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Maybe he’s born with it, maybe it helps with video calls: Makeup for men finds a niche

How a new cosmetics brand is capitalizing on changing gender norms and the desire to look Zoom-ready

(Yadi Liu for The Washington Post)

Devir Kahan woke up the morning of his wedding, looked in the mirror and found three angry red spots on his face.

He thought about asking a makeup artist for help covering the blemishes, but the photographers assured him they would just edit them out. But when the album arrived weeks later, his nose, cheek and forehead told another story.

“The zits were there to stay, for all the wedding pictures,” he said.

The experience got him wondering. He asked a few male friends if they had ever used concealer, and every one recalled having a girlfriend or mom touch up a blemish during high school or before a night out. But none actually owned concealer, or even knew where to buy it.

It persuaded Kahan there was a “shadow market” waiting to be tapped, and in 2017, he pitched his idea for Stryx, a cosmetics brand for men, to a small network of investors and developed his product line and packaging through Prime Studio. The brand then partnered with XRC Labs, a consumer goods incubator based in New York.

Now Stryx is getting shelf space in 2,000 CVS drugstores, right next to the razors, making it the first brand of its kind to get a national rollout.

The company aims to convince men who had never considered stopping by a MAC counter or sitting through a YouTube tutorial that makeup is an option for subduing dark circles and razor burn. Discretion is a key part of the messaging, a spinoff of the classic no-makeup makeup look, and Stryx hopes changing ideas about masculinity will move the idea into the mainstream.

Pop culture markers already reflect the blurring of gender lines. On Netflix’s “Queer Eye” show makeovers, Jonathan Van Ness waves the color-correcting green stick over men’s breakouts and rosacea like a magic wand. Actors such as Daniel Kaluuya and Jared Leto sport foundation and mascara on the red carpet. Male makeup artists have risen to fame with mainstream brands such as CoverGirl and Anastasia Beverly Hills. And in fields such as acting, modeling, musical performance and broadcast journalism, it’s just a part of the job.

Though men have a long history with makeup, they represent only a sliver of the $7.6 billion Americans spent on cosmetics last year, according to data from the NPD Group, which analyzes the prestige market, including beauty specialty and department stores.

But with the global cosmetics market projected to reach nearly $430 billion by 2022, according to Allied Market Research, the ground is shifting. And industry experts believe men will be more likely to buy concealer at a drugstore, or online, than brave a trip to Ulta or Sephora.

The biggest names in cosmetics have taken notice. Chanel launched a men’s makeup collection that hit the U.S. market in 2019, offering foundation, an eyebrow pencil, lip balm, and a cleanser and moisturizer set for a “natural look.” Brands such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder have focused on skin care lines for men but haven‘t jumped into the makeup fray, said Rebecca Scheuneman, a Morningstar equity analyst who covers cosmetics. And a number of mainstream cosmetic labels have adopted gender-neutral marketing. But Stryx sees itself as something original, a brand made specifically for men from the ground up.

“I’m sure they’ll be closely watching this Stryx brand to see how much success they have and to see if there’s an opportunity to pursue,” Scheuneman said.

Some say the shift reflects changing attitudes toward masculinity and expression. Other see it as a new market to capitalize on, fueled by Instagram and a barrage of Zoom meetings. Either way, these nontraditional makeup users often are influenced by their business and social circles.

“We don’t really see other brands as competition, necessarily,” said Jon Shanahan, Stryx’s chief marketing officer. “Our competition is stigma.”

Skincare and the pandemic

T.J. Tallie, 36, a professor of African history at the University of San Diego, used to avoid concealer, as he prefers his natural freckles to show. But now that his face stares back at him during Zoom meetings with students and colleagues for upward of 30 hours a week, he wears it more often.

At the onset of the pandemic, cosmetics sales fell as strict stay-at-home policies kept people out of the workplace and severely curtailed social activity. People weren’t wearing much makeup at home, and going out in masks made it even less relevant (lipstick sales have tanked). But Scheuneman has no doubt of the market’s recovery.

