Her dresser top was neatly lined with rows of lipsticks in every shade imaginable—reds, pinks, plums—followed by an endless array of eye shadows, blush compacts and tubes of mascaras. I have many childhood memories of sneaking into her bedroom and opening every lipstick case one by one to admire the beautiful colors. Like many young girls, my interest in makeup was sparked by watching my Mom put on her makeup every morning before heading out for the day. It was a meticulous process that started with foundation, eye shadow to play up her eyes, eyeliner along the lash line for definition, two swipes of mascara on the eyelashes, a powder blush on the cheeks for a rosy glow and capped off with a bright lipstick for the perfect pout. It may sound complicated to the guys out there, but such is the beauty routine of countless women everywhere before they set out to “face” the world.
Not surprisingly, I inherited my Mom’s obsession with makeup as I settled into my early adult years and became a young working professional. I experimented with multiple colors and cosmetic brands, always in search of the perfect lipstick color and the perfect eye shadow shade. I had moved past the casual, collegiate look when all I needed was a dab of lip balm. I wanted to look more sophisticated and grown-up, yet I desired a pared-down look compared to my Mom’s when I was growing up. As glamorous as she appeared, I didn’t want anything too bright or shocking. It was the ’90s, a time when beauty and style took a turn for the natural, straying away from the bold, glam looks that defined the ’80s. Women, myself included, craved a more natural look... we still wanted our makeup, but we didn’t want to look artificial and overdone. Enter Bobbi Brown.
Her success story is classic, but far from typical or cliché: Freelance makeup artist struggles to make it big in New York City, builds up her portfolio and lands her big breaks in fashion. Yes, all of those things happened. Yes, she’s made up some of the most famous faces in the world including supermodels Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz as they graced the covers and pages of fashion mags like Vogue. Yes, she is still the go-to beauty expert in fashion and in Hollywood. But it’s what Bobbi Brown did for the cosmetics industry that changed the way women think about makeup and beauty.
Dissatisfied with the makeup products of that time, Brown found them too artificial-looking. She took matters into her own hands with a vision of creating makeup that encompassed her own ideals of beauty: makeup that is simple, flattering and wearable—makeup that enhances a woman’s natural beauty, rather than covering it up. In 1991 under her own name, Brown launched a line of 10 brown-based lipstick shades at Bergdorf Goodman. The line was an instant hit, signifying the tides were changing in beauty and women were indeed gravitating toward a more natural look. Building on the success of her lipsticks, Brown expanded to a full range of color cosmetics, as well as skincare and fragrance. Her brand today has a presence in more than 1,000 doors in 60 countries and 30 freestanding, branded signature stores, operating under the Estee Lauder Companies with Brown at the helm as chief creative officer. Brown still stays true to her roots as a makeup artist and remains an iconic fixture behind the scenes in fashion. She is a New York Times best-selling author and has written eight books—instructional beauty guides to help women achieve her looks and feel good about themselves inside and out, a mantra she stands firmly behind. Her beauty advice and how-to segments are often featured in beauty and fashion magazines, websites and through appearances on the “Today Show” as a beauty consultant. And now, Brown can add eyewear designer to her repertoire with Bobbi Brown Eyewear, a new line of optical frames and sunglasses debuting from Sàfilo USA.
Presented with the opportunity for an exclusive, face-to-face meeting with Brown, 20/20 was not about to pass it up. We wanted to meet the face behind so many beautiful faces, the woman who single-handedly redefined the beauty industry with her cosmetics. The woman who knows what works best on a woman’s face. The woman who is the first makeup artist and beauty expert to venture into eyewear.
On the day of the photo shoot and interview with Brown, 20/20 Art Director Iris Johnson, photographer Stephen Mark Sullivan and I headed to Bobbi Brown’s Soho headquarters in NYC, just a short walk from the 20/20 office. As soon as the elevator doors open to her floor, we’re faced with a life-size image of Bobbi Brown’s signature lipsticks splashed across the wall. Now THIS is a girl’s type of place, I thought. As Brown’s PR team lead us down the hall to her personal office, I can’t help but notice how stylish and chic her staff look as we walk through the office.
