Revlon: makeup icon falls to social media rivals

The US cosmetics firm has filed for bankruptcy, unable to keep up with online competition and celebrity-led brands

The end of the pandemic was supposed to usher in another “roaring 20s”, with bumper makeup sales as wearing lipstick became a “symbol of returning to life”. But the party is over for one of the most storied names of the makeup business, after Revlon collapsed under the weight of its debts.

It is a story of social media star power trumping old-school glamour in today’s beauty industry.

This week Revlon filed for bankruptcy protection in the US, a legal process that enables the ailing company to continue trading while it figures out how to repay its substantial debts. It is a fall from grace for the 90-year-old beauty icon, which invented matching lipstick and nail polish, and set the pace in beauty halls during much of the 20th century.

During its heyday, Revlon was second only to Avon in sales, but in a sign of its ailing fortunes, the company has now fallen outside the top 20, according to a recent industry poll, as sales shift from beauty halls to the web, and celebrity brands such as Kylie Jenner-backed Kylie Cosmetics – with its near-26 million Instagram followers – and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty are hailed as the new taste-makers.

Revlon’s financial crisis is “not entirely surprising”, says Samantha Dover, the category director of beauty and personal care research at Mintel. “We’ve seen from our data that the recovery from Covid-19 in colour cosmetics has been quite slow. Sales recovered a bit in 2021, but by nowhere near as much as a lot of brands hoped for.”

Due to the pandemic, women have become accustomed to using and buying makeup less frequently, with cosmetics sales in the UK still below pre-pandemic levels, according to Mintel. In the year to April 2020, 44% of women bought a lipstick for themselves, but in 2021 that figure dropped to 30%. It is back up at about 33% today, but Dover says this shows “how demand has dropped and not really come back yet”.

The shift to home working and mandatory masks encouraged many women to neglect or ditch their makeup bag altogether, while the closure of department store beauty halls sent shoppers to the internet, a habit that has stuck. About a fifth of British women now buy their makeup online, a figure that jumps to 52% for 16-24-year-olds.

“Online is putting real pressure on legacy brands,” says Dover. “New brands are launching all the time, and because of social media they are much more visible. You can compare prices, research products and check reviews; it is more challenging and competitive than it has ever been before.”

With more women taking their fashion cues from social media sites rather than glossy magazines, the big makeup trend is less obvious than in the days when Revlon’s glamorous red pout held sway. “Everybody isn’t contouring [a hard-to-do blending technique popularised by Kim Kardashian] or going for the ‘no-makeup makeup’ look,” says Dover. “They are somewhere on the spectrum.”

Founded in 1933, Revlon is one of the industry’s most famous names. It was started by Charles Revson, his brother Joseph and a chemist, Charles Lachman, who contributed the L in the name. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, they started with a single product, a nail polish. Using a blended pigment formula, it was the first red nail varnish at a time when the only shades available were pale and sheer.

Named Cherries in the Snow, it was inspired by the scarlet-lipped Hollywood starlets of their day, and is still on sale today. Lipstick became the firm’s next big item in 1940 after Charles Revson noticed a woman in a restaurant whose lips and nail polish did not match. The subsequent advertising campaign promised women “matching lips and fingertips”.

Cindy Crawford
Cindy Crawford at the second annual Revlon Unforgettable Women Contest in 1990 at the Metropolitan Museum of the Art in New York City. Photograph: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

It has clocked up many firsts since, including being the first beauty company to feature a black model, Naomi Sims, in its advertising in 1970. It also made a big splash in the 1980s with a supermodel campaign featuring the likes of Iman, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington, which promised to make women “unforgettable”.

Since the late 1980s, the company, which is listed on the New York stock exchange, has been controlled by the billionaire investor Ron Perelman. In 2016 it bought Elizabeth Arden for about £600m in a move that added anti-ageing creams and celebrity fragrances to a company known for selling makeup and hair dye.

However Lia Neophytou, a senior consumer analyst at GlobalData, says its fragrance range mainly comprises “once iconic but now tired” brands, pointing to offerings from pop stars such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

The brand, with its £7 lipsticks and £9 eyeshadows, is also struggling as agile rivals reach their young audience on social media rather than via the shelves of high street stores. “Revlon should have focused more of its marketing efforts on TikTok to capture impulse spending from shoppers,” suggests Neophytou.

Debra Perelman
Revlon’s CEO, Debra Perelman, has been in charge since 2018. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Like other companies, Revlon, with annual sales of $2bn (£1.6bn), has also suffered from ingredient shortages and steep price rises linked to creaking global supply chains. Debra Perelman – the owner’s daughter, who has been running the company since 2018 – insisted that “consumer demand for our products remains strong”. “People love our brands and we continue to have a healthy market position,” she said.

Revlon only narrowly avoided bankruptcy last year and has a $3.3bn debt pile to tackle. One way out would be a sale, and on Friday the Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries – which is also in the running to buy Boots – was linked to a possible bid.

Analysts say lipstick sales thrive in difficult economic times as small luxuries become a way for cash-strapped consumers to treat themselves – an idea captured by the so-called “lipstick index”. But there was no post-Covid “roaring 20s” revival for Revlon – an upturn predicted by rival L’Oréal – and it is perhaps a long shot to think a recession will make its lipsticks more desirable.


Zoe Wood Consumer affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Revlon to buy Elizabeth Arden
Elizabeth Arden is known for luxury skincare products, especially anti-ageing ranges, while Revlon is stronger in hair colour

Julia Kollewe

17, Jun, 2016 @9:40 AM

Article image
Beauty: essential makeup sticks
With a small handful of good sticks, I need no longer carry brushes that emerge from my handbag covered in fluff

Sali Hughes

20, Feb, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The best autumn makeup, whatever the season holds | Sali Hughes
Ringing the changes might seem pointless right now, but a slash of fresh colour can be cheering, even at home

Sali Hughes

19, Sep, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The 30 best bargain makeup, nail and hair products under £15
In a crowded market, the Guardian’s beauty editor picks her most reliable budget buys

Sali Hughes

16, Mar, 2019 @7:00 AM

'As vices go, lipstick is pretty harmless'
Jess Cartner-Morley on the joys of make-up.

Jess Cartner-Morley

12, Feb, 2002 @11:24 AM

Article image
Emma Soames on fashion and style for the older generation

Emma Soames: Advanced Style chronicles the style of the chicest, wackiest and best dressed of America's older generation

Emma Soames

01, Jun, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Christmas makeup: how selfie tech could help you try before you buy from home
There might not be much cause to celebrate but a splash of lockdown lippy could make you feel back in the game

Sali Hughes

18, Dec, 2020 @4:04 PM

Article image
Video, Alexsandra Byrne's guide to makeup: Applying lipstick

In the first of a monthly series of online tutorials, professional make-up artist Alex Byrne reveals her favourite techniques. This month: the art of applying red lipstick

Jim Powell, Katherine Rose, Jo Jones and Helen Seamons

02, Jan, 2010 @3:34 PM

Article image
Beauty: Hollywood red lipstick

'It's sexy and glamorous but smart, powerful and age-appropriate on everyone but the very young,' says Sali Hughes

Sali Hughes

26, Oct, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
The perfect nude lipstick | Sali Hughes
The shade has been given an overdue update

Sali Hughes

09, Nov, 2019 @8:01 AM