Upfront disclaimer #1: MAC is one of the best beauty brands of all time.
Now that that’s firmly out of the way, let’s commit a little heresy and posit that maybe, just maybe – and this is solely one industry-watcher’s opinion, Makeup Artist Cosmetics, founded in Toronto in 1984 by two guys both named Frank (Toskan and Angelo), snatched up by the Estée Lauder Companies in 1998 for a cool $60 million, has lost sight of its North Star.
How do you know a colossal cosmetics company, one that cut its teeth with professional makeup artists and deployed 6’7” drag superstar RuPaul as its very first spokesperson, may be veering off track? When it announces its hot new collaboration with…Brooke Shields.
Upfront disclaimer #2. Brooke Shields is incredibly beautiful and an American institution.
So if Shields is an American institution, of course she’s an ideal candidate to be one of MAC’s “Beauty Icons,” right? Sure. She makes perfect sense alongside campy, vampy aging lookers like Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Raquel Welch and Diana Ross, each of whom have had their own Icon day in the sun.
Icon, Icon, Everywhere an Icon
Except Shields kind of doesn’t – make perfect sense in this context, that is. At 49, she’s too young (and plastic surgery free) to be a plausible fit in this lineup. But at the same time, she isn’t hugely relevant for many younger MAC users. Certainly not to the degree that Rihanna – currently fronting her third collection for the brand – is.
Then again, Rihanna isn’t a MAC Beauty Icon. (Not yet anyway.) Rather, she’s been the face of the brand’s Viva Glam campaign for two seasons. And she’s also had her own separate holiday collection dubbed RiRi Hearts MAC.
Confused by MAC’s many collections – Icon, Viva Glam, seasonal color stories, limited-edition promos? Better buckle up. Of the major prestige beauty brands, none offers a more dizzying annual array of launches. Not even close. Big, small, permanent product, or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it micro-collection, the MAC Factory never closes.
To wit, a mere two weeks after the Brooke news broke, MAC announced yet another limited-run partnership – one that sounds like a slam-dunk – with fashion designer Prabal Gurung. The 35-year-old, Nepalese clothier launched his namesake line in 2009, and quickly caught the attention of the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund. And MAC, which has a long legacy of supporting fledgling designers by providing product and makeup artist manpower backstage for fashion shows, has also been in Gurung’s corner from the get-go.
While the Shields and Gurung collections are hitting stores at roughly the same time this year (October and late November, respectively), they couldn’t be more different in vibe and look. Where Shields’s effort – the largest Beauty Icon collection to date – is understated, wearable and housed in no-nonsense gray packaging, Gurung’s is splashy, gold and utterly tricked-out.
And when one considers what MAC’s core product packaging looks like – black, black and more matte black – the whole she-bang sounds a little visually schizophrenic.
In other words, come holiday time this year, how cray-cray will the MAC counter at Macy’s look? Is MAC, circa 2015, such a global powerhouse and such a massive contributor to Lauder’s bottom line that brand cohesion that one message, one look no longer matters?
On-brand, Off-brand and Everything in Between
To be fair, New MAC is probably – at least loosely – adhering to the Old MAC playbook. When “the Franks” hatched the brand in Canada way back in the 80s, it was with this then-radical-chic credo: “All Ages. All Races. All Sexes.”
Of course back then the brand didn’t have anywhere near the resources it has now to surf in and out of pop culture, creating limited-run collections – each with its own distinct identity, bearing zero resemblance to MAC’s signature matte black – around so many disparate places, people and things.
Digging into its vast coffers, MAC has unveiled a staggering amount of initiatives in the last year alone. For simplicity’s sake, let’s drop some of this stuff, and this is by no means the definitive list of everything MAC has cranked-out in the last 12 months, into three big buckets: limited-edition/special promo; seasonal color stories; major new products.
Bucket 1 (Limited Edition / Special Promo)
MAC x Rocky Horror Picture Show; MAC x The Simpsons; MAC x Sharon & Kelly Osbourne; MAC x Maleficent; MAC x Archie Comics; two Viva Glam promotions; two nods to fashion designers — Proenza Schouler and Pedro Lourenco — two nods to other fashion types, illustrator Antonio Lopez and interior designer Iris Apfel; and the aforementioned RiRi Hearts MAC.
Bucket 2 (Seasonal Color Stories)
Alluring Aquatic; Moody Blooms; Playland; A Novel Romance
Bucket 3 (Major New Launches)
Prep + Prime BB Beauty Balm SPF 35; Prep + Prime CC Colour Correcting SPF 30; Pro Lipstick; Longwear Paint Pot Collection; Veluxe Pearlfusion Shadow; Studio Sculpt SPF 15 Foundation
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which of these three big launch buckets is most active. But it might take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is the basket / bucket MAC is putting all its eggs in. Especially since it does such a great job with its seasonal color stories and new products, many of which are game-changers.
Rihanna Viva Glam Lipglass we can wrap our minds around. But Sharon Osbourne multi-pan eyeshadow? Who signs off on this stuff?
The Man Behind the Curtain
As SVP and creative director, James Gager calls most of the development shots. As such, he wields enormous power. After all, MAC’s annual turnover is well north of $1 billion.
Without question, Gager, who joined the brand in 1999, is an extremely clued-up dude with exquisite taste. But let’s be real; he breathes a very rarified breed of oxygen. How else to explain such recent indulgences as the Iris Apfel collection? Now in her early 90s, Apfel is revered in fashion’s inner circle for her personal style, and was even the subject of a recent exhibition at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But would Apfel play in Peoria? And did that even matter? Not to Gager, evidently. And guess what? He was right; the collection sold-out almost immediately.
Some MAC launches are even more inside-baseball than Apfel, if you can imagine. But they can be cool nonetheless, especially if they educate those who are too young to know what an impact someone like legendary illustrator Antonio Lopez had on fashion and beauty. MAC can, and does, celebrate our unsung and long-forgotten heroes.
Still…if you’re all things to all people, at the end of the day, who are you?
Stiff competition down the street
Given its fiscal might and global reach, it seems pretty ridiculous to suggest MAC might want to watch its back.
And the kitchen-sink, throw-it-at-the-wall-to-see-if-it-sticks approach to product development would be A-OK for beauty’s foremost “rebel” brand if it weren’t for this one ultra-pesky fly in the ointment: L’Oréal Group’s acquisition, late last year, of Urban Decay.
Remember how scorching hot Urban Decay was in the indie era? Co-founded by edgy surf chick Wende Zomnir in 1996, it broke ground with products like Acid Rain eyeshadow and Gash nail polish, and advertising taglines like “Does Pink Makeup Make You Puke?”
Nihilistic in message, but crafted with quality, prestige-level ingredients, Urban Decay was even chic enough for breathless coverage in Vogue.
After bouncing around to a few other owners, it landed at L’Oréal in November 2013. And clearly, the mother ship means business; Urban Decay advertising is everywhere.
Only time will tell whether Urban Decay gets as big as MAC. But it’s certainly heading in the right direction. Why? Because it’s renegade. It’s rebel. And it’s focused.