Charlotte Tilbury is in my living room. There she is, by my sofa, blowing me a kiss (Pillow Talk lining her lips, of course). Then, I blink, and she’s over by the television, one hand on her hip, smiling as if I’m about to take her picture.
It’s all very fun having her here and all, but she’s not much use. So with a quick swipe, I switch to wandering around one of her rose-gold shops, uncapping lipsticks and watching her advisers apply their recommended products. I decide to try on a champagne-gold eyeshadow, with a peachy nude lip. It doesn’t work so, in a flash, it’s wiped off and replaced with a chocolate smoky eye so perfect I want to step out of my living room, pop on a nice dress and head out dancing.
But then, it’s gone. I close down my phone and I’m back in my living room, alone, with a bare face and empty hands. Such is the power of beauty tech today that I was able to do an entire virtual shopping experience from my smartphone. I didn’t need an app, a headset or an in-depth tutorial from an IT expert to do so. I just opened my phone and scanned a QR code. Genius, right? Well, it’s just the beginning…
Battle of the brands
The world’s tech brains have certainly been busy lately. While we were in lockdown doing jigsaws, they were innovating the next big developments in the metaverse, the growth of blockchain technology and even machine learning (yep, really). And the beauty industry has been listening, figuring out how to bring this technology to its customers.
L’Oréal was one of the first to step into the space when, in 2018, it acquired tech company ModiFace – which is behind some of the beauty industry’s most realistic augmented-reality (AR) try-on tech (which allows users to try out the coolest new beauty products via their smartphones).
Not wanting to be left behind, most other beauty heavyweights have followed suit with their own futuristic launches: Estée Lauder has rolled out AR try-on across its entire portfolio, Shiseido unveiled its first ever digital make-up adviser powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and Charlotte Tilbury dived into the metaverse with the aforementioned virtual store and avatar of the brand’s founder.
And it’s not just brands: from TikTok shoppable live streams to AI beauty influencers, who we follow and why has been hugely influenced by this fast-evolving tech. The simple act of buying a new lippie suddenly feels more like stepping into a sci-fi film than popping down to the local shop.
But what does this mean for us beauty lovers? I’ve worked in the industry for over a decade now, starting with weekend shifts on a make-up counter in Boots before venturing into beauty journalism. Throughout the years, I’ve been excited by any concept that has the potential to challenge brands to get creative and broaden access to a more diverse range of consumers.
But, I must confess, something about the exponential growth of tech across the industry over the past few years has felt a little daunting. Perhaps it’s the speed. Without wanting to sound completely clueless, it feels like my millennial brain has only just figured out TikTok, and now my go-to brands, such as Clinique and Nars, are launching NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and sprinting into the metaverse at full speed.
We’ve never seen a tech boom quite like this in beauty before, but is all this development really driving our community forwards and expanding what it means to love skincare, make-up or fragrance? Is it truly an inclusive space for all? Or is it breaking us apart into those who can ‘do tech’ and those who can’t or… won’t?
And what does it mean for the humble beauty hall? The hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt now has over 15 billion views, and as the popularity of shoppable lives grows at an exponential rate, could this be the final nail in the high street’s coffin? In short, is the beauty world we know and love over?
To the uninitiated, the small black compact, emblazoned with the YSL logo in gold, could simply be a chic face powder. But attach it to a special app-controlled device and, at the press of a button, it will fill with a bespoke lipstick, created just for you. Yep, you read that right.
The Rouge Sur Mesure device (£250) is the first ever ‘lipstick printer’. Using AI tech, the at-home device can produce thousands of different lipstick shades in seconds. Oh, and the best bit? It can even tailor lip colours to match the wearer’s skin tone or outfit. Pure genius, if you ask me.
Technology isn’t just influencing how we shop, but also what we buy. Former beauty trend forecaster Jessica Smith, who now works as a brand consultant specialising in wellness and beauty, thinks that as our tech capabilities grow, so will our demand for efficiency.
