pink, beige and brown oil paint swirled together
March 2022 Elena Frankel

Obsession - The Intersection of Makeup and Art

When I was a Bananarama-loving teenager back in the mid-80’s, I remember walking through the Jordan Marsh department store with my Bennetton, Doc Marten and Esprit-wearing group of friends. As we sauntered past the Estee Lauder counter, there sat a little compact duo of eyeshadows that was carefully perched atop an acrylic display stand; one a shimmering lemon-yellow shade and the other a vibrant lime. The packaging was cream with gold lettering. Certain little details from my life stand out in rich clarity and this was one of them. 

 

My love for art and makeup have always been a large part of my life. I used to obsess over collecting pencils, pigments, and brushes and the ability to capture light and create depth have always been deeply satisfying to me. In high school I was instantly drawn to Kevyn Aucoin’s The Nakeds by Ultima II, Pupa’s red multicolored makeup palettes, Prescriptives space-aged pewter packaging, and Clinique’s Uplighting, a liquid highlighter that was ahead of its time. I would order Face Stockholm and Shu Uemura through catalogs and was obsessed with Norma Kamali’s short-lived essentials kit. 

black and white image of artist paintbrushes on table
colorful closeup of artist pastel crayons

While studying painting at Boston University in the late 80s and 90s, I would go on bi-monthly jaunts to Henri Bendel to check out this cool, new artsy brand, MAC Cosmetics. Shades Twig and Prism were paired with Brown Shimmer lipstick by another up-and-coming brand named Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Shades of greige were alive and well in the 90s and we embraced it head-on, along with skinny arched brows, darkly lined lips, Kate Moss, CK One, flannel, and Seattle Grunge. It was an exciting time when Indie brands started to revolutionize the cosmetics landscape and shake-up the mega counter brands at Filene’s, Dillard’s, and Macys.

 

After I completed my Master's Degree, I pursued work in the cosmetics department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston. Over time I began to quietly hatch my plan of opening a little beauty boutique named E6 apothecary and made sure that my good friend Carolyn was on board as well. The excitement and need to nurture young brands was deeply satisfying to us back then. We cared for brands such as Too Faced, Tarte, Becca, Bliss, Philosophy, and Aesop when they were essentially toddlers in their lifelines. We introduced Shu Uemura to New England, not only for the masses, but for our own self-indulgent reasons. To us, Shu Uemura was and always will be the holy grail of makeup brands. It is the one that sets the bar. 

 

Today, we watch new brands pop up like weeds and wonder if they are going grassroots, hitching a ride on a beauty incubator, or collaborating with an influencer or celebrity. The beauty industry has changed so much; some good, some not so good. While social media has allowed for more brand engagement with consumers, it has also blurred the line between fantasy and reality. People’s perceptions of what is real and what isn’t, has only increased unattainable expectations they put on themselves, creating anxiety and heightened ageism in especially older women and young girls. 

 

And then there are the ingredient wars, with ‘Team Clean’ vs ‘Team Dirty.' The onslaught of opinions, myths and misconceptions and the dismantling of science, data, and toxicology, have created fear and a lot of second-guessing for consumers. Slick marketing campaigns have inflamed and instigated polarizing opinions, ones we certainly don’t need in an already fractured world. Just as much as we question ingredients, we should question the claims being made. Whenever the pendulum swings so aggressively to one side, it usually swings to the other just as hard and then slowly finds the peaceful sweet spot in the middle. Making sure that products are safe should be the top priority for any brand. Are we unable to find that middle ground, or does fear sell too well? These have been the questions that have altered the landscape of cosmetics today, some for the greater good and some not so much. Thankfully, the need for better sustainability options and solutions is something I think we can all agree on. Yet even there the answers are neither black nor white.

 

While beauty products have always been my obsession, they were never meant to mask who I was or alter what I looked like. They never used to present me with fear or made me constantly second-guess my choices. And they never made me feel like I had to pick a side. The ever-changing makeup rituals that have been a part of my life have been a place of refuge, where I can just do a little painting each day and enjoy capturing light and creating depth. If we continue to be so split on the politics of beauty, what does this say about our capabilities to solve the rest of the world’s problems? Or even simply enjoy the thing we’re constantly fighting about.  

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