I go to Bergdorf Goodman. At La Mer, the lovely blonde woman looks at her options and says, “I think all of these are going to be too light, but let’s give it a shot.” I am now officially depressed; every darker woman reduced to two, maybe four, shades at most of the high-end, mainstream beauty lines. Prescriptives, though, is great; they mix and match to get a perfect shade, and the colors they put on me really suit. Same for the M.A.C counter at Henri Bendel. I’m feeling better.
I decide to try a smaller, boutique line. At Macy’s, I check the Too Faced counter, where the gentleman tells me I am absolutely Caribbean Cocoa. That is the darkest shade they have—but it’s sold out, so he makes an aggressive case for a bronzer-only look. I leave looking like a disco ball.
Over a dozen makeup counters, four makeovers, and one crying fit later, I call the companies to see what’s being done. Some are on the defensive. Chanel declines to comment. The Nars vice-president of global marketing, Alec Batis, gives me the corporate line. “Nars Cosmetics provides every woman with the tools she needs to feel beautiful—whether it’s evening out her skin tone, defining her eyebrows, or wearing the perfect lip color, Nars’s goal is to cater to every woman’s needs, and to flatter every skin tone.” He adds, “Francois Nars worked with Naomi Campbell at the start of his career and created shades especially for her skin tone.” That’s great, but … Campbell is one black woman, and we get much darker after her.
Gillian Gorman, vice-president of marketing for YSL Beauté, is more helpful. “The challenge for all skin tones—and this isn’t just women of color—is the amount of melanin, which affects the undertones in skin. Whether you’re more red base, pink base, or yellow base, it’s a challenge to find the right base to neutralize any undertones you want to knock down. Particularly in African-American women, melanin can come through strongly in the lip and chin area.” She’s also frank: “We have more work to do, but we have gotten better.” She points to the Perfect Touch line, launched in September 2006 with three or four shades for very dark-skinned women. “They’re not among our best sellers. Women are just now beginning to trust us.”
“You can cover, say, 80 percent of light skin tones with six shades of foundation,” says Sarah Robbins, Bobbi Brown’s global vice-president of product development and marketing, as she explains the complexities of light, medium, and deep coverage to me. “As skin tones get deeper, they get much more complex in tonality, so six shades don’t cover that complexity in depth. It takes longer to get it right.” She’s clearly empathetic, but there’s also business to consider. “What’s difficult is to rationalize making SKUs [stock-keeping units] when you don’t know how many women you’re going to be able to service. We want to service everyone, but the reality is that it’s very difficult to do.”
Everyone was lovely, everyone tried, everyone has good intentions. YSL, Chanel, and Nars are launching darker shades later this year. Bobbi Brown can’t put a timetable on their latest. Still. Makeup shopping is supposed to be fun, but getting rejected time after time made this the most emotionally draining story I’ve ever done.