Could 2021 Be the Year Men’s Makeup Hits It Big?

Oliver Ragfelt via Unsplash

Men’s makeup has proved a difficult category over the years, previously failing to gain lasting traction. Amidst changing views of masculinity and more community-oriented branding, could 2021 be the year that male cosmetics finally hits it big?

The market was valued at $1.14 billion in 2019, and 56% of US male respondents used a facial cosmetic item at least once in 2018. Last year, CVS added corrective range Stryx to its shelves, a sign for many that the product sector was about to go mainstream, with searches for male makeup looks rising by 80%. “Male beauty has come a long way and continues to gain a wider acceptance, more recently from the middleman market,” Livvy Houghton, Senior Creative Researcher at strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory, tells WWD. “The disruption we’ve seen in grooming and skin care has progressed to color cosmetics. The category [cosmetics] is being stripped of its gender constraints and outdated ideals around perfection, and is instead championing a more inclusive approach, focused entirely on freedom and self-expression.”

Increasing screen time may have caused a surge in plastic surgery, but it’s also driving the demand for men’s cosmetics, with the largest growth happening in Asian markets. Shiseido’s men’s makeup lines have witnessed double-digit growth, with the company releasing online makeup filters for its male customers due to popular demand. Japanese male cosmetics grew to $5.7 billion (a growth of .2 billion) within just a year. Chanel launched its Boy de Chanel range in South Korea in 2018 and recently expanded its offerings to include a concealer and 3-in-1 eye pencil.

In the Western market, buzzworthy brands and substantial investments are garnering momentum and excitement for the category. DTC brand Tribe Cosmetics emerged in January 2021 with a Moisturizer, Skin Fix, and Beard Fix product. War Paint, founded in 2018, recently published a makeup manual containing application tips and QR codes for video tutorials, and received a £1 million investment from True. Faculty, a proponent of “New Wave Masculine,” launched with a range of nail polish and stickers (all currently sold out).

In the past, luxury heavyweights like Jean Paul Gaultier (2003) and Tom Ford (2013) tried their hand at infiltrating the market, with varying degrees of success. Gaultier’s attempts with Le Male Tout Beau Tout Propre, and later the Monsieur range, ceased production; Ford’s line is still in production, comprised of subtle staples such as brow gel, concealer, and bronzing gel.

The mass appeal aesthetics are those of subtle enhancement and correction rather than full-on peacock theatrics, although brands such as Fluide, an all-gender cosmetics range, cater to those who prefer life on the more colorful side. Marc Jacobs, whose own line has been positioned as unisex from the outset, displays full-face makeup looks on social media, declaring the distinction between men’s and women’s makeup “ridiculous” to Interview Magazine. While not all consumers may adopt a metallic blue smokey eye with gusto, it does speak to the current subset embracing what were traditionally seen as “feminine” color palettes or products.

On the subject of peacocking—also the name of a cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s that saw the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger adorning themselves in flamboyant fashions and blurring the lines of gender norms—the history of men and makeup stretches back to Ancient Egypt. Heavily kohl-lined eyeliner, modelled after the sun god Horus and seen on Egyptian royalty such as King Tut, served as a protection against flies, the sun’s rays, and infection, according to common belief. In Japanese kabuki theater, male actors wore dramatically made-up faces, and worldwide the stage provided a loophole for cosmetic application by men after cosmetics were declared vulgar by Queen Victoria I in the mid-1800s. From the hair metal of the ’80s to the punk pop, eyeliner-wearing singers of the ’90s, musicians and artists continued to embrace makeup, but offstage, it remained a very niche practice. The rise of male makeup gurus in recent years pushed more bold cosmetic practices to the forefront, and the fluid perspectives on gender, as well as the shift towards more open views on masculinity, have opened up the market. It’s easy to assume that Gen Z is the main customer given their more flexible attitudes towards color cosmetics, but older generations are more likely to grab corrective products to counteract aging skin concerns such as undereye circles and discoloration.

A new masculinity that doesn’t exclude cosmetic practices—an evolution of the 2000s metrosexual, one might say—is chipping away at the very rigid concept that men, whether heterosexual or queer, couldn’t embrace the occasional dab of concealer. But a majority of consumers are slower on the uptake. According to Spate NYC, searches for men’s eyeliner increased by 60.5% over the course of last year, while those for tinted moisturizer in the men’s category have stagnated, and numbers for concealer and lipstick actually decreased. However, these figures only reflect the US market, which, if K-Beauty is any indication, will follow in the Asian sector’s footsteps.

In China, men’s cosmetics grew by 31% in the last year, even surpassing the growth in the women’s category, states a MakeUp in Shanghai report. A recent Tmall report shows 50% increased business around primers, 100% for foundations, and a whopping 200% for eyelash-related products. According to Ocean Engine, ByteDance’s marketing platform, online searches for makeup content by men on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok) rose 80% in Q3 2020.

According to Franklin Chu, US Managing Director for Azoya International, the main consumer of men’s makeup in China are millennials, with L’Oréal Men, Lab Series, and Biotherm as the brands to watch. “Men’s makeup is emerging as a social necessity. More and more men agree that ‘looking good in public is a polite social gesture.’ Therefore, ‘clean’, ‘comfortable’, ‘natural’ and ‘looking refreshed’ are the basic requirements for men to look good,” he comments. “Whether a product is designed for men is not the highest priority. The top factors that men consider when choosing a product are suitability for skin tone, product effectiveness, and chemical composition. [But] there is bound to be a big market for male-specific products too. As the number of men wearing makeup grows, having a specific category will make choices easier for the growing number of ‘entry level’ male shoppers.”

K-pop boy bands and other male celebrities have been featured in campaigns for women’s cosmetics brands, with livestreaming (in large part due to influencer KOL Austin Li (Li Jiaqi), the Lipstick King) providing a popular retail channel, according to Iris Chan, Partner in International Client Development at Digital Luxury Group. The desire for a youthful, slightly androgynous appearance amongst young consumers is referred to as “Little Fresh Meat.” “Coupled with Chinese male consumers having interest and habits in skincare, having a male face in the beauty arena is not unusual,” she explains. “The demand is quickly expanding across beauty product categories, a demand that may be quite different to what is seen among Western counterparts. Beyond views of gender-fluidity, the more apparent demand is for brands and products that serve the diverse profiles and needs of beauty consumers in China.”

Chan elaborates that while luxury beauty brands may have launched in the Asian market, mass counterparts are having less resonance, but in the last year alone, 3,000 men’s cosmetic and skincare companies registered in China. Local and digitally native brands like Tabula Rasa and Dear Boyfriend are showing promise thanks to their leverage in local social media channels like Douyin and RED. In the future, more Chinese brands will be competing with foreign counterparts for dominant space in this promising retail segment.

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