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CHICAGO - When Sandy Di Stefano sees a woman wearing a lot of makeup, she doesn't think "pretty," she thinks "face paint."
Di Stefano prefers a more natural look. No foundation or powder for her in the morning. A little lipstick, blush and eyeliner and she is good to go.
"If it's really noticeable, it's like, `That doesn't look good,'" says the 31-year-old marketing coordinator for the Italian Trade Commission in Chicago.
Like Di Stefano, lots of women are paring their morning makeup routines. The hottest look in makeup right now, beauty editors agree, is looking like you're not wearing any at all.
"No one wants to look like they are spackled," said Sarah Brown, beauty director at Vogue magazine. "The point is to make your skin look better than it is."
Signs of the "less is more" approach are popping up in unexpected places.
Designer Diane von Furstenberg's spring makeup collection was called "In the Nude," and was billed as the "no makeup make up."
High-profile models such as Gemma Ward sported a natural look on designer runways this spring.
That prompted Vogue to declare the "Flemish Face" the hot new look.
"Forget dark lipstick. Don't even think about mascara. The look of the season carries with it the painterly signature of the Dutch masters," a headline in Vogue's July issue proclaimed.
The lighter approach is an easy sell to women in their 20s and early 30s, beauty experts say.
Many young women are rejecting lengthy beauty routines that require more than a dozen products for quick dustings of bronzer and swipes of lip gloss.
The pared-down look is low maintenance and matches the casual wardrobe they've embraced. The fresh-scrubbed look seems natural when you're wearing a camisole and flip flops.
Where younger women go, many older women try to follow, marketing experts say. One goal of many women who wear makeup is to disguise flaws and make them appear more youthful than they are.
Women who can afford the services of dermatologists are flocking to the doctors' offices for regular micro-dermabrasions, treatments that make their skin appear fresher by sanding off the top layer with a stream of crystals that are then vacuumed away. Prices run about $160 per session.
Others opt for more expensive dermal fillers such as collagen or Restylane to minimize wrinkles around the mouth or Botox, an injection that paralyzes frown lines on the forehead. Still others seek out chemical peels or laser treatments that zap away broken blood vessels on the face.
Dr. Jerome Garden, a practicing dermatologist and associate professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University, hears it all the time from patients in their 40s and early 50s.
"They're noticing they need more and more makeup, and they're not comfortable with it," Garden said. "They come in and ask, "Is there anything I can do so I don't have to wear so much makeup?"
If makeup consumption is slowing, it's hard to detect at department store makeup counters.
Sales of so-called prestige makeup rose 6.7 percent, to $2.79 billion in 2004 from 2003, according to NPD Group, a marketing information company that tracks cosmetic sales at department stores.
But unit sales of makeup rose 2.7 percent in 2004, suggesting that much of the top-line increase is coming from higher prices.
The picture isn't as rosy at the mass-market level.
Unit sales of cosmetics at mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, have declined for the past three years and are down slightly through July 16 of this year. Last week, Revlon Inc. reported a second-quarter loss of $35.8 million, citing a 4 percent drop in North American sales among other factors.
Some cosmetic companies are trying to adapt by bringing out new products that help women use less makeup without feeling naked.
One popular product is tinted moisturizer, a lighter version of foundation that usually comes with sunscreen protection. Dramatic cheek colors are being supplanted by bronzing powders and sticks of creamy blush that offer a hint of rosiness. Tinted lip gloss is capturing part of the market share that once went to lipstick.
Some companies are creating whole new categories of products that support makeup but don't make a woman look painted.
Laura Mercier, the makeup artist line that is partly owned by Neiman Marcus, has introduced a translucent gel that goes under foundation to help it wear longer and look better. But "foundation primer" can also be worn without makeup, giving blush or powder something to cling to.
Mercier also has a product called "secret brightener" that promises to brighten dark circles under the eyes and reduce shadows. The $30 tube of sparkly pale pink cream is paired with a $22 pot of brightening powder to "maximize wear and coverage," according to the Laura Mercier web site.
Allan Mottus, a veteran analyst of the cosmetics business, says there are bigger cultural influences at work here.
Baby Boomers are rejecting the idea they have to age gracefully, and young people are telegraphing their sense of style with other things besides makeup and clothes.
"Younger consumers are very interested in other type of status signaling - tattoos, piercings, showing a little belly button," said Mottus, publisher of The Informationist, a magazine for the cosmetics and fragrance industry.
"People don't necessarily say,
What a great lipstick.' They say,She's really toned or she's skinny.' The way people are signaling in clubs today is totally different from the makeup-savvy women of the
While acknowledging that times have changed, Mottus also blames cosmetics-makers for the lack of consumer interest in their products.
"If people have a compelling reason to buy products, they generally do. There haven't been as many seasonal variations. The advertising has become more like Popular Mechanics or Scientific American. It hypes claims like `Do you want a 300 percent volume increase in your eyelashes?' But it doesn't hype a compelling fashion and a reason to wear lipstick."
In the mid-1990s, Chanel's "Vamp" look was a runaway hit with consumers, and its nearly black lipstick and nail polish was widely imitated by competitors.
Mottus laments the lack of a new look that will inspire the kind of fervor that helped Chanel sell $1 million worth of Vamp nail polish in a single year.
"Tell me how many fashion makeup ads are out there. That's not the game anymore," Mottus sighed. "Everybody is playing it safe. They're not doing anything."
Cosmetic makers say they get it and are trying to respond. Revlon, for example, has launched two initiatives to boost revenue, including making better use of its Almay brand.
"We have listened to our consumers and have developed a completely new experience for the Almay consumer that addresses her busy lifestyle, need for simplicity and desire for personalization," said Stephanie Peponis, Revlon's chief marketing officer, in a press release Thursday.
A second effort involves creating new products for mature women "who have told us their current products no longer work for them," Peponis said.
Of course, many women would no more go out of the house without makeup than they would walk down Michigan Avenue in a bikini. And neither skin-care companies nor dermatologists have found a permanent, non-surgical cure for aging skin, so the need for foundation and eyeliner isn't going away.
One thing is certain, beauty editors say, and that is fashion is cyclical. Bright lipsticks and a made-up look may soon be on their way back.
Von Furstenberg is betting both ways. While keeping her nude makeup collection from spring in her permanent line, she is now showing red lipsticks and smoky eyes.
"For fall, we're going full color," said her spokeswoman.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.