Most visitors gazing at the Gainsborough and Reynolds portraits in London’s National Gallery or Royal Academy are most likely paying attention to the brush strokes, the backdrops or the poses of the lushly attired 18th-century aristocrats, military heroes and society figures.
Not Lisa Eldridge.
Instead, the fashion and celebrity makeup artist is looking closely at the eyes, hair and complexion of the artists’ subjects, making notes about the shade and position of blush on a cheek; the arch and color of the brows; and skin tone of women and men alike.
Eldridge’s interest in the history and social politics of makeup is well known. She wrote a book in 2015 called “Face Paint: The Story of Makeup,” and is a leading collector of vintage cosmetics and packaging.
The global creative director for Lancôme and a popular YouTube-r, Eldridge is now taking her studies a step further with a new BBC TV documentary-style show that looks at different periods in British history through the lens of cosmetic colors and formulations.
The first episode of “Makeup: A Glamorous History,” aired earlier this month with a look at the ostentatious, money-obsessed Georgians, who would happily smear poisonous lead paste on their faces if it would help snare them a rich husband, or sit for hours as servants loaded fatty pomade, powder and wigs onto their hair to create towering styles.
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Eldridge shot the series during lockdowns two and three in London and, in other episodes, she looks at the Victorians and their fixation with “natural” beauty, and how the look of the ’20s flappers mirrored the era’s freedoms. All the while Eldridge concocts the historic beauty formulas and re-creates the looks on herself and on a model.
“I got pharmaceutical handbooks, and made everything from scratch,” said Eldridge during a Zoom interview in London. To re-create the Venetian ceruse, which turned ladies’ faces a fashionable alabaster shade, Eldridge paid a visit to the research-focused Keele University, and worked with a pharmacist to make the exact recipe for the show.
Eldridge said it made her think “’Why are women risking their lives for this? Is it like plastic surgery today?’ I don’t know the answer — but it’s interesting.”
Her experiments also allowed her to make discoveries, such as “glycerin is still the best humectant. It’s still the gold standard. And it was only invented in 1800.”
She said she found the Victorians and their pursuit of natural beauty fascinating. “I made the recipes and now understand why they used butter to create lip balm and salve,” declared Eldridge. “Butter doesn’t shine, so it doesn’t look like makeup.”
As beauty speeds up, with trends bouncing around the world on TikTok, online sales pumping and sky-high valuations becoming a new normal for makeup artists and influencers alike, Eldridge is slowing down, poring over the past, and taking time to build her own, potentially billion-dollar brand.
Having launched her direct-to-consumer beauty business with a limited-edition capsule of three True Velvet lipsticks in 2018 (and added different colors, textures and formulations since then) Eldridge is now moving into skin care with a range called Seamless Skin.
The first products, Elevated Glow Highlighter and Enlivening Blush, are available for pre-order from May 15 on lisaeldridge.com. The highlighter is priced at $38, while the blush costs $34.
The highlighter comes in four skin-adaptive sheer tones, and is described as a glow/skin care hybrid with blurring, tightening and moisturizing properties that “disguise and beautify” any skin issues.
Active ingredients include tamarind indica seed, oat kernel extract and a biopolymer called Filmexcel which forms a mesh on the skin to “lift, tighten and smooth.”
Eldridge said she discovered Filmexcel at Cosmoprof Asia in 2017 and had been eager to use it in her future skin care line. She said she stumbled upon it in a distant area of the fair, “the one with all the raw ingredients and the machinery.”
She said she liked the makers of Filmexcel, because they had 25 years of experience in natural biopolymers, and were using two natural ingredients to create the second-skin mesh.
She put the Filmexcel into the highlighter and said it “slightly tenses the skin — not that you feel it — but it has a very gentle effect of smoothing and it works overtime. So, if you are going to highlight every day, you may as well get benefits from it,” she said.
Her aim for the highlighter was to create a high-performance, multitasking product that could disguise flaws and create a flattering glow.
“Isn’t it annoying the way highlighter sometimes goes on the areas of your face that you don’t particularly want to highlight?” she asked.
The blush, meanwhile, is a light cream-serum formula that comes in six shades and is meant to be easy to apply, blend and build.
It contains bilberry and raspberry seed oils and rosemary leaf extract, aims to blur, lift and tighten the skin and comes in shades to suit a variety of skin tones.
Eldridge is exacting when it comes to her formulations, and said she will not buy pre-pack product. To wit, she bears the scars of years of product testing and development.
“It’s like cooking, you have to experiment and really try things out and make sure that you’re getting the best makeup finish. But it has to be blend-able, easy to use and compatible with the packaging. People ask me ‘What can you tell me about product development?’ and I tell them ‘Everything that can possibly go wrong, will definitely go wrong.’”
Just like with the BBC show, Eldridge tests everything on herself, but also has a band of human guinea pigs, including fellow makeup artists and people with skin problems who don’t necessarily know how to apply makeup.
