Q&A: Supermodel Iman On How The Beauty Business Gets It Wrong

When legendary model Iman launched her eponymous cosmetics line in 1994, she never dreamed that eighteen years later, dark-skinned women would still be struggling to find makeup shades to match their skin tones (hello, where are all of the brown BB Creams?). But that’s just one of the things that’s bugging her about the state of the beauty industry today.

Why did you create Iman Cosmetics?
For years I could not find products for myself for photo shoots or for the runway. So I was always mixing and matching at home. I knew what I was looking for and that there was a need—whenever I traveled, the first question women asked me was ‘Where do you buy your foundation?,’ so I started Iman Cosmetics.

You went off on a bunch of beauty execs at the WWD Summit—what was that about?
I was the last guest speaker that evening and I was asked to talk about my business and my wishes and dreams. There were a few things that were very important for me to impart to the CEOs and the mass retailers who were there because many of them carry my products. I wanted to make it clear that I am frustrated. Mass market has this weird mentality about separating what is called ‘general market’ and makeup for women of color. The ‘women of color’ products are grouped together toward the end of the aisle. And then if [the mass retailer] has, let’s say, 1000 beauty doors, only 200 are allocated for women of color. How do you determine a store to be where a woman of color shops? If she’s coming to shop at your pharmacy and you put makeup for her in those stores, she will also buy it. When we buy fashion, no one says, ‘That’s the section for women of color.’ Who came up with this idea? When I wanted to do a liquid foundation, the retailers told me that black women don’t buy liquid foundation—they said they had problems with every brand that tried. I told them I’m not every brand. Within two months of launching my liquid foundation, it became the number one product in my line. But still, women can’t find it.

So, you have products that women are clamoring for, but the powers that be are holding you back from delivering them?
Exactly. There’s a rush to go to Asia for growth, but for us, growth exists right here at home. I consistently have women saying they can’t find my products in stores where they live. And I’ve been told by retailers that black women don’t shop online. They said, ‘We can’t put your whole line on the website.’ I said, ‘Just test it.’ It became the #2 brand on Walgreens.com—they were clueless. So while all these companies rush to Asia, we’re trying to grow right here at home. But there’s a glass ceiling. That mindset is belittling the customer and not servicing her. That’s a major frustration.

How would you like to see products displayed in drugstores?
Stop putting products for women with skin of color at the end of the aisle. Mix it all together. And understand what the customer is looking for. What are the products she’s talking about? Get those products in your store. I hear all these women on Twitter, Facebook, and our website talking about how they love Dr. Miracles hair care. So why isn’t it in more doors?

How do you stay connected to your own customers?
We have Twitter, Facebook and we give samples on our website. There is not a question that is not answered online. We answer everything that comes through.

When you started your line, did you think you would have more competition in 2012 than there actually is?
I thought there would be more lines out there, definitely. I thought at least a makeup artist line. You remember a couple of years ago—I call everything a couple of years ago—there was a resurgence of makeup artists lines. But the days when you can have a small company are gone. Nowadays if you ask for money, they don’t ask how many doors you are in but they ask how many Twitter followers you have. If you don’t have 300,000 followers…That’s the new world. I don’t know why people think that would translate into money. Because that means everyone who has a Twitter following can start a business. Suppose half of your Twitter followers are men who just want to look how you look. They’re not buying anything. They’re not the shoppers. I don’t need a fan. What I need is a customer. I need somebody I can service. I don’t need a man to look at my pictures. The collecting of friends and fans—what is that gonna do? There’s a difference between somebody who wants to play the fame game and somebody who wants to be a business person. I’m a business person. I don’t play the fame game. I’ve been playing myself for so long that it doesn’t matter to me. In whatever I do now, ultimately, I will not be remembered as a model. My legacy will be that I created Iman Cosmetics. I want that to be as strong as it could ever be.

Are women of color, particularly those with dark skin tones, less ignored by the beauty industry today, or is it the same as it was ten years ago?
I think fashion magazines have made strides. They feature more [models with] dark skin in magazines than they have ever before, but when it comes to the beauty industry, it’s definitely less. The darkest foundation shades on the general market don’t cut it. My mother, my two sisters, my daughter, and me, we’re all different shades. That’s the difference between what I do and what big companies do. My line has 16 to 18 shades created specifically for these women. 75% of my business is in foundation. No other company, including Estée Lauder, MAC and Bobbi Brown, can tell you that. That means that I have a loyal customer. When a woman likes a foundation color, she will buy it again. Those trendy makeup colors—you can find them for 99-cents. But foundation is a totally different ball game. Yes, I’m very surprised that there aren’t more companies catering to women of color, but I think smaller companies who would like to, feel like they can’t play with the big boys. They’re not invited to the sandbox. But entrepreneurs should not be discouraged. You’re not gonna be MAC overnight—longevity takes resilience and it takes keeping your eye on the ball.

What do you hope the beauty industry will be like in 10 years?
I hope a new generation of young girls do not see this invisible color line that exists now. I hope they will be able to get something that is suitable for them from any store they walk into. My line isn’t just for black women, it’s for women with skin of color. When we say black, it doesn’t just mean African-Americans, it means Africans, Asians, Maylaysians, Puerto Ricans, Latinas …I’m interested in a new language for beauty about a skin tone, rather than ethnic background. I still struggle with that, but I have to pick my battles. But the battle I’m concentrating on now is getting cosmetics to women of color. If there’s a store with makeup, it should be in there. Nobody says there are too many products for Cauasian women. But with us, they say, ‘Don’t you think there are enough products out there for women of color?’

 And that, my friends, is exactly why I never get tired of talking to Iman. You gotta love a supermodel who speaks her mind. What are your gripes about the beauty biz? Do tell!

Photo: Courtesy of Iman