Once inside Brown’s corner office, Iris and Stephen got to work setting up the perfect cover shot. Her office has a very industrial feel, befitting its Soho location. The walls are decorated with countless framed portraits of celebrities, music and fashion icons and other famous faces she has worked with. There is also an “inspiration wall” filled with color swatches and candid photos of Brown with her family and friends.
When Brown appears, ready to step in front of the 20/20 camera, she is exactly what I expect: down-to-earth and super-friendly. She seemed quite comfortable in front of the camera, yet a little shy in a humbling “I’m-not-usually-the-one-in-front-of-the-camera” way. Dressed in a tailored black blazer with a casual white V-neck tee underneath, slim black pants and black pumps, Brown radiates the simple but classic style of the quintessential New York woman. On her face she wears a rectangular acetate frame from her own collection, The Bobbi. Photographer Stephen (who also photographed Brown last year with friend and current face of the brand Katie Holmes) snapped away as Brown chatted casually with us. At one point, Stephen had Brown standing in front of her inspiration wall, and she spontaneously took off her Bobbi glasses and threw on an aviator sunglass style (The Dakota) from a nearby table and started posing with it. She was having fun and perhaps she was inspired, but we loved her spontaneity, as it certainly showed her enthusiasm for what we were doing.
...I think glasses are just a natural extension of makeup, and especially since I’m an eyeglass wearer, I find that it’s really difficult to find the perfect glasses.
After Stephen perfected his portraits, Brown and I sat down for a one-on-one chat. She answers the burning question we all have in mind: Why eyewear? “I’ve often wondered what I’d be able to do besides cosmetics, and I got a lot of offers for things that didn’t make sense, like jeans... which I do think I can make better,” she laughs. “But I think glasses are just a natural extension of makeup, and especially since I’m an eyeglass wearer, I find that it’s really difficult to find the perfect glasses. Women are always looking for the perfect lipstick or the perfect jeans, the perfect etc. So when I had an opportunity, and Sàfilo approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing this, it just really hit with their team. It was an instant synergy. And they understood that I’m not just a designer putting my name on glasses.”
Brown is heavily involved in every area of the eyewear launch, from design to marketing. “I think Sàfilo was pleasantly surprised at how involved I was in every aspect of what we do, from the marketing to the photography, to designing the glasses. The designers are fantastic, the team of girls are incredible, and they educated me. But I’m also very, very, VERY opinionated.” Brown was very particular about what she liked and what she didn’t like, even if she was told a certain style was very popular. Her solution was to make them better, which was the same driving force that made her cosmetics so successful. In preparation for designing eyewear, she made sure to do her homework. “I’m very much a visual person so for about six months to a year, I cut out pictures in magazines. I went out and bought glasses at stores and I went to a lot of flea markets.” Did she look in 20/20 (I had to ask)? “I did! The shop where I get my glasses in my town helped me; my eyeglass guy gave me a stack of 20/20s and said, ‘THIS is the industry.’” The shop Brown speaks of is Rocklin Styling Opticians in Montclair, N.J., where she resides and where she also has a studio in town where she splits her working time between the Soho office.
While most fashion designers who have eyewear collections have the work cut out for them when it comes to design details, Brown contends that she did not encounter any major design challenges in tying the eyewear back to her cosmetics. “It was really important to me that we put a design element on the temples, but it was also important to not be too intense. We were very careful; some frames have more than others, some are a little more delicate, and some are, for me, strong enough that you see it.” She made it very clear that she did not want her logo on the outside of the frames. Most design elements in the collection are rather subtle, but iconic to her makeup line. Many styles feature a “B”-shaped hinge on the temples representing her first initial, and the temple screws mirror the screws from her eye shadow packaging. “I’m also someone who takes my glasses on and off, so it was also really important to me what it looks like on the inside—the hinges, color, etc.”
