By Katie Anderson
Women of colour have continually faced dire under-representation and restricted choice within the cutthroat world of cosmetics. Despite the widened colour selection since the turn of the millennium and the recent influx of high-pigment products for darker skin, the choices available across the price point spectrum still fail to accurately reflect the ethnic realities of the consumer market. The overwhelming reception of Rihanna’s new make-up line ‘Fenty Beauty’ stands as a testament to the troubles experienced by women of colour; frustratingly in the year 2017 people are still exhaling a sigh of relief at the introduction of an inclusive, complexion-focused brand.
Although many sceptics will be quick to assume that Rihanna’s motives are purely financial, the products released after two years of research have been praised for their diversity and quality, placing them above other misleading and cheap celebrity products. The cruelty-free range, which boasts forty shades of foundation and thirty highlighting tools, fills a gaping hole in the market. Much like the historic introduction of Maybelline’s ‘Shades of You’ campaign in the 1990s, it is having an explosive impact within the industry. Rihanna’s brand stands as a beacon of hope in comparison to the limited scope of high-street brands such as Bourjois (a meagre nine shades for foundation) or even high-end brands such as YSL (which was recently forced to retract its new foundation after customers labelled it ’fifty shades of white’). In her statement for Bazaar magazine, she assured customers that “I didn’t care how long it took, I was going to make sure that we covered most skin tones”. Just a quick scan of her personal Instagram account ‘Bad RiRi’ unveils Rihanna’s position as an advocator of social progress as well as the aesthetic appeal of makeup. Images include artwork celebrating the recent liberation granted to Saudi women and photography of black British model Leomie Anderson and Somali-American model Halima Aden wearing her range.
Rihanna chose the U.S based cosmetic retailer Sephora to stock her products and it was here that the seven darkest shades sold out first. This challenges the notion that the consumer market in darker shades isn’t worth investment from bottom end beauty brands. The retail chain, which occupies a middle ground between drug store style convenience and the snooty luxury of high-end department stores, has grown massively in recent years due to its reputable focus on user experience and its progressive stance. It is famed for propelling lesser known brands into the limelight. It stocks, for example, ‘IMAN’ and ‘Black Up’ both of which are brands which aim not only to match darker skin tones but to enhance them.
In the UK on the other hand, smaller brands that specifically cater to women of colour are harder to locate on the high street and Rihanna’s decision to launch her range in Harvey Nichols may further perpetuate this feeling. With foundations priced at £26 and a contouring kit at £46, the high prices mean that this kind of inclusive range remains out of reach for a large proportion of society. Despite the increase in women of colour as brand ambassadors, like the radiant Lupita Nyong’o for Lancome or Frieda Pinto for L’Oreal, everyday over the counter experience often remains a disappointment. When it comes down to tracking a celebrity-endorsed shade in commonplace establishments such as Boots or Superdrug for a reasonable price, the range remains shifted towards the paler end of the spectrum.
One of the only encouraging cases comes from Sleek, which has just launched a life-proof foundation in twenty-four shades at an affordable price of £8. The melting-pot character of our world means that new shades of skin are literally being produced every day; companies will have to address and celebrate this reality As a result, women of colour are habitually obliged to conduct separate research and order their cosmetics online, which means they are unable to test their choices before committing to a purchase. The experience can become an ordeal rather than an enjoyable stint of retail therapy. Such difficulties have led to the creation of a social justice initiative B.O.M.B challenge, which asks Youtubers (white ones in particular), to support (B)lack (O)wned (M)akeup (B)usinesses. The aim is to confront the dominion of the trio of beauty companies that own 99% of mainstream brands, bringing to light how smaller brands are overshadowed by less inclusive monopolies.
It remains frustrating, however, that the creation of ethnic-specific brands is still a necessity, and such discrepancies must be corrected with urgency if cosmetic companies are to keep up with contemporary cultural and biological currents. Karen Buglisi Weiler, the global brand president of M.A.C, admits that while currently, the company’s largest markets are Britain, the United States and Canada, it is experiencing the “highest growth in the margin markets” of Brazil, India and China. The melting-pot character of our world means that new shades of skin are literally being produced every day, and companies will have to address and celebrate this reality by working increasingly hard to improve their tone ranges as well as textures. Hopefully, the future will see more research and development being spent on appreciating this complexity and brands will not simply box off ‘dark skin’, but recognise the cosmetic requirements of those with cool and warm undertones as well as olive and Asian skin tones.
Despite Rihanna’s ‘Fenty Beauty’ range being a little on the expensive side, she should be commended for her determination to create a range where the branding is not obviously geared towards any specific ethnicity and neither lighter nor darker skin are presented as the target audience. Although she is not the first to try, the brand can be seen as a pioneer of assumptive inclusivity rather than tokenism, which is a model that the whole industry should undoubtedly adopt. It should be an unspoken expectation that brands should provide a decent match and wide shade range. Even if Rihanna is just simply another celebrity with a money-making agenda, her buyers surely have the right to invest in a company that is attempting to make money in an ethical, inclusive way.
Illustration: Faye Chua