All I Want Is Foundation That Matches

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

For many women, navigating the beauty counters is about choice. Do you want a makeover? Some new lip gloss? How about a concealer? The options seem endless. Unless you’re at the darker end of the black scale. The brush-wielding makeup artists don’t even approach. No need to. They don’t have my shade anyway.

The thing is, I’m a beauty person. I’ve been getting my hair and nails done since I was 9; brows started in high school. I tried every god-awful makeup trend as a teen. All of this is to say I’ve always been a consumer in the most obsessive sense. My taste is more sophisticated now, and I can usually afford to buy what I want, but the ability to spend still doesn’t grant me the access to items I want.

I’m also, obviously, a beauty editor, and the lack of cosmetics—particularly the basics, like foundation and concealer—for my skin tone has always bothered me. When I ask companies about extending their lines for women of color, I’m usually told some version of “we’re working on it,” or shown one or two dark shades. Counterside makeovers can be humiliating; I end up in whiteface or am told point-blank they don’t have my color. And it’s great that former supermodel Iman has developed a makeup line for women of color, but I want variety.

I decided to test the current situation. Without identifying myself as an editor. I spent a few days in the stores, scanning the offerings and telling the counter people that I was looking for a foundation, some concealer, and a few new spring colors. I also asked for makeovers.

At the Bloomingdale’s Giorgio Armani counter, the darkest shade is 12.5; the woman tries it on me. It’s too red. She goes down to 11; it’s so-so. And what about summer, when I have a tan? “We can fix any problem,” she says, mixing bronzer into the 11. Which makes it lighter.

I go to Yves Saint Laurent Beauté at Barneys. The man at the counter swabs me with a few options; again, I think I look too red. He says it’s perfect. Even for summer? “You don’t need anything in the summer,” he says. Well, I think I do. But he says I don’t.

At Chanel, I pick up a bottle and ask, “Is this the darkest shade you have?” The counter woman nods and says, “Unfortunately. I’m sorry.” She calls out to her colleague at the Shiseido counter—a dark-skinned black woman—to see if that line has anything. The woman looks up, sees me, and laughs in a friendly way. She suggests Armani (been there) or Nars.

I walk by T. LeClerc; nothing. At Bobbi Brown, the makeup artist takes out the company’s four dark tones, but seems skeptical. So am I. I thank him and walk away.

From left to right: The Starting Point: My naked, unadorned face.; Bad: Too Faced: So much bronzer I shine like a disco ball.; Good: M.A.C.: I felt natural, but with good coverage. Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

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.

(1) Eyebrows: “Not only did I like makeup artist Asif Zaida’s ideas for my eyes, but also I liked that he took it upon himself to tweeze my brows.”
(2) Smoky Eye: “I did this makeover in the early afternoon, so this look is a little dramatic, but I liked it.”
(3) Foundation: “It’s fun to watch the artists blend, mix, and match to find the perfect shade. Everything from white and green to pink and yellow was thrown into test tubes for this perfectly toned foundation.”
(4) Lips: “Zaida blended Champagne Shimmer gloss and Aero 02 from the Moonbeam collection. Glosses can be custom blended as well, but we went off-the-rack with these.”
(5) Cheeks: “A bit rosy for me, but I felt pretty.”

All I Want Is Foundation That Matches