With so many fashion designers and lifestyle brands launching and relaunching new eyewear collections every year, Brown stands apart from them as the only makeup artist with an eyewear line. As someone who has made a career of working with the face, she has a unique advantage and likely knows facial features better than any designer with eyewear. And she is all too familiar with what colors work best on the face. Her 20-plus years of experience in beauty and fashion surely has given her an insider look at style trends and has played an active role when it came to eyewear design, but Brown stays true to the very same philosophy behind her approach to makeup. “My aesthetics in eyewear are pretty much the same as they are in makeup and my choice of clothes. I like things really simple; I like them classic, but I like them really nice and special, even if that means a shape that’s not as trendy. I don’t like full trends in anything—it’s just not who I am. I like things classic, but I like them stylish. And there’s a fine line between classic and boring, and classic and stylish.” And just like makeup, colors that not only work with skin color, hair color but also eye color are also integral to her eyewear aesthetic.
Brown indicates that frame thickness was also a strong consideration in designing her collection. “Many women don’t realize that the thicker the frame, the stronger and trendier the statement is. So if the frame is too thick for someone, you can get a similar frame that’s a little bit less depending on your style.” With this in mind, Brown began the optical collection with one core style, an acetate rectangular shape, modeled after her personal frame. “If you look into my drawer, there are probably about 12 to 15 pairs of black glasses, and there was something that I liked about all of them, and something I didn’t like, so how lucky am I that I get to do the perfect one for my face.” The result was The Bobbi, which she sports on this issue’s cover, and which serves as a prototype for the rest of the collection. From there she developed a larger version of The Bobbi, an oversized square she named The Reese, and for those who like a little bit of a lift, she created some cateye shapes. For those who don’t want as strong of a frame or for those who have smaller faces, she developed smaller versions of The Bobbi including The Linda, which she dubbed “Baby Bobbi” and a thinner metal shape called The Mallory. A total of 16 styles round out the optical collection, with three unisex styles. Each style is named after someone special in her life.
I want to make things simple...that’s pretty much what we did with makeup, and we’re going to do that for glasses.
Brown’s goal in designing the eyewear is to teach women how to find the perfect pair not only suiting their personal style but complementing their skin tone and enhancing their natural beauty. “I always think about a woman’s experience in a store, so I think about the girl who reads in a magazine that Bobbi Brown has glasses and goes to her optician or department store and asks, ‘How do I do this?’ I wanted to make it simple for her.” A three-step system was devised to help women select the right frame based on: 1. Style (trend, modern, classic, sport); 2. Color palette (nude/blush, neutral, tonal, contrast), and 3. Face shape (round, heart-shaped, square, oval). Suggestions are given for each step, and each frame in the collection falls under one of the four style categories to simplify the selection process.
Brown’s philosophy in her makeup has always been about education and making it really simple, as evidenced by the many instructional books she has published, the how-to videos on her website and the beauty segments she has done on TV. She realizes that opticians are fully experienced in fitting patients with eyewear that not only looks good on them but has the right fit, but she believes her three-step system can still be beneficial for them and works as a complementing tool in the overall introduction of her brand into their shops. “The philosophy behind my brand is education and making it really simple. I think educating the customer is extremely important, and there are a lot of tips, but the glasses are really good quality as well—they stay true to what they are at a competitive price point. I think that’s really important when buying glasses.”
And how about those who don’t believe in “the rules,” particularly at a time when eyewear is worn to make style statements, rules or not? “Then you can get away with whatever you want, whatever you like. But I think people will be happy with some kind of guidelines. For example, if you’re someone who has a really round face, certain frames just aren’t going to be flattering. And many people don’t realize that sometimes their glasses cut off their eyebrows, particularly the large, oversize shapes that so many young people and celebrities love today.” Brown’s belief in education doesn’t end at the three-step system. “We’re doing videos to educate the people behind the counter to help women; we also have online initiatives to really give a big story for women to have choices. We used real, everyday women in our campaign, so women will be able to identify with them.”
