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Beauty Undercover: Where the Upper East Side Gets Primped

WWD's mass market editor Ellen Thomas heads to Blushington — often called "the Drybar of makeup" — to observe the holiday rush.

Within moments of greeting me inside Blushington’s rosy-tinged, gold-accented Upper East Side location, chief executive officer Natasha Cornstein notes that clients often make the connection between the “beauty lounge” — per company lingo — and the Eighties-era sitcom “Cheers.” Cornstein, clad in a silky white shirt, light gray leather pants and a fur vest, relays the connection while simultaneously taking my coat, complimenting my bag and offering me Champagne, coffee or tea.

Typically upon hearing a reference like this, I’m inclined to dismiss it as cheesy ceo-speak. But about 30 minutes into a five-hour visit, it occurs to me that Cornstein isn’t blowing smoke.

I’m here to observe how the denizens of New York’s ritziest neighborhood, from tweens to titans of industry, spruce up during the year’s most festive period.

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If Blushington is the “Cheers” of beauty, the ebullient Cornstein is Sam the bartender — albeit much more polished and wielding rosé Champagne instead of beer. On my Friday afternoon visit, the executive is working the room — gossiping with regulars, greeting newcomers and making product recommendations. The regulars are the “Carte Blush” members. For $250 a month, a Carte Blush membership gets customers unlimited access to all of Blushington’s services — not just makeup, but a host of offerings, including brow waxes, lash extensions, no-downtime glycolic peels from Dr. Neal Schultz’s BeautyRX line and as of this month, dry styling using products from Jen Atkin’s Ouai. Cornstein says that some Carte Blush members are in the shop as often as twice a day. “It’s a very active community.”

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Blushington, like Drybar, is a speed-service concept, part of a growing group of beauty bars — including Skin Laundry, Madison Reed and Heyday — that are disrupting the traditional salon model by offering express professional services at affordable prices. At Blushington, a signature full-face makeup application is $55. Speed service bars are in rapid expansion mode — Drybar has opened 85 locations, launched a product line and entered Canada since launching in 2010, while Madison Reed will roll out 25 color bars in the U.S. by the end of 2019.

Founded in 2011 by makeup artist Stephi Maron, Blushington started as one storefront in West Hollywood. Cornstein was tapped as ceo in 2016 to spearhead the company’s expansion — a former branding and marketing executive for the jewelry buying company Circa, her first experience with Blushington was as a customer in California.

Today there are five Blushingtons in New York, Texas and California, with a sixth one on the way in Los Angeles’s luxe Brentwood section. Over the next two years, Cornstein is focused on building out the company’s existing markets in upper-middle to high-income communities including five more locations in Manhattan in areas such as TriBeCa, Flatiron and the Upper West Side. Cornstein would not comment on financials, but industry sources estimate the business does just under $10 million in annual sales — a 30 percent jump from 2016.

As Cornstein gives the grand tour — this locale boasts 10 chairs, most of which are occupied when I arrive at around 3 p.m., along with nine retail fixtures — she mentions that Blushington’s unofficial aesthetic is “no makeup makeup.” If someone wants heavy contour or glitter, they’ll get it as requested, but otherwise, the goal is to make clients look like the best versions of themselves.

This requires a lot of back-and-forth between artists and clients, which the clients seem to appreciate.

“Do you feel like you need more moisturizer?”

“Do you want a little more shimmer?”

“Is bronzer OK?”

“Do you want that pink lip we did last time or do you want to go more winter-y?”

I soon realize that I am the only person at Blushington who doesn’t know anyone else. Cornstein seems to know all the clientele personally — this is because she’s physically present in the store at least four days a week. And it can’t hurt that Blushington’s clientele reads like a veritable who’s-who of the Upper East Side.

“Oh my god — I only ever see you on Facebook,” exclaims Melissa Rosenbloom, a luxury events planner, to Meredith Waga Perez, the florist behind Belle Fleur. Rosenbloom’s cousin and business partner at Gourmet Advisory Services, Claudia Warner, says of the roughly seven people who came into Blushington during her appointment time, she knew five of them.

