Tracking the Rise of Customizable Beauty

The 2016 beauty consumer is hard to please. Thanks to a little invention called the Internet, we’ve become more informed and certainly more discerning when it comes to what we let into our makeup bags and bathroom cabinets. In addition to forcing brands to work harder for our attention, consumers’ fastidiousness has forced brands to rethink the idea of “one size fits all” beauty, slowly providing us with the ability to buy made-to-order cosmetics, skin care, and fragrances, whether online or in stores. “Our beauty client today is more educated and engaged than ever before,” says Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s senior vice president of merchandising. “She is selective, and more important, she is informed and intrigued by beauty offerings. She has a strong knowledge of ingredient and formula benefits, so she is seeking personalized products that meet her distinct needs.” So what exactly can you customize and where can you do it? We investigated the growing trend across all the different categories—and, of course, gave a few of them a try.

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You can’t talk about personalization in beauty without bringing up fragrance, the OG of customization. Perfumers and perfumery shops have tailor-made scents for the rich and insanely rich for centuries. Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth of Hungary, Grand Duke Orloff of Russia—you basically weren’t a real royal if you didn’t have your own eau. Even as fragrance became more widely produced, luxury perfume companies, like Dior and Krigler, continued to craft customized scents for their high-profile clientele. But as the industry grew and fashion designers, lingerie companies, and pop stars jumped on the perfume bandwagon, the idea of personalized scent slowly became a thing of the past—until recently, that is.

“There was a general unhappiness among perfumers, and I think even with consumers, about the fragrances on the market, so I felt there was an opportunity for a brand that was more luxurious, more exclusive, and more personal,” Clara Molloy says of her niche fragrance brand Memo Paris. And Molloy was not alone. In the past few years, luxury brands, like Dior and Guerlain, have launched lines of “couture scents” that are higher-quality and higher-priced than their regular fragrances, while Los Angeles–based retailer Fred Segal has launched a Custom Fragrance Blending Kit at Sephora, offering consumers the opportunity to experience the store’s bespoke-fragrance service in the comfort of their living room.

But the real clue that bespoke fragrances have taken off is the number of new brands dedicated to customization: Persephenie in L.A., Yosh in San Francisco, Joya, MCMC, and Nova in Brooklyn, and most notably the Parisian brand Ex Nihilo. A trip to the Ex Nihilo shop-in-shop at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City or its boutique in Paris involves picking one of the brand’s nine scents and sitting in front of the company’s fragrance-dosing robot, the Osmologue. Then, depending on your scent preferences, you can tweak the fragrance you choose in one of three variations to end up with your own demi-bespoke fragrance. “Customers want something different—they want something unexpected and personalized,” says Benoît Verdier, one of the three founders of the brand. “I really think that customization is the new definition of luxury.”


Skin Care

Like many of the big beauty innovations of the past five years, the first customizable skin care to make its way to the U.S. originated in Asia with the Japanese brand Skin Inc. Dedicated to crafting a simple, effective regimen based on your specific needs, Skin Inc. created My Daily Dose, a custom-blended serum that allows the user to select three targeted serums (out of nine) to mix. Ushering the idea into the digital age is the brand’s Skin Identity service, which can be done entirely online, catering to digital consumers’ propensity for Internet quizzes. The brand designed a questionnaire in which users rate, on a sliding scale, skin concerns (like sensitivity, hyperpigmentation, dullness, etc.) and lifestyle factors (like sleep habits and stress levels) that affect their complexion.

Kiehl’s may be the first major skin-care brand to bring personalization to the counter level, with its Apothecary Preparations initiative. Paying homage to its pharmacy roots, the company’s flagship store in New York City’s East Village offers customers the opportunity to create custom-made serums (or as Kiehl’s called them, “concentrates”) based on their specific skin concerns. Each custom-blended concentrate is composed of two complexes from a lineup of five that each address a different concern: Brightening, Texture Refining, Wrinkle Reducing, Visible Redness Neutralizing, and Pore Minimizing.

To nab your personalized concentrate, you first have to sit down for a consultation with an on-site Kiehl’s representative who will measure your skin’s hydration and oil levels. Once you’re given the results (which can be a bit depressing—my hydration levels clocked in at a very sad 26 percent, and the ideal is more than 50 percent), you give your Kiehl’s rep a rundown of your skin-care routine and your biggest complexion concerns. In the end, you walk out with a personalized box—custom-printed label and all—including the two targeted complexes plus a base of Kiehl’s Skin Strengthening Concentrate, composed of a blend of squalane (a botanical lipid derived from the olive fruit) and a skin lipid complex, to hydrate and protect the skin barrier. Mix all three components at home and voilà—the serum of your skin-care dreams.

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One of the earliest purveyors of the personalized-makeup experience was Susanne Langmuir and her team at the Bite Beauty Lip Lab in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “I think that’s the big thing in customization with cosmetics or fragrance: There’s this interactive nature to it that goes so far beyond the actual product itself,” says Langmuir, who also recently launched the brand’s Amuse Bouche line of covetable lippies. “[We’re] making something that is normally not accessible, in terms of creating things that are one-of-a-kind-experience-driven beauty products [that are] interactive.” It’s a sentiment that Patrick believes is beginning to apply to Sephora customers as well. “We’re finding the products that best bring a ‘fun’ factor by allowing our clients to mix, play, and get their hands dirty,” Patrick says. “We love elements that bring clients, either through the product or accompanying technology, into the creation process as a way to teach us about their preferences.”

Speaking of mixing, playing, and getting your hands dirty, it was Cover FX’s Best of Beauty–winning Custom Cover Drops that made customizable makeup a veritable “thing.” The drops made waves in the industry last year with an impressive range of shades and the option to tailor the coverage level (one drop for a sheer finish, four for full coverage). The drops were closely followed by a skin-care equivalent, the Custom Infusion Drops, and most recently, the glow-boosting Custom Enhancer Drops, which are formulated with ultrafine pearl particles and add a touch of luminosity to any foundation or skin-care product.

For those who don’t want to play cosmetic chemist in the morning (and live on either the East or West Coast), there are a growing number of premixed, personalized foundation options. At the Kevyn Aucoin counter at Bergdorf Goodman, clients can meet with specialists who create an exact shade match of the brand’s cult-favorite Sensual Skin Enhancer. (The foundation is carried by several retailers, but the customization service is a Bergdorf exclusive.) And perhaps the latest power player in the only-for-you foundation game is Lancôme, which debuted its Le Teint Particulier service at select West Coast Nordstrom locations, with East Coast locations to follow in August.

So the next time you’re feeling unsatisfied at the beauty counter or exhaustively scrolling through online shopping sites with little to no success, don’t give up hope. Because whether you’re looking to stand out from the crowd or simply searching for your dream product, take solace in the fact that there’s a perfect red lipstick, foundation, mascara, or perfume out there that’s quite literally just for you.