“Once these social distancing mandates lift and consumers get back out there, we expect that makeup sales will quickly rebound,” she said.

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For male consumers, the trend line is already up: Internet searches for “male makeup looks” shot up 80 percent in April compared with the same month last year, according to Bloomberg News.

When the pandemic hit, Kahan and Shanahan had to pause their plans to open an office in New York as sales fell. Then in mid-March, they pivoted: Shanahan launched a series of video tutorials to teach men how to look their best on Zoom and develop a regimen for personal grooming while stuck inside.

The strategy was a game-changer, coinciding with a monumental shift in the way people work. With more time in the mornings and no commutes, newly remote workers had to navigate lighting angles and hours of video calls. Stryx saw sales and website traffic jump in May and June, then added a facial gel cleanser to its lineup. The CVS announcement quickly followed.

“Men are a top customer focus at CVS Beauty,” CVS spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha said in an email. “Men’s grooming has seen incredible growth during this stay-at-home period, and CVS has been leading the growth in this segment in the market this year.”

Stigma forgets history

Singer Adam Lambert is known for his signature guyliner but is hardly the first. David Bowie, Prince and the hair bands of the 1980s lined their lids, too. The kohl used centuries ago by Egyptian pharaohs has been immortalized on their tombs. The ancient Romans used cosmetics and followed skin-care routines. And powdered faces were common for European aristocrats through the 18th century. But the political and religious conservatism of the Victorian era deemed makeup to be pagan. Pops of color on cheeks, lips and eyes became taboo, even among women, until the turn of the 20th century. CoverGirl helped make soft blush and light foundation a staple for women in the 1960s, and makeup has defined fashion trends in decades since.

Today, the U.S. beauty industry — skin care, makeup, hair care and fragrance — is now a nearly $19 billion market. Though difficult to quantify, Scheuneman said, men dominate only one category, fragrance sales.

It’s worth noting that cultural attitudes toward makeup and skin care in the United States don’t apply to the rest of the world — cosmetics for men of all ages have ebbed and flowed in popularity in Japan and South Korea for decades.

Ben Yu, 32, said he wished he had known about a line like Stryx sooner. The San Francisco Bay area marketing professional said he’s gotten comfortable with makeup since he first wrote about his timid and curious journey with it two years ago for The Washington Post: “I feel pretty — and confident. A straight man’s adventure with makeup.”

He said he’s seen other brands try to market to men in an “alpha dog” way, but he appreciated the simplicity of Stryx’s presentation.

“It was like mud and dirt and I was just like, that’s not what I’m looking for,” he said. “But this seems like something much more up my alley.”

Kahan acknowledged the idea of everyday makeup will take some getting used to for a lot of men.

“The first time using concealer, you’re like, ‘Wow this really works,’ but you go around worried that everyone knows,” Kahan said. “I think for our customers and the sort of guy that would use these products it’s very important to keep the product and keep the routine as simple as possible."

Tallie, the San Diego professor, said he usually waits until three-fourths of the semester is over before he alters his classroom look. He’s been using cosmetics since 2014, a few years after coming out as queer.

In February, before the pandemic relegated the classroom online, Tallie bent his own rule and paired purple lipstick and nail polish with his bow tie and Black Lives Matter pin during the third week of the semester. He said he was hyper-aware of his body and how he was being perceived.

“Suddenly there was a sense of vulnerability that I wasn’t prepared for, and of being judged and feeling fun and cool but also feeling a little scared,” he said.

Tallie thinks everyday makeup for men is an untapped market. But for him, makeup isn’t about subtlety. It’s about standing out in places that have historically kept people like him in the shadows, especially in his career.

“I think it’s important to be a cis male authority figure wearing makeup as an authority figure in a classroom,” he said, adding that he hopes students will see it as a possibility for them, too.

