Makeup in the age of Covid-19: ‘With masks, we rely on our eyes to communicate’

Makeup in the age of Covid-19: ‘With masks, we rely on our eyes to communicate’

“Everyone is a makeup artist now,” says Shekeira Bedassie, who graduates from Solent University this year. “The market was already saturated and fiercely competitive when we started this course. Now there will be much less work to go round.” We are talking on the phone – I’m in Brighton, Bedassie in Croydon, where she now feels “100% bored with my own face”. In terms of a post-pandemic aesthetic, she predicts a new focus: “With masks on, people will rely on their eyes to communicate. Colourful lashes and graphic liner can match or complement the natural eye colour – and even coordinate with facial coverings.”

Since the final student lectures, magazine shoots have become DIY affairs, fashion shows have been cancelled and most hiring programmes frozen. The traditional makeup artist’s safety net of working on makeup counters to supplement their freelance income (Bedassie works at MAC), is severely compromised. During lockdown, and even as some stores reopen, brands such as Bobbi Brown and Space NK have redeployed as many counter consultants as possible to offer live online consultations from home. But the opportunities for in-store artistry are, for now, on hold, as tester products are removed to reduce the spread of infection and in-store makeovers shelved to protect customers and staff. Measures like this mean that, for now at least, makeup artists have essentially been decommissioned. “That poses quite a serious threat to my livelihood,” says Bedassie, who seems less concerned for her safety than her ability to pay the rent.

The bigger picture, she says, is that weddings – a reliable part of a young makeup artist’s career – are cancelled for the foreseeable future (of the 250,000 weddings in the UK each year, an estimated 64% in 2020 will be affected by the pandemic). “We don’t know when weddings will start again,” Bedassie says. “Shops may be reopening, but freelancers might not be up and running until next year. This crisis has taught me that I can’t afford to be stuck in this little oversubscribed space any more. I have to diversify.” She has begun to customise trainers at home, selling them online: “I needed to find another way to be artistic.”

Even before brands began struggling to stay afloat, few industry patrons had invested meaningfully in the future. MAC Cosmetics is the exception. Overseen by Charlotte Baraks, its artist relations team works with 55 British makeup colleges and many more fashion colleges, supplying student kits, trade discounts, talks, masterclasses, backstage work opportunities and other training. For Baraks, this relationship is fundamental to the brand’s vision. “We aim to serve the student makeup artist at grassroots level, with the intention of building lifelong, loyal fans of the brand. We go into colleges, try to spot those who are doing something interesting and stick with them for the long haul.”

Hannah Gumbley

Two of Hannah Gumbley’s looks…

Hannah Gumbley

‘When I pick up an eyeliner and start drawing, I can still get lost and forget it all’

Baraks and Terry Barber, MAC’s director of makeup artistry, are the first to point out that this is a two-way street. Student fashion has an energy, freedom and rebelliousness that is in the DNA of the brand, says Barber: “If you don’t listen to students, you might as well cancel British fashion and beauty, as far as I’m concerned.”

MAC has worked with designer Gareth Pugh since he was at college; his brand is now among the few 100% designer-owned and profitable fashion labels in Britain. The culmination of that relationship was a global MAC makeup collection, conceived and designed by Pugh, who had no profile outside the UK at the time. “We were so confident in who he was going to be,” says Barber.

But not everyone makes it to the runway and many graduates will fear there won’t be a place left for them in an industry in crisis. So it’s heartening to discover that contrary to my – and their – worst fears, consumers are more engaged in beauty than ever; it’s what they buy that is shifting. Sara Cohen, of Space NK, says the appetite for newness remains insatiable: Charlotte Tilbury makeup launches, and new self-tan from both Tan Luxe and Amanda Harrington have all flown, despite people not going out under lockdown. “Makeup has seen the same year-on-year increase as skincare,” she says. Few would have seen that coming.

According to Alexia Inge, co-founder of online beauty retailer Cult Beauty, its skincare sales are up a staggering 157% year-on-year, as people exploit the privacy and time afforded by social distancing, trying out new products, techniques and routines. An initial run on essentials such as hand cream and sanitiser has broadened to often expensive serums, masks, face creams and “wellbeing” products: fancy bath oils, candles and foams (up an unprecedented 527%). “Beauty has become a hobby,” Inge says. “Rather like baking, many are taking it up for the first time in lockdown.”

This meditative quality has also been a vital coping mechanism for beauty students facing an uncertain future. For Solent University graduate Helena Lambert, that has meant experimenting with more natural makeup: “We’ve seen so many flawless, polished looks on social media. I wanted to create the more lived-in look you get at the end of a long day. Now is a good time to get to know our faces again – not just those looking out from our phone screens.”

Helena Lambert

Helena Lambert: ‘I wanted to create the more lived-in look you get at the end of a long day’

Another Solent graduate, Hannah Gumbley, a big fan of Leigh Bowery and the Club Kids movement of the 1980s and 90s, has gone in a different direction and tells me she has spent her days experimenting. “For one Zoom call with university, I might wear a fully conceptualised monochromatic look, then a few hours later I’ll be in my pyjamas and testing out sheet masks.” For now, beauty isn’t just a career but an escape. “I am worried about the industry and money, and whatever comes next,” she admits. “But I also think this is an opportunity to rethink everything, rejuvenate and experiment. When I pick up an eyeliner and start drawing, I can still get lost and forget it all.”

Tricks of the trade: three student go-tos

Helena Smashbox LA Lights Blendable Lip & Cheek Colour in Beverly Hills Blush, £26. “I use this dewy creme blush on everyone. Smudge into cheeks and lips to give great glow.”
Instagram @styledbyhelena_uk

Hannah Charlotte Tilbury Hollywood Flawless Filter, £34 (30ml). “Use as a bronzer, highlighter, or mixed in to give glow to your foundation or moisturiser. I love it worn all over the face as a sheer base.”
Instagram @hannahgumbleybeauty

Shekeira MAC Prep & Prime Fix+, £21 (100ml). “I get through bottles and bottles. It primes the skin, hydrates it, locks down makeup and even freshens hair.”
Instagram @madebyshek

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