When I first heard about Rihanna’s plan to launch a cosmetics line, I wasn’t excited. I love Rihanna’s style, still wear my RiRi Woo, and will happily drop it like it’s hot when I hear Pour It Up. But as a beauty journalist covering the industry for more than 10 years, it sounded like just another celebrity cosmetics deal.
Then, the teaser videos — featuring cool-girl models of various ethnicities — popped up on my Instagram feed in September and piqued my curiosity, so I flipped through social media for glimpses of the products. But it wasn’t until Fenty Beauty dropped that I truly realized it’s more than just another celebrity lip kit or face-contouring palette. I gasped when I saw the brand’s 40 foundation shades. A celebrity launching a cosmetics collection with that many shades?! It’s such a dope thing to see. Too many companies have launched foundation lines and waited to add shades for black women later on.
Fenty Beauty’s 40-shade launch right out the gate is a long-overdue approach that all cosmetic brands need to follow. It also shines a light on the idea that the beauty industry, despite making progress, still has a ton of work to do if it wants to serve black women in a real way.
Women of color like me, someone whose skin tone is on the lighter end of the color spectrum, have been left on the foundation fringes for decades. The predecessor to modern foundation — Max Factor’s Pan-Cake makeup — was invented in 1914 for Hollywood actresses to wear on camera, and it became so popular that the company began selling it on a mass-market level. By 1945, women everywhere were wearing it, but judging from the advertisements, it was clear the brand wasn’t creating shades with black women in mind.
A major breakthrough came with the introduction of Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973, when black women finally started to see cosmetics and advertisements catering especially to them. Supermodel Iman’s namesake collection came in 1994 and was another win for women of color. I vividly remember seeing these products in stores: The ads featured women of various ethnicities and a range of skin tones. In 1995, Estée Lauder Companies purchased Makeup Artists Cosmetics, aka M.A.C., growing it into the uber-inclusive beauty company we know today with a credo of “All ages. All races. All sexes.”
But outside of these brands — plus a few others, including Black Opal, CoverGirl Queen Collection, Bobbi Brown, Make Up For Ever, CoverFX, and bareMinerals — black women still have relatively limited foundation options compared with the total number in the market. This makes Rihanna’s launch all the more important. Research firm Mintel reports that black women may “face challenges in finding shades that match their skin tones” and that only 37 percent of black females over the age of 18 say they use foundation, compared with 50 percent of white females.
Why aren’t beauty brands creating wearable foundation shades for black women? At first, I wondered if chemists weren’t able to come up with the right formulas. But that theory isn’t true.
“Creating foundation with coverage for darker skin tones is not a problem,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, a beauty chemist and Vice President of Sales and Innovation for Aware Products. “It can be done by just about any competent color chemist.”
Instead, many brands cite sales as the reason they lack a range of foundation shades. I’ve chatted with beauty executives who say retailers are not as apt to give shelf space to foundation shades from the middle to darker range in regions that are predominantly white because they don’t sell. Regions that do move medium to darker-toned products tend to be confined to areas like Manhattan, Miami, and Los Angeles. But with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting in June 2017 that all racial and ethnic minorities are growing faster than whites, that excuse no longer holds water.
“If you are a cosmetics brand, then it is in your best interest to be a makeup brand for all,” Wilson says. “There is clearly a market here with great potential if the brand is paying attention.”
Fenty Beauty’s success is proof of that. A recent photo of sold-out dark Fenty Beauty foundation shades spread like wildfire across social media.
Rihanna says she specifically created the collection for women of all skin tones, so women everywhere could be included. “In every product, I was like, ‘There needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl; there needs to be something for a really pale girl; there needs to be something in-between,’” the singer said at the brand’s NYC launch event.
“It wasn’t about coming up with the largest number of foundation shades,” says Senior Director of Fenty Beauty Management Erin O’Neill, “but about providing an assortment that filled in gaps and met the needs of as many people as possible.” O’Neill says the brand tested formulas to ensure quality and employed help from makeup artists to swatch and color match.
Of course, I had to try it all. The Pro Filt’r Instant Retouch Primer comes in one shade, goes on smooth and instantly mattifies without leaving behind a white film like most primers do on black skin. The breadth of shades in the Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation collection makes it easy to find the best match — a few dabs of #330 worked for me. It matched my olive undertones perfectly, melted right in, and I love how light it feels. I used the Match Stix Matte Skinstick in “Caramel” from the Match Stix Trio underneath my eyes (grad school and #momlife can make me look more tired than I am), and it’s also highly buildable and doesn’t cake up or sink into my crow’s feet. And I’m super impressed with how beautiful the Killawatt Freestyle Highlighters, especially “Trophy Wife,” looks on dark skin tones.
I hope the positive social-media attention that Fenty Beauty has received from black women sends a message to the rest of the beauty world to follow suit. It needs to give women of every skin tone the cosmetics they deserve — and create products everyone can be excited about.