Alumni Spotlight: Brianna Carr

Brianna Carr is a Multi-Brand Commercial Executive at Estée Lauder and self- confessed beauty fanatic.  Graduating from Documenting Fashion in 2015, Brianna frequently explored her love of the cosmetics industry, its history and influence in her research. Her MA dissertation, titled ‘Motif as motive : representations of Helena Rubinstein’s brand of beauty in America, 1915-1930’ explored the role that Madame C.J Walker, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden played in shaping the beauty industry and the role of women in the Twentieth Century. 

OS: When I was preparing for this interview and looking over your previous blog posts, the first thing that struck me was the clear interest in all things cosmetics, beauty and makeup, What was your earliest makeup memory and how did you find this niche?

BC: ‘I’ve been wearing makeup since I was about two years old- as soon as I could reach for my Mum’s lipsticks that was it. Makeup has been a part of my life every single day for as long as I can remember. I grew up with two brothers, so I lived in a very boisterous household, so beauty became my escape. At any opportunity I would sit people down for beauty treatments! I had my own pedicure box and when I was very small my dream career was to be a beautician. It’s my passion!

What is it about makeup that you love so much?

BC: Beauty is so universal; it doesn’t matter if you have a shower or do a 17 step Korean skincare routine, every process is connected to beauty. Beauty is completely inclusive, and transformative. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you perceive yourself or what your budget is, you can create whatever look you want, and this can change day to day.

OS: You wrote about three incredible cosmetics moguls, Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Madame C J Walker in your MA Dissertation- what made you choose this topic?

BC: I tried my handwriting about fashion, but I was far more successful when writing about beauty! Rebecca [Arnold] encouraged me to write about my passion and after we went to the Helena Rubenstein exhibition as part of our study trip to New York, I was instantly sold, there was no contest. Beauty is so rich and incredibly unexplored in comparison to fashion and I found it was such a joy to read about it all day long.  

OS: I know from personal experience [I chose to write about the relationship between jewellery and fashion photography] that choosing a niche dissertation topic can often limit you in terms of resources. What was your experience?

BC: As there was such a limited range of resources it was easier in some respects; it was definitely less overwhelming as there weren’t as many sources to choose from but in other ways, it was harder to talk about beauty with any academic authority. The challenge was finding the niche into the topic that wasn’t alien to the conversation. Beauty was at first a largely elitist outlet for the upper echelons of society; beauty was available to only a small group of women that could go into department stores. Talking about cosmetics in response to the social and economic situation was really interesting but it was also difficult as most of my information came from premium beauty brands operating at the time. This was definitely a bias that I had to be aware of but I suppose that’s why I love it so much, from Revlon to Elizabeth Arden, everyone has a relationship to beauty.

OS: Going off the fact that you wrote about three incredible women, if you could have dinner with one of them who would it be and why?

BC: I think that Madame C J Walker would be absolutely phenomenal to have dinner with. What she did for beauty and for Black women in America was absolutely insane. I haven’t seen the Netflix biopic yet but she’s such an icon and an inspiration. This is so tough! Estée Lauder is still owned by the Lauder family and they run the company operationally day to day so I have been lucky enough to have had dinner with some of the Lauders…

Madame C.J Walker, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Madam-C-J-Walker

OS: Both your MA studies and your role in marketing at Estee Lauder means that you have looked at a wealth of cosmetics campaigns over the last few years, is there a particular campaign that you wish you’d thought of?

BC: In terms of contemporary brands, Glossier does it best at the moment. They have completely revolutionized the beauty industry and completely respond to their consumer in a way that is entirely modern and has no ego. They let themselves be guided by their consumers in a way that big brands just don’t. Even though they say they do, it’s largely because they are following their competitors. For old-school brands, I’m going to have to say Revlon. They did it SO well. The ‘Cherries in the Snow Campaign’ was used to sell one off their most iconic nail polishes and I just love that. There are so many to choose from. Charlotte Tilbury is also interesting as she takes her cues from the Arden era of cosmetics. Charlotte is arguably Estée Lauder reincarnated! Her Goddess franchise would be as just as relevant in the Forties as it is today. Her language is so distinctive.

Revlon’s ‘Cherries in the Snow Campaign’ 1953

OS: When you were in my position writing your MA dissertation, how much thought had you given to the future after the Courtauld?

