Isabella Rossellini on the cover of i-D in 1987.

isabella rossellini’s doomed feminist makeup line was ahead of its time

Looking at the collection she called “a secret feminist plot”, it’s clear Isabella was thinking about 2016 issues in the 90s.

by Wendy Syfret
01 March 2016, 5:30am

Isabella Rossellini on the cover of i-D in 1987.

In 1980 Isabella Rossellini broke into, and totally disrupted, the modeling world. Making her professional debut at the the comparatively ancient age of 28, it was clear from the start she didn't give a shit about doing the regular way.

Her immediate success led Lancôme to enlist her as their muse in the late 80s, a role which turned Isabella into beauty legend. Spending 14 years as the face of the brand, her impossibly perfect gaze became internationally famous and immediately iconic. By the early 90s she had secured $2million a year contract with the brand, reportedly making her the highest paid model in the world.

Then she turned 40. Six days after her birthday Lancôme dropped her in favour of three younger models, including a 33-year-old Juliette Binoche. In 2002 she grimly told Vogue, "They sent me so many flowers on my 40th birthday, it was a morgue."

Isabella Rosellini in the Manifesto campaign. 

But Isabella refused to be cast away so easily. She argued with Lancôme, explaining the presence of an older spokeswoman would be good for business. Reasoning that their market, realistically, wasn't young ingenues, Isabella told them she better appealed to their customers—other women dealing with the ageing process who would see themselves in her.

Today, looking at Charlotte Rampling's relationship with NARS and Celine's love of Joan Didion it's a reasonable point. But in 1996 they simply refuted that she was still too old. 

Part of the packaging could be worn as bracelets and rings. 

Isabella's ego was bruised by Lancôme, but it started her thinking about how real women see themselves (or don't) in beauty marketing and products. She had paid attention to Lancôme's market research, which found older women responded well to seeing older models in ads, "because they looked at me and were not frightened to grow older." Taking everything she had learned at the beauty giant—which was a hell of a lot—she decided to launch her own makeup line called Isabella Rossellini's Manifesto. Like her, it would be intelligent, practical and unlike anything else available. It would also fall victim to being ahead of it's time.

Isabella spent four years developing Manifesto, which now only survives as a perfume. Partnering with the Coty Group, the thinking behind her products was straightforward and today kind of obvious. But in the late 90s it was revolutionary.

A close up of the multi-use packaging. 

In short, she made products for women. She thought about things that annoyed her in her own beauty case and sought to amend them. She told the SF Gate at the time, "What I envy about men, it isn't what you think—it's pockets. I want a makeup that you can carry in your pockets". 

Just like women today, Isabella struggled with the "natural look" telling SF Gate, "Even if you want to do a simple makeup, you need at least six or seven products". As a solution, she created products that could be used in multiple ways—as eyeshadow, blush or lipstick. They came in 32 colours so every skin tone could find a match.

Lipsticks came with inbuilt mirrors.

Frustrated by carrying around ornate, but heavy glass foundation bottles she packaged hers in single-use capsules. They wouldn't leak in a bag, and were perfectly portioned so you could snap them open and apply makeup in a car without making a mess. Everything came in clear plastic so women could see the product at a glance; containers were stackable to be tidy in a bathroom, and convenient to pack for travel.

The jars also came with colourful resin bands that could be used to organise products or worn as rings and bracelets. Her lipsticks were small because she noticed women rarely finished a whole tube. They also had a small mirror on the bottom to save you having to carry one or seek out a convenient reflection.

The actress was often photographed wearing the bangles that doubled as packaging decoration.

The Manifesto fragrance—with notes of sweet pea, pear, lime, lily and chestnut tree—was unisex. Isabella designed it to be shared with a partner, or for a woman who wasn't interested in being especially femme. She only half jokingly referred to the range as "a secret feminist plot".

Isabella clearly had a brain for practical design, but more impressive was willingness to embrace a diverse audience. Not only did her makeup cater to all skin tones, her adverts used models who looked like real people. Their ages ranged from 14 to 67, some had braces, some were plus plus sized and several different nationalities were represented. When asked why she said, "I always thought there was something offensive to take a white 20-year-old blonde and take her to represent all women."

Manifesto models featured women of various ages and nationalities. 

Sadly, those ingenious lipsticks aren't available today, neither are the frustratingly perfect sounding stackable colour pots. In 2002 Coty cancelled the line, blaming a "slowdown in this category." At the time Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, told the NY Post she felt that the line had never really got off the ground or found its following. The cut came at the same time Coty announced they would be developing a beauty and bath line around Jennifer Lopez, then 31 and 18 years Isabella's junior. It didn't take long for people to suggest that less than a decade after being cut from Lancôme, she had once again been bumped for a younger woman.

Today, the brand is only survived by a fragrance, the odd lipstick on eBay and traces of media. 

Models from the Manifesto campaign.

Looking at the Manifesto range today, it doesn't seem that different from products currently crowding makeup counters. And while diversity in modeling is still a huge issue, it's one that people are more open to discuss. Lancôme's recent campaigns also appear to have caught up with Manifesto and featured women of colour like Lupita Nyong and Arlenis Sosa Pena, plus current spokeswomen Kate Winslet and Julia Roberts who are both in their 40s.

In other ways, makeup still hasn't met with Isabella's vision. Advertising remains a dreamy, artificial ideal: models run through mansions in ballgowns, and roll around on the beach without getting split ends. Isabella made makeup for women who had to get up early, go straight from work to an event or fit their whole lives into a carry on suitcase. She made products for herself. Here hoping someone else has such a revolutionary idea. 


Text Wendy Syfret

make up
isabelle rossellini