Wed, Jul 06, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Beauty industry looks east

With Western markets stagnant and those in Asia and Latin America booming, fashion houses and makers of makeup are shifting focus with a new range of models in their ad campaigns. But is the ethnic breakthrough merely skin-deep?

By Zoe Wood  /  The Observer, LONDON

Taiwanese actor Godfrey Gao, the face of Louis Vuitton.

Photo: Taipei Times

The fashion industry has long been criticized for promoting a narrow ideal of beauty: The world’s highest-earning models have been predictably white and blond, led by pneumatic Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum and Kate Moss.

Which is why the Three Graces chosen to front Estee Lauder’s latest product launch are so arresting: Chinese supermodel Liu Wen (劉雯), Puerto Rican-born Joan Smalls and archetypal French beauty Constance Jablonski. The ad aims to convey that “diversity is beautiful.” The American beauty giant says the campaign is a nod to the late Lauder herself, who apparently had the “unshakeable belief” that “every woman can be beautiful” (the name of the ad campaign).

At the launch her granddaughter Aerin, the company’s creative director, burbled about a new chapter for the 65-year-old company: “Estee’s choice of models throughout the brand’s evolution was always extraordinary ... we continue this legacy with a new group of diverse faces that truly represent a modern vision of beauty.”

The message is not new. But the industry’s commitment to reflecting reality is often questioned, with even successful models like Naomi Campbell complaining of racism. She told Glamour magazine two years ago: “You know, the American president may be black, but as a black woman I am still an exception in this business.”

Geoffrey Jones, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Beauty Imagined, says the popularity of the “white, blond and blue-eyed” look has been declining for some time as the global cosmetics industry, in which sales approached US$386.54 billion last year, adapts to the growing markets such as China and Latin America. The latter is expected to overtake North America in size within four years.

“When China first liberalized and cosmetics companies first entered, consumers wanted Western brands because they were associated with success and aspiration,” Jones says. “But in recent years they have become increasingly concerned with the local; they want brands like Estee Lauder or L’Oreal Paris, but they also want them to have a distinctive Chinese appeal.”

The cosmetics industry was battered by the financial crisis, and sales tumbled particularly in mature Western markets — a weakness that has made it all the more important to conquer emerging markets. When he took over this year, L’Oreal’s new chief executive Jean-Paul Agon set the challenge to add a billion new customers in the next decade.

This year fashion editors have been hailing the arrival of the Asian fashion pack, pointing to Liu, who is now the 10th-highest-paid model in the world, as well as Du Juan (杜鵑) — the first Chinese model to appear on the cover of French Vogue — and Godfrey Gao (高以翔), a Taiwanese actor who is the face of Louis Vuitton. Their supposed success has been undermined somewhat by a recent blunder in British Vogue, which confused pictures of Liu and Du in an article about their success.

Sola Oyebade, the chief executive of Mahogany Models Management, Europe’s largest agency for models of color, argues industry power brokers are not convinced of their selling power — although the “black issue” of Italian Vogue in 2008 was so popular that an extra 40,000 were printed.

“I welcome that Estee Lauder has or is attempting to make the brand more visually acceptable to the global market,” he says, but adds: “I don’t think things are changing ... this was a calculated business decision. It is a well known that the economic downturn is having a serious effect on businesses, who recognize that the new and emerging markets are Asia and Africa.”

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