In 1994, when Somali supermodel Iman started her cosmetics line based on foundation in a broad range of colors, she said she wasn’t interested in ethnicity or race.
“The mission statement has not changed,” she said not long ago. “It was for women of skin of color and addressing skin tone.
“That’s different from a cosmetic line that’s for ‘women of color,’ ” Iman continued. “In this country, ‘women of color’ is just considered black.”
At the time, most beauty companies focused on caucasian skin tones, with a few brands like Opal and Fashion Fair targeting the African-American customer. Iman wanted to be more inclusive.
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“For example, a Filipino woman could have as dark a complexion as me,” she said. “Why were we limiting ourselves?”
Two decades later, the spectrum of foundation shades has considerably widened. Last fall, at a revamped counter at Macy’s in New York City, Lancome unveiled Foundation Finder, a tool to find the correct shade for each formulation of skin makeup.
“Five years ago, I couldn’t match some women who would come in – it was frustrating to turn people away, who might have had coloring like mine,” said the counter manager, Emmanuel Macareno, noting his golden Hispanic complexion. “Even three years ago, we had more color, but we didn’t have the range. It was all neutral colors. Now there are more warmer colors.”
Currently, new Lancome foundations are introduced with a minimum of 20 shades, said Silvia Galfo, the senior vice president for marketing at the brand. This year, the company will introduce some with as many as 30.
Some brands with makeup artists behind them like M.A.C., NARS and Make Up For Ever have been more inclusive from the start, said Vic Casale, a founding partner of M.A.C. Cosmetics who is now the chief of innovation for Cover FX, which was founded in 2000 but which recently got a makeover. Such companies have long featured lipstick and cheek colors with stronger pigments, which show up better on women with darker skin, he said.
But the foundation category has been slower to catch up. Brands like Lancome may boast of 30 skin shades, but only five of them will be for women of color, Casale said. When it comes to Cover FX’s 28 shades, he said, “I made the colors specifically so that they are one step – about 3 percent – away from each other.
“We joke sometimes a new shade is born every day,” he added. “And it’s true, the world is getting smaller and smaller. People are moving everywhere. You’ll have an African-American marry someone from, say, Japan. Or somebody from Europe marries somebody from Korea. It’s not as pigeonholed as it used to be.”
As cosmetic brands look beyond the U.S. for market share, expanding their shades makes sense. Karen Buglisi Weiler, the global brand president of M.A.C., said that while the company’s largest markets are the United States, Britain and Canada, it’s seeing the “highest growth in the margin markets,” like China, India and Brazil. This has resulted in strategic collaborations like capsule collections by the Chinese artist Chen Man, the Bollywood makeup artist Mickey Contractor and Brazilian-mined minerals.
The brand has also ventured to the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s about the shades, but it’s also textures,” Buglisi Weiler said. “A black woman in America versus a black woman in France versus a black woman in Africa might have all different undertones. Or humidity can be a problem in India or Brazil.” Hence best-sellers like the Studio Fix compact foundation now offer 50 shades.
According to Iman, such changes were made inevitable in part by “hip-hop culture of the ’90s and early 2000s.” Music videos featured “multiracial kids,” she said, and suddenly the world was seeing everyone from “black girls with blond Afros to Japanese girls with dreadlocks. It was not our grandmother’s way of looking at things.”
There are enough underserved niches that Jodie Patterson, the founder of a beauty line called Georgia by Jodie Patterson, and Benjamin Bernet, a former L’Oreal marketing executive, have created Doobop.com, an online beauty retailer intended for women with “brown skin tones and textured hair,” featuring mainstream French brands like Caudalie along with some that are specific to darker complexions (Ethnicia Paris) or friendly to them (Lamik, which does not overtly target women of color but is led by a black makeup artist).
“When we started the company, my biggest fear was to start an ethnic site,” Bernet said. “It would seem like it was 1990, where you have black women on the face of the product. It’s so boring for everyone, for the brands and the customers.”
Patterson said, “Beauty needs to be out of the ethnic aisle, gone. We are post-ethnic, but we are totally pro-edit. There are some specific concerns that I have that might be different than you. I want a brand that speaks to that or that specific need without saying I’m going to package it differently and put it over there.”