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making faces :: the beauty brand report card

the days of brand loyalty are over. well, not in every industry perhaps, but certainly in the world of cosmetics and skin care, there just aren't any customers left who are turning to the same brand for everything. [my mother-in-law is pretty loyal to clarins, but i know that a few other things sneak in there.] the best a company can hope for is that a customer will be impressed with enough of them that they'll at least give a serious look-see to the new products they launch.

of course, the down side if you're a consumer is that trying to figure out which brand does what best can be desperately confusing and often means that you get drawn in by notorious "cult favourites", which may not even be representative of the company's best. so to help things out, i thought i'd share my [admittedly subjective] thoughts on everyone's strengths and weaknesses.

for these purposes, i've stuck to brands with whom i have a fairly broad experience. while i love to recommend brands like rouge bunny rouge, le metier de beaute and hourglass based on what i've purchased from them, i don't really feel like i know their range well enough to comment in detail. yet. that'll be part of version 2.0.


parent :: l'oreal

eat it, world! we have megan fox!
the buzz :: armani really seems to have reinvented themselves in the last couple of years, which means that there aren't any long-standing products that have a huge following. although their name is iconic, they're probably one of the lesser known prestige beauty brands, but that's changing and rapidly. women who know beauty have run out of superlatives to describe armani's recent launches.

the stars :: where to start? their remarkable "eyes to kill" shadows that feel like a cream, look like a powder and hold like house paint have certainly gained many devout fans. their rouge d'armani lipsticks are routinely lauded by even the most demanding connoisseurs as one of the best in the world. even those who worried that their new glosses looked overly sheer [myself included] were ultimately forced to admit that the formula was pretty remarkable once you actually used it. their luminous silk foundation is sublime. their new line of sheer lipsticks, launched this month, is already getting rave reviews. [spoiler: mine is coming.] there is a lot going on here that stands out. oh, and while i've never been crazy about their mass market perfumes, the luxurious "armani privé" scents are to die for.

room for improvement :: blush. i know that a lot of people love the texture and softness of their blushes, but there is some definite work to be done to bring them up to the level of the rest of the line. there just isn't enough variety in terms of colour and finish to make them stand out.

best-kept secret :: although many like to think of prestige brands as being stuffy or conservative, armani is possibly the most innovative brand on the market.

parent :: louis vuitton moet hennessy [lvmh]

you think we're cute, admit it
the buzz :: this is a company of cult products! boxed blushes, skin primers, brow products, creaseless cream eye shadows, lip and cheek tints... everything seems to have its own following.

the stars :: honestly, there is something to the talk about the boxed blushes. although they're not the great deal they used to be [the amount of product per box was reduced], there are some excellent shades  suited to a wide range of skin tones. so yes, occasionally, you should believe the hype. also, i used their bad gal mascara for years and it's still one of the best formulas i've found, once you get the hang of the giant brush.

room for improvement :: skin stuff. one of the things that's always driven me bonkers about benefit is that none of their concealer/ foundation products are close to being light enough for my skin. although i was curious about their new foundation line [which still hasn't shown up here], i've already heard that even the palest shades are not exactly porcelain. and although i was curious about their new skin care line, the heavy perfume scent made my eyes water.

best-kept secret :: for a company known for all of its niche products, benefit does basics like powder eye shadow and lipstick really well.

bobbi brown
parent :: estee lauder

behold the rainbow
the buzz :: the "cream of the crop"? the brand always gets much love for its range of cream shadows and liners which come in an industry-leading range of colours. and their blush/ highlighter "shimmer bricks" are much sought after and much-imitated.

the stars :: heavy metal, baby! although she's known for her nudes, bobbi must secretly be spiking her hair and flashing the devil horns when no one else is looking. she has great metallic-finish products for eyes and lips that put competitors' frosts to shame.

