MAC Cosmetics’ unique breed of beauty — rooted in the tradition of the makeup artist and fusing fashion, fantasy and pop culture — continues to resonate with consumers, driving both trends and sales in an otherwise bleak economy. “I think the cornerstones of the success of the brand are innovation, originality and total inventiveness — plus the makeup artist,” said James Gager, MAC’s senior vice president and creative director, who, along with Jennifer Balbier, MAC’s senior vice president of product development, continues to place a premium on creativity no matter what market conditions might be.

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Churning out an ever-evolving portfolio of roughly 50 to 60 makeup collections each year that are carried in more than 1,000 doors in nearly 70 countries, MAC’s formula appears to be working.

“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves but staying true to the DNA of brand,” said Balbier, who noted MAC stays fresh courtesy of the makeup artists who use the product in 150 fashion shows around the globe each season. She also pointed to MAC’s recent designer collaborations with everyone from Alexander McQueen and Emanuel Ungaro to Heatherette and Zandra Rhodes.

“We started doing them a few years ago and they have become very meaningful to how we express ourselves,” said Balbier.

According to Gager, different collaborations and projects have also provided a way for MAC to capture all age groups. For its Beauty Icon series, for example, MAC worked with and celebrated iconic women like Diana Ross and Catherine Deneuve, while its much-talked about collaboration with Hello Kitty was meant to have cross appeal to women of all ages who were fans of the feline character.

“These collaborations keep the pop culture aspect of the brand really relevant. They also provide our customer and our makeup artists with new ideas and new ways of looking at beauty,” he said. “Some are well-honed marketing programs with decorative packaging that we work on for a long time, and some, like Ungaro and McQueen, are straight from the runway.”

Gager added that MAC’s partnership with Hello Kitty last year was the brand’s largest collaboration to-date and exemplified a marketing program at its best. Despite a launch during difficult times, the Hello Kitty color cosmetics launch managed to provide some much-needed entertainment to the consumer. “This is the idea of the sexy and the innocent. It’s the idea of having a little bit of fun,” explained Gager, who noted that the Hello Kitty collaboration was also effective because it spoke to a wide audience. “We swing between high and low fashion, and every celebrity as well as every young woman loves Hello Kitty — it was created for an adult woman who loves to play and have fun with makeup.”

Both Balbier and Gager credited MAC’s freestanding stores with providing an additional medium for creative expression and control within the brand. “They give us an opportunity to engage the customer in a way that we really can’t in department stores,” said Gager. To draw customers into their retail stores, he said they rely on MAC’s 50-plus makeup collections each year. “This is our form of merchandising — the collections get the customer into the store and keeps our stores very fresh. It engages the customer in new and interesting ways.”