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Kat Von D, founder of an eponymous makeup line.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

The biggest beauty trend in 2018? Makeup brands behaving badly

Callout culture was on the rise this year, and it affected Deciem, Kat Von D, and more.

Traditionally, the beauty industry likes to put a pretty face on things; that’s its job. While CEOs from the tech world or other corporate sectors might make headlines with controversial business decisions and unorthodox social media use, beauty companies never reveal too much about their business practices and what goes on behind the scenes. As an executive at a beauty PR company once said to me, while scolding me for some coverage she perceived as negative, “In beauty, we’re nice.”

Not this year. Founders using crystal meth. Racist tweets. Misleading customers with fake reviews.

This industry-wide madness had a few recurring themes: racial insensitivity, transparency issues, copycatting, and founders — like Deciem’s Brandon Truaxe — making questionable, highly controversial, and very public decisions. A unique set of conditions exists now that allowed this unprecedented glimpse into the beauty industry’s dirty laundry in 2018. Cosmetic brands historically have been controlled by a few large corporations like Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Coty, and Procter & Gamble, which — with busy PR departments and big budgets — are very good at controlling their messaging. But things are different now.

The indie beauty industry is thriving, with new brands entering the market by the dozens. As founders are becoming the face and voice of their brands, customers expect transparency from and engagement with them. With the pressure for everyone, big and small, to constantly produce new products and new content, there’s a greater chance for gaffes and misunderstandings. The freewheeling conversations happening on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube then amplify the drama when it happens. It’s spawned a callout culture that will likely have repercussions long into the future.

Racism and inclusivity fails

Rihanna set the shade standard when she released her Fenty Beauty makeup range with 40 foundation shades in the fall of 2017. While some brands previously offered a wide range of shades, before Fenty, it was not the norm. (To be clear, Fenty is not an independent endeavor. It’s produced by Kendo, which is owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH, which also owns Sephora. Kendo produces the Kat Von D and Marc Jacobs makeup brands, among others. But the company notably lets its brand “founders” take center stage, controlling messaging and many product decisions.)

Other brands started to follow suit, hopefully because it was the right thing to do but definitely because they felt consumer pressure to do so. Some companies didn’t, though. Tarte, which makes a concealer called Shape Tape that is incredibly popular among makeup obsessives, launched a foundation range that featured 15 shades, only three of which seemed suitable for anyone with darker skin.

When Tarte faced backlash, a representative made things worse by telling PopSugar (in a post that has since been deleted but can be read in part on Revelist) that it takes time to formulate a full range and that “additional shades are usually added seasonally, which makes sense because your complexion tends to be paler in the winter and darker in the summer months.” You can imagine how this explanation went over, since there is a good chunk of the population whose skin is dark year-round, not just in the sunny months. Ulta ended up not selling the range as planned and the brand apologized, but it was a low note early in what people were hoping to be an encouraging year of makeup inclusivity.

Then there were Becca, Il Makiage, and StyleNanda, who were all called out for “blackfacing” images of their foundation swatches, as Refinery29’s report summarizes nicely. The brands used questionable photoshopping on their social media to make models’ skin appear darker (causing fans to accuse the brands of not hiring black models) or admitted to altering foundation shades via photo editing in ways that looked unnatural. It was just another data point showing that beauty companies still didn’t totally understand the diverse needs of their customers.

The chain of events that sent the biggest rumble through the industry, though, was the spate of beauty influencers called out for past racist actions. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos reported, several beauty influencers with huge followings had racist tweets resurface. Laura Lee, who had more than 5 million YouTube subscribers, arguably fared the worst, due to an old tweet of hers that read: “Tip for all black people if you pull ur pants up you can run from the police faster.” She lost more than a half million subscribers, had a collection pulled from Ulta, and forfeited some lucrative collaborations.

It sent reverberations through the industry and sparked conversation about authenticity, true regret, and the ability to change and grow that the industry is still grappling with. (Her follower count has still not recovered.)

Brand founders making questionable decisions

No beauty scandal this year has been bigger or weirder than that of Deciem and its troubled founder, Brandon Truaxe. Deciem owns the Ordinary, a brand that became popular almost overnight because it provided good skin care at ridiculously low prices. But in February, Truaxe started posting increasingly bizarre and personal messages on the brand’s Instagram page, including one in which he broke off a business deal with a collaborator. About that time, disturbing Glassdoor reviews surfaced suggesting that there was chaos at the Toronto headquarters, which reporting revealed to be true.

Things declined from there over the next few months, with Truaxe eventually being hospitalized a few times for potential mental health issues (which he has denied) and drug use (which he has admitted). Estée Lauder, a minority investor, successfully had him ousted from the company in November after Truaxe tried to shutter the brand via an Instagram post. He’s out for now, but anything could happen.

Other founders found themselves in the spotlight, too. Kat Von D, the tattoo artist turned beauty founder, has a long history as a provocateur. In 2016 she got into a well-publicized fight with beauty guru Jeffree Star and got national press coverage last year when she allegedly disinvited a Trump supporter from one of her launch parties. But this year, it was a different sort of controversy. In an Instagram post that has since been removed, she suggested that she would not vaccinate her then-unborn child. This statement resulted in immediate backlash, garnered almost 80,000 comments, and resulted in some high-profile influencers coming out against her. She eventually walked back the sentiment a bit in a follow-up post. She had the baby in early December, but the issue hasn’t come up again. Yet.

