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Even though popular retro Instagrammers like Miss Victory Violet and Lady Damfino swear by those trademark Bésame gold-and-red lipstick tubes, Gabrielle Hernandez maintains that the brand is for vintage influencers and professional modern women alike.
If you’re not familiar with Bésame, you’ve definitely seen their shades before, or perhaps even worn them in a past life. The family-owned and -operated brand out of Burbank specializes in cosmetics with history. Each product has roots in pigments or formats that have existed before, or are deeply inspired by a product from the past, and are brought back to life in a modern, paraben-free, vegan formula. Its trademark red lipstick, for example, Bésame Red, is a replica of a shade from the 1920s that Hernandez found when researching makeup looks of history for her book Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup.
“It was a very powerful red, one that was very prevalent in the ’20s and ’30s,” Hernandez explains. “So I decided, let me make that first.”
That red is now one of 16 lip shades that make up the Bésame collection by decade — the 1920s through the 1960s — including perfume, powder, rouge, one very popular mascara, and, most recently, foundation. The theme of the 1930s collection, for example, is old Hollywood glamour, with deep red lips with names like Merlot and Noir Red, a crimson cream rouge, and a perfume with notes of mandarin, cinnamon and cedar wood. And in November, a new 1930s collection, based on Walt Disney’s Snow White, will feature matte pastels and dark reds popular in 1937; fans are already lining up in a digital email queue and in person at Disney events for samples.
Of course, 13 years ago, when Hernandez began her quest to learn everything about cosmetics from the turn of the century to the present day, retro makeup wasn’t really on trend. But if you pay attention to those Instagram influencers, or are interested in fast-fashion trends, you’d undoubtedly notice that those deep retro reds and mascaraed doe eyes are back in a big way.
The colors aren’t the only thing Hernandez is bringing back. “I made it in a little tiny bullet,” she says of Bésame Red’s unique format, “because that’s how it was sold during that time, in a very small container that people would tuck it into their small purses.”
That attention to authenticity has stuck around as a core message of the brand as it has grown. In 2016, its cake mascara, a tin compact of brick-shaped mascara you need to wet to use, went viral, and its signature scented-powder compacts are extremely popular.
Through it all, the lipsticks have remained mostly unchanged, all still with a chisel tip encased in a little gold bullet. Those funny chiseled tips may stand out among the sea of glossy applicator wands, but in their day they did double, sometimes triple duty, with the tip used for a fine line, the side used for a blunt line, and the entire stick rubbed on cheeks as rouge.
That love of replicating these original products stems from Hernandez’s connection to her own family. Growing up in Argentina, she says, “we were 30 years behind whatever the fashion was in the US, and when I was growing up, there were very old-fashioned ways they would do their makeup or hair.” Instead of complaining about belated access to the latest makeup, Hernandez romanticizes that simpler time, the intimacy with family and loved ones, core values that are embedded into Bésame to this day, where her husband runs finances, her son handles production, and her teenager daughter interns as an art assistant. Even the company name comes from a romantic Mexican ballad, “Bésame Mucho.” “We thought it was fitting to how we saw the line... emotional, romantic, personal. Bésame Red was an embodiment of that.”
As for the famous little gold packaging, it’s Gabriela’s favorite part of running the business. Growing up in Argentina in a family of artists, she always had a deep love of color and cemented that with a degree in photography, learning color theory from film. “You learn a lot about reproduction of color from working with film and seeing how that translates.”
From its origin in Burbank, Bésame was perfectly situated to gain a reputation with makeup artists in the industry, who began coming to Gabriela for products or advice on period pieces. She speaks with the makeup artist union about historical makeup often, sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of formulas past and present, the differences in FDA regulations, and how to replicate pigments with safe compounds. Still, it took a while for that concept to catch on.
“People weren’t into it, except for TV or movie people,” she says. “They were the ones that would use it. It was mainly for the pros.” And the pros did, indeed, flock to it, including Emmy-winning American Horror Story makeup artist Eryn Krueger Mekash, who used Bésame cake mascara and red lip color on Jessica Lange, and Lady Gaga’s own makeup artist, Sarah Tanno.
A brick-and-mortar shop now holds a prime spot on vintage row, a stretch of painfully adorable Magnolia Boulevard featuring twee coffee shops and retro reproduction stores like Pin Up Girl Boutique and Unique Vintage.
Hernandez draws a connection between the renewed interest in vintage makeup and skincare and the idea that we are moving back toward natural and organic compounds and away from chemical compounds. In other words, we’re relying on formulas similar to those used in the past. “But that’s how history is; it’s very cyclical,” she says. “Things come into play, then they go out of style and then come back in.” Which is a great way of describing Bésame’s relationship with Sephora. Hernandez initially reached out to them when she was just getting warmed up, around 10 years ago, and was promptly turned down.