room for improvement :: bobbi has a bit of a pigment problem. although her neutrals and earth tones are excellent, there's an overall lack of dynamism in the lineup, particularly when it comes to the eyes. even some colours that look bright [see the glosses and shadows in this spring's "neons & nudes" collection] are anemic in use. surely someone who rocks metal so hard isn't afraid of a little colour?

best-kept secret :: this should be the brand for discerning goths. they have ultra-pale foundations and concealers in a variety of finishes [sheer to full] and a great selection of dark, vampy lipsticks, along with those gel liners that are just perfect for a dramatic cat's eye.

parent :: much like their iconic founder, they remain independent

style incarnate
the buzz :: the brand that invented beauty. ok, not really, but no brand is as closely linked to iconic femininity as chanel. i know more people who choose their rouge allure lipstick as their favourite than any other formula. and ever since uma thurman flashed vamp nail polish on her date with john travolta in "pulp fiction" they have been the trendsetter in nail colours.

the stars :: i feel like chanel is a bit of a victim of their own consistently high quality, because i had a hard time picking a type of product they do exceptionally well out of a range of products they do very well. but i would be remiss if i didn't give a special nod to their glosses. they have two formulas- creamy, opaque "extrait de gloss" and sheerer, sparkly "glossimers". both are among the longest-lasting glosses you'll find and have a great range of colours available. it might surprise you to know that, despite my preference for deep, intense colour, i actually gravitate towards the glossimers. i find that the dimension of the shades is almost hypnotic.

room for improvement :: again, this is a difficult one, because i find that chanel is one of the most reliable brands in terms of quality. but would you believe that the one area where i think they need some work is in their nail polish? despite having a cultish following, i find that chanel polishes can be frustrating. sometimes, their formula is incredible, but others, it's thick and prone to streakiness. colours that are breathtaking in the bottle are too often "nice, but nothing special" in use and at those prices, your fingertips should whisper "chanel" to all who see them.

best-kept secret :: chanel offers many of their eye and cheek products in different formulations for different regions. the united states gets a satiny finish, while europe [and canada] get a baked, mineral-type finish. actually, canada gets the shadow quads in the baked finish and the shadow duos in the satin finish. and you know what? the baked finish is terrible in comparison. time to get everyone on the same page, methinks.

parent :: lvmh

here comes the sun
the buzz :: if you've heard one thing about guerlain beauty, chances are it's that you have to try their terracotta bronzers. they're like the ipod of bronzers- despite the fact that there are much cheaper options available, guerlain continues to enjoy a market bubble. if you've heard two things about guerlain beauty, it's that their bronzers are amazing and that they're one of the most expensive brands out there.

the stars :: lips, lips and lips. their classic rouge g lipsticks are a marvel, not just because of their intricate jewel-case packaging, but because even shades that look like they should be easy to duplicate have something that sets them apart. their brighter, younger rouge automatique line has shades that are vibrant, but with plenty of depth and a luxurious formula that justifies its price. it takes a lot to make me fall head over heels in love with a light pink lipstick, but guerlain can and has. and their highlighters [like their cat-toys-in-waiting meteorites] are unequalled. want to feel like you're a superstar and a goddess all the time? dust a little guerlain on your cheekbones and temples. and their shadows are incredibly lustrous and have been improving steadily. it breaks my heart that their foundations are all several shades too dark for me, because i have tried them and they're superb.

honestly, guerlain knocks it out of the park on a remarkably frequent basis. a beauty powerhouse.

room for improvement :: blush. for a company known for its seasonal bronzers and limited edition highlighters, guerlain's standard blush offering is remarkably unexciting.

best-kept secret :: at $59usd/ $64cad, their eye shadow quads are actually a great deal.

parent :: none... for now

try not to be intimidated by the size of our offering
the buzz :: the new mac. makeup forever might have the professional pedigree, urban decay might have the cult following, but these guys have the variety that made eyes pop when mac originally hit the consumer market. known chiefly for their shadows and for their "freedom system" that allows you to fill your own palettes of varying sizes.

