December 4, 2021

50signs

The Fashion Spirit

Legacy makeup brand Fashion Fair relaunching, entering a growing field of companies catering to women of color

4 min read

CHICAGO — Chicago-based cosmetics brand Fashion Fair will soon be back on store shelves — with a bit of a makeover.

When Fashion Fair launched in 1973, it was one of the only makeup brands creating cosmetics designed for women of color. But the brand struggled in the years before its parent company, Ebony and Jet magazine publisher Johnson Publishing, went bankrupt in 2019.

Now, two former Johnson Publishing executives are reviving the brand, rolling out new products with a focus on natural, vegan ingredients and swapping department store counters for Sephora shelves to appeal to a new generation of consumers in a highly competitive beauty market.

One thing they plan to keep: a sense of the brand’s history.

Fashion Fair “was at the forefront of making sure that beauty really was something that every woman had the opportunity to experience, especially Black women and women of color … We want to keep that entrepreneurial spirit, that historical spirit,” said Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, one of the brand’s owners.

Former Johnson Publishing executives Mayberry McKissack and Desiree Rogers bought Fashion Fair out of Johnson Publishing’s bankruptcy for $1.85 million in late 2019 with the help of Alec Litowitz, founder and CEO of Evanston, Illinois-based hedge fund Magnetar Capital. The company, which has about 10 employees and a network of 60 consultants, is headquartered in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart alongside Black Opal, a mass market cosmetics brand also owned by the Fashion Fair team.

Now they’re preparing to launch their first new products, which will be sold on Fashion Fair’s website and at Sephora, available online as of Sept. 1 and in stores later in the month.

Some of the first six products will be familiar to loyal Fashion Fair shoppers, including a crème to powder foundation and a lipstick where 10 of 14 shades are part of past collections. But all products are available in a wider range of shades and have been reformulated to use vegan, natural ingredients.

“It’s part of this merging of the past and present,” Rogers said.

Fashion Fair will have more competition from other brands catering to diverse consumers, such as Rihanna’s high-end Fenty Beauty brand, which launched with 40 shades of foundation in 2017. It’s not just new Black-owned brands either — established beauty companies have been expanding their options.

“It became this new environment where if you didn’t come to market with diverse shades, you were shooting yourself in the foot,” said Sarah Jindal, senior beauty analyst at market research firm Mintel.

Beauty retailers have also pledged to add more Black-owned beauty brands in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Sephora, Ulta and BlueMercury signed on to the 15 Percent Pledge, a campaign that aims to have companies commit to filling at least 15% of their shelf space with Black-owned brands.

Chicago-based Ulta also pledged to invest $25 million in advertising promoting diversity and tapped actor Tracee Ellis Ross, founder and CEO of Pattern Beauty, a hair-care brand Ulta carries, as its diversity and inclusion adviser.

Target, meanwhile, said last year it carries 50 Black-owned beauty brands and plans to grow that number as part of a commitment to spend more than $2 billion with Black-owned businesses by the end of 2025.

Fashion Fair’s history as a Black-owned brand should help it stand out, industry analysts said.

“You have to be authentic with this customer,” said Desiree Reid, a multicultural marketing expert and the founder and president of consultancy Desiree Reid & Co.

Fashion Fair worked with a dermatologist to develop products with ingredients designed to address issues that can affect people with darker skin tones, like hyperpigmentation and larger pores, Rogers said.

Brands that started with lighter hues before extending their range of shades also don’t always offer the full range of products for consumers with darker skin, said Sam Fine, Fashion Fair’s global makeup ambassador.

“If she can’t get a full face, you’re offering a crust of bread instead of a full meal,” he said.

Fashion Fair’s number of shades — 16, for the stick foundation — isn’t as extensive as some brands, but that’s because it focused on shades for women of color, Fine said.

“I felt Fashion Fair could do this beautifully in 16 shades and later, as we look at other products, look at where we need to extend,” he said.

While Rogers and Mayberry McKissack said they have heard from loyal Fashion Fair fans eager to see its products back on store shelves, the brand will also have to figure out how to connect with a new generation of customers who missed its heyday.

Fashion Fair’s shift to vegan, natural ingredients should appeal to younger consumers, as will its status as a Black woman-owned brand, Rogers and Mayberry McKissack said. The pair want to see more women of color in the cosmetics industry and plan to launch a scholarship at Spelman College in Atlanta that will include an internship with Fashion Fair and some of its partner companies.

“There are not enough women of color on the business side of cosmetics, especially given how much money minorities spend on cosmetics,” Rogers said.

They’re also planning to shift sales to channels more popular with consumers.

While Fashion Fair’s presence at department store makeup counters made it “a game-changer” when it launched, today, specialty beauty chains are more popular destinations, Jindal said.

Fashion Fair plans to add virtual try-on tools to its website, technology already available at Black Opal. Rogers and Mayberry McKissack plan to add a one-on-one virtual beauty consultation feature, as well as a new round of products launching next year, including lip gloss and skin care products.

Plenty of legacy brands have found ways to stay relevant, Reid said.

“The name, some people will say, is old, but Estee Lauder is old and Clinique is old … There’s no reason why that brand (Fashion Fair) can’t do the same and redefine itself,” she said.

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