Whose Fragrance Am I Wearing? Why, My Own, Of Course!

Custom beauty products are poised to rear their lovely heads again

Whose fragrance am I wearing?On paper, it sounds like the ultimate beauty experience: To plop down in a swivel chair at a cosmetics counter, or be ushered into a well-appointed cabine in the back of some gorgeous perfume shop, and have a just-for-you foundation or “signature” scent whipped up right in front of your very eyes. Really, what could be more luxe, more satisfying for a full-fledged beauty junkie?

But if it’s so great, why has custom-blending come and gone over the years? Why does even a big old Estée Lauder-backed (EL) custom brand like Prescriptives fade into the ether?

Certainly not from a lack of interest on the part of consumers – love, actually, in my case. At the risk of revealing my age, I’ve been hanging around the beauty editor block long enough to have ridden several waves of custom-blending. I’ve had a fragrance created for me by a little line called Memoire Liquide; an entire collection of matching foundation, tinted moisturizer and concealer blended by Prescriptives; a much-beloved purplish blush concocted by the now-defunct Visage Beauté when Revlon owned it for five minutes in the early 90s; and incredibly chic red lipstick personally whipped up for me by Trae Bodge Napierala, one of the founders of Three Custom Color Specialists.

But 14 years after launching Three Custom with two partners, and sticking with it through thick and thin, Bodge is out of the beauty-blending game, and has moved on to other ventures within the biz. And in hindsight, she’s not convinced made-to-order is the way to go. “Every couple of years, custom is ‘the next big thing,’” she says. “A few companies jump on the trend, give it their all, and then often the service disappears.”

Why have beauty brands had such a tough time sustaining a custom business model? “The primary issue is scalability,” says Bodge. “Something that is custom-made requires more time and expertise than its ready-made counterparts, and although there is always a lot of buzz right at the beginning, a rude awakening often occurs when expansion is attempted. As the service rolls out to new locations or simply grows due to popularity, maintaining the same level of service and quality of product often presents a seemingly insurmountable hurdle.”

In other words, the costs have been prohibitive, and the demand not yet great enough to justify the investment. However, the time might be ripe for custom beauty blends – the ultimate in giving the consumer exactly what she wants when she wants it – to make a big and permanent comeback. The successful players in this game, however, will be those that proceed with a combination of brains, caution and marketing savvy.

Perhaps that’s why a new – and yes, buzzed-about – custom skincare line called Truth Art Beauty is starting slowly, with just four SKUs. Launched by Harvard Business School classmates Caron Proschan and Emily Graham earlier this year, the limited range (Eye Balm, Face Nourish, Body Salve and Body Buff) has a 100 percent natural slant and is customizable with ingredients like organic red raspberry oil and gingko extract. And although the duo is expecting to attract extremely knowledgeable clients to its website (right now, the line is Internet-only), one needn’t have a PhD in chemistry to tweak the products to her (or his!) exact specifications.

“While the beauty-literate consumer is certainly one of our key demographics, we’ve designed our platform to be as user-friendly and intuitive as possible by associating ingredients with key skin benefits,” Proschan explains. “People can choose an ‘antioxidant’ boost over a ‘redness reducing’ boost. We’ve found that even users with limited knowledge of ingredients, including quite a few men, have chosen to experiment with customizing and have found the process easy and accessible.”

So accessible, in fact, that Proschan sees a bright future for Truth Art Beauty, including the addition of more skincare SKUs, color cosmetics, and bricks and mortar distribution. “We hope to grow into a major brand,” she says, “and we’ll offer a mix of customized and non-customized products in order to be flexible with the needs of different customers and channels.”

The road might be a bit tougher for fragrance. Perfume industry veteran Paul Austin, whose Austin Advisory Group counsels both fragrance makers and fashion types, has long been privy to the difficulties in creating custom scents. The challenge, he says, is in successfully commanding top dollar, and convincing consumers that they’re getting a product that is quantifiably superior to the hot fragrance du jour stocked at Neiman-Marcus (NM).

“In bespoke scents, the authority of the craftsman is what gains the consumer’s confidence,” says Austin. “A perfumer’s credentials, along with such trappings as ‘expensive’ bottles, rare ingredients, and an esteemed location for the consultation and creation, are important. Without these, it is impossible to command a premium and convince someone that they are obtaining a scent that is superior to what is found in a department store.”

And as Austin points out, consumers are more likely to crack open their wallets for products they can see – i.e., makeup – than those they can only sniff.

Which might explain the popularity of Giella, a custom makeup line now entering its tenth year. Though she now also offers a handful of ready-made items, Giella Poblocki says the key to success was the early emphasis on custom blending. And today, bespoke foundation is still her bread and butter, followed by made-to-order nail lacquer. Yes, nail lacquer. While that would seem like a head-scratcher – why not just pop into Rite-Aid (RAD) and nab a bottle? – Poblocki says customers routinely ask for copies of limited edition shades, particularly by Chanel. In other words, if you’ve been wait-listed for this season’s version of Vamp, you’re much better off heading to one of Giella’s 15 counters, including its flagship Henri Bendel outpost.

Without question, Poblocki’s willingness to match limited run and discontinued shades of lipstick and lip pencils, not to mention those nail lacquers, is a genius move. And thus far, “thousands” of customers have availed themselves of the service. The goal now is to take her business up a few notches. “I know growth is important, and that I’ll need a partner to grow it to the next level,” she says.

If customized beauty products are to gain share of the business – and given the move away from mass marketed mega-brands toward exclusivity, micro-marketing, and individualism, indications are that they will – all but the fast-growing superstars need to join forces with bigger, established companies with deeper pockets and existing counter space who can expand the concept. And if big beauty brands want to grow, they may have little choice but to jump on this bandwagon, a possible key strategy in department stores’ quest to gain back market share from drug stores, discounters, and specialty stores.

The customer experience advantage alone gives it great promise. Says former bespoke queen Bodge. “While custom shouldn’t necessarily be the cornerstone of every business, it can add a cachet that is very valuable – in terms of personalized customer service, resultant loyalty and the marketing/PR opportunities it inherently provides.”

Dana Wood About Dana Wood

A beauty journalist for 20+ years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for BRIDES, Cookie and W magazines, has written for numerous national publications, and is an author and a blogger. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products Division of L’Oreal, as AVP Strategic Development. She recently relocated to Florida, and is embracing high-speed, expressway driving.