Before this time last September, if Nyma Tang wanted to buy a new foundation, she’d hop in her car, cross her fingers, and brace herself for the scavenger hunt to begin. Despite living in Dallas, Texas—where roughly a quarter of the 1.1 million people are black—the 27-year-old says it would often take her days of searching to find a shade that suited her “very dark skin with cool red undertones.”
“Once I was looking for a specific drugstore foundation and went to five different Walmart and Target stores [that carried the line], and I still couldn’t find [my shade],” she says. “One day I’d go one store, the next day, I’d drive a ways to the other. After all that, I had to end up buying it online—and you know how hard it is to match yourself online.” Even at prestige stores, where there were more options but formulas cost triple or quadruple the price, Tang says she’d often find herself hitting a dead end. “I’ve had makeup sellers say, ‘Oh, you don’t need foundation. You’re perfect the way you are,’ because they didn’t carry any foundations that matched.”
Then along came Fenty Beauty. By this point, the story should sound familiar. It’s become canon in the beauty industry and the standard of which makeup brands have been clambering to match—or outdo—over the past 12 months. More than two years in the making, Rihanna and her team put extensive thought and research into Fenty’s products, which eventually led to its hero: 40 shades of foundation that spanned evenly across the spectrum—from the fairest to the deepest—along with a marketing campaign that made its point of view loud and clear. “Foundation for all” shouldn’t have been a revolutionary idea, and yet, with so many women starved for accessible base makeup that actually worked for their complexion, that’s exactly what it was.
Unlike other celebrity lines, Rihanna didn’t just slap her name on the label and call it a day. She was 100 percent involved in the process, including packaging, marketing, and formulation—something she said was especially important to her given the number of times she’d walk away from the makeup chair only to be disappointed. Fenty was a labor of love, and she made it so no woman would ever feel that frustration. “I never could have anticipated the emotional connection that women are having with the products and the brand as a whole,” Rihanna told Time last November. “Some are finding their shade of foundation for the first time, getting emotional at the counter. That’s something I will never get over.”
“I saw other dark-skinned girls in Sephora getting matched in this foundation, and it literally melted by heart,” Tang wrote on Instagram the weekend of its launch, which promptly went viral when the Fenty Beauty account re-grammed it. It wasn’t just the deep shades flying off shelves either.
Krystal Robertson, a 26-year-old nurse from Mississippi, also made headlines for her review of Fenty’s Pro Filt’r Foundation in #110. As a woman with albinism, it was the first time she’d ever found a shade that truly matched and didn’t come off orange. What captured the awe of the Internet the most was that it wasn’t even the lightest shade. “I felt that me finally being myself was worth it,” she wrote online. “It actually means the world that [Rihanna] not only made a diversity of shades for all women of color, but she brought us together.”
In the year since, both Tang and Robertson say the Fenty Effect (i.e., the chain reaction of brands launching more inclusive shade ranges in response to Fenty’s fanfare) has dramatically changed their experience with shopping for foundation. CoverGirl, Maybelline, and Dior, to name just a few, all now carry 40 shades of foundation—MAC even has 60. (See the chart below for more.)
“The opportunities for black influencers to collaborate with beauty brands on more inclusive foundation shade ranges has increased tremendously, too,” says Michanna Murphy, a Washington D.C. makeup artist. She points to Jackie Aina’s work with Too Faced on its foundation expansion and Alissa Ashley’s collab with NYX as shining examples of what happens when black women are given a seat at the table.
The next products Tang says she’d love to see improvement in are bronzers and blush. “A lot of times a pale pink blush will look pretty, but if it has a white base to it, it’ll come off ashy on someone with medium-to-deep skin,” she says. “Many blushes still don’t work for dark skin.” She’s also noticed a lot of dark foundation shades are still reading ashy. “Brands tend to choose just one undertone and neglect the others,” she says. For light shades, however, there are an overwhelming number options.
