The new beauty

Reacting to decades of airbrushed gloss, social media and its user-generated aesthetic have propelled beauty brands and influencers into what feels like an unending obsession with showcasing makeup-free realism

This already marks a departure from longstanding norms in the beauty industry, but now, a wave of creatives, youth media platforms and cosmetics brands are moving beyond social media realism into exciting new territory.

Glossier Phase 2 makeup set
Glossier Phase 2 makeup set

The change is playing out in two major ways. On the one hand, brands such as Glossier by Into the Gloss are pushing the raw and naked aesthetic further. While department store beauty brands make ample use of lasers, gold dust and wind machines, Glossier shows all types of skin in unvarnished close-up, subtly enhanced with the brand’s trademark products such as Milky Jelly cleanser, created based on crowdsourced customer feedback.

From the Glossier website
From the Glossier website
Glossier Brows Grid
Glossier’s fresh-faced approach to make-up

Platforms like Vice media’s Broadly and new beauty influencers are challenging prevailing norms with almost anti-beauty imagery. With untraditional casting choices and unvarnished looks, they are expanding the definition of beauty beyond aspirational ideals of ‘perfection’. While Broadly is backed by Unilever, which presumably hopes to place advertising for personal care and beauty products with it, the title’s visual language departs from the traditional beauty advertising norm.

On the other hand, some brands are abandoning ‘reality’ altogether and heading into more colourful and imaginative territory. British make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench (see our post here) is one emerging talent shaking up the sector. Using skin as her canvas and make-up as her paint, she smears lipstick across the face, celebrates clumpy mascara, and applies layers of texture on the skin – in the world of Ffrench, traditional make-up rules do not apply.

From Isamaya Ffrench's Visual Diary
From Isamaya Ffrench’s Visual Diary

iD magazine hired Ffrench as beauty editor in 2014, and have since ramped up their beauty coverage. Last year, YSL appointed Ffrench as its new UK make-up ambassador, to highlight their creative and playful approach to make-up.

Yadim, beauty editor for Dazed and Confused magazine, similarly adopts an unexpected take on beauty. His Spring 2015 x Manuela Frey editorial piece for Dazed sees uneven blotches of silver glitter across the model’s melancholy face.

A new beauty regime is taking over the more experimental editorial pages, prompting confrontation and reinterpreting the word ‘beauty’, or perhaps the word ‘ugly’. London-based biannual magazine Beauty Papers launched last year and sets out to liberate the beauty industry from commercial control and use beauty as a vehicle for commentary on culture, politics and creativity.

Spread from Beauty Papers, Issue 0
Spread from Beauty Papers, Issue 0

“I started noticing over the past five or so years beauty was becoming homogenised,” says Valerie Wickes, Beauty Papers co-founder. “One look. Everyone was getting their lips done, everyone had the same type of hair, everyone looked the same. Where’s the diversity? This is why we created Beauty Papers.”

Spread from Beauty Papers, Issue 1
Spread from Beauty Papers, Issue 1

Beauty Papers’ issue one released in February this year with the theme ‘plastic’. The imagery includes plastic coils replacing the model’s hair, highly textured foundation cracking off from the model’s face, and Sellotape wrapped around the model’s body, wrinkling the skin.

Make-up brands are launching collections that emphasise cinematic boldness and other-worldly creativity. Forget ‘nearly nude’ or natural hues – MAC will be launching a collaboration with Star Trek in September this year, which consists of glittery hues and sci-fi shades of greens and yellows. The beauty brand Prismologie, launched in May 2015, has a line of confident and vibrant colours promoted in energetic campaigns where puffs of pink smoke fill the room or yellow paint is thrown onto models’ skin. Appropriately, Prismologie’s tagline is “live life colourfully”.

Prismologie packaging designed by Williams Murray Hamm
Prismologie packaging designed by Williams Murray Hamm

Ironically, the fantasy twist could, perhaps, also owe something to the Instagram effect. In fashion we’ve already seen colours and styles become more dramatised, cartoony and bright to be visually striking as people seek visual click bait. Nonetheless it’s a departure in beauty for young consumers to actually employ face paint. (Sales of color cosmetics are on the rise globally – RNR Research projects that the global market will grow at a CAGR of 4.0% through 2019).

What’s clear is that the notion of beauty is in flux right now – driven by Gen Zs and young millennials who are braver and more experimental, and opting for unsparing reality or bold theatric fantasy. Neither of which is reflected in the visual language of powerhouse beauty marketing campaigns – and may require a rethink on their part if they are to remain relevant.

Emma Chiu is Creative Innovation Director at J. Walter Thompson

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