Was Fenty Beauty really that revolutionary? Two black beauty experts weigh in

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Moya Crockett
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Beauty journalist Ateh Jewel and Black Skin Directory founder Dija Ayodele discuss the impact of Rihanna’s beauty range. 

When Rihanna launched her smash-hit Fenty Beauty line in September 2017, there was much discussion about what the range meant for the beauty industry as a whole. The general consensus was that Rihanna had raised the bar for long-established cosmetics brands – many which had been shamefully slow to introduce foundations, concealers and other products for women whose skin tone was darker than a light olive.

At the talk ‘Skin Deep: The politics of colour in the beauty industry’ at Stylist Live 2018, two black beauty and skincare experts discussed the significance of Fenty Beauty – as well as what needs to change for the beauty world to be truly inclusive.

“I think what made Fenty so explosive and so exciting was the fact that it was the first time a beauty brand was unapologetic [about championing dark skin tones],” said Ateh Jewel, who has been a beauty journalist for 17 years.

“With Fenty, the advertising was so different to what we’ve seen before. There were all these women with different skin tones, there was a veiled model, and everyone was just together, being this cool girl gang.”

Dija Ayodele, the founder of Black Skin Directory (left), and beauty journalist Ateh Jewel      

Jewel contrasted Fenty’s marketing to that of many traditional beauty ad campaigns, which she characterised as showing “a token Beyoncé-esque light-skinned black girl, hanging off the shoulder of a blonde bombshell”.

“That kind of advertising sends a subliminal message: be grateful to be here. Be grateful that you have two darker colours tacked on to the end of our foundation range. [Whereas] Fenty was like: ‘Rep yourself. Boom.’”

Dija Ayodele, the founder of Black Skin Directory, agreed that Fenty Beauty’s marketing was powerfully inclusive. However, she pointed out that it was not actually the first beauty brand to offer foundations and concealers in a wide range of colours. 

“I love Rihanna, but there was diversity before Fenty,” she said. “I think Fenty capitalised on social media and made out there was a real scarcity of foundations [for darker shades], and there wasn’t.”

Ayodele cited Bobbi Brown, Illamasqua, Nars and Tom Ford as other luxury brands that were offering darker shades before Fenty came along. “And Iman did the same thing [as Fenty] 20 years ago when she launched luxury foundations for women of colour.

“So while Fenty is a great brand and I think it reignited the conversation about diversity in the beauty industry, this conversation is not a new one.”

Both women praised Fenty Beauty for offering darker shades of foundation and concealer with a range of different undertones, and attributed this to people of colour being involved in the products’ creation. During her career as a beauty journalist, Jewel said she had visited “scientists at big beauty labs” who revealed that they created foundations for black and brown skin tones simply by “adding a bit of black” into the formula of pale bases.

“That’s not the same as truly understanding the yellow, red, pink and olive [undertones to different black skins],” she said.

“Often, there are no black people in the room making these products, and that’s part of the problem. I think things will change when we have black scientists and black formulators who understand the problems that [people of colour have] with issues such as radiance and undertone.

“I think Fenty really understands black skin undertones and textures, and that’s what makes it exciting for me.”

There is still a way to go before the beauty industry is truly inclusive 

If the beauty world is going to truly become diverse and inclusive, rather than simply paying lip service to the idea, more people of colour must be employed at the top levels of the industry, Ayodele said.

“I spend a lot of time saying where are the aesthetic practitioners of colour, where are the skin doctors of colour?” she said.

“There needs to be representation at all levels within brands. People with different skin colours need to have a seat at the table if things are going to change.”

To get more insider insights from Stylist Live 2018, click here.

Images: Getty Images / Stylist Live