It’s well known that, much like fashion, beauty trends are cyclical. Every few seasons, the catwalks serve us pared-back minimalism, ‘no-makeup makeup’, and super-fresh skin. Then along comes a bright eyelid, a high-shine lip, a colourful cheek and with it the return of playful beauty. This time, however, it feels different. The experimental makeup and beauty we’re seeing is being championed not only throughout Fashion Month and in magazine editorials, but by brands, makeup artists and your favourite Instagram girls, too.
Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has inspired a 180-degree turn in fashion: shifting the landscape from the tonal colours and minimalist silhouettes of Céline’s reign and the ‘normcore’ dressing that followed, to a more-is-more explosion of print, texture and colour. The same can be said for beauty but why, exactly, did this shift take place? You could say it’s political. Not Downing Street political, maybe, but the current climate has certainly influenced our creativity.
Times are hard: people are tired, broke, and suffering with poor mental health. We’re over-worked, stressed out and see little hope for the future. And that’s all before you consider the president of the United States, Brexit, and an ongoing refugee crisis. They say the best art comes from times of trouble, and this seems to have reached the spheres of beauty and fashion. “The '80s was the last era we saw beauty as bold as we’re seeing today,” Natalie Hasseck, Head of Creative at makeup brand 3INA tells Refinery29. “With everything happening in the world, a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality has emerged. At times like this we want to feel empowered, and we want to feel good.”
And what’s more feel-good than recreating YouTube beauty tutorials, knowing you have nowhere to go but beating your face anyway? Or messing around with snake-green and fire-red eyeshadows before a Saturday night out? The restorative and cathartic power of applying makeup has been well documented – it can help heal survivors, it makes room for young boys to become drag queens, and it can be the armour you put on to go out and handle the crap that life is doling out right now. Milk Makeup cofounder Georgie Greville reiterates this sentiment. “Art and expression definitely come alive in times of crisis,” she tells Refinery29. “The feminist and humanist movements are positively influencing freedom of expression in great ways – especially with women feeling empowered to wear makeup and clothes for themselves and their friends, rather than just being sexy for someone.” Makeup can be transformative – it holds power and gives you courage.
Perhaps another reason for this new lease of beauty life could be our growing celebration of individuality. Hasseck explains that this message was central to 3INA’s brand direction, “as an antidote to an airbrushed myth of perfection. We want to challenge the one-size-fits-all definition of beauty; for us, makeup is about empowering and enhancing, not distracting and masking.” In a time when our differences are under acute attack from the powers-that-be, now more than ever we’re proud of our diversity and, in turn, buffing away that identikit aesthetic. For makeup artist Anne Sophie Costa, whose experimental work is inspired by her graphic design background, makeup is all about making a personal statement. “I used to follow punk, gothic, and heavy metal culture when I was younger, so I have this need to pursue individuality,” she told Refinery29. “For me, makeup is a message of being yourself, your inside on the outside.” You can see this in the acid-green eyelids, exaggerated rainbow mouths, and gemstone-studded noses that she creates. Her favourite brands for creating these break-the-mould looks? 3INA and Milk Makeup.
You need only scroll through Milk Makeup’s Instagram feed to see that they champion individuality in all its forms. Their recent video in collaboration with Very Good Light asks, ‘What’s gender?’ and features men exploring the notions of femininity and masculinity – all while demonstrating the brand’s Blur Stick Primer. They use models of all shapes, genders and ethnicities, with purple hair, mullets, tattoos and piercings. Milk Makeup is one of the most exciting and boundary-breaking makeup brands out there right now, and the founders are truly passionate about their customers' uniqueness. “I love the creativity out there – it is so nourishing and alive. It makes me think of the Bruce Nauman quote: ‘Art is a matter of life or death’,” Greville says. “When I see the diversity of people on Instagram tagging #liveyourlook [the brand’s latest campaign, taking ‘self-expression to the next level’], I get so energised because people are out there truly expressing themselves, experimenting and investigating their individuality. What's more beautiful than that?”
This cult of the individual was born out of the internet, a space where anyone, anywhere, can be a makeup artist, product reviewer and blogger. While there are obvious downsides to this, it has given a platform to people who would not otherwise be heard or seen. Greville notes that access to the internet often means we have a ‘been there, done that’ way of seeing the world, fuelling new ideas and experimentation further: “When almost everything has already been done, you have to focus on what makes you unique and oftentimes create a look for it to actually stand out and be heard”, she explains. Just look at Instagram artists like Ruthie Barone and Sara Engel, whose incredible feeds – with a combined following of 58,ooo – are a laboratory of looks to try yourself, from pressed flowers adorning eyelashes to gold paint-splattered lips.
Having access to everything at the flick of a thumb also makes us less willing to commit: to one partner, one rented flat, one city, one job. Makeup feels so non-committal – and is now more affordable than ever – that people are trying looks that they perhaps wouldn’t have tackled before.
“Being experimental in any medium is creative, expressive and fun, but what’s great about doing it with makeup is that there’s no risk attached,” Hasseck tells Refinery29. “You can try a bright green eye or a flick of pink liner without having to spend loads of money or time.” And money is a huge factor here – figures point to decreased spending in skincare, and an increase in makeup. Statistics confirm our move from investing in long-term skincare, like anti-wrinkle products, towards makeup that makes us feel good, and feel like ourselves, right now. Karen Grant, Global Beauty Industry Analyst at The NPD Group told WWD: “It’s more about embracing who you are and what you are and how you look, and not feeling like you have to fit any mould.”
So what better time to work neon-pink glossy lids, a pearl-embellished Cupid’s bow, or blue stars mapped out on your cheekbone? Be playful, embrace your individuality and remember, as Hasseck says: “Makeup doesn’t need to be serious.”