How Bobbi Brown Staged a Quiet Beauty Revolution
As a beauty writer, it's easy to get jaded about the hands that touch your face. I've had my makeup done by countless talented people over the years and while it's always a pleasure to watch someone work, mostly it's just makeup.
But Bobbi Brown is a legend. And you never forget a legend. I first met Brown—who announced this week that she is stepping down from her namesake company after 25 years—very early in my career. It was my first week at my first magazine job, as the assistant beauty editor at Harper's Bazaar. My boss was going to be interviewing Bobbi for a feature in the magazine and had asked me to tag along.
You, only better, is a catchphrase you hear a lot in the beauty business these days, but it was Brown who telegraphed that concept widely and brought it to makeup counters everywhere.
That morning, I obsessed fretfully about how to do my makeup. I wanted to evoke the polished look Bobbi was known for, but suddenly everything I owned felt too juvenile, too pastel, too wrong. At the last moment, I even worried that Bobbi might dub my standby black liquid liner too harsh, so I traced my eyes with the only pencil I had on hand. It was navy blue.
An hour later, we arrived at Bobbi's office. But before the interview began, my boss surprised me with the news that Bobbi was going to do my makeup. As a beauty-obsessed girl, Bobbi was a bonafide celebrity. I settled into the chair. After her assistant wiped away my existing makeup, Bobbi began to apply her products to my face, doling out sage tips with each pat and stroke.
She tapped under-eye concealer all the way up into the oft-neglected dark, inner corners of my eyes (a life-changing, eye-brightening tip that I've never forgotten) and brushed on a blush that looked shockingly bright in the pan, but rosy and perfect against my pale skin (it was inexplicably called Pale Pink and I still wear it to this day).
She even used pure white (white!) shadow on my eyes. "It works because your lids have a beautiful, natural taupe color," I remember her telling me. "We could have a best-selling shadow that's the color of your lids!" You'd better believe I floated on that compliment of my apparently covetable taupe lids for months. After the shadow, she pulled out her famous gel eyeliner. In dark, inky black. As she used it to trace a thin, delicate line along my upper lid, she said (in what, I swear, was a loving tone): "Don't wear blue eyeliner anymore, OK?"
Blue eyeliner, of course, is the antithesis of Bobbi Brown, a woman who quite literally built her brand by celebrating natural beauty. It's a look to which she has stayed true for the quarter century she has been in business, ever since she launched her first capsule collection of ten neutral lipsticks. At the time, it was a groundbreaking move. "When I started with the lipsticks, most makeup on the market catered to the trends of the late '80s—mask-like foundation, heavy contouring, and bright eye shadows seemed to be the only makeup available," Brown told me. "I wanted to create products that allowed women to look like themselves."
"You, only better," is a catchphrase you hear a lot in the beauty business these days, but it was Brown who telegraphed that concept widely and brought it to makeup counters everywhere.
Brown at work early in her career.
"Bobbi Brown really took the mystery out of makeup and showed women you could use makeup to amplify your true self, rather than hide behind it as a form of artifice or fakery. This was a radical idea 25 years ago, when Bobbi introduced her line," says Linda Wells, the founding editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, who has known Brown for 30 years. "Before that, many women—particularly women who were serious, successful, and believed in their intelligence, power, and feminism—were suspicious of makeup, just as they were of high heels and dresses. But Bobbi's makeup was different. It wasn't a mask. It was light and nearly transparent; it was the color of a woman's natural features. There was truth in Bobbi's beauty."
Brown really took the mystery out of makeup and showed women you could use makeup to amplify your true self, rather than hide behind it as a form of artifice or fakery.
And it is those true colors that are her real standouts. Unlike many makeup companies that are always launching the boldest and brightest new thing, Brown works primarily within a range of nudes and found-in-nature shades, always still managing to hit incredible nuance within this mix. There is Beige shadow, yes, but also Bone, which is different from Cement, Wheat, Champagne, and so on.
