Limited-edition cosmetics: When novelty is the lure

New York Times News ServiceDecember 25, 2013 

MAC RiRi Hearts Doublelux Shadow from the Holiday Collection, $44, is a limited-edition cosmetic.

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Annie Jimenez, 26, who works at the T-Mobile store on West 34th Street in New York City, was the first of about 70 women waiting to buy Rihanna’s RiRi Hearts collection for MAC cosmetics at Macy’s Herald Square one morning his fall.

“I’ve been a fan of Rihanna forever,” she said. “But I’m also just a fan of makeup. I collect lipsticks.”

Jimenez had missed out on MAC’s two previous RiRi releases (“I spent two hours online just loading my cart, and by then everything I wanted was sold out,” she said) and was determined to walk away with all the lipstick colors.

Also in line was Samone Rogers, 27, a lawyer in Manhattan. Less of a Rihanna devotee, she said she knew that the pop star was probably the reason for all the hype about the makeup. That, and the items were available for just a short time.

“I’ve never stood in line for makeup before,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it unless it was limited-edition. And actually because they are, they’ll make good gifts, too.”

As in art and fashion, releasing short runs of a product, often featuring the imprimatur of a celebrity or special packaging, like RiRi’s metallic pink tubes, has become a tactic of the cosmetics industry, one with little risk in proportion to the potential public relations payoff. If the item appeals, the venture can create excitement akin to the debut of a new iPhone. Sometimes the products are sold for many times their list price on eBay. If an item really appeals, it might become part of the permanent collection.

If it fizzles – well, there wasn’t much of it made to begin with.

“The landscape has changed dramatically,” said James Gager, creative director of MAC, who has been with the company for 14 years.

Early collaborations

In 2003, when the company first dabbled in limited editions, one of the first collaborations was with the Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape, Gager recalled. The brand was mostly known for men’s clothing, so “we took it as a kind of challenge,” he said. MAC released a lip conditioner and blot film wrapped in Bathing Ape’s black-and-white camouflage print.

Another early collaboration involved the cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard and a red glitter lipstick, which reflected the brand’s reputation for diverse takes on beauty, Gager said.

Now, MAC may be known more for a seemingly unlimited number of limited editions; this year they have included products designed around Archie’s Girls (featuring the comic-book characters), Antonio Lopez (honoring the late fashion illustrator), the Year of the Snake and vaguer themes like orange and baking.

D&G, NARS limit runs

Dolce & Gabbana’s cosmetic line, introduced in 2009, has been built around limited editions, said Luigi Feola, vice president for luxury products at P&G Prestige, which licenses the line. Released twice annually, they help draw in new customers, he said, citing the example of the Animalier bronzer, a leopard-spotted edition that became the fourth-best-selling item for the beauty collection in 2011. Dolce & Gabbana found that 65 percent of customers who bought the bronzer were new to the brand, Feola said.

For other companies, like NARS, limited editions are a way to titillate their loyal fans. NARS has long released limited-run colors each makeup season whose purpose “is really to be fashionable,” said the company’s chief executive, Louis Desazars.

Lure of ‘hard-to-get’

Even if companies claim lofty goals, there’s no denying the potential business value of a seemingly hard-to-get set.

“Limited-edition cosmetics are like beauty’s answer to fast fashion,” said Ann Colville Somma, 36, a beauty blogger. “Women are trained to come back to retailers like Zara and H&M on a weekly basis to see what’s new. Beauty’s usual cycle doesn’t allow for that, so that’s where these one-offs come in.”

Colville Somma is not immune to the charms of short runs. She collects Chanel’s Le Vernis limited-edition nail polishes.

“Chanel always tweaks the color just enough so it’s unique or trendsetting,” she said. Her recent favorites include Peridot, a color she described as “beetle green,” and Black Pearl, an iridescent black.

“Especially if you’re on social media, you do your nails and you share it,” she said. “It has that buzz factor. You’ll get a ton of likes, and you’ll get it for a lot less money than something from the runway.”

Colville Somma said of her collected bottles, “They look great all kind of lined up together.”

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