping, a new generation of entrepreneurs saw in the endless shelves of the digital world an opportunity to compete and ultimately to try to change the paradigm that pigeonholes Italian beauty players to behind-the-scenes roles rather than under the spotlight.

According to the most recent projections released by Cosmetica Italia, the country’s beauty market is expected to report a 8.5 percent increase in revenues to 10.6 billion euros for 2021, as all distribution channels showed signs of recovery last year. Online sales are expected to register the biggest growth with a 29.7 percent increase. Although in value online sales still represent a marginal slice — accounting for 900 million euros — there remains significant potential for growth in this channel.

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Over the last few years some digital-native brands already grasped this potential and leveraged the disruption caused by the pandemic to grow. Examples ranged from Skin Labo and Shampora, which last year expanded in new markets with their accessible skin care offering and customizable hair care products, respectively, to the Veralab body care brand launched by social personality Cristina Fogazzi in 2015. Veralab exponentially grew during the pandemic, almost doubling its 2019 sales to reach 55 million euros in 2020, enabling Fogazzi to supplement e-commerce with physical stores in Milan and Rome, boost distribution at the Rinascente department store and corners at the Pinalli perfumery chain, as well as to launch in pharmacies last year.

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Veralab's new store in Rome.
Veralab’s new store in Rome. Courtesy of Veralab

While Zago Cosmetics continued to build on its niche core of undermakeup products, new brands targeting consumers’ lifestyles rather than specific conditions were introduced in the past quarter, including Sinesia and Syster Beauty.

One of the first in Italy to anticipate the need for a fast and unfussy beauty routine, Espressoh remains one of the most convincing examples in the indie segment. The Instagram-friendly makeup label launched by Chiara Cascella in 2018 has become a favorite among Millennial customers for its focused assortment, appealing visuals, engaging communication and smart marketing campaigns, ranging from temporary stores installed in newsstands to tie-ups with indie artists and galleries.

While gradually expanding its assortment and footprint with partnerships, such as with Sephora in Asia, Espressoh also stood out for its community-building — a skill that other players, especially in skin care, are increasingly hoping to master in 2022.

A natural and vegan skin care brand, Honieh was founded by local fashion influencer Erika Boldrin in 2019 after she converted to a vegan and healthy lifestyle. Priced between 19 euros and 46 euros, the assortment includes a cleansing mousse, a face cream, a multitask oil, as well as three types of masks and serums. All formulations are certified by the AIAB association that guarantees the ingredients come from natural sources, are environmentally friendly and that the use of chemical product processes is limited.

Over the last year, Honieh started to enter in brick-and-mortar with a pop-up store at Rinascente’s Annex and a corner at Modes.

Products by Honieh.
Products by Honieh. Courtesy of Honieh

Also centered on skin care essentials and counting recent pop-ups at Milan’s Annex and Venice’s T Fondaco dei Tedeschi department stores, Adesso is an Italian brand with a French flair — a mix that results from the fact that the three sisters behind the company live between the two countries.

Enrica, Mariolina and Cecilia Sangalli wanted beauty solutions that could match their on-the-go lifestyle. Hence the name of the brand, which translates into “now” in English, and its focus on the holy trinity of healthy skin: cleansing, protection and hydration. Priced between 20 euros and 35 euros, products are rinse-free to limit water consumption and include the rebalancing micellar gel cleanser, the multiprotective face mask and the face recovery cream.

The rebalancing micellar gel by Adesso.
The rebalancing micellar gel by Adesso. Courtesy of Adesso

Officially launched six months ago, Lieve also promotes a simple and gentle approach to skin care via clean, seasonal formulas containing more than 95 percent of natural ingredients and no perfume. Highlights comprise the Sudden Light multivitamin serum and the Haruhana one, which includes moisturizing sakura flower extract, plumping hyaluronic acid and collagen boosting tissue elasticity. The brand’s prices range from 28 euros to 42 euros.

The Sudden Light multivitamin serum by Lieve.
The Sudden Light multivitamin serum by Lieve. Courtesy of Lieve

In sync with this simplified attitude toward skin care, new brands are also focusing on specific segments. Take, for example, Darling, the sun care brand Alberto Giacobazzi and Ilenia Gebennini launched in 2018 with the mission to make SPF products cooler to raise awareness of the importance of skin protection, especially among younger consumers.

Hence the pastel-toned, recyclable packaging and eye-catching visuals that complement the brand’s Made in Italy formulations rich in vitamin E, aloe vera and jojoba oil. Offering medium and high-protection lotions, a face cream, an after-sun and a tan activator priced between 29 euros and 41 euros, the brand is available in 19 countries in selected independent stores as well as key retailers such as Liberty and Galeries Lafayette, in addition to its e-commerce.

Darling's sun care range.
Darling’s sun care range. Courtesy of Darling

Permano is focused on enhancing the hand care experience instead. Founded by a pool of young entrepreneurs hailing from different industries, the brand intends to retool daily gestures into appealing and sustainable experiences.

After launching with hydrating and scented hand sanitizing sprays, the range expanded to include soap bars, liquid soaps and rich hand creams, presented in recyclable aluminum and FSC-certified paper packaging. With prices ranging from 10 euros to 29 euros, the brand also offers refill formats.

A product by Permano.
A product by Permano. Courtesy of Permano

Another strategy is basing a brand on a key ingredient. For Martina Gamboni’s and Stefano Lorenzoni’s skin care brand Imersa, this is sericin, a protein of silk included in all products that aims to deliver a long-lasting hydrating effect as well as protective and elasticizing properties.

One of the standout products in the range is the Silk Cocoons scrub made with sericin and fibroin, another natural protein of silk with a rough surface that enhances the exfoliation of the skin. Each cocoon in the jar has to be immersed in warm water before being stuck on a finger and used to massage the face with circular movements.

Imersa's lip balm and Silk Cocoons scrub.
Imersa’s lip balm and Silk Cocoons scrub. Courtesy of Imersa

Iuva’s formulations are based on pomace of Barbera grapes hailing from a vineyard in Monferrato, in the Piedmont region. These byproducts of the wine-making process are repurposed into a concise skin care line in a process that also limits waste and promotes a positive impact on the environment. Retailing online from 17 euros to around 35 euros, the range includes a mask and scrub as well as an antiage cream and booster.

Iuva's face mask and scrub.
Iuva’s face mask and scrub. Courtesy of Iuva

Beauty Thinkers follows a similar path but one rooted in hundred-year-old olive trees grown on the Umbrian hills. Launched three months ago by former Tod’s global general manager Claudio Castiglioni, the brand offers scientific formulations based on hydroxytyrosol, an antioxidant derived from the byproducts of olive oil production.

After research backed by the University of Ferrara and its spin-off Ambrosialab on the extraction technology and formula’s performance, the brand launched the Antioxidant Boost face oil and the Antioxidant Cream moisturizer, offered in refillable packaging at 58 euros and 88 euros, respectively.

Beauty Thinkers' Antioxidant Boost.
Beauty Thinkers’ Antioxidant Boost. Courtesy of Beauty Thinkers

Also highly rooted in science, Aeqium raises awareness of the correlation between radiant skin and overall health by offering dermocosmetics and nutraceuticals aimed to work in synergy. Priced between 70 euros and 165 euros, the brand, which was founded by Francesco and Nicola Balestrieri and Alla Reitsma, includes cleanser and creams for face and body as well as two types of supplements aimed at purifying the body and enhancing the skin regeneration process from the inside.

Products by Aeqium.
Products by Aeqium. Courtesy of Aeqium