The Rise of the Minimalist Makeup Look

By Ariana Ortiz

While not every woman chooses to use makeup, makeup culture has always been a major social and economic force in modern society. However, the ways in which the makeup industry functioned and survived have changed at a dizzying pace thanks to the invention of the internet and age of social media.

Something has happened within the past five years: Makeup culture has become ubiquitous, and more so than ever before. According to Statistica, beauty industry revenue in the United States has only climbed since 2009, to a revenue of 62.46 billion dollars in 2016—even accounting for inflation, the highest numbers the beauty industry has ever seen. That number is only projected to keep climbing. 

It has become common to look around a public space and see almost every woman present donning “Instagram brows”, sharply groomed, thickly filled-in eyebrows popularized on the social media platform, or intense, unconventional makeup looks that were once relegated to high fashion runways. Women can be seen carefully applying indigo blue liquid lipstick or brushing rainbow-colored highlighter onto their temples in settings as commonplace as mall bathrooms. While these bold looks would previously garner more than a few raised eyebrows in the past, they have become as mundane a reality as taxes.

There has been a small but rising upset within this high demand for opulence and glamour: Glossier, a brand which launched in late 2014, is built on the ideal of the woman who is simply too busy to painstakingly blend layers of eyeshadows, but inspires all with a dewy, fresh face accented by minimal swipes of color.

Launched by popular beauty blog “Into the Gloss” founder Emily Weiss, Glossier’s slogan is “Skin first, makeup second.” Its product offerings stray from those of current cult beauty brands such as ColourPop or Melt Cosmetics. There are no liquid lipsticks, heavy foundations, or sparkling eyeshadows. Instead, there are creamy face masks, serums, an all-purpose “Balm Dot Com” that Glossier encourages buyers to dab onto their eyelids, and coconut oil-based highlighters. 

For Glossier fans, the brand’s appeal lies in the image of its ideal woman: fresh-faced, glowing, and downright shiny on the high points of her face. She is effortlessly chic and does not waste her time with such time consuming endeavors as precisely applied cut creases or Kardashian-esque contour. While those who are not very active on social media may not have a clue as to what Glossier is or what it represents, anyone with an Instagram account can recognize its baby pink-clad aesthetic.

I spoke to makeup artist Inés Aaliyah about the phenomenon. Aaliyah, who lives in Canada and whose career as a makeup artist spans over fourteen years, has a large social media following on Instagram and Tumblr. She is known for her work in fashion shows and editorials, and for doling out skincare and makeup advice online. 

“I actually find that the trends progress quite logically,” Aaliyah said. “If we take in the last few years, from the explosion of contour kits to liquid lipsticks to metallic highlight, it's clear that the shift has moved one hundred and eighty degrees from fast and user-friendly makeup to elaborate and ornate glamour.”

Aaliyah's own take on ornate glamour using McGrath's #Gold001 eyeshadow.

Aaliyah's own take on ornate glamour using McGrath's #Gold001 eyeshadow.

Aaliyah says the appeal of the brand lies more in its marketing than the products themselves.

“Glossier packaging and marketing is so chic and minimalistic. Milk Jelly is is an ordinary gel cleanser; Haloscope is really just a mica-based highlighter with coconut and castor oil. Glossier takes daily beauty essentials from basic to must-have simply through intriguing marketing strategies.” Aaliyah said.

“While formula-wise Glossier isn't unique, their catalogue is refreshingly bare-bones and elegant compared to garish beauty houses like Benefit, Tarte and Too Faced.” Consumers are known to snap pictures of their newly arrived Glossier packages and upload them to Instagram, where Glossier’s official account will “like” only the most beautifully arranged photos.

Minimalism in makeup is gaining traction, and while Glossier may have been among the first to capitalize on it, it is not the only one. A little over a year ago, Milk Studios, a media conglomerate based in NYC, launched a makeup brand of their own. Milk Makeup’s initial release was through global chains such as Sephora and Urban Outfitters, while Glossier products can only be bought through their website or at their Manhattan showroom. 

“MILK GIRLS DO THEIR MAKEUP QUICK”, a mirror compact included among Milk Girl Kits boldly reads. Among Milk Makeup’s chief offerings: “Sunshine oil”, a grapeseed and avocado oil-based concoction which doubles as a highlighter and spot hydration in a pinch; blotting sheets decorated with a print of marijuana leaves, which also double as rolling papers, and a jojoba-oil based “Hero Salve”, not unlike Glossier’s cult “Balm Dot Com”.

The Milk Girl and Glossier Girl are one in the same: “The Glossier girl has gleaming skin, curled black lashes and wet lips and eyelids. It's unnatural and vibrant while still resisting the glamorous-to-death looks that have overtaken social media.” Aaliyah said.

At first glance, it is easy to see the Glossier or Milk Makeup “look” as one that is an antithesis to heavy, glamorous beauty. For women who are tired of owning thirty cosmetics brushes, and resent using half of them for one makeup application, these brands seem to be the answer to a minimalist’s prayer. In fact, the idea conjures images of the freeing, bare-faced beauty ideal of the ‘70s.

However, when we look to historical makeup trends, we can clearly see the defining characteristics of these brands constitute their own kind of glamour. 

“Petroleum jelly was sometimes smeared on the eyelids in the 1940s and 50s to make [women] look sultry. The effect was pure glamour, especially against fluttery lashes and a red lip…Glossy lids haven't spent any time in the mainstream since then,” Aaliyah said. “I knew it would only be a matter of time before glossy eyes and skin made a big comeback. Impractical makeup is definitely in right now.”

Rather than being the commonly assumed antithesis to heavy, carefully crafted makeup looks, brands such as Glossier and Milk—and the image they project—are currently made more successful because of those more maximalist brands such as Too Faced or Benefit Cosmetics. While it is over-the-top beauty brands that are currently in the limelight, and will continue thriving in the mainstream for the foreseeable future, it is clear that the success of skincare-based brands is nothing to sneeze at.

Over the past three years, Glossier has expanded its operations fivefold, and garners 1.5 million unique views each month on its website, according to a recent article by Business Insider. Milk Makeup is stocked in over 150 Sephora stores throughout the nation. According to Main Post Partners, a firm that famously invested and later sold Too Faced Cosmetics, it will aim to continue expanding worldwide throughout 2017.

The rising popularity of this look could be a signifier of an imminent upset in the beauty industry, a yearning to be free of twenty-dollar makeup sponges and heavy foundations made real. Perhaps a decade from now, bare-faced idealism will be en vogue once more. Or this could very well be the illusion of some sort of overall progression; rather than feeling bound to spending hundreds on glittering eyeshadows, perhaps we will be spending them exclusively on balms and oils that make our skin gleam. This begs the question: Can a beauty revolution truly begin with commodification?

Whether it is simply a niche market, a passing trend, or the mark of the beginnings of a beauty revolution, remains to be seen.