This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
Like a gender-reveal party in reverse, much of the beauty and grooming industry is cutting ties with prescriptive marketing and branding, moving towards a market that focuses on gender neutral beauty. A cleanser works as well on a man’s skin as it does a woman’s, so why isolate half the consumer base? Makeup can be fun or functional and can serve the intent of any wearer, regardless of gender expression. Why perpetuate the myth that only women can use it, and solely out of necessity?
Consider how gender expression has played out in one particular corner of the industry: fragrance. “Fragrance marketing, especially in the 20th century, has long concentrated on defining very specific roles tied to olfactive families,” says Carlos Huber, founder of ARQUISTE Parfumeur. “For example, to make it more direct and simpler to sell a floral scent, they would pitch it directly to the largest audience — in this case, traditionally female. So advertising people, store owners, salespeople feel safer categorizing a scent in one way in order to ‘place’ the scent.”
In this same manner, it was understood that musky or spicy notes should be targeted at men. And with florals, any powdery and aquatic notes would better suit women. Even our understanding of the terms “perfume” and “cologne” imply gender.
“This has hurt a lot of beautiful scents,” Huber says. “The way I see fragrance, I’d rather preserve character in a fragrance and simply open the category to all genders. Perfumes don’t have gender. People have assigned it to them.”
This is why Huber relies on history to tell the story of each ARQUISTE scent, rather than gendered branding. Even ARQUISTE’s tandem set, ÉL and ELLA, was designed to tell a specific backstory — the chance encounter of a man and woman in 1978 Acapulco — without prescribing ÉL to men and ELLA to women.
Men need beard trimmers and hair-loss remedies, yes, but they don’t need a moisturizer “engineered specifically for men’s skin,” as many brands would have them believe. “As a consumer, my biggest frustration about gendered advertising and branding is when it’s done as a marketing tactic versus a fundamental belief,” says Terry Lee, co-founder of Panacea Skincare.
His brand focuses on the essential skincare regimen — cleansing, hydrating, protecting — and sees no reason why one gender needs targeting more than another. It should be noted that Panacea, like other brands dismantling gendered branding, also prioritizes diversity, as gender fluidity is only one facet of total inclusivity.
“Today’s consumer is a discerning one who can readily distinguish a marketing ploy, one that tries to convince them to buy,” Lee says. “[Whereas] a fundamental brand belief resonates with them on a deeper level. This dynamic has forced brands to be genuine in their storytelling and back up their values with every decision they make. It’s been a positive change within the industry.”
No corner of the beauty industry knows gendered marketing better than makeup brands. And within their forever-female-focused campaigns, makeup has been positioned as a necessity — cover your blemishes, color your lips — promoted largely by white models. Western society’s very conception of beauty is built on this narrow perspective, but makeup has multiple uses and 100 percent of the marketable population is a potential customer. Why turn a blind eye to this?
Big name brands such as Lancôme and Covergirl are starting to feature male models. Newer companies including Milk Makeup and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty are founded on a principle of greater diversity. Fenty, which has just been bought by LVMH and is on the road to a billion-dollar valuation, sets the inclusivity standard with an awe-inspiring 50 shades of concealer. Most brands have three, maybe five.
Isabella Giancarlo and Laura Kraber are the co-founders of Fluide, whose branding is as colorful and rapturous as its assortment of lip, eye, nail, and glitter goods.
“It was important to me that we showcase and celebrate the self-expression of people of all gender expressions and identities, and continue to work to represent an inclusive and expansive definition of beauty,” says Giancarlo, who is also Fluide’s chief creative officer. “Makeup means so many different things for different people. It can be defiant and political. It can be a means of protection. It can be a creative outlet.”
Kraber, Fluide’s CEO, echoes that sentiment: “As a parent of teenagers, I’ve been deeply impressed by this generation and how they are moving our culture towards a more expansive understanding of gender and sexual orientation. They’re creating a worldwide movement and a much richer understanding of gender identity. The genesis of Fluide, for me, comes out of a personal admiration for the people who are putting their lives on the line to create this societal shift and create a more inclusive world.”
Giancarlo adds, “To locate makeup outside of this paradigm of cis-female beauty is liberating. It opens up the potential for makeup to be a creative, empowering means of self-expression for all.”
This has also inspired the genesis of another industry-adored makeup brand, Jecca Blac, founded by makeup artist Jessica Blackler. Prior to launching the company, Blackler’s clients came from a much more diverse demographic than the cisgendered white women seen in most branding and marketing campaigns. She worked frequently with trans women and gender non-conforming individuals who felt ignored by the industry at large.
“It’s really important to us to be inclusive in everything that we do, from packaging to model casting,” Blackler says. “I felt that a lot of brands were beginning to become inclusive just for the sake of ticking boxes rather than offering anything unique and different to this audience. We use real models for our campaigns, either our own clients or people who resonate with the brand. Our customers are the core of everything that we do, therefore it’s important to show our clients in campaigns and marketing materials.”
So what, then, are the essential components of genderless beauty branding?
“For Fluide, it has been instrumental to include underrepresented voices and faces in both the behind-the-scenes product development and business planning, as well as the front-of-camera models, campaign photographers, stylists, and makeup artists,” says Kraber. “To create an inclusive brand, you need a diverse team.”
Says Lee of Panacea: “From the very beginning, we sought feedback from both men and women to understand their frustrations with current skincare products. For example, we learned that both men and women want a moisturizer that is lightweight, non-oily, non-greasy, and absorbs easily. While the reasons behind their insights are different — men we talked to want a lightweight moisturizer because they don’t like anything that feels sticky or greasy, while most women brought up wanting a moisturizer that absorbs easily so it provides a nice base or primer for makeup — we took into account these perspectives to inform our product development process.”
Of her lessons learned while founding Jecca Blac, Blackler says, “You must create products that offer solutions. How does the product work for everyone? How can we make it stylish but also effective? Use and involve your audience, because they are your sounding board and also your potential customers.”