BC: I was always very certain that I would work in beauty. I worked on a Clinique counter for about four years whilst I was at University. After that I was determined to get to the Head Office and begged for an internship. I interviewed five times with no success but then they called me about an opportunity in Men’s Grooming which was very new to the company at the time.  Nobody really pays attention to it as it’s such a small category. Just as an example, ‘Clinique for Men’ is worth as much as one product from Clinique. So, it’s a really small opportunity with SO much opportunity. In recent years, it’s tempting to think that male grooming is so often talked about and has so many competitors but still, no one really puts money behind it. I originally came on board with just my manager and then we grew to a team of eight. Unfortunately, though, the decline in retail meant that this project ultimately got axed. Following this I then started looking after multi-brand projects and tying brands together. Beginning with Men’s brands, I moved across to do the same for women’s brands. If you go to Boots in Covent Garden for example, they display lots of smaller brands on gondolas. Now I’m in the strategy team which is more involved with working on long term projects.

OS: Coming from such a client-based, interactive position, from Clinique Counters to Head Office, you have quite a unique understanding of how consumers interact with the products themselves. Do you think these big brands struggle to maintain a sense of personability?

BC: Smaller brands are entrepreneurial and have the ability to be very responsive to consumers. They can change their in-store models very rapidly. When you’re an established brand and owned by Lauder for example, it’s just harder to do it as quickly. That said, there have been so many changes in the beauty industry recently and many brands have modernised their approach. Something like multi-brand partnerships are so crucial as that is how people shop these days. You could go through my makeup bag and find 40 different brands! People have begun to browse in the way they would online, and brands have to respond to that. Nowadays Maybelline make just as good a mascara as more premium brands so if you can’t necessarily differentiate on the product, it is more important than ever to differentiate on experience. That’s why big beauty brands are still relevant today- they provide a premium experience that beauty fanatics are still in love with.

 The difficulty is how these ‘old-school brands’ maintain relevance in the contemporary world. Now any marketing decision involves both a global and UK based marketing team, and these must compete with the values of retailers… there are so many nuances… between beauty houses… the identity of retailers… That’s why working with Men’s was so refreshing as those external pressures weren’t as big. We could do what we wanted.

Beauty brands are unusual in that more often than not, the consumer already has a relationship to you. They may be familiar with your products through their mother, grandmother for example.  Today, marketing teams have to establish a perception of the brand that suits the modern age. In that sense, we can be often be out of touch as our ability to adapt is much slower…

OS: Working in Men’s brands, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the way men relate to beauty? There’s often an assumption that men want quick, easy ‘superhero style’ products. What are your thoughts on this stereotype?

BC: I think this stereotype has been broken down almost completely in the last few years. With men, you need to find an avenue that makes beauty approachable. You need to take beauty TO men and be where they are. This may not always be Topman. If your consumer is a cyclist who spends £3000 on a Raffa bike, he’s also going to want to invest in skincare as it will help with his performance. It’s about making sure that beauty is entirely digestible for the various types of consumer. If someone wants to spend £300 on their grooming routine they can.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you can put Men’s products in a beauty hall and expect it to fly off the shelves. That’s actually something that we’ve been working on recently. We did a popup in Canary Wharf where 80% of the workforce are male. There is such scope and so much more research needs to be done but ultimately, we aim to suggest that beauty can be an experience that men can enjoy and that doesn’t have to involve being watched or judged in a beauty hall. The reason that I got into beauty was because it could be a special, magical experience for the individual; sadly, in the large beauty halls today, a lot of this has been lost. Makeup is now a commodity and it’s easy to forget that buying lipstick, whilst it may not seem like a lot, is a hard-earned treat for the person buying it. It’s a shame. 

OS: More and more, fashion editors are discussing that ‘post-lockdown’ we’re going to ‘flock to the shops’ and enjoy retail in a rejuvenated way. Do you agree with this?

BC: I’ve actually been working on a project related to this. Personally, I think that people will want to celebrate occasions they might have missed or are postponing to next year. I think that people still want to invest their money and are not going to be as impulsive as they may have been. There will be more research and consideration into buying decisions. I also think that people are going to turn to their highstreets and want premium beauty to be available closer to home. Working on distribution strategy will be key for brands moving forward. I think more and more brands will attempt to display ‘hero’ products on gondolas in more accessible places. The consumer trends that will emerge will be really interesting. I’m also anticipating a rise in gifting as well.

OS: In other periods of crisis, the Second World War for example, beauty became such a huge means of boosting morale and keeping a semblance of normality in the face of uncertainty. Has putting makeup on been important to you in the light of Covid-19?