While representatives for both Fenty and Sephora declined to share revenue or sales numbers with Glamour, early estimates compared Fenty’s monumental success to that of another celebrity mogul’s beauty line: Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics. In November 2017, when Time named Fenty Beauty one of its Best Inventions of the Year, the magazine revealed that the brand had raked in a whopping $72 million in its first month (five times what Jenner made in the same period). In January 2018, WWD also reported that Fenty was on track to outpace Kylie’s earnings, despite the fact that the two had a very similar customer base: diverse women who are willing to spend substantial money on makeup. (African-American and Latinx shoppers make up Fenty’s biggest demo, along with a solid base of Asian customers. White women are its smallest consumer group.)
Also a sign of complexion’s boom as a category: Sephora recently launched a new campaign geared toward helping shoppers find their perfect shade, undertone, formula, and finish of base makeup. “Sephora has always been a destination for foundation, but we haven’t always necessarily broadcasted it in a loud and proud way,” says Sephora beauty director Jeffrey English.
Brands That Now Carry 40+ Shades
Elsewhere, the modeling world and fashion industry are feeling the aftermath of the Fenty Effect too. Backstage this season at New York Fashion Week, I can personally say I noticed much more deep complexion shades at work stations than in seasons past—something both models and makeup artists corroborated when I asked. “I would definitely say that there’s been more improvement, but I think that’s because there’s a lot more pressure for artists to provide makeup for everybody now,” model Leomie Anderson told Glamour backstage at SavagexFenty.
But, before the industry goes patting itself on the back, it’s clear this is only the beginning. As Beth Shapiro recently pointed out in the New York Times, diversity has been “in” in the past. How we do make sure this time isn’t a fleeting trend, and instead becomes an ingrained part of our culture?
For starters, makeup artists need both the right tools and better training. According Precious Lee (as well as Anderson), models with dark skin are still often bringing their own makeup with them backstage and to shoots. “I’ve been modeling in New York for six years,” says Lee. “I should be able to sit down in the chair like any other model and trust that they’re going to know how to do my makeup and hair. But I’ve been in a position so many times where that hasn’t happened. So I decided, literally, just this year, to become one of those people who brings my own products. But I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of artists who are prepared, but there are still so many artists in high positions who [aren’t].”
Even when an artist does come prepared with a range of shades, model Duckie Thot says it doesn’t mean they always have the skills to apply her makeup correctly. “Honestly, we’re still in a time where it’s a first for this many black models to be working—like, really working,” says Thot, who starred in Fenty’s inaugural campaign, in addition to walking in the spring 2019 show. “So even having the space for other makeup artists to come in and work with black models on a regular basis is all new. [That is why] there’s been pressure on [makeup artists] as well to perform and lift their game. More than anything it takes understanding our skin. As a model, you can tell when they understand color correction or the texture of your skin. Those things need to be taken into consideration when you’re doing makeup.”
Adds Jaleesa Jaikaran, a makeup artist who has worked nine seasons of NYFW: “When I started [working backstage], sometimes I would have models either coming to me do their face specifically or whisper to me in the lineup to have me fix it for them. It wasn’t always bad, but as an artist of color who can do all skin tones, many times I’d do only models of color for shows because either the [lead artist] trusted me to do so or [the models] came directly to me.” Jaikaran compares the job to painting: If someone is a painter, they wouldn’t show up without the color paint they’d need. Makeup artists, she says, should always have products to suit every skin tone and the skill to use them.
“It’s all a part of the conversation,” says Thot. “The more we keep talking about it, the better.”
And while we’re on the topic of things to talk about, nearly every model of color Glamour spoke with backstage at NYFW this season said hair is now lacking far behind makeup in terms of inclusion. “They need to have more hairdressers who are equipped and know how to lay wigs and work with black hair,” says Anderson. “That’s the next thing the industry needs to start exploring.”
Rihanna, if you’re reading this: Fenty Hair. 2019.
Lindsay Schallon is the senior beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @lindsayschallon.