Brown also has a new book coming out titled Everything Eyes, coinciding with the launch of her eyewear along with a new eye makeup line (an “eye-fecta” as her team nicknamed it). The book is her eighth and teaches women how to use makeup to play up their eyes, with a special section that provides tips on selecting the perfect glasses, as well as how to apply makeup with glasses, depending on your style from subtle to strong. The tone of the book is instructive but with a fun and fashion edge, complemented by vibrant photos of real women representing a diverse spectrum of style, skin tones and ethnicities.
While the eyewear is predominantly designed for women, there are also several unisex styles in both the optical and sunwear collections. Brand recognition is huge in her cosmetics and will undoubtedly translate to her eyewear among women, but surprisingly Brown tells me the market for her beauty products isn’t limited to women—many of them buy their men skincare from her brand. Like 20/20, Brown also shares the belief that certain gender lines blur when it comes to style today, and certainly when it comes to eyewear, as many women have embraced menswear-inspired looks. “As a mother of three boys with two nephews and two foreign exchange students, there was no way I was just doing this for the girls.” While her brand hasn’t been fully marketed toward men on the cosmetics side, she sees a lot of potential from men with the eyewear and is working on ideas to market specifically toward men.
The conversation turns to packaging and trying not to sound too much like a fan girl, I tell Brown that one of the very first high-end makeup purchases I ever made was her “Shimmer Brick” powder compact, and that aside from it being a fantastic product, what really sold me was the way it was packaged. Just like in makeup, presentation plays a significant role in eyewear—a great frame is even more attractive when it comes with a matching case and cleaning cloth. Brown agrees and eagerly shows me the sunglass case for her sunwear, which she retrieves from her purse in another room. The case was inspired from a silver leather eyeglass case she bought at a Paris flea market years ago. “We had a lot of fun with this. As a busy woman, I always have a handbag full of stuff. Anything black is hard to find in my bag, so I really wanted something that wasn’t black, and I wanted it to be multifunctional.” She designed the case as a little “bag” that fits the frame, a smartphone, a credit card, a lipstick and also includes a most essential item for women—a mirror. Little details matter to Brown, and even the zipper pulls on the cases are the same pulls used in her cosmetics bags. “As someone who is visual, and my job is the chief creative officer, everything has to look a certain way. Designing eyewear definitely had some challenges for me, for example, when someone says, ‘No, this has to be.’ And that’s when I tell them, ‘It doesn’t look right, let me show you how it could be better.’”
A peek at the Bobbi Brown Facebook page and Instagram feed confirms excitement building among her fans anticipating her eyewear launch. Brown foresees many potential possibilities on the horizon for her brand, but her focus isn’t straying from eyewear anytime soon. “There really hasn’t been anyone who has an eyewear line and is a beauty expert, and also does fashion and is commercial, so I think it’s very unique. It will open the door for other opportunities, to be able to do some other categories in the future, but I like to do one thing at a time, and I want this to be successful before I even envision doing something else.” And eyewear clearly is her main agenda, with a line of optical and sun readers on the horizon, as well as her current project which she is very excited about—the Sterling Collection, a smaller, higher price point capsule collection handmade in Italy with sterling silver details based on inspiration from her love of everything related to London and the U.K.
Brown’s passion for eyewear is strongly reflected through every aspect of her collection, from the thought and detail she put into her style tips, to the packaging and marketing of the brand. The same simple and classic aesthetics behind the launch of her cosmetics over 20 years ago that were responsible for changing the way women think about beauty and makeup are also what drives the vision behind her eyewear. At a time when eyewear has soared in popularity and is inundated with quite possibly too many options to choose from, Brown’s approach is a refreshing reversal to getting back to basics and keeping it simple and classic. “I want to take the mystery out of buying glasses. I want to make things simple... that’s pretty much what we did with makeup, and we’re going to do that for glasses.”
As we near the end of our conversation, Brown interrupts me to try on a frame. “I want to see this on you.” I oblige, secretly excited that my makeup artist idol is “fitting” me with eyewear. The style I try is The Duke, which she named after her hipster son, and which are a little too big on me. She then hands me The Bobbi style. There’s no mirror in front of me when I put it on, but the expression on her face is obvious. “Those are perfect actually,” she says, looking satisfied. And just like that, Bobbi Brown found my perfect pair. ■