‘I think we’ll see the rise of multifunctional beauty, with brands offering hybrid tools for optimal effectiveness. For example, the Venus Pro from China-based company Jovs is a hair-removal device that doubles as an LED anti-ageing tool,’ she explains. Meaning that our beauty tools could become like a trusty three-in-one face cream, doing the work of many but in half the time.
And the breakthroughs just keep coming. We’ve already seen La Roche-Posay launch a first-of-its-kind wearable UV sensor that tracks UVA and UVB ray exposure on a corresponding app. And, alongside the lipstick printer, YSL is also planning to roll out a ‘Scent-Sation’ experience in stores.
With a leading neurotech company, the brand will use a multi-sensor headset that tracks the wearer’s emotional responses to different scent families. It then analyses these feelings to make personal fragrance recommendations – so we can forget spritzing a hundred different perfumes on paper blotters in the hopes of finding ‘the one’. Now, a machine will be able to tell us what scent we like, way better than our noses ever could apparently.
But while all of these breakthroughs sound incredible for the consumer, when I asked beauty futurist Alex Box what she thought the next big tech breakthrough might bring to beauty, it wasn’t a new smart serum or a magical at-home foundation mixer, but something way bigger.
‘The most exciting development in beauty tech, for me, is 3D-printed skin-tissue engineering,’ she says. This would be a huge step forwards for the way our beauty products are made and developed.
While animal testing for cosmetics is thankfully banned in the UK, this could finally see long-overdue change in countries where it’s sadly still legal. ‘It will enable companies to replace testing and experimenting on animals by carrying out their product testing on lab-produced human epidermis.’
Beauty hall dropout
While these developments are undoubtedly incredible, what does it mean for the everyday consumer? For those of us who love a good old-fashioned wander around a beauty hall; who actually enjoy swatching lipsticks and making mistakes until we find the shade that suits us?
With The Business of Fashion recently reporting that ‘TikTok killed the beauty YouTuber’ and 37% of you telling us in a recent poll that you now purchase your beauty products straight from social media. Are we witnessing the slow-motion demise of the familiar industry as we know it?
If there’s one person who knows the UK beauty industry better than anyone, it’s Millie Kendall OBE. Not only is she CEO of the British Beauty Council, she’s also co-founder of a beauty communications agency and formerly one half of my favourite 1990s make-up brand, Ruby & Millie.
‘I think we will move to a more virtual existence, but I don’t think shops will become obsolete, they will just change their reason for being,’ she explains. ‘I think both social selling and the potential of the metaverse are opportunities to shop in an alternative manner, and beauty retailers need to adopt these platforms and methods.’
Moral of the story? As a beauty brand, it seems you can’t just plod along doing the same old thing – no one wants to be the next Debenhams…
That said, Kendall doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of the high street, and I for one am relieved. We’ve grown up wandering the aisles of beauty halls, swatching the questionable-looking testers and misting far too many perfumes over our wrists until our noses sting and our eyes water.
I can’t imagine a world (real or virtual) where none of that exists any more. Kendall uses digital fashion and beauty retailer Farfetch as an example of hope. The brand acquired luxury London boutique Browns in 2015 and has championed its growth ever since.
‘Farfetch has proven with Browns that the consumer still requires IRL experiences,’ says Kendall. ‘They offer both a physical store and online shopping, yet the consumer is still keen to visit the central London shop, which is less about purchasing there and then, and more about experiencing the products in a curated environment.’
Add to that the sheer volume of physical beauty stores we’ve seen pop up over the past year – even some of our favourite digital giants such as Glossier and Beauty Pie have been getting involved in the action. It seems we still want to touch, smell, swatch and blend products in the real world. ‘These stores are more engaging, sensorial and memorable than traditional beauty halls and high-street shops – and so many of them will work symbiotically with digital and metaverse experiences, too,’ says Abi Buller, foresight analyst at The Future Laboratory.