“Nobody was doing anything small, most lipsticks were very large, so this was a dramatic departure from what other people were doing,” she says. “Our customers loved it, but stores did not embrace it because it wasn’t something they had seen before, and wasn’t necessarily on trend.” She continued working on the line for those fans, and just three years ago, Sephora called back. It turns out that Bésame was perfect for collaborations on special gift sets and seasonal offerings, which were totally manageable for the small brand. You can still buy the lipstick set, comprising five mini shades for $25.
And after Sephora came the holy grail of all partnerships: Disney, which reached out to Bésame to collaborate on the 80th anniversary of Snow White. As far as fandoms go, there’s a deep crossover between vintage lovers and Disneybounders (enthusiasts who dress up in modern outfits inspired by their favorite Disney characters), making it the perfect company to create a line for the event. Products went on sale at Modcloth.com, Sephora.com, and at the Bésame Cosmetics website.
In working on this project, Disney gave Bésame more reach than typical licensees, which have a catalog of images, fonts, and themes to work with. Instead, Gabriela and team were brought into the archives to draw inspiration from the original cels and shading used in the 1930s classic. “Snow White has been redrawn over and over again because she’s one of the oldest princesses,” she says. “They redrew her in the ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s. If you look at these drawings, you can see how she changed according to the styling of the period.” One major example is Snow White’s dress details, which any child of the ’80s will immediately tell you are red. But they started out as a rich chocolatey brown in animation cels. “I have ink from 1937,” she says. “These are actual colors from the archives. I feel like I touched history.”
The Bésame 1937 Snow White collection hearkens back to the original animation for the less-saturated shades, the muted primaries and more wearable pastels, with not a trace of bright blue or neon yellow, as the animators initially intended. The eyeshadow palette is styled like a collector’s edition of the fairytale, containing 20 matte shades pressed between two pages of detail about their connection to the princess and an animation cel, all for $68. Two additional eyeshadow palettes featuring eight shimmering shades, a translucent powder, rosy blush, three lip balms, and four full-sized lipsticks finish out the 15-piece collection (items are priced from $15 to $68). And, of course, a classic red lip is at the center of it all.
That red lip is more than just a bold shading choice for Bésame. “Red has always been a power color, even since they used it in the suffrage movement, so say that women had the right to vote — it was used as a defiance symbol. And that’s why it’s coming back now,” Hernandez explains. And speaking of defiance, it’s not an easy color to work with. Red is not a one-shade-fits-all lip color: There are different pigmentations for every hair and skin tone imaginable, and Hernandez believes that Bésame is creating one that can suit everyone.
One of the top sellers, Red Velvet, is inspired by Joan Crawford and late 1940s glamour; it plays well with both yellow and pink complexions. Another best seller, Victory Red, began as Montezuma Red in Liz Arden’s 1944 lineup, following wartime grants by the government to create a bright, optimistic, powerful lip color that would make women look and feel better during a time of rations. With pigments more heavily regulated now than during World War II, the formula isn’t exactly the same, but the color differences are undetectable to the eye. “We worked on it until we got it right, and it’s very similar to the original, as far as the color goes,” Hernandez says. The current lineup of 16 shades includes 12 of those reds and four pinks.
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And if you’re unsure which shade of red looks best with your coloring, Hernandez invites you to the Bésame shop to try on lipsticks, smell retro fragrances, take a retro makeup class, and peruse her collection of authentic vintage makeup and cosmetics items. A visit to the store is not a quick trip, but an experience. Many women come with their children and families, whether for a retro makeup class or to simply look at the stunning collection of vintage hats. Starting this month you can also celebrate the Snow White launch with a princess-worthy photo op at the boutique, which will turn into Snow White’s cottage, complete with wishing well. Multigenerational appeal, Hernandez calls it.
So while she appreciates the discussion on Instagram and the vintage bloggers wearing crinoline and circle skirts donning Red Hot Red (a 1950s shade with roots back to Marilyn Monroe), Gabriela likes to think the Bésame crowd is “the professional woman, the regular woman. The woman not necessarily following the Instagram influencers.” She is thankful for the exposure that being popular with influencers leads to, but thinks that “doesn’t necessarily reflect our customer base completely.” She has an eye toward the everywoman searching for a little simple glamor — and affordability. Those punchy long-lasting red lipsticks ring in at $22 apiece.
Bésame’s next collaboration, based on 1940s Marvel character Agent Peggy Carter, is intended to speak to the professional audience and those Instagrammers who love a little whimsy. “We all like to play, and we don’t get too many opportunities to do that as adults,” Hernandez says. The brand’s love affair with Agent Carter goes back to a 2014 tweet in which Peggy Carter herself, actress Hayley Atwell, tweeted, “Here you go ladies, Peggy's lipstick is Bésame in Red Velvet,” sending historians, comic fans, and vintage lovers off the edge. Red Velvet has been a best-seller since.
The new line will continue to play off Peggy’s detective work, with a story-based feel. In that way, this will be less stagnant palette and more living collection based on a much-loved comic heroine. With new in-house products and more Disney collabs in the works, is it all just too much for one little family-run makeup brand to take on? Gabriela doesn’t think so.
“You have to have enough conviction when everyone tells you you’re crazy.”