the stars :: no denying, the shadows are impressive. while they lack the nuances of more established brands, they are an incredible deal for the money. in particular, i think that their matte shadows are the best on the market- hands down.

room for improvement :: despite their huge range of available colours, i think inglot would do well to come up with some shades that are truly unique to them. i believe they're on their way with some of their "amc" products, so stay tuned. and their web site needs some serious work in order to showcase what they have. putting a massive effort into getting great photos and descriptions of all their products is still going to be cheaper than opening dozens of brick and mortar stores and is ultimately less risky.

best-kept secret :: their lipsticks, particularly the medium-to-dark shades, are excellent.
[image taken from]

parent :: estee lauder

we mean makeup business
the buzz :: kinetic, inventive, ground-breaking... the reason you see so many women writing about beauty is because mac made cosmetics exciting. known for daring colours, edgy marketing, sly wit and a dazzling array of shades.

the stars :: mac says it's their lipsticks that made them famous. their eye shadows, particularly their fascinating "duo-chrome" shades [that change in the light] and their loose pigments [my personal favourite] have always been a great draw. but i think that where they've really left their mark is with foundation. it's not that they have the best formulas [although i think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better formula at the price], but that they revolutionised the idea of foundation colour. it's not just that they have a broad range of shades, but that they were among the first to differentiate between cool and warm skin tones. yes, you might feel like you need a university degree to figure out their system but a person's shade in mac foundation is used as an identifier- an easy and universal language that allows others to determine exactly where they fall on the flesh-toned spectrum.

room for improvement :: in a word, consistency. with their mad scramble to release dozens of limited edition programs every year, it seems like mac has destabilised their core. it's not just that their products aren't consistently good [although that's increasingly a problem], but that their products aren't consistently... consistent. mastering mac's mind-boggling range of shades and finishes for their products is difficult enough, but too often, products that should resemble one another in finish or performance are vastly different. mac doesn't need to be more confusing.

best-kept secret :: a gradual culling of their permanent lineup in recent years means that there are several brands who now offer a greater variety of colours in shadows, lipstick and gloss.

parent :: shiseido

it's just a fucking peach blush, people
the buzz :: orgasm. they're known for a peachy-coral blush with a golden shimmer called orgasm. and for coming up with product names like "orgasm" that will stick in your mind.

the stars :: nars has a beautiful variety of unique blushes that have gotten a deserved level of attention on orgasm's coattails, but for me, their shining stars are their eye shadows. whether it's their single shades or their ingeniously picked [and cost-effective] duos, nars seemingly has it all. from the most understated neutrals to the wildest brights to blacks with a twist, it's here. that's not to take away from their excellent lipsticks and blushes, but i know that the items in my ever-expanding nars collection i reach for most often are those delicious, lustrous little powders. [i'm wearing the paramaribo shadow duo as i type this.]

room for improvement :: although there have been a few different iterations, nars just doesn't seem to have a real knack for glosses. some individual shades are beyond reproach, but as a whole something is missing. their most recent efforts, their "larger than life" formula [with an applicator so tiny it could serve as a lip liner] and their gloss pencils [who on earth thought i wanted to put gloss in a sharpener?!? gross...] are getting there, but still miss the mark.

best-kept secret :: their skin care is amazing and their nail polishes are top-notch. and that almost everything in their line-up is more interesting than orgasm.

urban decay
parent company :: a private equity group like mitt romney used to run

you wouldn't think it was revolutionary
the buzz :: the masters of the shadow palette. a couple of years ago, someone in their marketing department came up with the idea that they should offer a big palette of neutral shadows called "the naked palette" and it became the most successful cosmetic launch ever. well, probably not, but the resulting feeding frenzy is the sort of thing that most cosmetic marketers dream of and spawned a host of imitators. they're also known for their "primer potion", meant to keep shadows from fading and creasing and for their great range of pigmented eye liners.

