Before Fenty: Over 100 Years of Black Makeup Brands (Racked)
African Americans have been loving, and buying, makeup for generations.
By Nadra Nittle, Racked, January 23, 2018
When Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty in September, she turned the makeup industry on its head. With its 40 foundation shades — the darkest of which sold out first — Fenty proved that inclusivity in cosmetics is not just ethical but profitable. By serving the customers other mainstream brands have largely ignored, Fenty generated more than $72 million in media value alone the month after its debut.
“I don’t think there was ever such an exciting launch, where a brand received that much excitement and marketing,” says Kimberly Smith, CEO and founder of cosmetics retailer Marjani Beauty. “Now people see it. There’s money to be made by making nuanced shades for women of color.”
But the enormous outpouring of support Fenty has received belies the fact that Rihanna is far from the first entrepreneur to meet the cosmetics needs of women of color. For more than a century, makeup brands have courted the black community and prospered, making it all the more curious that it took 2017’s so-called Fenty effect to confirm the obvious: Women of color enjoy makeup and are eager to buy it.
The first businessperson to successfully tap into this market wasn’t a black woman, but a black man named Anthony Overton. A lawyer who also had a chemistry degree, he opened the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co. in Kansas in 1898. The business initially sold baking powder and other products to drug and grocery stores, but Overton recognized that women of color lacked cosmetics that came in their skin tones. The observation prompted his historic foray into makeup.