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Inside the (Makeup) Vault

How huge, expensive, limited-edition makeup collections got so popular.

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When I was in middle school, my aunt gave me a small plastic box from CoverGirl that contained several eyeshadows, a pencil eyeliner, mascara, and extremely pink blush. It was my most prized possession for the next several months and I never used it. I just gazed at it with admiration and awe.

This concept is still around, but it’s been supersized and called a “vault.” Makeup vaults are physically large with a price tag to match, and beauty fans can’t get enough of them. Kat Von D just sold out a contouring vault that cost $200. Kylie Cosmetics’ $120 lipstick vault also sold out this season. Nars has a $500 lipstick and nail polish vault. Brands from high-end to low — Tom Ford to NYX — have offered lipstick vaults. There was a Bite Beauty lipstick vault last month at Sephora, too — yup, it sold out. Skincare brands also want in on the action, hence Peter Thomas Roth’s mask vault. Heck, there’s even a Lip Smackers vault.

To understand how vault mania happened, we have to go back to 2006, the year Urban Decay celebrated its tenth anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, the company released a huge foam-lined box that opened like a treasure chest and contained 16 individual eyeshadows nestled in there. Urban Decay deemed it a vault, and a marketing trend was born.

NYX Liquid Suede Vault Photo: NYX

Wende Zomnir, the founder of Urban Decay, was surprised that the first vault sold out quickly. “We made them more as a passion project for ourselves and it ended up that people went crazy for it,” she tells me on a call. “The reason we came up with it is because we feel like we know our customer inside and out. We’re makeup junkies, and we make makeup for makeup junkies. It was the start of the era of the beauty superfan — people who collect and hoard makeup.”

That was a full four years before Instagram launched, which arguably helped immensely with vault awareness. Instagram was basically made for sharing pictures of a zillion eyeshadows all in one box. But in the meantime, Urban Decay made more vaults, and then so did tons of other beauty companies.

To my knowledge, UD was the first to use the word “vault” to refer to something other than that thing at the bank where your grandma has her old jewelry stored. “Vault means something large and valuable and it’s exclusive, it’s locked up,” explains Zomnir. “That’s why we picked that word. It’s a higher price point, it’s a lot of product, it’s very valuable, it’s something you want to hoard away.”

Zomnir is mostly zen about everyone piggybacking on her vault concept, with some residual irritation. “I definitely always feel a little annoyed when my vernacular is co-opted because it happens a lot with Urban Decay,” she says. “I guess it just puts the idea of the vault into the general beauty vernacular. I’m okay with it. It’s sort of like Kleenex at this point, and as long as everyone acknowledges that we did it first, that’s fine!”

At first glance, the price tags on beauty vaults can be daunting, as my niece learned last year when she received a single Naked palette for Christmas instead of the Naked Vault Volume 2 that she coveted, which cost $165. (Like many limited-edition items, you can find sold-out vaults on eBay, where they run from $199 to $1,195.) But if you do the math, they’re actually a bargain. Stay with me here.

Vaults offer an opportunity for someone to get a full collection without paying the total price that each individual item in the vault retails for. For example, Huda Beauty, which just launched one of the buzziest matte liquid lipsticks on the market now, offers a vault with all 16 shades for $260. At Sephora, one lipstick costs $20, which means buying them separately would set you back $320. Of course, it’s also sort of a slap-in-the-face reminder about how much beauty companies actually mark up products.

Kat Von D contouring vault Photo: Kat Von D

“From a price point standpoint, for every 20 bucks you add on to [a vault], you take more and more people off the accessible-to-buy list. You can sell a vault at any price point, but how accessible is that audience going to be?” says Zomnir. “I think the vault has to represent value of some sort. If you’re willing to shell out $200, you’re going to get a great value on this.”

Last year, beauty vlogger Brittany Marie posted an unboxing video of her Urban Decay Naked Volume 2 vault. She says she’s been an Urban Decay fan since she first started exploring makeup about five years ago. “The UD Naked Vault Volume 2 was such a great value that I couldn’t pass it up,” she wrote in an email. “I only owned two products in the vault prior to that, which were the Naked 3 palette and the Naked Basics palette. The value and savings would have to be right in order for me to purchase another vault.”

This begs the question that if vaults are made for superfans, couldn’t one assume that those superfans probably already own a lot, or at least several, of the items offered in the vault? “A lot of people use the pieces they buy and don’t touch their vault. It’s a collector thing,” Zomnir says.

The vault that sold out the quickest in company history was this year’s holiday offering, the Naked Threesome that retailed for $115. It included the three original Naked palettes and has been sold out since November.

It’s all about the allure of exclusivity. A representative for Urban Decay wouldn’t tell me how many vaults the brand makes at any one offering, but she said it’s less than 10,000. Kylie Jenner, the queen of limited edition, also had a lipstick vault this season that probably sold out in 14 seconds. Kat Von D’s Everlasting Liquid Lipstick Collector’s Edition vault costs $240, but includes two exclusive shades that you can’t buy separately. The now sold-out Kat Von D Shade + Light Obsession vault came in a zip-up case that “looks like a coffin.”

“These moments build buzz and push the boundaries of our typical offerings. At the same time, it’s also about rewarding client loyalty with a truly exclusive product,” says Mai Ly Kopatsy, the vice president and general manager of Kat Von D Beauty.

If you’ve noticed a lot of lipstick vaults, it’s not your imagination. It’s a popular category now. According to UD’s rep, the buzziest vault was one featuring 100 shades of Vice lipstick that the brand sent to editors and influencers. Apparently, people “begged” Urban Decay to produce one — the company never did, though a 30-shade version was sold.

“Lip sets like these are especially of interest due to the versatility of the lip category. It’s so easy to change one’s lip color, and we find our guests have many lip shades and formulas on them at one time,” Julie Tomasi, the senior vice president of merchandising at Ulta, writes in an email. “In fact, more than 75 percent of our beauty enthusiasts have more than 11 lip color products in their bag at any given time. Based on their appeal and our guests’ increased interest in these ultimate kits, we continue to grow our selection across price points. We are very pleased with our early holiday sales performance and have not experienced any price resistance.” At my last check, the NYX Soft Matte Lip Cream vault was sold out on the site. Ulta also stocks Urban Decay vaults when available.

All of this means that you’re going to see more vaults from more brands. Lyndsey Zwart, Urban Decay’s “vault specialist,” is already working on one for holiday 2017. She also dropped this tidbit: “We might do a re-order of one you’ve seen before for spring of next year.”

Zomnir also says Urban Decay may ramp up vault production. “We’ll offer more. There will occasionally be two or three in a year. We usually create a vault around a moment so that it’s special, so that it has meaning.”

Now put that in the vault and don’t tell anyone.

Racked unboxes the Kat Von D Shade + Light Obsession Vault:

Love Kat Von D Beauty We're unboxing and demonstrating the Shade + Light Obsession Vault! Got a question? Ask away!

Posted by Racked on Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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