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is the “fenty effect” in the beauty industry a trend or real progress?

As more brands go out of their way to follow the cash cow that is Rihanna's Fenty Beauty brand, we ask if this new push for diversity will have a lasting effect on the beauty industry.

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Jun 11 2018, 5:00am

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My mother never wears make-up. She occasionally wore her favourite vivid violet lipstick, loved by Jamaican aunties across the Midlands, but that was it. Looking back this was probably why she was confused when I asked her to buy foundation for my 15th birthday. As I applied the reddish brown liquid to my honey-toned skin I knew it was a waste of time, but like many people of colour at that time, I persevered and applied away. There was no shade available designed with my skin colour in mind.

Anyone who struggled to find a shade that acknowledged their existence can relate to my teenage story, but so much has changed since then. Diversity is part of the cultural conversation and the beauty industry has had to finally take note. For years, brands such as MAC, Illamasqua, YSL, Sleek and Lancome have offered a wide selection of shades, but they were expensive and not widely available. Then last year after Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line proudly launched with 40 foundation shades and the internet erupted in celebration, the doors of the beauty industry were blown wide open. Throwing aside the narrow ideals of the industry made Fenty a huge commercial success (it didn’t hurt that everything Riri touches turns to gold). The brand made $100 million in sales in the first 40 days and was named one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2017.

Fenty's proud celebration of catering to every shade was infectious, and paired with Rihanna's celeb-status it reached a huge audience.

The so called “Fenty effect” that rippled through the beauty industry afterwards saw both high end and high street brands attempt to replicate Rihanna’s success. British-Ghanaian model Adwoa Aboah became the face of Marc Jacobs Beauty and later Revlon. High street stores like Superdrug now have a wider range of options for people of colour. Even long standing brands like L’Oréal and Make Up For Ever started to prominently advertise shades they already offered, seemingly in an attempt to one-up Fenty. But as Fenty fans pointed out, when the latter posted a photo with the caption “40 shades is nothing new to us”, just because these brands offer a variety of shades, doesn't mean they perfectly match or even compliment people’s skin. "Took 31 years for y'all to be more inclusive... took Rihanna on her first try. 1984 to 2015 you wasn't 40 shades deep. Just 2 years huh?” commented one fan. "But where do you broadcast and market darker skin? Every 100 post? Boy bye," another added. Indeed, due to poor promotion of their wide shade range, many consumers of colour didn't know high-end brands stocked their shade. Fenty's proud celebration of catering to every shade was infectious, and paired with Rihanna's celeb-status it reached a huge audience.

The rise of social media is the driving force behind this change. It allows people to hold beauty brands accountable, in the same way it offers direct access to local politicians to demand social change. Tarte Cosmetics faced backlash for releasing a limited range of light coloured foundations on Martin Luther King Day, while Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty concealer line was torn apart on Twitter for catering to lighter skin tones only. Anita Bhagwandas, beauty director at Stylist Magazine, believes that consumer confidence in a brand can be damaged by incidents like these. “Nobody wants to be tarred with that brush nowadays.”

I pity the brand that didn’t get the memo and falls victim to a Twitter storm from consumers, who after years of seeing their bodies and beauty disregarded, have finally found their voice. Although it’s worth celebrating that the industry is seemingly in a self-reflective mode, is this new move a cynical attempt to commodify diversity? Natalie Clue, a marketing consultant and beauty blogger at Beauty Pulse London championing black beauty, has her doubts. “There seemed to be a big reaction, which in one sense is good, but on the flip side it feels like you’re an afterthought. They only wanted to chase us when they felt they saw we were worth it [in monetary terms], which is really sad because all of the information is there.”

The information is there. According to a Nielsen report, black women spend nine times more on beauty products than the general market. Beauty vlogger Tiss Saccoh believes the industry’s previous inaction showed what they really thought. “They weren't going to bother researching the beauty habits of women of colour because they didn't consider us a viable market, because of racialised preconceptions about wealth and about worthiness.”

Now with proven cash-making evidence from Fenty’s success, and to lock into the pro-diversity sentiment of today, some brands have cynically attempted to join the bandwagon. Influencers of colour are used prominently in campaigns, but relying on tokenistic imagery alone without tackling the reasons why there’s been such a lack of representation has landed some brands in trouble. L’Oréal dropped its first black trans model, Munroe Bergdorf, from the True Match campaign, which centred around diversity, for making comments about systemic racism. Discussing the L’Oréal fallout, Natalie says: “If you want to maintain that you're about diversity you have to embrace everything that entails, and there are some challenging, tricky conversations that need to be had.”

There is little to celebrate if a brand has shades to cater to every skin tone but has no trained staff in stores to properly sell their products.

“I’d love to see more brands get behind people that are actually doing stuff to change the world,” says Munroe. “I think it's happening, but as you saw with what happened with me and L’Oreal, brands get scared. They want to use tastemakers, but they want everyone to be “safe”. We’re living in a time that is politically scary. Which is why brands need to be supporting people who are a bit more radical, they’re the ones who are going to be shaking things up. And by that I mean working with people who are not just commercially successful, but who are genuinely groundbreaking and exciting.”

Once you step back from the glossy images it becomes clear that the beauty industry as a whole is not an easy place for people of colour. It’s still based on beauty standards that centre around white people -- the decision makers in the majority of brands are white. There is little to celebrate if a brand has shades to cater to every skin tone but has no trained staff in stores to properly sell their products. A diverse advertising campaign means nothing if the brand decision makers are all from the same background and don’t know how to reach people of colour.

Anita believes true industry change will come from more diversity in every sector. “More women of colour need to get into the beauty industry as CEOs and as cosmetic scientists -- like Florence Adepoju who runs the brand MDM Flow, and Sharmadean Reid of Wah Nails. Women who are genuinely effecting lasting change and are then sharing that experience with other people of colour.”

It can often feel like we’re fighting to be heard when other groups do not have to spend their spare time on Twitter hassling brands. Despite the frustration, social pressure has worked -- but to ensure this trend is long-lasting, our foot has to stay on the beauty industry’s neck. As Tiss says, “We have to be very careful to continue to maintain the positive attitudes that we're building and to continue to break down social walls, because it’s social change that has sparked this development and that continued change is required to make this development move from trend to the status quo. That's going to take work. People can't sit back and rest because the work is never done.”