The beauty business

Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

The Beauty Business, in The Economist, is chock-full of fun factoids and anecdotes:

Medieval noblewomen swallowed arsenic and dabbed on bats’ blood to improve their complexions; 18th-century Americans prized the warm urine of young boys to erase their freckles; Victorian ladies removed their ribs to give themselves a wasp waist. The desire to be beautiful is as old as civilisation, as is the pain that it can cause. In his autobiography, Charles Darwin noted a “universal passion for adornment”, often involving “wonderfully great” suffering.

The pain has not stopped the passion from creating a $160 billion-a-year global industry, encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health clubs and diet pills. Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do on education.

How did the modern beauty industry get started?

In 1909, Eugène Schueller founded the French Harmless Hair Colouring Co, which later became L’Oréal — today’s industry leader. Two years later, Paul Beiersdorf, a Hamburg pharmacist, developed the first cream to bind oil and water. Today, it sells in 150 countries as Nivea, the biggest personal-care brand in the world. Around the same time, in Tokyo’s upmarket Ginza, Arinobu Fukuhara hit on eudermine lotion — the first Japanese cosmetic based on a scientific formula, and the first product for the Shiseido company.

But it was the great rivalry between two women in America that made the industry what it is today. Elizabeth Arden opened the first modern beauty salon in 1910, followed a few years later by Helena Rubinstein, a Polish immigrant. The two took cosmetics out of household pots and pans and into the modern era. Both thought beauty and health were interlinked. They combined facials with diets and exercise classes in a holistic approach that the industry is now returning to.

Rubinstein considered facelifts (via leather straps and electricity) to be as acceptable as lipstick, while Arden pioneered beauty branding, with her iconic gold and pink packaging. The two women, together with Max Factor (which originally produced make-up for actresses), built the foundations of modern marketing, bewitching consumers with aggressive tactics such as celebrity endorsements and magazine advertorials. In the 1930s they were joined by Revlon, and after the second world war by Estée Lauder. All these companies are still around.

Recently, cosmetic surgery has grown to rival the traditional, less intrusive, beauty industry:

Two potentially lucrative markets are being all but ignored by the traditional beauty companies. The first is cosmetic surgery, already a $20 billion business, which has been growing and innovating by leaps and bounds. The number of cosmetic procedures have increased in America by over 220% since 1997. Old favourites, such as liposuction, breast implants and nose jobs, are being overtaken by botox injections to freeze the facial muscles that cause wrinkles. With the number of these up by more than 2,400% since 1997, botox injections have become the most common procedure of all.

The newest lines are bottom implants, fat inserts to plump up ageing hands, and fillers like Restylane and Perlane for facial wrinkles. Cosmetic dentistry is also a booming business. Jeff Golub, Manhattan dentist to stars like Kim Catrall of “Sex and the City”, dubs himself a “smile designer”. “We are able to create all sorts of illusions,” he says. “The smile has become a fashion statement.” Tooth whitening is the botox of the cosmetic dentistry business.

What used to be the preserve of actresses and celebrities has become safer and more affordable. Alan Matarasso, one of America’s leading plastic surgeons, says: “Ten years ago you could reconstruct a woman’s breasts for $12,000 — now it can be done for $600.” Drooping prices have helped cosmetic surgery to move into the mainstream. More than 70% of those who come under the knife now earn less than $50,000 a year.

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