Foster Milburn, 19, a Dallas-based salon apprentice and drag queen, is always at ease in his fake lashes, cut-crease eye shadow and red lipstick. He started wearing cosmetics at 15, and he’s not convinced Stryx will win over men who aren’t already open to cosmetics.

“In a way, it’s almost saying that like concealers that are on the market are for women,” he said. “There’s lightweight concealers that you can get. I feel like more and more as time goes on, the more you walk into Ulta and Sephora, it is becoming more gender-neutral.”

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Tallie notes that makeup in the LGBTQ+ community isn’t as stigmatized because there is less fear of needing to conform to a certain kind of masculinity. And though he can envision light makeup becoming more common for men, he does not expect smoky eyes to become a mainstream look for men anytime soon.

“My masculinity is not contingent on using makeup marketed toward men,” he said. “I can’t fault [Stryx] for being a company and trying to find their own product, but at the same time, yes, I can because it reproduces so many types of issues in the market and the availability of who can be masculine.”

Kunal Palawat, 23, is a graduate student working in a Tucson pollution science lab who identifies as non-binary and sticks to inexpensive brands at CVS and Target. Palawat says it’s difficult to find cosmetic lines that really represent them, noting that even gender-neutral brands tend to stick to standard models and makeup artists who are white, with the occasional black or Asian model.

“That’s just not who I am,” Palawat said. “I think subconsciously, that turns me off to the brand and the ideas. I know logically in my head, makeup is for me, but the subliminal message is that that actually isn’t for you, that’s only for people who look like our models.”

For Palawat, makeup is about self-expression and they typically wear it to go dancing or to parties, or, more recently, the occasional Zoom happy hour. But during the work day, clad in a lab coat and protective eyewear, there isn’t much room for creativity in their appearance. But cosmetics “makes me feel more visibly queer, and that’s pretty important to me. I need people to know,” Palawat said.

“It makes me feel more in control of my body in a world that doesn’t really like me, or anybody, but definitely not for queer brown people. It does feel like an act in caring for myself.”

Tallie wants makeup brands like Stryx to ensure they are inclusive and carry a wide range of shades that won’t make “white dudes named Kyle living in the suburbs” the standard. Stryx’s $19.99 concealer tool and $24.99 tinted moisturizer both come in three shades — “light cognac,” “medium mahogany,” and “dark eclipse.”

Kahan said that the limited offering of shades was purposeful, so customers wouldn’t be intimidated by a 25-color swatch. He noted that Stryx’s customers return products at a rate of less than 1 percent.

Yu, who sticks to BB cream and both liquid and powdered forms of concealer and foundation, said this was one area in which he preferred fewer choices.

“You go into a Sephora and you have to try like 20 different tints in different brands,” he said. “That’s like a really intimidating process to go into cold, and you’ve got to be with somebody you really trust.”

Makeup beyond the counter

For many men, including Kahan and Yu, learning how to apply makeup is a solitary experience. The makeup counter — a rite of passage for many a teenage girl — was simply not an option in their younger years.

“It’s really just like that initial hurdle that was hard to jump at first,” Yu said. “For me it was this process, almost like meditation or working out. It’s just time that you’re spending on yourself.”

Shanahan’s background as a video influencer kicked in with his new role as chief marketing officer, and he launched Stryx’s video tutorials on YouTube, Instagram TV and TikTok to fill in the gaps.

“Men tend to use body wash or soap on their face, and there’s a lot of education that needs to be done,” Shanahan said.

Palawat recently tried experimenting with foundation and eyeliner. Though makeup is accepted in the LGBTQ+ community, Palawat felt held back.

“I was never socialized or forced to use makeup by society,” they said. “It’s like a process of unlearning and learning … As daunting and slow as it’s been for me, it’s also really empowering.”

Yu said he supports others who are curious to give makeup a shot as a method of self-care. Since he first wrote about his experience, he’s had other men, including family members, reach out to him for advice.

“Everyone wants to like who they see when they look in the mirror,” he said. “It was this admission at a time when I was feeling really low that you can spend time on yourself and if you don’t like things, you can change it.”