the stars :: from the famous "nakeds" to eye-popping brights, urban decay shadows are pretty sumptuous. the pigmentation is as intense as anything on the market and, while not every shade is a hit, the misses are a decided minority. their palettes are ingenious, in that they combine existing and limited shades, often at a phenomenal price. although i personally love their lipsticks, they don't seem to have gained the traction of other products.

room for improvement :: a little esoteric, but... even before mac, urban decay was my first real cosmetic love. i adored their modern colour choices and punk attitude and i stuck with them even when their formulas left a lot to be desired, because they were doing things that no one else was. they now hold the dubious distinction of having been owned by more companies than any on this list and it shows as a pervasive instability. their reinvention of their lipsticks has given way recently to a massive culling of their available colours. their successful eye shadows have been reformulated and redesigned. all this leads to a sense of confusion about where the brand is going, even when they're successful. they might be doing fine, but it says something that the biggest thing they've done recently is release "naked palette 2".

best-kept secret :: their original slogan was "does pink make you puke?"

yves st. laurent
parent :: l'oreal

en garde
the buzz :: probably best-known for an almost gimmicky product called "touche eclat", which looks like a concealer, but that actually serves to give a subtle highlight in specific areas like the corners of the eye, along the cupid's bow of the lip... a product that no one ever suspected they needed until it was there.

the stars :: many and increasing in number. it's actually become difficult to keep up with all the new things that yves st. laurent has been introducing, so you can just thank the cosmetic gods that most of them are becoming permanent. i'm a huge fan of their "rouge pur couture" lipsticks [far more than their "rouge volupte" lipsticks, although everyone else seems to love them], which have a rich formula and a bold, modern range of colours. ysl seems to have been well ahead of the market on the colour curve. that super-saturated orange pink shade that mac's released three times this year? it's been part of the ysl lipstick range for a few years already. as everyone else scrambles to add oranges, ysl has already included them and have moved on to purples. rather than a single product, i'd say that their eye for colour really sets them apart.

room for improvement :: packaging. i mention this in every review i do of their products. i mention it to dom. i mention it to people on the street. ysl is one of the priciest brands on the market, but their packaging is horribly cheap, gaudy plastic that tarnishes easily and feels like it belongs in a drug store. no, packaging doesn't effect the quality of the product, but if you want to be classy, you need to look classy.

best-kept secret :: ysl mascara kicks serious ass. their faux cils mascara is the best i've ever tried and i am obsessed with perfection in mascara.

so who's at the top of the class? well, it really depends on how you're measuring. i think that there's a different leader in just about every product category, but which brand is doing the best is also a question of how reliable and how exciting their products are overall and also in how dynamic and progressive their product offering has been. i believe that guerlain, chanel and nars are at the top of their game. each season, there's at least one thing i desperately want from each of their collections, but their permanent offerings are beautiful enough that i'm happy to collect those and expanding often enough that it keeps things interesting.

armani and yves st. laurent are exciting. although it can get dizzying keeping up with all their new products [particularly with ysl], i love the fact that there always seems to be something new for me to try out.

although there are challenges for everyone, i feel that mac is in a particularly precarious position. they've revolutionised the industry and that's a hard act to follow now that a lot of other brands have caught up and new players are snapping at their heels.

the good news is that there's never been a better time to be a consumer of beauty products. because everyone wants to impress you. enjoy!


Biba said…
What an awesome research you did here!
Kate MacDonald said…
Thanks Biba! I don't know if it's research so much as a lot of shopping... :-P
Biba said…
Research, shopping - the same thing ;D
Jade said…
great a MAC girl for life.but for my MAC needs to improve their mascara!
fleur de lis said…
This post is brilliant. Entertaining and useful! Thank you :)
Kate MacDonald said…
Thanks! I'm very glad it was helpful!

@Jade- Mascara was the thing that originally made me start cheating on Mac to begin with...

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