All made up! The indie makeup brands that are catering to women of colour – The Guardian

Many of us will know the disappointment of buying an expensive imported lipstick that turns out to be more gloop than gloss, or waiting for an aunt to return from a trip abroad with a much-needed concealer. For women in the developing world – or anyone who is not fair-skinned – this has long been the reality of buying makeup: a Goldilocks-esque feeling that nothing is quite right. However, over the past few years, a wave of homegrown beauty brands has emerged, and there is now more choice for women of colour.

The biggest success story so far has been Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty range, which has been valued at $72m just one month since the products first went on sale. “We are delighted with the phenomenal response – it is by far the biggest beauty launch we have had to date,” says Daniela Rinaldi, group commercial director for the UK’s Fenty Beauty stockist, Harvey Nichols. “The queues have been building every day since launch, with some dedicated customers and fans queueing for up to three hours.”

Aside from Fenty – which has ties to the mega-conglomerate LVMH – there are plenty of smaller makeup brands springing up around the world, such as Happy Skin, in the Philippines, which has 14 stores and has collaborated with Hello Kitty and Disney. Luscious, one of Pakistan’s first major makeup brands, launched in 2007 and offered products formulated for south Asian skin types. These played on global trends and pop culture, including a Twilight-themed makeup palette. “We’ve grown to be an authority in the lip category,” says Mehrbano Sethi, the founder of the Dubai-based brand. “We first created our everyday moisturising formula in shades and tones that were lacking at the time, globally. Then we moved to create satin and matte formulas way before they were trending in the US, because matte has been an enduring trend in south Asia and the Middle East since the late 80s.”

In Pakistan, lifestyle bloggers Atiya and Amna Abbas read Seventeen magazine to learn about makeup. “There would be a very natural look [in the magazine] but the lipstick would be this pale pink that would look awful on our skin,” Amna says. As a handful of homegrown cosmetic companies have appeared in Pakistan, it has given consumers more options. “They cater to a wide variety of skin tones – you can get lipstick shades that look good,” says Atiya.

The rise of indie brands also shows a new kind of makeup entrepreneur – celebrities, beauty influencers and people who just want makeup that suits them. Among them is Iraqi-American makeup artist Huda Kattan, who has more than 22 million followers on Instagram and 2 million YouTube subscribers, and designed her own range of false lashes. Kattan didn’t like what was already available, and the lashes she created stoked interest from potential customers. However, she initially struggled to find a distributor, and was told lashes were “irrelevant” – “even though,” she says, “I had all these women wanting to buy them from me.” Kattan’s range took off when it was stocked by Sephora in Dubai in 2013, and her Huda Beauty brand has since expanded to include eyeshadow palettes and foundation.

While global cosmetics brands retain their allure, customers have gravitated towards more niche products. They are designed with local consumers in mind, not as an afterthought. They cater to all sorts of needs: vegan, cruelty-free, halal and “breathable”. And indie brands, much like pharmacy brands, often serve as “dupes” – AKA cheaper duplicate versions of giant bestsellers.

In markets such as the Philippines, where international makeup brands have an extensive presence, there has been a relatively significant growth in homegrown products in recent years, says Lia Andrea Ramos, who runs the beauty distribution company Glamourbox. “Filipinos are beauty savvy and price-conscious, and local brands have come out with their own makeup, catering to the mass market – the under $10 price point.” Some brands are also developing mid-range products. Homegrown brands in the Philippines take their cue from trends in the west and beyond, offering local variations of South Korean “K-Beauty” products, renowned to be among the best in the world. They look just as good as those manufactured by global cosmetic giants, with glamorous packaging, localised ad campaigns and tie-ins, sold on the same beauty websites and makeup counters as global brands.

Indie brands are not just restricted to their home audience, however. From the well-established cult of French pharmacy products to the success of Korean skincare, there is a sense of curiosity about international brands that doesn’t start at the makeup counter, but online. The internet has completely reshaped how people discover new brands and learn about launches, as makeup influencers on YouTube and Instagram dictate how women buy, wear and use cosmetics. “Reviews,” Sethi says, “are king,” pointing to how sales of a Luscious shade skyrocketed when Instagram account @dupethat compared it to a Pat McGrath lipstick.

Social media and customer demands still drive product development at Huda Beauty. “I am constantly inspired by the comments and requests we see on Instagram,” says Kattan. “When we were developing the #FauxFilter Foundation, I reached out to our Instagram audience because I wanted to understand what kind of coverage and finish they wanted, and how they chose foundation. We had thousands of responses that helped guide us.” This democratic process – makeup entrepreneurs responding to and incorporating feedback and requests – ties into sales for indie brands. “When people buy our products, they do so because they have been created in response to consumer demand and they fulfil a specific need,” Kattan said. “In turn, the purchase becomes more emotional than transactional.”

There is also a sense of joy at seeing a local brand do well. “You have done us proud,” the site bongo5.com raved, when the Tanzanian model Flaviana Matata created Lavy, a range of eye-popping nail polishes, and Nigerian bloggers have written about local brands such as Nuban Beauty.

But countries and markets are still being underserved, and even though you might be able to learn about Brazilian Bum Bum Cream online, that does not mean consumers have access to them or their localised versions. Clare Oparo, a Ugandan skincare blogger who lives in Kenya, says that while African companies have made headway, pointing to brands such as Suzie Beauty, getting quality skincare and makeup is still a challenge. She has to rely on pricey third-party merchants to shop and deliver international products to Kenya. “It is frustrating – especially when it is something that will actually help you, such as sunscreen,” she says. “When I read about the experience of someone going into Sephora … I’m so envious! Gosh, I wish I could have that here.”