Loyal customers are shedding tears over the sudden scarcity of Fashion Fair cosmetics. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The angry rumblings and confused lamentations are all over social media. They’re coming from diehard customers of Fashion Fair cosmetics, a brand founded in 1973 to cater to African American women at a time when major makeup companies essentially ignored them.

Where is the Bronze Loose Powder? Where’s the Perfect Finish Souffle Makeup? What about the Brown Sugar Foundation Stick?

Customers who rely on Fashion Fair for exact skin tone matches and perfectly flattering lipsticks have been unable to locate their favorite products — or any products at all. In stores and online, they’re finding color selections so skimpy and stock so depleted there has been little for sales representatives to even sell. Even counter clerks have been asking: What’s going on?

Fashion Fair’s response has been, for many loyalists, deeply unsatisfying.

“Thank you for your patience as we rebuild our inventories.”

“We acknowledge that stock has been low in previous months; however, the replenishment process [is] underway!”

“Are they going out of business?” asks longtime customer Allana Smith.

“No,” says Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Co., which owns the makeup line. “We’re not going out of business.”

But Fashion Fair is in upheaval — and customers have good reason to question its survival.

Breaking ground

Beauty products are not essentials. But in those little bottles and jars are fragments of a social contract, elixirs of reassurance, drops of pure pleasure — and in the case of Fashion Fair, a good bit of proud history.

The brand was launched by Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based company established by John and Eunice Johnson in 1942. For decades, it dominated the black media market with Ebony and Jet magazines. It also created Ebony Fashion Fair — a traveling roadshow of designer frocks and entertainment that rolled cultural uplift, savvy marketing and fundraising into one dazzling stage extravaganza.

Eunice Johnson noticed that the African American models who twirled down her runways were mixing their own foundations because they had trouble finding makeup to match their complexion. She took those homemade concoctions to chemists, and a makeup line was born.

When the brand arrived at retail counters, with its little pink compacts and pink lipstick tubes, it wasn’t just promoting beauty and glamour but also self-esteem and confidence, and it served as a dynamic case study in the potential of black entrepreneurs and black consumers.

Fashion Fair addressed the beauty desires of black women long before Black Opal began touting skin care or MAC cosmetics rolled out its concentrated pigments and marketing campaigns that embraced everyone from the black girl-next-door to drag queens. Fashion Fair came well before Estée Lauder and Clinique discovered the righteous potential in expanding their color palettes and diversifying their advertising.

It remains the only major department store cosmetics brand catering specifically to black women. It is still fully owned and operated by Johnson Publishing. And the name still resonates.

“As a child, my parents used to purchase Ebony and Jet. The models were stunning,” recalls Allana Smith, who grew up in Brooklyn. “As a 16-year-old kid, I remember thinking, ‘I want to look like that when I grow up.’ ”

Now 41 and still living in Brooklyn, Smith has been using Fashion Fair products for 15 years. She receives regular compliments on her skin. People can’t even tell she’s wearing makeup, Smith says.

So all she wants to know is this: Where can I get my Oil-Free Perfect Finish Cream-to-Powder foundation in Moka Moka? Where?

She made the rounds of her local Macy’s this year and came up empty-handed. At Brooklyn’s Fulton Street store, she asked the sales staff to recommend another Fashion Fair color — a near-match to suffice until her shade was available. But they had nothing; they told Smith they hadn’t had a delivery from Fashion Fair in nearly a year.

“Our buyers and senior managers are on it,” says Macy’s spokesperson Elina Kazan. The department store has carried Fashion Fair for more than 30 years. “We’ve been in constant communication with Fashion Fair about when we’ll be in receipt of goods.”

When might that be? “We are waiting,” Kazan says, after a lengthy pause. “As soon as we get it, we’ll put it out there for customers.”

A changing market

On a recent October morning, Fashion Fair’s valuable real estate at the Metro Center Macy’s was deserted. There were a few boxes of foundation on the glass shelves. A couple dozen packages of eye shadow were stored inside a glass-front case. Two makeup brushes were propped in a glass beaker on a lonely display table — part of a special promotion that seemed more of an afterthought. The shelves had a pre-snowstorm grocery store look of scarcity.

Interviews with company executives and industry observers suggest that Fashion Fair has been squeezed between cultural shifts in the cosmetics market and business challenges specific to a stand-alone brand.

These are good times for the U.S. prestige beauty market, which was worth $11.2 billion in 2014 — a 3 percent bump from 2013, driven by sales of skin-care potions and lip color, according to the NPD Group.

