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Beauty and the Geek

Makeup brands are pursuing the sci-fi community with comics-inspired collections. Are they any good?

What if I told you that right now in your purse you probably have the equivalent of Superman’s red cape or Wonder Woman’s golden lasso? You’d probably laugh, right? But actually you do, it just happens to be in the shape of a crimson lipstick or a gold eye shadow. Because makeup is the IRL version of a superhero costume: it has the power to give you confidence and transform the way people see you just by enhancing what’s already there (Wonder Woman without her star-spangled briefs is still gonna kick everyone’s ass but the outfit adds a certain je ne sais quois to proceedings).


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Despite the obvious parallels, however, most cosmetics brands have, for a long time, steadily ignored the sizeable crossover of women who happen to love both comic book culture (which now includes video games, TV shows, and films) and make-up.

"A lot of people have a negative, pre-conceived notion of the word ‘geek’ or ‘nerd,’" explained Dena Rees, founder of indie beauty brand AFK Cosmetics, during a panel titled "Inside the World of Geek Cosmetics" at San Diego Comic-Con last week. "And they assume that it’s somebody who doesn’t put effort into the way that they look or doesn’t care. And that’s not how it is."

"That’s not how it is at all," chimed in fellow panellist Anya Kaiser, a Doctor Who fan and founder of Lucky 13 Lacquer.

For many years, women in the geek space had the worst of all worlds, ignored by both pop culture brands, who didn’t think there was a market for female-oriented products, and mainstream beauty brands, who were more interested in using Hollywood actresses, pop stars, or Instagram models to front their campaigns, alienating those women who prefer reading Deadpool comics to Us Weekly.

Fortunately, it’s finally starting to change.

Covergirl's Star Wars collection in Mystic. Photo: Covergirl

In the last 12 months alone a whole host of cosmetics companies have been jumping into the geek beauty market, albeit prompted mainly by tie-ins to big budget blockbusters. Last Fall CoverGirl launched a Star Wars collection to tie in with The Force Awakens while Walgreens recently released a Wonder Woman collection, including brushes, palettes, and nail polishes by Orly, which coincides with the character’s 75th anniversary this year and the stand-alone movie next year. Hair-color brand Splat have even created a Suicide Squad-themed collection of hair dyes ahead of the upcoming Warner Bros flick, with each color kit featuring The Joker or Harley Quinn on the box and a limited edition comic inside.

Meanwhile MAC set up an entire Star Trek-themed booth — complete with actors dressed as characters from the series — at San Diego Comic Con this year in celebration of their new Star Trek make-up collection. This wasn’t MAC’s first rodeo — they’ve previously collaborated with brands such as Wonder Woman, Archie, and Disney, and during Comic-Con 2014 they premiered their Simpsons collection at their San Diego store a few blocks up from the convention center, even hiring models dressed as Marge to greet customers — but the Star Trek booth was the brand’s first time creating something on this scale at a pop culture convention.

"What MAC [does] — and [does] so well — is we go bigger, we go broader," Dominic Skinner, a MAC Senior Artist and lifelong Trekkie tells me. "We don’t just do the things that are the most popular, we do things that are going to really focus in on groups that may not have a big voice but certainly have a stamp of cultural identity."

MAC's Star Trek collection. Photo: MAC

Other than MAC’s sporadic (and expensive) collaborations, however, there was previously little available for the discerning fangirl who wanted to inject a bit of snap, crackle, and pop into her beauty regime, which is why indie cosmetics such as AFK, Lucky 13, and Shiro Cosmetics, whose founder Caitlin Johnstone was also on the Comic-Con panel, have flourished. And unlike mainstream beauty brands who may release the odd geek-themed collection here and there, these indie brands define themselves as geek cosmetics companies, regularly using video games, comics, films, and TV shows for inspiration while being careful not to cross the line into copyright infringement.

"I like to take geek culture and the things that I’m passionate about and break them down into a bottle of nail polish," explained Lucky 13’s Kaiser during the panel. "So whether that’s the colors that are associated — especially in comic books, it’s easy to find nice vibrant colors to work with — or if it’s just an abstract idea." One of her polishes, a super glittery blue shade, is named Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey, after a line from Doctor Who, while a black shimmer called Witness Me is inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road.

What’s particularly fun about these brands is that in order to sidestep licensing issues they must, by necessity, delve deep into the fandom to create products that their customers are going to recognize — meaning they never work on anything they are not genuinely passionate about. For example, Rees told the audience, she’s a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons and "desperately" wants to create a D&D-themed collection but the rights-holders for the game are very strict. This means Rees will have to "figure out how to make the names close enough that I know my customers are going to get the references but without being sued."

While big brands such as CoverGirl may have the money to go directly to someone like Lucasfilm, which owns Star Wars, and license the rights (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), it doesn’t always make for a better product and fans sense when a collection is less than authentic. "CoverGirl had Star Wars black mascara that just said ‘Use the Force’," said Kaiser, pointing out that the company had done little more than slap a Star Wars logo over a "plain old black" mascara.

Lucky 13's Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey. Photo: Lucky 13

"I think it’s cool that big brands are getting into it they just gotta do it right," she explained. "They gotta honor the subject matter and not just try and make a buck from us."

This is something MAC were acutely aware of while creating their Star Trek collection, especially given that the sci-fi brand was celebrating its 50th birthday at the convention. "Beauty brands could burn bridges very easily, because what they do is they see the dollar sign and they don’t see the fandom," warned Skinner, who revealed that MAC had sent a team of researchers into the Star Trek archives for "months and months" in order to gather materials that would form the basis of the collection. "And what we talk about a lot in the office is about the fan."

Nowhere was this more evident that in Skinner himself, who said he burst into tears (during Paris Fashion Week, no less) when he found out, on a telephone call with head office in New York, that MAC was planning to go where no big beauty brand had gone before and create a Star Trek collection. Recognizing the depth of Skinner’s passion for all things Trekkie, his bosses quickly looped him in on emails, phone-calls and meetings throughout the creative process, and even flew him out from London, where he’s based, to San Diego for the launch of the collection at Comic-Con last week.

While the reaction to the collection has generally been positive, there have, inevitably, been some fans who feel MAC have fallen into a similar trap as CoverGirl, despite their best efforts. When tech blog Gizmodo posted initial images of the collection earlier this year, one commenter, a self-confessed "make-up whore" wrote: "I hope they do some sort of special packaging beyond just a Star Trek logo. The shape of the compacts alone provide plenty of potential for fun." (This was a similar criticism I personally had of MAC’s Cinderella collection last year, especially compared to Sephora’s ornate version in 2012). Others have been disappointed by the shades themselves, with one Star Trek fan posting on beauty blog Temptalia: "They [MAC] seem to have just thought ‘space = lots of glitter’ and have based everything on the uniform colours and puns. Such a missed opportunity." Of course, such criticism comes with the territory of being a beauty behemoth: you’re never going to please everyone.

Walgreen's Wonder Woman eyeliner. Photo: Walgreens

What both big and indie brands certainly have in common when creating geek cosmetics, however, is they’re always inspired by strong characters, whether female, male, or alien. "Each individual character that we’ve selected for this collection, they all have one underlying factor which is strength, confidence, powerful," says Skinner of the MAC Star Trek collection, which is based around Uhura, Deanna Troi, Seven of Nine, and the Orion Girl, Vina.

And that, ultimately, is what sets geek make-up apart from the mainstream. I know that all the L’Oreal lipstick in the world isn’t going to make me look like spokesmodel Zoe Saldana, but when I wake up in the morning and dab a little Wonder Woman eye-shadow over my lids I feel ready to go out and kick some ass.

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