Black innovators who changed the beauty game

Jasmine Wicks Stephens
You can’t look back at history – of the UK or the US – without looking at black history. For decades black women (and men, as you’ll see below) have created their own products and spaces, either from necessity or pure inventiveness. Here beauty writer and podcast host Charisse Kenion looks back at some of the greatest innovators of our time.

Pat McGrath

It would be a huge oversight not to include Pat McGrath. If you’re even remotely interested in makeup, you may well know that Pat is the most influential makeup artist in the world and is the one that Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Prada, etc, will have on speed dial when it comes to the international fashion weeks – because no-one applies the same attention to detail that makeup deserves, as Pat. Her catwalk moments are so inspired and so well-researched that they dictate the trends that we love to play with on our faces, and it’s this approach that made launching her own brand a no-brainer.

But, as well as creating her own brand in 2015, Pat is the one who created 2002’s cult product, DiorShow Mascara – my personal fave when it comes to creating super black, super thick lashes. She also developed Giorgio Armani’s luxurious line – as well as Dolce and Gabbana’s and Gucci’s – and also oversees Covergirl and Max Factor. Phew.
The initial product from her eponymous line – a gold paint called Gold 001, that could be used all over – became the first in a (very) long line of cult products that makeup fans the world over would clamour to buy. I believe her reign will continue for many decades to come.


Let’s be real; black and brown women simply were not part of the conversation when it came to makeup in the 1990s – or the decades leading up to that ground-breaking time. But that doesn’t mean that black women weren’t using makeup and passing on tips and products to their friends and family members. Although I would occasionally see a brown face on the cover of a magazine, I have read many more accounts of black models doing their own makeup for these shoots and pretty much being ignored on set, until it was time for them to stand in front of the camera. (Sadly this still occurs today, particularly in the hair world, but that’s a whole other story).

Born in Somalia, Iman was one of the first black supermodels and she wanted to see a change in the industry. In 1994, after two decades of modelling, she launched Iman Cosmetics, aimed at providing colour options for not only black women, but also Latina and Asian women. The brand recognised that, despite black, Asian and Latina women having obviously different skin colours, there would often be overlapping when it came to underlying tones; for instance, a black woman with dark skin could have yellow undertones that might also be seen in a light-skinned Asian woman. The brand still exists today, and the oil-free Second to None Stick Foundation is said to be the hero product.

Anthony Overton

Back in 1898 there was even less access to makeup for black women; after all, they were rarely seen in department stores, let alone sold to. A lawyer with a Chemistry degree named Anthony Overton, owner of Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Co in Kansas, started turning the baking soda and other ingredients he produced into colour products. His ‘high brown’ face powder was a huge success, selling in the US as well as Egypt and Liberia and by 1912 his company was producing more than 50 products. Not only did he pave the way for makeup for women of colour, his approach was from a safety aspect, ensuring that no harmful ingredients were used.

Fashion Fair

Johnson Publishing, creator of Ebony magazine – one of the most enduring black magazines until May 2019 – created the Fashion Fair makeup brand out of necessity. Since its launch in 1945, the magazine was hugely popular and would often host fashion shows but CEO John H. Johnson and his wife Eunice, frequently encountered issues when it came to finding makeup for the models.

Apparently the founders approached various beauty brands, including Revlon, asking them to extend their existing shade range, but the request fell on deaf ears. They decided they would create their own range, and in 1973, Fashion Fair Cosmetics was born. The duo was also determined that the range would be sold in high end American department stores, including Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales, and by the late 1980s Fashion Fair was available in over 1,500 stores.

Rihanna: Fenty Beauty

It might have emerged just a couple of years ago but in the past decade no-one has changed the beauty space quite like Rihanna. It’s easy to minimise her affect – so she created 40 foundation shades, big deal – but it was definitely a major deal for people who felt unseen by the beauty world. It was clear that time and attention had been paid to building a range that promised to cater to the palest hues, the yellow and ivory undertones and the darkest shades, both warm and cool.

Within months of Fenty Beauty launching, every other brand was promoting their ‘fuller’ ranges on Instagram, some saying they’d always had a ton of options while others promised that an ‘expanded range’ was ‘on the way’. To say that the beauty industry was shook would be an understatement. In fact, let’s just say that the beauty industry woke up to realising that there were even more profits to be made – because black women wear makeup too.

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