Wednesday, August 18, 2004

It's your duty to be beautiful...

Sephora is coming! Sephora is coming! Let the bells ring out and the banners fly – Sephora is com…
Oh wait; check your pants. (For your driver’s license! License in pants = man; in purse = woman…) If you’re not a woman, you may have no idea what Sephora is – so let me be the first to tell you: it’s paradise. Paradise! Paradise with enough lip gloss to lubricate the parched pouts of a thousand dried out dames.
Sephora is to make-up what an idol is to a savage: an object of worship – an earthly symbol of heavenly delight.
Sephora (and doesn’t the name just evoke a hundred heartfelt sighs?) is the marketing brainchild of European luxury goods retailer Moet-Hennessey Louis Vuitton, a gang of designer shilling thugs who have reinvented the art of selling cosmetics by shifting the context in which they’re sold.
It’s brilliant is what it is – by simply refocusing the way in which make-up is displayed, from brand to use (from separate department store islands of Dior or Chanel or Estee Lauder presenting every product they make, to separate islands of lipsticks, peninsula’s of eye shadow, isthmuses of mascara – in every brand and shade ever imagined…altogether!) Sephora has created a make-up ‘experience’ that invites women to play and experiment and try every product until they find exactly what they want – or simply have a wonderful, colourful time. An Aladdin's cave of cosmetics. Acres of lip-gloss… great, sweeping swaths of blushers… aisle after aisle of perfume and concealers and enough brushes (tiny though they are) to clean and curry-comb the entire Canadian olympic equestrian team. And probably the humans too. Am I being clear? Sephora has EVERYTHING.
Until recently, though Sephora operates nearly 500 outlets in 9 countries, Canadian women were shut out – unable to purchase Sephora’s products even over the internet: the American site was sorry but adamant. If Canadians wanted to test one of the outlet’s hundreds of lipsticks, they had to leg it over the border to shop at one of Sephora’s 91 US outlets.
But last autumn, Canada got its own Sephora web site and now we’re just a couple of varnished-nail biting months from being able to shop in person at the new retail outlet set to open at the Eaton Centre.
I first came across Sephora in 1999 on a visit to New York with a newspaper Style editor (Ottawa Jane) and was knocked nearly breathless with the desires it aroused in me; Shopper’s Drug Mart – The Bay, Holt’s – whatever. No cosmetics department, drug store display or fashion magazine had ever touched off the feelings of completeness and excitement that this altar to alteredness created within me. I had found the Promised Land… and its name was Sephora.
Funny thing make-up. In North America and Europe, its use by over half the population is now near ubiquitous. Like it or loathe it, most women in business would as soon go without underpants as eye shadow. Piled on, smeared on, delicately applied, or the result of an hour of work to achieve the no-make-up, make-up look, a professional appearance just isn’t complete without the refining touch of a smooth complexion and a moist pink lip.
And most of us don’t do it just because we feel we have to – the way men wear neckties to work but can’t wait to wrest them off the moment the day is done and the martini appears – most of us do it because we enjoy it, some of us love it… but still, a great many of us think that we need it – and need it in a way that doesn’t feel so good.
It starts when you’re a little girl. How long before we realize the two defining characteristics of womanhood are a bra and a lipstick? (Some other time - remind me - have I got a bra story for you! You'll laugh, you'll cry...)Sometime after toddler-hood – whether we have the words for it or not, the transformational quality of cosmetics is apparent and the desire to take part is almost irresistible. TV tells us, our mothers show us, our dollies prove to us that bigger eyes, bigger lips and softly blushing cheeks symbolize not just beauty, but a certain ‘rightness’ of womanhood that eschewing make-up puts into question. Little girls who can’t even say ‘lipstick’ without lisping, will be reaching for their mother’s ‘Cherries in the Snow’ before they can tie their shoes.
So most of us, (even the ones on their way to eating the requisite three pounds of lipstick some list-maker or other figured out we’d eventually consume through licking of lips, eating and drinking etc. ick…) are also somewhat ambivalent about the stuff. Subtly (or not so) the message is sent and received that without it, we just won’t be pretty enough or polished enough to compete; that intrinsically, our plain faces just aren’t as attractive as our made-up ones.
Though cosmetics have been around for centuries, it’s only in the last hundred years or so that mass market make-up became available, and a little less than that since it became respectable. But as mass marketing grew, so did the sale of make-up and the branding of beauty… and so too did the product go from luxury to necessity.
For myself, though I admit ambivalence – and a near-unshakeable belief that my naked face just won’t do it – I also equally love the stuff. I’m hooked.
Because it is transformational. When a man gets up in the morning, that’s pretty much as good as he’s going to look all day. For a woman, it’s ground zero – with options galore to perk up that tired old phiz. We can make our eyes look bigger – and deeper and less saggy. We can cover up any little blemishes or bags. We can make our cheekbones more prominent and our lips look plumper and lusher and… to a certain extent, by brightening and tightening and perking and plumping – look younger.
I like it because it’s a little meditation, a little how ya doin’? a little centreing on me. The mirror creates a connection and the smoothing and highlighting and glossing can be physical and tender and care-taking. By doing it, one becomes worthy of care-taking. I usually feel better after the near-daily ritual; as I shadow my eyes or colour my lips, I’m having an inner dialogue – about me, about the day, about what lies ahead. By the time I’m done, I’m prepared in a way that has to do with coming in touch with myself – with smoothing down my feathers and stroking myself into calm readiness.
I may be a pawn of the mighty cosmetics giants, a victim of advertising and magazine images of unattainable perfection and the unspoken deal that though I’m not good enough without their products, with them I just might improve, and that with enough of them, my chances are better… and that by re-purchasing again and again, I own a little piece of that glamour. Maybe. Possibly. Probably.
But like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, I have come to love my captor – I just can’t wait for Sephora to open the Toronto doors.
Sephora is coming! Sephora is coming!

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