But lest you think the line is made up entirely of shades of brown, think again. Brown can tweak a pink or a plum ever so expertly, allowing these more colorful options to fit seamlessly into the collection. And every new shade always seems to be perfectly calibrated with the goal of flattering the wearer—never simply to check the box of being the hot new color of the season. "I never wanted Bobbi Brown to be a brand that launched products to simply keep up with trends," says Brown. "I've always said that women should choose makeup that makes them feel like the best version of themselves. Don't follow the trend if it isn't right for you."
That goes for applications trends, too. In an Insta-world that celebrates contouring, baking, strobing, and whatever else the Kardashians do next, Brown's approach remains particularly attractive to women who want to use makeup to enhance—rather than reinvent—their face.
There's an ease to Bobbi Brown makeup, a sense that it's making your life simpler, rather than quixotically more labor-intensive. It is likely for this reason that Bobbi Brown counters remain a popular destination for teenagers getting their first taste of makeup on mom's dime or women building a more professional wardrobe of sophisticated, easy-to-apply "work makeup."
Likewise, Bobbi's beauty books (she has written eight of them over the years) have always been less about fantasy and over-the-top imagery and more about specific, focused instruction. Even the pros love them.
"Years ago, I purchased Bobbi's book for one of my sisters, so she could learn how to do makeup. Bobbi's point of view was very different, attainable, and realistic," says celebrity makeup artist Daniel Martin who works with stars like Jessica Alba and Olivia Palermo. "But I learned a lot from her books, too. Her approach is about embracing a client's individuality and making her the best she can be—not wiping out her features and recreating them from the ground up again. Bobbi had a whole chapter based on identifying one's flaw and embracing it to be your most beautiful feature, and that has really resonated with me over the years and has changed how I approach makeup with my clients."
With a focus on practicality and problem-solving, there is an undeniable utilitarian element to the Bobbi Brown line, but that's not to say there isn't surprise and even joy. I speak from experience. When you're a beauty editor, you receive bags and bags of new makeup launches every day. And while the sparkly lipsticks might make for a fun Snapchat moment, I can remember cooing with excitement many times over the years, as I cracked open one of Bobbi's palettes of luminous neutral eyeshadows or an enticing new Shimmer Brick compact. (And I'm hardly the only one: The company sells a Shimmer Brick somewhere in the world every minute.)
There's an ease to Bobbi Brown makeup, a sense that it's making your life simpler, rather than quixotically more labor-intensive.
There's just a real thrill when you find a cool product that hits that elusive trifecta: It works, it's something you can use every single day, and it also happens to look beautiful too. And that's Bobbi Brown's products to a tee. "Bobbi's had a lot of cult products since her nude-toned lipsticks came out—the Shimmer Brick, the Art Stick, the Gel Eyeliner," says Town & Country beauty director Jamie Rosen. "There is a simplicity and an ease to using them, and you breathe a sigh of relief when you find them, because it means you can stop looking for a replacement."
The company was acquired by Estée Lauder in 1995 (a moment—and windfall—Brown immortalized by buying a boat and naming it "TYLL: Thank you Leonard Lauder.") And her company's sustained growth and longevity has been an inspiration to many young makeup artists and entrepreneurs. "As one of the first makeup artists to have her own line, and as someone who manages to make all aspects of her life—being a working makeup artist, a wife and mother, an entrepreneur, and so on—look beautiful and effortless, Bobbi has and continues to inspire me," says celebrity makeup artist Troy Surratt, who started his own namesake makeup line, Surratt Beauty, in 2013. "I recently ran into her on the street and she took time to talk to me, ask me how my own line was going, and offer sage advice that I have taken to heart and will cherish forever."
Brown's legions of fans will want to know what's next for her, but our loyalty to her original vision will be hard to shake. Because Bobbi Brown is not a brand you grow out of. It is a brand for grown-ups—and one that grows with you. Like so many women out there, I'll continue to start my beauty routine by evening out my skin with a foundation that matches my skin tone, brushing Pale Pink blush on the apples of my cheeks, and maybe finishing with a sheer, rosy lip gloss. Then, I'll go out into the world feeling just a little bit prettier and decidedly more confident, but still like myself.
It will be me. Only better.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.