What the Success of Fenty Beauty Says About the Cosmetics Industry

It's about time big brands started listening to black women

Without a doubt, the most highly anticipated beauty launch of the year was Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s splashy entrée into the makeup category. Although it’s been less than a month since the much-hyped collection of 91 skus debuted, the brand has already amassed one million followers on Instagram, teased a holiday collection (out October 13), and racked up more press and social media coverage than most beauty companies dream of getting in a year. Plus, nearly all the shades of Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation—the star product—are currently sold out on, proving that customers are putting their money where their double-taps are. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that Fenty Beauty is on track to be a big hit. Not that many people were betting against the pop star turned fashion executive, turned beauty mogul. As Newsweek succinctly put it, “everything Rihanna touches turns to green and she has the bank account to prove it.”

I definitely didn’t trek to the launch party at the Brooklyn Navy Yards with any doubts about the strength of Rihanna’s brand. I showed up expecting to be dazzled by her spectacular breasts (check), impressed by the inclusivity of the line (check) and entertained by watching my fellow attendees Storying and Boomeranging the hell out of it all (check). What I didn’t expect was for this surprisingly tame event to serve as a metaphor for the disruption that’s shaking up the beauty world. Yet there in that massive warehouse, three major shifts were on full display.

There’s a customer-driven mandate for diversity

Instagram started out as a humble photo-sharing app meant to be used on-the-go. Now, seven years after founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom unleashed it into the app store, it has, among many other things, completely transformed the relationship between brands and consumers. In the beauty space, this translates to customers dictating to the brands what they want instead of the other way around. And there are two big things they want now more than ever: (1) to buy products recommended by or created by people they “know” and (2) to see themselves represented. 

Two days before Fenty Beauty hit stores, word spread like wildfire the line would feature a whopping 40 foundation shades, a detail that Rihanna confirmed when responding to a fan on Twitter. A flurry of online articles followed, praising the singer for doing what customers have been asking brands to do for years: stop pretending that women darker than Kerry Washington don’t exist or won’t spend money. After over a decade as a beauty writer, I’ve heard the argument that dark foundation shades don’t sell many times, and many times I’ve wanted to send out a mass memo explaining that you can’t make one or two brown shades (that are usually too red or just plain off) and think that covers it. The out-of-stock shades on is proof that if you build the right shades, we will come. Right after we’re done dragging the brands who fall short. 

Fenty Beauty is also bucking convention by using a lineup of models who are gorgeous, but likely wouldn’t make the cut for a beauty campaign with a veteran brand. The striking squad includes buzzed and gap-toothed beauty Slick Woods, Halima Aden, who wears a hijab, and Duckie Thot, known for her flawless, dark chocolate complexion—shade 490 in Pro Filt’r

Black women have gone from ignored to in demand

As I watched Rihanna move around her party, charming guests at every product station, it occurred to me that the only other person who has a fighting chance of generating nearly as much makeup buzz as Rihanna this fall is another black woman: Pat McGrath. The legendary makeup artist launched her permanent 61-piece collection on September 16th. The irony here is that although McGrath is a sought-after backstage pro, has a telephone book-sized portfolio spanning two decades, and a reputation as a creative genius, somehow a 29-year old singer is considered just as qualified to front a cosmetics line and dole out tips and tricks. Still, the existence of both of their collections is significant. The universality of these lines puts even more pressure on other brands to do a better job of serving a multitude of skin tones if they want to stay relevant. 

Even as the industry as a whole evolves, cosmetics lines developed by women of color (especially icons like McGrath and Rihanna) have built-in credibility. These new entrepreneurs know firsthand the frustration of not being able to find shades that work, and their names are literally on the line. They can’t afford to disappoint—and consumers trust that they won’t. How do veteran brands compete with that? Perhaps they’ve already got one strategy figured out: throw endorsement money at the problem. CoverGirl’s latest additions include Ayesha Curry (author, Food Network star, and wife to basketball player Steph Curry) and Issa Rae (creator and star of the HBO dramedy Insecure). Actress Zoë Kravitz was named global beauty ambassador for YSL (a promotion from her previous US-only title), and Maybelline released a collaboration with an influencer, beauty blogger Shayla. Regardless of whether utilizing a little #BlackGirlMagic will help companies hold on to their market share, I love that these partnerships showcase the diversity of black women and the increasing power of our presence.

Celebrity makeup is the new celebrity perfume

I recall the days when the ultimate symbol of a celebrity’s success was getting their very own perfume (or ten). Celebrity fragrance sales have been steadily tanking for years due to a number of likely reasons such as market saturation, the decline of shopping malls, and the shift toward sophisticated, niche fragrances. Makeup is the logical way forward. Not only can you make more money by launching multiple items at once, lipsticks, shadows and blushes are a lot more Instagram-friendly than a bottle of clear liquid we can’t smell through our phones. While there are few stars with enough juice to launch cosmetics under their own name, collabs such as the Victoria Beckham Estée Lauder Collection, and L’Oréal x Balmain are the next best thing. At least until the direct-to-consumer model embraced by Kylie Jenner becomes more of the rule rather than the exception. For now, celebs will continue to demand more control and a bigger piece of the pie when they attach themselves to beauty brands. And clearly, they’re worth it. 

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