Shades of meaning
A makeup color’s appeal has a lot to do with what it’s called
By STEPHANIE EARLS, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, January 8, 2005

lied with a paint roller and permanent marker, Red, as a name, is passe as far as today’s makeup market is concerned.

“Naming something just ‘Red’ would make it feel plain and boring and not very much fun,” said Bobbe Joy, a former Hollywood makeup artist who’s worked on Lucy Liu and Dolly Parton, and who now owns a custom makeup company in Beverly Hills. “Sedona” — a reddish tone in one of Joy’s makeup lines — “is more fun.”

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But which burns hotter, Joy’s Sedona or MAC’s Redwood? Would OPI’s To Eros Is Human nail color claw the eyes out of Maybelline’s Invinsible? Which makes us blush more, Bitch Slap! powder blush from Ramy Beauty Therapy or Sephora’s refined and Euro-chic Rouge Peche’ Abricot?

A more fitting question might be: What kind of mood are you in? Or, better yet: What kind of mood do you want to be in?

(See: MAC’s Satiate or Philosophy’s Contemplation lipsticks).

As the makeup industry struggles to sell products in an era when women are as likely to go au naturel, au collagen or au botox as they are to clown-out, when scores of companies offer identical shades at a spectrum of prices, hooking consumers can mean deliberately raising eyebrows.

“Do you feel the glamour when you slap on some hot pink, or some Schiaparelli pink?” asked Rachel Weingarten, a former celebrity makeup artist and president of GTK Marketing Group in New York City.

Since ancient times and the fortuitous discovery of lead oxide (which, while being ridiculously toxic was also an ingredient in primitive tinted makeups), humans have been dolling themselves up to feel better and appeal to others (or, as the case may have been, to the gods). While makeup’s favor alternately waned and mostly waxed over the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1900s — really, the 1990s — that makeup names took on a life that often had little or nothing to do with actual colors, garnering appellations that rival those of racehorses.

(See: Urban Decay’s Midnight Cowboy Rides Again eye shadow or OPI’s At Your Quebec and Call nail color).

“Color cosmetics used to be such a main component of everything. Women used to match their lipstick color to their purse to their shoes,” said Melinda Minton, a beauty expert in Fort Collins Colorado and the executive director of The Spa Association, a national organization of health spas. “Now, we want to look younger and more natural and we never would think of matching our lipstick to our handbag, so companies had to think of a new way to sell their products.

“Now, they sell the fantasy.”

With lines high-end to punk-chic, cosmetics companies aim to create an illusory world in which you, Consumer, become skinnier, more capable and bee-stung.

“Look at Chanel. You’re going to find Tranquil Mist, or Caribbean High Seas, something destination or high couture or that’s sophisticated but won’t be in any way distasteful,” Minton said. “With teen lines, it’s all about fruit and candy. With MAC, you’ve got dominatrix and urban hip and decadent sex acts.”

But divining any meaning from today’s cosmetic names can sometimes take at least a working knowledge of pop culture.

(See: Lush’s Buffy the Backside Slayer skin conditioner and Merle Norman’s holiday line, Sets In the City.)

“That sort of blew me away, and I had to look at it twice,” said Terri Guerin, who for 21 years has run Merle Norman Cosmetics of Saratoga Springs.

So, do the colors have anything to do with the show? Guerin says yes, and sets were even broken down into shades fitting each character, from flamboyant to reserved.

The sexy colors, “two out of the three girls would definitely have worn them,” Guerin said. “The purple color would be the Sarah Jessica Parker (character) and the other flashy (set) would be that one who liked to take off her clothes a lot.” (By the way, that’s Kim Cattrall’s character, Samantha Jones).

Guerin added: “I swear, they have someone who sits up all night in California who comes up with these names.”

Well …

At Bobbe Joy’s company, while an all-nighter is rare, the employees do schedule brainstorming sessions to churn out possible names for each season’s new lines.

“We sit around and throw out names until we get something that’s great,” Joy said.

Yup, it’s that complicated.

And it’s not unheard of for a cosmetics company to bestow the honor of naming a makeup color as reward to an underling.

“Not a lot goes into the naming of colors. The relative importance of it is demonstrated through the assignment of that to a junior,” said Mark Levit, a professor of marketing at New York University and a partner at Partners & Levit Advertising in New York City. “If it was something important it would be handled by a senior or sent out to a company that specialized in names.”

Understandably, companies can get a little prickly when their finely manicured toes are stepped on by competitors — a situation that’s more likely as witty, somewhat pithy names become harder and harder to dream up.

“It isn’t always easy to get the name that you want. A lot of times words that are single-use words are already taken, so you go to two words, and a lot of those are taken, too, so you turn to cutesy, longer names,” said Joy, whose company now offers the Once Upon a Time line, which includes lip glosses named Pink-a-rella and Little Bo Pink.

For instance, she once named a line of lip glosses Jet Set only to find out that another company had already claimed that title for one of its lines.

“They sent us a cease and desist letter,” said Joy. “So we changed it to Jet Setter.”

Stephanie Earls can be reached at 454-5761 or by e-mail at searls@timesunion.com.


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