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Cosmetics Companies Play Catch-Up With Diversity Of Customers


Women of color have long been ignored by major cosmetic firms, which meant there wasn't a whole lot of choice if you weren't white. That has changed. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team takes a look at why companies now see many shades of women.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Cosmetics mogul Bobbi Brown remembers when she began working as a freelance makeup artist in the fashion industry in the 1980s, there were challenges to making up black and brown women.

BOBBI BROWN: As a freelance makeup artist, I worked with models from all over the globe and women of many different skin colors, from alabaster, the whitest of white, to the darkest of dark. And often, I would have a bag full of foundations - as a young makeup artist - and nothing worked.

BATES: There just wasn't a lot out there for women of color, especially women with darker skin. Eventually, Brown would find a remedy. But we'll get back to that in a minute. Karen Grant is the global beauty industry analyst for NPD, a market research group. Grant, who is African-American, says she remembers the workaround many black women used when there was no deep-hued foundation.

KAREN GRANT: Most times I think what women of color did was you'd put on powder. You know, and you might blot in. You might try to not put on too much so that it didn't make the skin look chalky.

BATES: It was a partial solution. But it didn't work for everyone. For the most part, there just wasn't a wide range of colors for women of color - with one notable exception. In 1973, Fashion Fair cosmetics appeared. Born from the makeup worn by Ebony Fashion Fair models as they walked the runway, Fashion Fair came in hues that actually worked for brown skin. It engendered a fierce loyalty among its customers, like beauty blogger Lily Seymour.


LILY SEYMOUR: These are my three face foundations that I love to use, that match my complexion exactly, to the T, by Fashion Fair.

BATES: Another option appeared in 1983, when Prescriptives introduced its custom-blended foundation. As the country's demographics began to change, the cosmetics industry slowly began to realize it needed to wake up and smell the cafe au lait if it wanted to remain relevant and profitable.

JANET PARDO: Skin tones and attitudes and lifestyle and personal relationships, everything changes. And as a result of that, it affects how we do product development here, especially in foundation.

BATES: That's Janet Pardo, Senior VP of product development for Clinique cosmetics, ticking off just some of the factors that affect how her company develops its foundation palette. And, says Pardo...

PARDO: Pallets have to constantly be reevaluated.

BATES: Analyst Karen Grant says as America and Europe become browner through migration and intermarriage, cosmetics companies need to broaden their thinking as well as their palates.

GRANT: This is an opportunity that they can market. And I think the success of brands like Bobbi Brown, like MAC, has made brands take note.

BATES: In fact, MAC is the number one department store brand. Almost half its customer base is women of color. But the mass market's been affected too. Big companies like Revlon, L'Oreal and Maybelline now feature a wider range of skin tones and celebrity representatives like Halle Berry and Eva Longoria. Cover Girl has the Queen Collection, an entire line devoted to deeper hues, named for singer-actress Queen Latifah.


QUEEN LATIFAH: If you want your makeup to look fresh even at the end of a long day...

SAM FINE: Queen Collection All Day Flawless Foundation.

BATES: A black spokeswoman for a company as dominant as Cover Girl is huge. Remember makeup artist Bobbi Brown? In 1991, she partnered with a chemist to develop makeup that would work for a wider range of skin tones. Today, the line has 24 foundation colors, from very pale to very deep, that are sold around the globe. The brand remains a favorite for ethnic women because Brown insists that her shades must work for everyone.

BROWN: Not just colors for women of color, but it's the right colors.

BATES: Beauty analyst Karen Grant concurs.

GRANT: People are having friends of all different races, nationalities. And people like to shop together and discuss together. And so we do need and look for brands that appeal to all of us.

BATES: And, Grant predicts, the cosmetics companies that will do best in the mosaic that is the global market will have products and sales staff that look like the consumers they're hoping to capture. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.