The year is drawing to a close with a diverse future of make-up finally shimmering on the horizon. The biggest names on the beauty scene over the past 12 months were Pat McGrath and Rihanna, both of whom created sell-out products that corrected the beauty industry’s longstanding Eurocentric approach, and were designed for use on all skin tones — Rihanna with her Fenty range and beauty industry supremo McGrath with Pat McGrath Labs.
These two moguls share a lot in approach. They both have huge and fervent social media followings (McGrath has 1.6 million Instagram followers; Rihanna has 58.5 million). They even share models — plus-size beauty and Fenty Beauty campaign star Paloma Elsesser was originally a McGrath muse, discovered on Instagram. But the two took very different routes into beauty.
McGrath is one of the world’s top make-up artists, a maestro famed for creating highly detailed, artistic looks. She has devised the make-up at top fashion houses and painted the faces of celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Rita Ora and Cara Delevingne. As one of few black make-up artists operating in a very white environment, her efforts were led by the fact that she and her mother could never find suitable make-up as black women living in the UK. This year, Pat McGrath Labs launched in Europe. She does not yet sell foundations (there are rumours among the beauty-obsessed that these are coming soon), but her make-up features sequins and rich, saturated colour pigments and are designed to create the sort of gobsmacking looks for which she is famed.
This year, she proved her megastar status with the launch of an eight-piece merchandise line, proudly emblazoned with her name in gold, just three days after she was given the Isabella Blow creator award at the Fashion awards.
Rihanna, of course, is an international superstar, but that is not the only reason that her Fenty Beauty range immediately stood apart from its competitors. The revelation was that its foundations were available in 40 shades, right from the start, in an industry in which claims have long been made that creating good foundations — with no ashy or grey effect — for very dark skins is very difficult.
“In every product, I was like: ‘There needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl; there needs to be something for a really pale girl; there needs to be something in between’,” she said at one of her 17 launch parties.
When another make-up brand, Ultra HD, challenged her dominance by posting that “40 shades is nothing new to us”, her retort was icy sharp: “lol. still ashy.”
For dark-skinned black women, in particular, the emergence of Fenty Beauty was seismic. Although black women reportedly spend up to nine times more on hair and beauty products than white women, for years they haven’t been catered for by an industry steeped in racism and colourism. It was no wonder the darker shades of Fenty foundation kept selling out.
People with albinism, such as Krystal Robertson, rejoiced. Her Instagram post lauding the product was reposted by Rihanna herself. “In the beginning, when I started to learn about make-up, I always would get so discouraged constantly trying to shade match and realising money was wasted on a product,” she says. “I’m a very shy person, but when I apply my make-up it feels empowering.”
Valued at $72 million (Dh264.38 million) after just one month of sales, Fenty Beauty’s mid-range ₤8 (Dh40) to ₤46 price tag meant that everyone could get their Rihanna-enhanced glow-up, and the collection was Harvey Nichol’s biggest beauty launch to date, surpassing even MAC, with one bottle of foundation selling every minute and one lip gloss every three minutes throughout September.
The timing of Rihanna’s success was striking: just two weeks earlier, L’Oreal’s first black trans model, Munroe Bergdorf, was dropped from its True Match campaign after making comments on systemic racism. The high-profile fallout was dramatically at odds with L’Oreal’s year-long marketing campaign which claimed that the company was educating the beauty industry about the lack of diversity in make-up, with True Match hailed as the only “mainstream” foundation brand that covered 98% of UK skin tones.
“Rihanna killed it with Fenty,” Bergdorf says. “The campaign was the perfect example of celebrating diversity without being tokenistic. It was especially needed when so many other companies only do it as a marketing ploy to make money out of women of colour.”
It’s not that Fenty is perfect: most of the models Rihanna has worked with fit into already established beauty standards, with clear skin and “acceptable” body shapes. Although Rihanna has called out tokenism and commented that she doesn’t “think it’s fair that a trans woman, or man, be used as a convenient marketing tool”, Bergdorf says that the brand could be more inclusive. “Diversity is an ever-evolving thing and there’s trans bodies, disabled bodies — all sorts that we need to tackle.”
But as the starting point for a new age of make-up diversity, Fenty and McGrath Labs are off to a glittering start.