It’s 9.28 on a Monday morning, and I’m wearing full makeup (foundation, primer, blusher, bronzer, highlight, four eyeshadows), five-inch stilettos, and absent-mindedly humming along to the blasting Tinashe. I’m surrounded by other equally well-turned out women, all in black from head to toe. Three years ago, this might have meant I hadn’t quite made it home the night before; today it means I’m gearing up for my first shift in the Selfridges beauty hall on Oxford Street.
Full disclosure: this isn’t my first rodeo. I worked in a cosmetics store for three years as a student, which pretty much set me on this career path, but it also opened my eyes to just how advanced some of the talent in beauty retail is. My colleagues (not me, I was mainly there to ring up £40 lip balms and fold tissue paper) did magazine covers, celebrity clients, international film and TV work on their days off – and then came in to do free 'party-ready' makeovers on mere mortals.
"I think there’s this perception that we’re all trying to make you spend loads, or we’re going to give you all of this crazy makeup or something," said Vera, Bobbi Brown’s counter manager. "And maybe that used to be true, but for me, I don’t want to just hire retail artists, you know? I want makeup artists." She’s not wrong about that impression. I conducted an informal poll among my female friends, the results of which amounted to a wrinkling of the nose. In defiance, I decide to sit for Sally, a new artist on the counter. She told me she has no formal makeup training; in fact she studied animation and loves to paint. Sure, I’m wearing more products than I would usually (I lost count after 12), but I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked quite so good so early in the day.
By 11am, the counter is filling up. Vera tells me Saturdays are still busiest for them, and she needs 17 staffers on deck to keep up with the demands, which seems bonkers considering the counter is the size of a corner shop. I tell them that lots of women find the space too intimidating or overwhelming to approach, thanks to the blinding lights, pounding music and army of glamorous women. Nene, a student who works part-time on the counter, nods knowingly. "I used to have really bad acne, in fact I still have the scarring now. I can remember feeling so ashamed if I came in somewhere like this." What changed, I ask her. "I guess I did it a little bit at a time. I would come in and maybe just look, and the next time smile at someone who works there, you know, work up gradually."
Andrea, who’s worked in Selfridges for 11 years, chimes in: "We just treat everybody the same here. You can come in with your jogging bottoms on, or very glam, I don’t care. I’ll look you in the eye and get to know you." A former makeup artist for Strictly Come Dancing, Andrea’s queue of customers is perhaps the longest. She looks barely 40, but I later find out she’s in her 60s. She has an unflappable demeanour and a ready smile, affectionately calling the rest of the staff her 'daughters', hugging them close to her chest. "I invite everyone to sit down properly and have some undivided attention."
One thing that sadly hasn’t changed at all since my days behind the till? Some customers just don’t want to play nice. A few times, I saw people literally click their fingers at staff to get their attention. Many even waved products in their face in lieu of, you know, saying, "Please may I have some help?" It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in any front-facing role, you’ll have to deal with some tough customers, but it’s still incredibly sad to see it happen so vividly.
I move over to Trish McEvoy, where manager Holly tells me exactly what she looks for when hiring new starters. "I want diversity," she says. "We’ve got some older women here, younger girls, some of us wear natural makeup, some of us wear a lot more – and it goes without saying that in a store in central London, we always have staff of different races. I want everyone to see someone who looks like them here."
I then watch Becca, a makeup artist, give one of their signature 'half-face' lessons, where she applies one side of makeup and the customer applies the other, so they learn as they go. She spends an hour doing so, and the customer simply walks away without buying anything. I ask her if she minds, and she shrugs. "Not at all – she said she wants to think about it all. I get that. It’s a new look for her – I’d want time to decide, too."
Holly and Becca tell me they’ve tried to alleviate customer anxiety about being aggressively up-sold or not knowing if they can even ask for a makeover by adding clear, online booking via Selfridges – a great service that not very many shoppers actually know about. "Customers can see exactly how long a service will take, and how much it costs, but they are all redeemable against products," adds Becca. We’re interrupted by the arrival of Yoni, a new hire and an established celebrity MUA in his homeland of Israel. He’s ebullient, chatty and seemingly indefatigable as he tells me about working on Israeli X Factor, while blending three highlighting sticks on the back of my hand. Customers clearly adore him – the laughter coming from his corner of the counter is uproarious.
My final stop of the day is Estée Lauder, where manager Denisa greets me. She’s such a patient listener, and has such a gracious manner, I’m sure she must have trained as a therapist. I later find out she has not; retail just does that to you. She proudly shows me all the brand new toys they have on the counter: while-you-wait lipstick and perfume engraving, a lipstick 'trying-on' mirror, a special foundation matching device – tools that would have seemed space-age in my time as a shop girl. As we talk, a woman plops down in front of a mirror, refuses help and begins to redo her makeup. I ask Denisa if she minds. "Not at all," she says. "This is an open space. You can come in your pyjamas, I don’t care!" she laughs. "We’re here to build relationships."
We’re falling out of love with bricks and mortar as the convenience of one-click checkouts rises. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I just don’t think the two can compare. I discovered that if you go in-store, you could have a London Fashion Week-level makeup artist apply your makeup for the (redeemable) price of a lipstick and and a lipliner, have a facial massage, get your new lipstick engraved for free, pick up free foundation samples, learn what colours actually do suit you and potentially make an enduring bond with your artist. Human connection is dwindling in this modern world, but the beauty hall feels remarkably personal given its cavernous size (2,767 square metres, to be exact).
The convenience of e-tail certainly has its place, but I’d urge anyone who’s written off the IRL beauty hall to reconsider. I can think of a few people who’d love to see you.