Then there was Sunday Riley, founder of the eponymous skin care brand that makes Good Genes, a “holy grail” skin care product for many people. A whistleblowing former employee dropped a bombshell when they released an email on Reddit suggesting that Riley and other executives at the company encouraged employees to leave fake positive reviews on Sephora’s site. The company even provided details about how to use a VPN in order to avoid having their emails traced back to the company. Sephora and Sunday Riley ultimately both responded with an apology, but it was evidence of something that beauty fans have long suspected: You can’t always trust the reviews.

Transparency and copycats

Transparency, and the lack thereof, was a running theme this year. It really came to the forefront in the beauty influencer community after Marlena Stell, an influencer and a brand founder, posted a scathing YouTube video suggesting that influencers were paid tens of thousands of dollars for product mentions.

While that was a dramatic revelation, it raised an even more important discussion about how many of them don’t disclose when they’re paid to promote a product. Unreported sponcon is a continuing problem in beauty as more and more brands divert marketing dollars away from print and digital advertising to influencers. Who’s influencing the influencers?

Retailers and brands weren’t immune to transparency issues, either. Ulta is embroiled in a lawsuit after a customer suggested that returned, used makeup was being resold as new at stores. Ulta denied that this was a policy, but a few weeks later, a shareholder also sued the company, alleging it lied about the policy. As of early November, the original class-action case still appears to be open. Ulta opens stores at a frenetic pace to maintain its incredible growth trajectory, and it’s becoming clear that it might be difficult to keep a handle on what individual stores are doing.

Then there’s copycatting. The practice is rampant in the beauty industry, sometimes taken to levels that go beyond mere inspiration. Sally Hansen, the popular drugstore nail polish brand, faced backlash and a solid week of pressure from customers on social media in March. It released nail appliqués, called “K-Design” that looked suspiciously like the “glass nail” and “wire nail” designs conceived by popular Korean nail artist Park Eunkyung (who goes by the handle Unistella). The whole situation got worse when Park revealed that she had been in talks with the brand to collaborate on a collection before, she alleges, being ghosted by them. Sally Hansen admitted it was “inspired” by the artist, but its apology was lukewarm at best.

Sally Hansen wasn’t the only large brand to court a creator before putting out an astonishingly similar product. Lip artist Vlada Haggerty, known for her distinctive “dripping lip” design, sued the LVMH-owned brand Make Up For Ever after alleging that the brand had reached out to her to collaborate. When she couldn’t because of a deal with another brand, MUFE released imagery that appeared to be very similar to Haggerty’s work. Haggerty has accused several people over the years, including Kylie Jenner in 2017, of copying her work. (Speaking of Jenner, she also faced accusations and a lawsuit this year from the indie brand Sheree Cosmetics alleging that Jenner had used its trademarked “Born to Sparkle” name.)

Finally, in a twist on the copycatting narrative, the huge conglomerate L’Oréal slapped buzzy indie skin care brand Drunk Elephant with a lawsuit alleging the latter had infringed on one of its formula patents for a vitamin C product. Drunk Elephant’s version is half the price, and the brand is likely eating into L’Oreal’s profits. Lots of brands make similar “dupe” vitamin C products, so they may have reason to fear future lawsuits too.

What all the 2018 drama means for beauty consumers in 2019

The common thread here is that the beauty industry is no longer limited to faceless corporations. Founders aren’t behind the scenes anymore; they’re out there crafting their own social media posts and jumping into the fray. They’re making themselves accessible, at least superficially. Sephora, in an email recently sent out to consumers, is even calling them “beauty celebs” and offering meet-and-greets with brand founders. Increasingly, their values are perceived to be those of the brand they founded. No one is neutral anymore.

As a result, fans want to interact with all brands more, even the big, traditional ones like Sally Hansen. They expect authenticity and, increasingly, transparency, just like they historically have had with influencers. The industry is no longer controlling the narrative, and the racial and inclusivity issues that have come up are a good example of this. Consumers, rightly, demand inclusivity of their products. The customer demand has finally driven change. It’s an expectation happening in wider society, but it’s something that should have happened in beauty much earlier. After all, it’s an industry that says it celebrates individualism and self-expression.

Consumers are more engaged with the beauty industry than ever, and when brands and influencers mess things up, they’re put on blast — a grassroots watchdog cottage industry has popped up. So-called beauty drama channels have grown significantly in the past year on YouTube, finding an eager audience in covering the scandals they see happening in the large beauty influencer community, and, to a lesser extent, with brands and founders. With increased scrutiny on influencers now, brands really have to think about whom they partner with. They can no longer just throw marketing money at the influencer with the biggest following.

Estée Laundry, a group on Instagram calling itself an “anonymous beauty collective” that is “airing out the industry’s dirty laundry,” has received tons of positive press in the past few months. Many mainstream lifestyle publications don’t cover negative news about brands because of advertiser and PR relationships, so it’s surfaced as an alternative news source. It can feel like a bit of an angry mob at times because the group sometimes shares anonymous comments from followers about brands and founders that are possibly not vetted the way a journalist would, but the point is well taken. The popularity of the account speaks to a need for more transparency that isn’t happening on a more mainstream level.

When a beloved brand like Sunday Riley does something as calculated as posting fake reviews, it can degrade trust across the entire industry. But all this drama ultimately has the potential to be good for consumers, even if some of the mechanisms used to expose them are scrappy. There’s a much-needed democratization happening in beauty. People should understand how the companies they’re giving their money to function and what they really believe — niceties be damned.

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