As part of the launch, Eldridge is also restocking her sell-out Gloss Embrace Lipgloss a gloss/lipcare hybrid. She has added four new shades for summer, including Songbird a light beige/putty pink, and Charm, a sweet, shimmery pink.
She’s also bringing back Luxuriously Lucent Lip Colour, a creamy, semi-sheer formula for summer. The Gloss Embrace lip gloss costs $25, and the Luxuriously Lucent semi-sheer lipstick is $36.
The relatively slow pace of replenishments (it can take months for Eldridge to restock lipsticks and glosses, as opposed to weeks at a bigger brand) and the time lag between product drops is all part of Eldridge’s grand plan.
She is not bothered by the speed with which her peers, such as Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath, have built their businesses, achieving stratospheric valuations. She’s not concerned, either, with the rise of the billion dollar influencer-led brands.
Eldridge has great ambitions, but wants to work at her own pace, and in tune with her personal values.
“I can only ever be me, and I can’t change. I like things done well,” said Eldridge, adding that she enjoys not having the pressure of a boss or investor banging on her door, demanding that she sell a certain number of products by a specific deadline.
“I’m in a very nice position, and my brand is a slow brand. I don’t particularly enjoy the speed of the industry now, but I do enjoy being able to be a little bit more creative, and be a bit more demanding.”
Her long-term plans are big. “I want to be global. I want to be huge, but I don’t just want to rush, and do the wrong thing either. I like to research and do things the right way, in a way that is the best for my brand and also the best for the consumer.”
She mentions her customer base often, and believes they are informed, committed and looking for something different from white label formulas that come with jazzy packaging or compelling narratives.
“There are formulas I’ve got coming out that are 100 percent my IP, my formula. They have not been developed for me by a supplier. That is interesting to me, plus I’m not particularly driven by money,” she said.
Having her own brand allows her to make decisions “that feel right in my guts. My customers understand who I am. They love my formulas and so far, touch wood, it’s going well. So I think I’ll just keep being myself for the time being.”
Her customers are a committed — but demanding — bunch.
Eldridge has been doing her detailed YouTube makeup tutorials since 2008, showing women worldwide techniques to create a chic and simple look, disguise acne or bring out their inner Marilyn Monroe, and when she doesn’t post, they’re disappointed.
She has 2.04 million subscribers on YouTube, and a further 1.3 million followers on Instagram. Understandably, Eldridge slacked off on the YouTube tutorials while she was filming the BBC series, and her followers were baying for more.
“I feel bad because during the last two months I’ve hardly posted because we’ve been finishing the documentary series. I miss YouTube as well, but I can’t do everything,” she said, adding that she’ll be back on the digital screen soon.
“It adds another layer to what I understand about makeup, and to what I can bring,” she said of the tutorials.
The business has been self-funded so far, and Eldridge said she has recently taken “a very tiny amount of investment” from Mark Esiri, founder of the London-based venture capital fund Venrex, a longtime champion of small British businesses and one of the early investors in Charlotte Tilbury.
Eldridge said she does not envision taking on more investors for now — although she’s not short of offers.
“I’d rather get my brand to a place where I’m comfortable and happy and I feel like it’s growing at the right pace, with the right decisions being made,” she said.
She has more skin care launches planned for September, and is talking to “like-minded retailers” and distributors who can take the brand into new territories where she’s seeing demand, such as Asia.
Asked how big the brand is in terms of revenue, Eldridge demurs, saying that lipstick sales are in “the hundreds of thousands” of units, and each launch is bigger than the last. The latest lip launches last autumn were selling out in less than an hour, she said.
“Each time I’m ordering more and more stock because I don’t want people to be disappointed. I feel quite terrified at the amount of stock I’m ordering. I feel positively sick, and then it sells out in 28 minutes.”
Eldridge continues to work for Lancôme, and said she was 100 percent upfront with them from the start about building her brand.
“I love working with them. They’re great people. I love the brand, and they like my brand as well. It feels very modern that I’m able to do these two, very separate, things. It’s all very civilized.”
She said that when she’s in Paris she buzzes straight over to the Lancôme labs, and does all of her work there alongside the cosmetic scientists.
Indeed, Eldridge believes that cosmetic science is “the most creative and energetic area of the industry at the moment. There are so many new challenges ahead.”
She also spends time reading the papers of students graduating from university, and has just hired one of them.
The student, she said, “wrote something about replacing a particular polymer with a new version, and I’m like: ‘God, that’s interesting!’ and I rang her up a message asking if she wanted to work for me.”
While Eldridge is making strides, she refuses to give up the day job. Session work and campaign shoots, she said, are a delicious day off for her.
“I love it so much, and I still want to be in touch with the makeup industry and the professional fashion industry. I’m passionate about it, and I’m still nervous when I go on a job, I’m still excited, exactly as I was when I first did my first shoot.”