Dr Box agrees that there’s still hope for bricks-and-mortar beauty stores, despite the industry’s rising obsession with all things tech. For starters, the metaverse will ‘support the physical, not replace it’, she explains. Sure, we may end up trying on Pat McGrath’s new lipstick digitally first, but this will draw us to the physical store, where we can get our hands on it in real life and have a play. ‘Beauty halls and stores will become more like concept car showrooms and hang-outs, unique bespoke experiences where you get rewarded for being there physically.’
Inclusive or exclusive?
One of the first things that sprung to my mind upon looking into the beauty-tech boom was how the hell am I going to afford to buy all the gear I need?
Decent virtual reality (VR) headsets start at around £300 and, as obsessed as I am with the at-home lipstick printer, it’s not exactly budget-friendly. Once you’ve forked out £250 for the device, each cartridge set costs £60. And let’s not forget the cost of a smartphone itself, or a laptop, and the data package or healthy wifi connection you need.
It all adds up, and all while the cost of living is worryingly high. So while the digitisation of beauty might mean more accessibility in terms of being able to shop from your own home, I worry it will create a wealth divide. After all, it’s going to be a lot harder to ‘dupe’ tech than it is a designer eyeshadow palette.
When I raised my concerns with Dr Box, she made a good point – that as demand for accessibility to better tech goes mainstream, it’ll drive down the cost overall. ‘As smartphone and cloud computing become ubiquitous, it will make tech more accessible and reduce the cost of hardware to the consumer.’
She went on to explain that, yes, it’s likely we won’t be able to afford some of the slickest VR bodysuits any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have access to them – in fact, gaining access to high-level technology could be another ray of hope for our struggling high street. ‘I predict that in-store customers will be able to access more expensive immersive hardware, such as VR/AR glasses and full-body immersion, in the same way a video arcade takes home gaming to another level,’ says Dr Box.
When it comes to boundary-pushing products, the latest tech may come with a price tag, but it means the once off-limits devices that were confined to a brand’s research and development lab are now being brought to the hands of beauty lovers themselves. ‘High-tech devices were once the preserve of the dermatologist’s office or medical spas. The rise of tech has democratised the market, making this sophisticated tech more accessible for at-home use,’ says Smith.
Despite my initial doubts over the rise of tech across beauty, after spending time pouring over the virtual world (as well as chatting with experts in the real one), I do believe that the advances will push us to experiment more. It’s so much easier to try on Julia Fox’s intense cat-eye virtually and then, once we know it suits us, invest in the products (and time) it takes to recreate it.
As the realms of possibility expand, so can our creativity and knowledge of beauty. I was reminded of something Dr Box said, ‘The beauty industry has been creating narrative and connection through product and identity for years, and this next step into immersive identity as experience is incredibly exciting.’
Of course, there’s a pinch of salt needed when it comes to how we interact with all this new tech – you don’t need every product that TikToker is trying to flog in their live stream to get good skin, and you don’t need to rush into the metaverse to stay up to date with your favourite beauty brands. But if you do fancy dipping your toe in, you may leave feeling a little more inspired than when you arrived. But remember, a Sunday afternoon wander around your local Boots can be just as fun.
Tech jargon buster
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Pls explain? Artificial intelligence is intelligence demonstrated by a computer or machine – as opposed to the natural intelligence displayed by humans. This could translate to a virtual shop assistant, for example.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Pls explain? AR is an interactive experience that augments your surroundings by adding digital elements to a live view, often by using the camera on your phone. This could be the make-up ‘try-on’ tech we’re starting to see.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Pls explain? Virtual reality is an immersive computer-generated environment that replaces a real-life environment with a simulated one, making the user feel completely immersed in their surroundings.
Pls explain? Okay, this is a biggie. Most experts describe the metaverse as the internet, but in 3D. It’s an integrated network of 3D virtual worlds that you can enter and experience (usually by putting on a VR headset).
Pls explain? An NFT – non-fungible token – is a digital asset that represents a real-world or digital object. It could represent any unique asset, such as a piece of art, avatar or digital content.