It would be too easy to hold Gen Z’s gender-fluid zeitgeist responsible for the advent of men’s makeup. Alas, it is not their untouchable Western woke-ness that birthed a personal care market projected to reach $166 billion by 2022. Makeup for men has been around for a long time—Ancient Egyptians dudes enjoyed a smoky eye—and the past 20 years have seen numerous male-specific makeup brands come and (somewhat swiftly) go.
The most premature launch came in the form of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle Tout Beau Tout Propre in the mid-noughties. The range featured a tinted moisturizer, nail varnish and an Emo-looking guyliner that could help the average man replicate Johnny Depp’s dashing look in Pirates of The Caribbean. There were other, comparatively sedate, offerings via Web 1.0, primarily concealers and foundations shipped in discreet packaging to men who wanted to camouflage acne and scarring. Metrosexuality may have reached its peak in 2003, but an unshakable stigma prevented makeup for men from becoming mainstream.
By 2018, the terrain was wildly different. Social media had single handedly destroyed hyperbolic ideas of masculinity and selfie culture ensured we were exhausted by a constant pressure to be camera-ready at any given moment. It was the smartphone camera—not a person or brand—that accelerated men’s concern with their appearance. According to Euromonitor, 56 percent of American men claimed they used a foundation, concealer or BB [beauty balm] cream at least once during 2018. It was a startling jump in consumer attitude.
For the most part, cisgender men were simply looking for a way to have good skin and appear less tired in a hyper-competitive workplace. If that can be achieved quickly and easily with a dab of concealer under the eyes, then so be it. One only need look at the inventory spawned by today’s designer brands for proof that makeup for men is still somewhat basic.
Boy de Chanel, which launched in 2018, is comprised of a mattifying toner, moisturizing foundation, a lip balm and a pencil for defining facial hair and brows. The range, like so many others from big fashion houses, doesn’t demand a huge psychological leap from men who already invest in premium skincare. Tom Ford’s grooming range is produced by Estée Lauder and features a bronzing gel, a concealer, a brow definer and gel comb. Marc Jacobs’ bizarrely heteronormative “Boy Tested, Girl Approved” collection follows a very similar format. YSL repackaged its cult concealer, Touche Éclat, in grey and put the word “L’Homme” on it. Regardless of the color of the tube, Touche Éclat is a prime point of entry for those guys looking to dip a toe in the wide world of cosmetics.
Prince, Bowie, Bolan and countless other male rock stars may have opened the door for a generation of genderqueer influencers now dominating YouTube with “full face” makeup tutorials, but the appeal of color and glitter is yet to trickle down to the masses. There is a distinct, albeit pointless, line in the male consumer’s psyche between correcting one’s complexion and playing around with color. In fact, the idea behind most mainstream make-up for men is that it’s largely invisible.
The other driving force behind makeup for men is Asia-Pacific, where, according to Mintel, the beauty market is worth $13.1 billion and ranks among the top ten in the world. To be specific, it is the K-Pop superstars that inform grooming choices throughout the region—some of which, like BTS, we readily adapt and import to the West.
In APAC there is no desire to masculinize make-up with gunmetal packaging or Zippo-style dispensers. Amore Pacific, Korea’s largest manufacturer of cosmetics, has sold mirrored compacts for men in the thousands under the brand name IOPE. One of its other brands, beREADY, features no less than five different shades of “Level Up Foundation for Heroes” (shade no 2 is called Ryan for reasons I can’t quite figure out), along with an eye palette and eyebrow pencil. There is even a G9 Camo Cream Military Camouflage marketed to army servicemen (Korean military service remains mandatory).
Effeminacy might the word we’re trying to dodge in the West but in Korea, it doesn’t even enter the conversation. In APAC, makeup for men is in full bloom and it’s free from the gender politics that dominate the market here. Perhaps, Gen Z is not quite as woke as we suspected.