After shock bankruptcy of iconic brand once worth £2.2 billion… How did Revlon come unstuck?
How many women like me, who grew up in the 1950s, can remember our mothers applying their matching Revlon lipstick and nail polish at their dressing tables?
Lips and tips were the order of the day – or at least in the Revlon era – when any woman who craved a touch of glamor in gloomy post-war Britain knew it could be found through her lipstick and nails in the The brand’s famous Revlon Fire Red before lunch in a small mink stole and hat.
My mom, like most of her generation, loved her Revlon powder compact and bright red shimmery lipstick in the gold box, kept them for years, and I found many in her dressing table when I was clearing out her things after she died.
A 1940s Revlon ad featuring a bright red shimmery lipstick for ‘smart women everywhere’
An ad for ‘Snow Peach’ in the 1950s shows a woman in a low-cut dress with several peaches on hand
Dorian Leigh pictured for the launch of Revlon’s lipstick shade Fire & Ice in 1952
In the 1950s, every self-respecting woman patted a thick layer of powder next to a fresh coat of red lipstick before going out the front door. It was the days of the ‘Mad Men’ advertising, when the most beautiful women in the world were photographed by top photographers such as Richard Avedon to sell a post-war glamor to the housewives and secretaries who were Revlon customers.
Revlon also supplied the baby-pink lipstick and polish that we young people wore because they thought we looked like beautiful American teenagers, sitting in our friend’s open-top sports cars with our hair blowing in the wind.
Not that Revlon, which announced it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week with £2.67 billion in debt after battling supply chain issues and not competing with celebrity-backed brands and social media savvy upstarts just to makeup went.
A 1970s Revlon ad showed a large close-up of a pair of lips with ‘wet’ and ‘glossy’ red lipstick on
In the early 1970s, the perfume we all wanted to wear was Charlie, the lifestyle fragrance named after Revlon co-founder Charles Revson.
The perfume was sympathetic and the memorable Charlie logo was on all our dressing tables. Charlie was about lifestyle and the ad reflected the mood of the moment, with ads full of beautiful, American women, including Lauren Hutton, Sharon Stone and Cindy Crawford, all receiving breathtaking payouts.
But the campaigns were also daringly innovative. Revlon had the first black model, Naomi Sims, to appear in a beauty campaign. And in another first, the models wore Ralph Lauren pantsuits. Even the jingles were groundbreaking, sung by Bobby Short, Mel Torme and later by Little Richard.
Young working women, including me and my friends, were seen as the target audience and we too wanted to look confident, with great hair and beautiful teeth. Even Oprah Winfrey claimed wearing Charlie gave her confidence, saying on her 2007 talk show that she wanted to be “confident and fabulous.” † † like the Charlie girl.’
A Revlon ad from the 1980s featured models: Tatjana Patitz, Iman, Talisa Soto, and Jerry Hall
Supermodel Cindy Crwaford was Revlon’s poster girl for their ‘Charlie’ perfume in the 1990s
Charlie certainly inspired a generation of “new women,” but it had finally had its day, knocked off by edgier brands like Dior’s Poison and Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Unfortunately, Charlie can now usually be found as a grocery store special offer.
When Charles Revson and his brother Joseph founded Revlon in the early 1930s, it was the middle of the Great Depression and the brothers started their brand with a unique nail polish that brought color and fun to a depressed market. In 1938 it was a multimillion-dollar company and by the end of World War II it was number two in the US
Not only did they own their own ubiquitous brand of glamour, they bought up rivals such as Elizabeth Arden – the Queen’s long-term favorite – Almay and Cutex, as well as celebrity perfumes, with the latest including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
But the market changed and despite changing hands for £2.2 billion in 1985, Revlon couldn’t keep up.
Department stores have always been a big part of their business in major cities around the world, but many have closed. And the new world of social media, influencers and online selling was not part of their know-how.
A UK Revlon ad from the 2000s portrayed both Julianne Moore and Halle Berry for a new makeup line
An ad from the 2010 British Revlon magazine featured American actress Emma Stone
The dawn of the Instagram era has seen a total sea change in the beauty market. And instead of following the old adage “adapt to survive,” Revlon has stubbornly stayed the same — fossilized in the process.
As Karen Davis, industry expert and founder of TOYL, the beauty box for women over 40, told me, “I grew up with Revlon. It was glamorous, exciting and something we wanted to be a part of.
“However, the beauty industry has become host to a whole host of new brands that are more agile and able to adapt to trends and niche markets. Ultimately, the consumer votes with his money.’
Instead of Max Factor or Elizabeth Arden, some of the biggest names in beauty are now Kylie Jenner (Kim Kardashian’s younger half-sister) and singer Rihanna, as makeup is as much about personality as it is product. The ones that do the best are the ones with the largest — and most creative — online presence.
Kylie Jenner’s lip kits helped her generate over £40 million in the past fiscal year
Within three years of launching her Kylie Cosmetics brand in 2015, Jenner — still just 24 — had founded a multi-billion dollar company by pushing her wares to eager teens and twenties on Snapchat and Instagram, where she has 349 million followers (compared to Revlon’s meager 2.9 million).
Her lip kits — which she caps by modeling them on her own famously enhanced pout, and sharing videos of herself smoothing and pouting — sell out within ten minutes of going on sale. By contrast, Revlon’s never-changing ads, all static red lips and red nails, look like a relic of the past.
And it’s not just young people who can find makeup success by moving online.
Just look at 58-year-old Trinny Woodall, who has built a £180 million beauty empire in just five years with Trinny London.
While other brands slumped during the pandemic, it grew 280 percent and spent more than £44 million in the past financial year. Her secret? Rather than relying on her clients pacing the beauty counters, she took the counter to them, offered online consultations and posted almost daily videos of herself using the products.
Customers licked them up, and its success offers Revlon a wholesome lesson about the importance of moving with the times.
The world belongs to Charlie, a 1978 ad said. But as Revlon has learned at his price, the world now belongs to Kylie.
And a small part of women’s lives can be relegated from the beauty salon to the history books.