BC: I think makeup has an accessible ‘feel good factor’; you can throw on a lip and feel entirely different about yourself. I love the ritual of putting makeup on and feeling ready to face the day. Makeup is a way of showing others that you look after yourself; it’s a way of expressing yourself and showing yourself in your ‘best light’. Beauty is unusual in that it involves the viewer as much as it does the self. So yes. Absolutely!

OS: You mentioned Glossier earlier, as many of us are aware, their ethos is very much about minimal, ‘chill beauty’ centered around a handful of products. Is this ‘low-maintenance’ beauty how cosmetics defines itself today?

BC: I appreciate it completely, especially if it makes people feel good, but there is nothing wrong with accepting that ‘minimal beauty’ is not for you. I love putting on a full face of makeup, I’m such a maximalist. It’s entirely down to preference.

OS: If you weren’t in beauty, is there another industry that you would be part of?

BC: I would definitely be in fitness. I’ve danced my entire life so I would love to do barre training and become an instructor. I’d also love to open my own studio. I’ve always been into fitness, especially low-impact exercise like barre and reformer Pilates. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter your fitness level, everyone can do it. Beauty will always be my passion but now it plays into so many more industries. Today, ‘feeling good about yourself’ is not just the job of the beauty industry, more and more, the wellness and fitness industry have taken that mantle. Like beauty, you still go to the gym for ‘an experience’ of wellness and escape…

OS: I agree, there is such a correlation between looking after yourself on the inside and changing how you look on the outside. Do you think that people will become more aware of their health and how they treat their bodies post-lockdown?

BC: Beauty and fashion is at the heart of culture so it often changes in accordance with the issues of the day, everything from animal cruelty to inclusivity and diversity. The brands that you buy are often aligned to your values and now there is a lot of pressure to be a conscious consumer. People often shop because they are aware of other people’s perceptions of them and there is an aspect of virtue signaling to consider- though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

OS: Is that what makes male consumers so interesting? The fact they are so function driven?

BC: Men do have an emotional experience with beauty, but they haven’t grown up with the same aesthetic expectations that women have. Now there is the added pressure of not only looking good but doing good and shopping ethically.

OS: In recent years there has been a real surge in fashion magazines publishing digital content surrounded around beauty. So many celebrities are filmed revealing their ‘5-minute makeup’, If you could look through anybody’s makeup bag who would it be?

BC: Hmm… I would love to look through RuPaul’s makeup bag, I’d love to see the 6-step contour routine!

Rupaul https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/rupaul-releasing-beauty-line-with-mally.html

OS: Many of the 20th century icons that we know, and love have become inseparable from their distinctive makeup looks, what are some of your favourite ‘makeup moments’.

BC: I love Sophia Loren, as with Audrey Hepburn, she has BECOME that look of eyeliner and nude lips. If they wore anything else, it would break the magic. As restrictive as this might be, God they look good! 

OS: Why do you think people have become so obsessed with recreating that ‘look’ themselves?

BC: I think it’s because these individuals appear to be encapsulated by their makeup looks, the one thing that makes them distinctive. Sophia [Loren] Brigitte [Bardot] and Audrey [Hepburn] all use their eyes. You just need some eyeliner and you can become them!

Sophia Loren (Date Unknown) https://www.lipstickalley.com/threads/opinions-on-sophia-lorens-signature-eye-makeup-look.3253544/

Brigitte Bardot, (Date Unknown) https://www.savoirflair.com/beauty/250035/brigitte-bardot-cat-eye-flick-makeup-tutorial

Film Still, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) https://www.everythingaudrey.com/audrey-hepburn-eyebrows/

OS: Now that masks are compulsory, eyes are even more important! Maybe the next campaigns need to focus on the eyes…

OS: There are so many iconic fashion moments in films… Do you have any iconic makeup moments that stand out to you?

BC: Yes!… Not so much a makeup moment but a look, Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon. She completely changed the eyebrow industry. Anything Julianne Moore does… she always looks absolutely spectacular with her makeup. Her look in ‘A Single Man’…. WOW.  I also love Penelope Cruz for her lived in look… it’s something we can all achieve.

Julianne Moore in A Single Man (2009) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/people/beauty-moments-film/Julianne-Moore-makeup-A-Single-Man/

Penelope Cruz at the Cannes Film Festival 2018 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/beauty/news/cannes-film-festival-2018-best-beauty-looks/penelope-cruz/

Brooke Shields, Blue Lagoon, 1980, https://www.glasshousejournal.co.uk/post/girls-on-film-brooke-shields-in-the-blue-lagoon