It is Warner’s first time today, and Cornstein instructs her not to leave the chair until she is 100 percent satisfied with her look. Warner is delighted with the final results. “I showed them a picture of how I like to look, and they nailed it,” she says. She and Rosenbloom depart to take a selfie together in front of a step-and-repeat and ring light that is left over from the store’s opening party, exactly a year ago to the date. “It just kind of stuck — clients love it,” Cornstein says.

“What’s cool is that we all know each other. You know in the old days when you’d go to the beauty shop [every week]? If I come here on Saturday, we all kind of get ready together,” says Lauren Schor Geller, who is seated next to her 13-year-old daughter, Marin. It is the night before Marin’s bat mitzvah, and the pair has come in for a quick touch-up before Friday night services. Geller is a Carte Blush member and they’ll be back tomorrow before the big party at the Ziegfeld Ballroom. “We’re not normally dressed like this — we’re usually in sweats,” Geller says.

This isn’t Marin’s first time at Blushington. She had her 12th birthday party here, accompanied by dinner and a photo shoot with friends. Renting out the store runs from $500 to $1,500 an hour not including gratuity.

Unlike many of the regulars, Marin has requested a specific artist, Jennifer Francisco. “She’s done my makeup before and when she does it, it looks perfect,” Marin says. “I like that it doesn’t cover up my natural stuff,” she says, referring to her freckles. Marin prefers a simple makeup look — clean skin, a little mascara and a shimmery eye.

Francisco says this is the popular look with teens. “It’s all about shimmer, sparkle and lip gloss,” she says. Marin isn’t too into makeup brands yet, but she knows fashion well. “It’s Missoni,” she says sagely when asked who makes the scarf slung over her shoulder.

A few hours into my visit, I leave in an Uber with Marie Bullock, one of Blushington’s senior artists — she’s been with this location since it opened. She’s on her way to the Lenox Hill apartment of Lizzie Tisch, where Tisch has reserved a Blush-on-the-Go appointment — she says she does this about three times a week. For $125 a pop, Blush-on-the-Go sends an artist to do a customer’s makeup in the privacy of their own home.

After asking what Tisch is wearing — “definitely black pants and probably a black sequin top,” Bullock is off to the races. Tisch’s husband, Jonathan, will be back from SoulCycle at any moment, and then the couple is off to a cocktail party.

“I like that they’re not heavy-handed. I’ve gone to MAC, which is fun, but you come back and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s not Halloween.’ You want to look like you but better,” Tisch says. She’s had makeup artists come to her home many times before, but she likes the consistency of Blushington’s service.

And for Tisch, convenience is key. She shops mostly on Amazon and Net-a-porter for beauty. But Barneys New York or Bergdorf Goodman? Forget about it. “The makeup counters at department stores terrify me,” Tisch says. “I don’t want to have a whole conversation, I want to be in and out. If I find a product I like, I want to buy it anonymously.”

She might be an ultra-luxury consumer, but Tisch couldn’t care less about Amazon’s less than luxury interface. “It’s just the convenience factor — when you’re buying your books and snacks and you run out of your mascara, why do I want to go on some other site?”

Tisch’s appointment whizzes by — it takes Bullock under 30 minutes to give her a fresh face and shimmery eye look. “I like this palette,” says Tisch, tapping on a Stila Eyes are the Window eyeshadow palette.

Had she wished to do so, Tisch could have purchased the palette on Blushington’s recently launched e-commerce platform, which will allow the company to sell even more product than the 310 stockkeeping units from 30 brands it sells in-store.

Blushington’s retail business is strong. One of Cornstein’s first initiatives was tapping Manhattan’s RPG firm to maximize retail space in the Upper East Side location as well as retrofit the other stores to do the same. Forty percent of the Upper East Side store’s revenue comes from product sales. The retrofitted locations hover closer to 30 percent — with the high retail volume, Blushington’s business model blurs the line between speed service bar and experiential retail.

Brands sold include Stila, Becca, Kevyn Aucoin, Jouer and Erborian; bestsellers include Stila Heaven’s Hue Highlighter, Jouer’s Long-Wear Lip Toppers and Essential Lip Enhancer. Skin care, says Cornstein, is a growing focus due to customer demand — Bioderma’s micellar waters and wipes are bestsellers, as are moisturizers from Tata Harper, the latest brand in Blushington’s lineup.

