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Why Black-Owned Luxury Beauty Brands Are So Hard To Find — & How Founders Are Fixing It

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My early introduction to the world of luxury was courtesy of Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, both of whom dominated nearly every French and Italian runway in the '90s. While my paltry allowance couldn't pay for, say, a Chanel Boy Bag, I could aspire to something like a Coco Gloss. So for the time being, I rerouted my sights to the makeup counter — only to be met by blonde hair, blue-eyed campaign faces pushing products that would never work on my brown skin. Back then, Black-owned luxury beauty brands weren't as visible as the legacy houses that I desperately wanted in on. Now, in 2019, Black businesswomen are creating space right alongside some of the old-school brands who are still finding their footing with creating products for all consumers that want them.

According to a 2018 study conducted by Nielsen, "Black shoppers spent $473 million in total hair care (a $4.2 billion industry) and made other significant investments in personal appearance products, such as grooming aids ($127 million out of $889 million) and skin care preparations ($465 million out of $3 billion)." This doesn't include the $54 million of the $63 million total industry spend in 2017, specifically for the "ethnic hair and beauty market." Notably, the statistics for luxury "ethnic" hair and makeup markets are scarce.

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“The customer not only appreciates indulging, but is extremely concerned with the ingredients used in their beauty ritual. They don’t compromise on any level,” Dana Jackson, a former entertainment business manager and founder of Beneath Your Mask, tells The Zoe Report. “While there aren’t many Black-owned luxury brands, we definitely exist. The Black consumer is willing to invest ... into their skincare and self-care. It may be a higher-priced purchase for some of our customers, but once they have that experience, it sets the bar for them going forward.”

The leap of faith is one that pays off — in billions. In 2015, Pat McGrath, lauded runway makeup artist and former Global Beauty Creative Design Director of P&G, threw her hat in the ring of consumerism with her first Pat Mcgrath Labs product, Gold 001. It sold out immediately.

The demand for these high-quality products only increased as McGrath expanded the line, eventually laying down a foundation for Black beauty brand owners to be taken seriously at the prestige counter — and for their products to defy and reject systematic beauty standards. In 2018, the veteran scored a $60 million investment from Eurazeo Brands, which resulted in an elevated cash flow for the company and a valuation that surpassed Kylie Cosmetics. The funding brought Pat McGrath Labs' estimated peak value to $1 billion — a century after Madam CJ Walker, America's first Black woman millionaire, moved into her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York mansion, for the record.

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But the disconnect for me, a Black twenty-something consumer, is the looming presence of Black-owned brands having to justify what makes their offerings a viable competitor against the traditional ones. “If you are a Chanel, you may not have to try as hard as Pat McGrath, for example, who had to convince people based on the quality of her products and packaging. The market just expects a Black brand to be mass or cheap, and that’s a big problem," Sharon Chuter, founder of UOMA Beauty, tells The Zoe Report. "When you are not, you get scrutinized to such a high degree and asked what gives you the 'right' to place such worth on your creation.”

Chuter, a former LVMH executive, entered the prestige market earlier this year with her self-described "Afropolitan" line that aims to rewrite the rules of inclusity, she says. “When you have a brand that is founded by a person of color, people tend to assume you should be priced cheap or mass market. So the next hurdle we face is people asking why we are priced the way we are. [When] they encounter the product in person, that thought always completely disappears when they can see it’s of an extraordinarily high quality, the packaging is premium.”

Despite the hurdles both seen and unseen, Black beauty brands are still working their way into consumers' hearts — and on their vanities — with unique branding, ethically sourced ingredients, and a sense of purpose. Ahead, five brand founders tell The Zoe Report the experiences they’ve faced as Black women leading the charge in the Black-owned luxury space — and what they’re doing to fix them by taking a seat at the marble and gold-plated table.

Dana R. Jackson, Beneath Your Mask

Beneath Your Mask

"I think seeing a Black girl from the South Side of Chicago make it to the shelves of Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue transcends far beyond beauty," says Dana R. Jackson of Beneath Your Mask. "It doesn’t just open doors. It opens minds to the possibilities and to what we allow ourselves to want for ourselves." The line was designed to restore and reverse toxic effects of environmental hazards, health challenges, and external damages to the skin and hair — challenges she faced after being diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). “Women of color have this perception that everything we create must be affordable. We can be so hard on each other. I think it boils down to how your product makes a people feel and how effective they are. I think that’s what people are willing to pay for."

Lauren Napier, Lauren Napier Beauty

Lauren Napier Beauty

“I launched Lauren Napier Beauty because I am my target audience. Women — specifically women of color — have long been my muse for beauty and fashion. For far too long, we’ve existed in the peripheral of these industries. I wanted to change the narrative. We are beautiful, and we desire well-designed, quality skincare — so I created it," celebrity makeup artist Lauren Napier, who created an eponymous line of eco-friendly and sustainable makeup remover wipes, says. "My customers are Black women from Australia, Arabia, Spain, London, Asia, Russia, Ireland and beyond. The idea that Black-owned brands will only be supported by the Black consumer on aisle five, bottom shelf, has been defied. It’s important to be inclusive and allow room for growth and innovation. I hope the shift continues and continues to reflect the broader consumer."

Ozohu Adoh, Epara

Epara

“The luxury market has become certainly more accessible. It is no longer as exclusive as it used to be," Ozohu Adoh of Epara, a line of products to target common complexion issues that people of color face, notes of startup challenges. "And the strength of social media allows a breakthrough, as the traditional gate keepers of the beauty space are no longer as essential as before. This is still a work in progress for us as a brand, but a challenge I believe we will eventually overcome in due course.”

Nyakio Grieco, Nyakio

Nyakio

"I believe the traditional consumer has changed when it comes to the level of education that they seek when considering a purchase," Nyakio Grieco, founder of sulfate- and paraben-free skincare line Nyakio, tells TZR. “All women deserve efficacious formulations with green, natural ingredients. I proudly source from 13 countries around the globe, ethically and sustainably, and represent the many faces of multicultural beauty that way."

Katonya Breaux, Unsun

Unsun

“Customers are asking questions that they've never asked before," Katonya Breaux of Unsun says. "I get emails all the time asking about certain ingredients, sustainability and more. This new customer is authentic and aware." She was once that customer — and created her line of premium tinted mineral sunscreen after trying too many that left white streaks and noticeable residue on her skin. "I didn’t go into this business thinking luxe or mass. I went into this business thinking about quality, and this comes at a cost that simply would not fit within mass retail.”