In the beauty industry, most brands are focused on newness, or the illusion of it — from South Korean innovations in skin care to the impossibly expanding catalogue of mascara wand shapes.
But Gabriela Hernandez’s obsession with the past is singular, and even questionable from a popular business perspective. For over a decade, Hernandez has been catering to retro beauty fanatics and makeup artists on period film sets with her line of powders, perfumes and gilded lipsticks in hues inspired by those found from 1920 to 1970. Her company’s name, Bésame, runs along the packaging in looping cursive, a world away from the all-caps, easy reader branding you’d find elsewhere in Sephora: Nars, Lancôme, Clinique.
For Hernandez, who founded the brand in 2004 and often wears red lipstick and a short, curly hairdo, product development begins not with trend forecasting, but with trips to antique stores, estate sales and museum archives. She’s on the hunt for old powders, shadows, unused nubs of lipstick — makeup original to bygone eras that she can analyze and duplicate using modern pigments. Naturally, some time periods are more difficult than others. Rationing during World War II has resulted in fewer surviving lipsticks from that time, since women used up what they had, and the farther back you project generally, the less likely you are to find cosmetic remnants.
Beyond color, Hernandez is looking to imitate the texture and feel of vintage makeup, as well as its delivery method. That’s why you’ll find now-mysterious items like cake mascara on Bésame’s website. (One of the earliest versions of mascara, the pigment comes in a solid, square cake, which you wet with water to create a paste.) While modern day tube mascaras are certainly speedier, the fact that Bésame lets women tap into old school makeup rituals is part of its appeal. Just ask Eryn Krueger Mekash, the Emmy award-winning makeup department head on “American Horror Story,” who used the brand’s lipsticks, foundations and mascara’s on the 1950s set “AHS: Freak Show.” Bésame was a natural fit for that season: the lipsticks were the right tone, the packaging vintage enough to use as actual props — and, Krueger Mekash says, actress Jessica Lange was particularly excited to use that cake mascara exactly as old Hollywood stars had, by wetting it with their own saliva.
“I use a lot of different ones,” Krueger Mekash says, when asked what other brands she uses for period pieces. “Sometimes you need an orange-red or a cherry red or a bright coral or a soft pink. I would go out and look, but now I just start [with Bésame]. It cuts down on the guesswork.”
She’s not the only Hollywood player to turn to Bésame for era-appropriate looks. The brand also appears on Marvel’s “Agent Carter,” early “Mad Men” and the miniseries “Bonnie & Clyde.” I first heard about Bésame from Sarah Tanno, better known to the world as Lady Gaga’s makeup artist, who credits Krueger Mekash with introducing her to the line on “American Horror Story.”
“I like that [Hernandez] cornered a market,” Krueger Mekash says.
According to Hernandez, that market also includes women inspired by rockabilly style and historical reenactors — largely a mature audience, with some advanced teens sprinkled in. Despite appearing in massive television hits and finding distribution at Sephora, Bésame remains a relatively small, self-funded business that manufactures its formulas in the United States. Don’t expect it to start pushing out new products just to keep up with industry demands — new additions to the line have to hit the intersection of modern utility and historical accuracy.
“Our idea is a little bit different from most cosmetic companies that make product that follows fashion, or they all follow each other,” Hernandez says. “We’re not in that genre. We do products that we think women can use still, but are based on the past.”