The desire for convenience is echoed by many of Blushington customers. “What I want in my life is for things to be very easy,” says Liz Lange, the maternity wear designer. She’s perched on a chair, fur coat still on, getting a “just eyes” service — it would be $35 if she weren’t a Carte Blush member. “This feels very easy. They never keep you waiting. I can go straight to a chair. They keep my credit card on file. There’s no annoying process.”

Lange has been a Blushington customer for several months, and she’s discovered some of her favorite “now addicted-to” products here. “I’m extremely jaded — I’ve had so many makeup artists do my face, and I’m always like, ‘yeah, thanks but no thanks.’ It’s crazy. That CC Cream from Erborian — never ever heard of it. Now I’m obsessed. I knew about Becca but it never appealed to me. Becca is now one of my favorite brands. I love their foundations and eye shadows.”

Bullock says education is a key component of a Blushington makeup application, which leads to a higher conversion rate. “I talk through the whole appointment, from the lip conditioner on,” she says, demonstrating her technique on me. “This is a lip conditioner — try it, it’s amazing; it’s good for dry skin in winter. It won’t clog your pores, which is a big deal in this area — no one wants a clogged pore.”

Back at the salon, Blushington is beginning the transformation from the regular crowd to the after-hours one. In this case, the after-hours crowd is a 14-year-old named Julia’s birthday party, complete with fizzy raspberry mocktails and macarons.

“They’re all finishing up interviews for high school next year — this is a stress-reliever,” says Julia’s dad.

Julia isn’t allowed to wear makeup to school — only to bar and bat mitzvah parties — so this night is a special treat. But that rule doesn’t stop Julia and her friends from being avid beauty consumers.

Julia and her best friend Gaby, who arrive in lace-up leggings and Ugg boots, are both obsessed with beauty. They love to splurge on Tarte and Urban Decay, when they’ve got the cash, and settle for Forever 21’s house line when they’re running low on Sephora and Ulta gift cards, which they receive from friends as birthday and holiday gifts. Both native Manhattanites, they love Laura Lee, the Alabamian beauty vlogger known for dropping countless “y’alls” in her Ulta haul videos. “I just love how perky she is,” Gaby says.

The girls like to prowl the East 86th Street retail corridor on the weekends. “There’s Sephora, Lush, MAC, now Ulta — it’s one big happy teenage dream,” says Julia’s mom.

For birthday parties, Blushington artists do mini makeup lessons followed by full makeovers. Bullock lets Gaby practice applying tinted moisturizer on Julia’s face, instructing her how to blend out with a Beautyblender sponge. “You guys are pros — you got this,” she says.

The 14-year-olds certainly sound like pros.

“You can do a gold or berry color on the eye — those are the only colors that look good with my hair,” says another young client, wearing a “Girls Rule the World”
T-shirt and combat boots.

If only I were this bullish on what colors work best on my eyes.

“Um — I don’t know. Brown? Maybe purple? Whatever,” I tell Bullock later, when she is giving me the full Blushington experience — minus the Champagne, which I’ve forgone for water as I’m technically on the job — during a rare lull in the day.

Marie has dutifully listened to me describe my regular makeup routine — clear brow gel, mascara, sometimes blush — and promises she will fulfill my request to show me how to do an amplified version of this. As she works, I settle in next to my new friend — as is the Blushington custom — Fran Taylor.

Fran is a stylist for daytime television shows. Wearing an Adidas hoodie and Golden Goose sneakers, she says that if she didn’t live on the Upper West Side — and didn’t have early-morning call times for work — she’d be at Blushington every day with her Carte Blush membership.

“But wouldn’t you rather just have someone come to your house every day if we’re talking hypothetically?” I ask her, thinking of Tisch’s Blush-to-Go habit. Having a makeup artist come to my apartment every morning is what I would do if I didn’t live in a fifth-floor East Village walk-up on a journalist’s salary. Fran laughs. “But at home I have my husband, my dog, my kids getting in the way — this is a respite.”

As the “Cheers” theme song goes, “Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”