The launch of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty makeup line was two years in the making, which gave the star time not only to fine-tune her product but also to hone her message. So by September 7, when she arrived at the warehouse in Brooklyn’s Navy Yards for the party announcing Fenty Beauty’s debut in a in a Belle-yellow ballgown skirt and crop top by Oscar de la Renta, Rihanna knew exactly what she wanted to say: Her makeup was for the masses.
Fans were ravenous to see if the products lived up to the hype — the most intriguing promise being that the Fenty foundation would come in 40 shades, catering to both the darkest and the fairest of them all. “Fenty Beauty is for everyone,” she told The Times of London two days after the launch. “All skin tones and races.”
At the launch party, Rihanna elaborated to a reporter from Refinery29:
“It was really important for me in every product, I was like, there needs to be something for a dark skinned girl; there needs to be something for a really pale girl; there needs to be [something] for someone in between. And there are so many different shades, there’s red undertones, there’s green undertones, there’s blue undertones, there’s pink undertones, there’s yellow… You want people to appreciate the product and not feel like, ‘Aw, that’s cute, but it only looks good on her.’”
One week later, her foundation is selling out: As of publication, Sephora’s website showed that half of the ten darkest shades were out of stock — and so was 120, one of the lightest offerings, “for fair skin with neutral undertones.”
Rihanna’s makeup line is, as advertised, really for everyone; not for darker-skinned women at the exclusion of her fairer fans or vice versa. And at $34 a pop, Fenty Beauty foundation lands in a price point sweet spot: More expensive than what you could grab at CVS, but far less costly than what you’d find at a luxury brand’s counter.
The line is being heralded by fans and media alike for meeting a need that cosmetics companies have failed to address, but that’s not entirely true. Dozens of well-known brands sell foundation in at least 20 shades, and some, like Make Up For Ever and Cover FX, already have 40 on their shelves.
Maybelline’s Fit Me! foundations have long come in a wide range of shades; this spring, the brand announced it would be doubling its offerings, from 16 to 32 shades. (Last fall, the brand added 16 shades to its Super Stay Better Skin foundation line.) L’Oreal’s True Match comes in 33 shades, with as much variety in its darker and medium tones as in the lightest colors. Moving toward the mid- to higher-end options, Hourglass (also available at Sephora) sells its Vanish Seamless Foundation Stick in 26 shades, with about an even number of options across the color spectrum.
The number of shades isn’t necessarily indicative of a brand successfully meeting a wide range of needs, however. The Born This Way foundation by Too Faced offers 23 shades of foundation, but only five that could conceivably be aimed at women of color, and the darkest shade is notably lighter than the darkest options from Fenty, Hourglass, and Maybelline.
When it comes to brands that sell only a handful of shades, the options for women of color are virtually non-existent. Physicians Formula, which has been around for nearly a century, still has barely any colors in its foundation lines. A telling example is the Nude Wear Touch of Glow foundation: Of its five shades, the darkest among them is “natural beige.” (More telling is that the other four colors are light, light/medium, fair, and ivory.) Lilah B.’s Flawless Finish Foundation comes in five colors, and the “dark” is anything but. More examples abound.
Luxury brands are some of the worst offenders. Take Clé de Peau, whose Radiant Fluid Foundation (a 30 mL tube will set you back $125) comes in 12 shades that can generously be described as ranging in tone from Ivanka to Melania. Or La Prairie Skin Caviar — $225 for that same 30 mL pot — and its “perfect twelve” options, the darkest of which, “mocha,” is barely even brown.
So the fact that Fenty’s products are designed for women with a wide range of skin tones is not, in and of itself, remarkable; Rihanna is not the first to that party, even though product lines that cater to dark-skinned women are still too rare in the industry.
What’s noteworthy is that Rihanna has engineered an entire marketing campaign around the fact that her brand is inclusive. In addition to meeting the needs of a wide range of consumers, Rihanna is lending her clout — her status as a tastemaker, trendsetter, and all-around coolest woman in the room — to the idea that inclusion is something you can, and should, build a brand around.
From the get-go, Fenty ad campaigns “showcase[d] a focus on diversity,” Vogue reported, “with models Duckie Thot, Slick Woods, Selena Forrest and Halima Aden all starring, and sporting the much-anticipated products.” This isn’t diversity-as-afterthought, or even diversity-as-matter-of-fact. It’s diversity-as-the-headline. (Similar advertising tactics are at play in the latest ad campaign for Beyoncé’s athleisure brand, Ivy Park, which star Laverne Cox, actress and trans activist of color, and which feature Ralph Souffrant, a model from Haiti; Grace Bol, a Sudanese model; and Karen McDonald, a 60-year-old choreographer.)
Rihanna’s ability to deliver on her 40 shades promise distinguishes her from other celebrity-as-makeup-artist competitors, like Kim Kardashian West, who was called out by critics for appearing to wear blackface in an ad for her Contour Kit (she claimed she just had a tan) and then by customers for how light her “deep dark” shade turned out to be.
Is it surprising that racism and colorism still plague the beauty industry? Only the most oblivious among us could find anything remarkable about racism — that is, there is nothing new about its existence, nothing here that hasn’t always been here, dressed in the attire of the day. But it is worth noting, all the same, that too often in the beauty industry, racism is even more powerful than money: That, given the opportunity to either make millions of dollars by reaching out to women of color in the makeup marketplace or to light millions of dollars on fire by only selling foundation in shades from white girl to white-girl-just-back-from-her-beach-vacation, plenty of cosmetics corporations have consistently opted for the latter.
This does not differentiate the beauty industry from the fashion industry, which is in a similar situation vis-à-vis plus-size women, of whom there are 100 million in the United States alone. It is really something to see so many people essentially screaming at corporations: PLEASE GIVE US A REASON TO GIVE YOU OUR MONEY, and for those corporations, in turn, to say, “…nah, we’re good.”
What the early success of Fenty Beauty makes clear (aside from the fact that Rihanna wields formidable influence in virtually every industry she touches) is that inclusion is lucrative, and that making a brand about inclusion will not, in turn, alienate whatever white customer base a brand may already have. To really move product, providing the shades that women want is just the beginning: Brands have to do the outreach. Make it clear to women who have been told, subtly and explicitly by countless brands for literally generations, that these products are not for them, that there is a space for them at your counter.
With reporting by Phoebe Gavin.