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In November, on the occasion of her brand’s 20th anniversary, Laura Mercier sat down in front of a room full of beauty writers and long-time employees to talk to photographer-turned-blogger and fellow Frenchwoman Garance Doré. The topic? Laura Mercier.
Unlike her ‘90s makeup maven peer, Bobbi Brown (who just left her brand after 25 years), Mercier keeps a fairly low profile in the media. You don’t often see her granting interviews, so it wasn’t surprising that the room was packed. This is, after all, the woman who gave the world her famous tinted moisturizer, a thing that really didn’t exist in the US before she popularized it.
When Mercier first launched her line here in 1996, American women were interested in full foundation, heavy on the matte coverage. While lighter coverage products are ubiquitous now, they sure weren’t then. “I was scared because I thought they were going to say ‘Why bother?’” Mercier tells me of first introducing her tinted moisturizer to customers here.
The idea came from — who else?— French women, who used to dilute foundation with water or a cream to get more transparent coverage, according to Mercier. Then it went commercial. “You could find it in a pharmacy, where you had a hydrating cream with a little bit of pigment or a corrective. The concept of tinted moisturizer invaded the French beauty industry,” she says. Then it invaded the US, where Mercier’s original formula has changed only a little bit since it launched. (Parabens were removed.) She still recommends applying it with your fingers.
Mercier started her career assisting a makeup artist in Paris in the late ‘70s after graduating from Carita, the famed aesthetics school. For two years, she “cleaned his box every night,” often working until 4 a.m. “I was awful, not confident at all,” she claims.
But she plugged on, working with several French photographers and magazines. She developed the clean makeup aesthetic she’s known for when photographers started taking their fashion shoots outside of the studio; makeup became lighter as a result. Her career really took off when she moved to New York in 1985 to help launch American Elle.
Along the way, she picked up some high-profile celebrity clients like Mariah Carey and Madonna. She worked with Madonna on several projects, including her 1994 “Take a Bow” video. “Madonna was extremely creative, but it was always a collaboration. She was a perfectionist,” says Mercier. When a makeup artist in the audience asked how Mercier handled mistakes with the singer, she replied, deadpan, “You do not make mistakes with Madonna. She does not allow it.”
In 1996, Mercier launched her eponymous makeup line and attempted to get American women to stop spackling their faces. It worked, slowly but surely, as she spread her “flawless face” message. Her tinted moisturizer, Secret Camouflage concealer, and primer (again, hers was one of the first brands to offer this category) became best sellers.
Now, Mercier is again confronted with a cohort of women who wear a ton of makeup — the Instagram makeup gurus, several of whom were in attendance at this talk. She seems a bit conflicted by it all. While clearly wanting to support self-expression, the Instagram look is inherently at odds with her message of “less is more.”
“Young people are baking and strobing, which is what we did in the studio. [It is] makeup for camera. More is more and they’re proud to show it. It puzzles you at first,” Mercier says. “They want to be somebody else. They want to have fun. They’re being artistic with themselves. I prefer that they do it on themselves then go out and take pictures rather than go out on the street with it, otherwise it’s too chiseled and contoured.” (I snuck some peeks at the ladies in the audience who were out in the real world with exactly this look, but they kept poker faces through this part of the talk.)
The brand, which was acquired by Shiseido earlier this year, is no stranger to working with Instagram influencers, though. It previously hired blogger Aimee Song for a whopping $500,000. At this event, Mercier announced that Doré is the brand’s newest ambassador.
Doré, 41, says she was surprised to get the call. “It’s not like I’m a model and I’m 20,” she laughed. She then asked Mercier about the beauty industry’s never-ending obsession with youth. “I am not obsessed by the youth thing. I’m old and I will fight until I die,” Mercier said. “I love every face in the world. This is why we do what we do.”