But Fashion Fair is a modest player in an industry dominated by major corporations: Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. And unlike the others, it’s a subsidiary of a troubled media company. Ebony is losing advertisers; the print edition of Jet closed in 2014. Johnson Publishing has put its historic photo archive up for sale; it has already sold its South Michigan Avenue headquarters.

Johnson Publishing chief executive Desiree Rogers, left, with chairman Linda Johnson Rice at the United Negro College Fund’s 66th anniversary dinner in 2010. (Earl Gibson III/Associated Press)

“We’re a small company with capital constraints. It’s not something we’re thrilled about,” says Desiree Rogers, chief executive of Johnson Publishing and a former social secretary in the early years of the Obama White House.

Fashion Fair’s product shortfall built up slowly, Rogers says. But it eventually triggered a self-perpetuating cycle. Once customers realized products were scarce, they started buying in bulk whenever they could find them, which drew down stock even more.

Catching up “is not a quick process,” Rogers says. “We’ve inundated our suppliers. We’ve inundated them with orders . . . [but] I can’t demand they shut down other projects and just do mine.”

Theoretically, these should be advantageous times for Fashion Fair. A recent survey of teenagers by the investment firm Piper Jaffray & Co. found they favor small, independent cosmetics lines over large mega-brands.

But even if Fashion Fair had the capital to take advantage of this trend, “they have to go where the consumer is going,” says Stephanie Wissink, a Piper Jaffray managing director. It was always a point of pride that Fashion Fair was a department store brand, rather than a drugstore one. But today’s younger customers gravitate to multi-brand outlets, such as Sephora and Ulta, where they can experiment with a wide range of makeup without a beauty consultant making a hard sell. And Fashion Fair doesn’t distribute through Sephora or Ulta.

Meanwhile in a “minority majority” culture, Wissink says, black women no longer want or need a separate counter. A host of brands have broadened their color palette to cater to them; a once-ignored customer is now being wooed by many suitors.

Three years ago, Fashion Fair began to reconsider its position in the market. Makeup artist Sam Fine — famous for working with models Iman and Tyra Banks— signed on as creative director, and in January 2013, his first capsule collection was touted to the beauty press. By the fall of that year, however, Fine had moved on to Cover Girl.

In early 2014, Fashion Fair announced that Tia Dantzler, another makeup artist with a celebrated clientele, would take on the role of creative director.

That summer, a group of beauty bloggers and journalists were invited to Fashion Fair’s Chicago headquarters for an unveiling of new products and packaging. They were greeted by the brand’s recently installed president, Amy Hilliard, as well as Rogers. Dantzler was there, too, providing makeovers for the guests.

They “discussed where the brand was going,” recalls makeup artist Courtney Waldon, who lives in Chicago. “I understood it as having a more modern feel. Consumers my age think of it as something their mom or grandmom would wear.”

Waldon, 34, is a fan of MAC and Nars. But she was won over by the silky texture and colors of Fashion Fair’s $25 cream-to-powder foundations.

Terez Baskin, a part-time beauty business writer, liked what she saw that day as well. But she also noticed a problem. “The colors were great. The pigments were good. But all of that has been done before,” Baskin says. The leadership team was especially excited about marketing a mascara for the first time. But they didn’t have any samples to test. They didn’t have the full range of foundation colors available either.

“They were excited about all the newness,” Baskin says. “They gave us a bunch of balloons, but nothing to tie them to.”

A short time later, customer frustration picked up steam on social media.

Moving forward

Rogers says Fashion Fair has been closing some outlets and remodeling others. The company is also redesigning its Web site, which has enjoyed a triple-digit increase in sales, Rogers says. “E-business is a big part of the future,” she says, “especially for women replenishing what they already have.”

Fashion Fair has retired its signature pink packaging and replaced it with metallic bronze. A fresh advertising campaign with new “faces” will launch in 2016 and Fashion Fair’s social media has been dotted with images of actresses such as Tika Sumpter, Raven-Symoné, Ciara and others who might appeal to a younger demographic.

But meanwhile, the empty shelves are testing the patience of retailers such as Macy’s, Dillard’s and Belk. Macy’s worries that frustrations customers have with Fashion Fair will turn into frustration with their stores. Shoppers believe they are watching a historic brand wither — despite the company’s denials.

So they’re looking elsewhere. Avon has a tempting cream-to-powder makeup in deep tones and it’s only about $12.

Rogers says the Fashion Fair transformation is about 75 percent complete. “We know we have to do better, and we will,” she says. “We’re not here to make an excuse but to thank [customers] for their business. The worst is over.”