How COVID Turned Small Beauty Brands Into Luxury Status Symbols

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

By the time COVID-19 lockdowns started rolling out, it was abundantly clear that many aspects of our normal lives were to be transformed or modified to fit the current reality. Those changes had a ripple effect, on everything from what we wear in public to how we put away our groceries. It also changed things for beauty culture on social media to which its influencer set quickly adapted.

A Low-Key 'Luxury'

As such, the dynamics of keeping up with the Joneses online took on a whole different meaning. The collective physical and emotional suffering made status signaling with the usual symbols designer outfits, pristine vacation vistas, and luxury vehicles feel grossly inappropriate. In the spirit of sink or swim, influencers had no choice but to embrace the moment: self-care selfies. They turned to elevated versions of self-care products usually under the $50 dollar mark, but always far pricier than what one could find from drugstore brands to communicate a more palatable aspiration. It was a necessary move, says Mariah Wellman, a social media researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Utah.

'Influencers are in a very precarious position, and COVID didn't help matters', says Wellman. '[But] some of the best influencers are those who are strategic in their presentation of self within online spaces. They are very good at distinguishing what needs to be shared in order to be perceived as authentic. [Throughout COVID,] the majority of influencers promoted self-care products that cost money and yes, many of their followers bought into that and purchased those items as well.'While the FTC obliges influencers to disclose when they're earning money to promote a brand with paid product placement, they often appear to buy into the mystique of certain products the same way we do. When Kylie Jenner was also seen in Harry Josh's signature green wave-setting barrettes, despite her cosmetics line carrying a similar product, it served as a testament to their cache. ishonest even documented Kaia Gerber's selfie in the clips, which, even if they were placed by a hair stylist, set off a chain-like embrace of the accessory.

'They totally became an Internet phenomenon', says brand founder and hairstylist, Harry Josh, who worked with an engineer to create clips that would hold hair firm without denting it. 'Without social media, the awareness for the clips would not have reached the masses.'

For a brand less than a decade old, still bootstrapping its way through the industry with loyal customers and tastemaker press, this was an enormous win. Josh notes that the brand is geared towards luxury $18 dollars for a pack of hair barrettes may not be in everyone's budget but they present a more accessible self-care luxury than investing in Josh's $300 hair dryer. While not everyone can own a $3,000 Chanel purse, spending $130 on an eye mask still offers the same rush of buying into a luxury brand. Even in a financially crippling pandemic, it's consumer escapism.'Influencers [use and promote] products and services in a way that makes the purchase seem like a no-brainer for followers', says Wellman. '[They may feel as if] they have to have that product or service to live their fullest life. When an influencer promotes a product or service, it feels like a friend is making a recommendation, and that connection is extremely powerful.'

The Indie Boom

Interestingly, it seems to be indie brands that are best navigating this new era of beauty luxury. Such is the case for Dieux Skincare, which was founded in 2018 and currently has just three products on the market: eye masks, hand sanitizer, and a serum. The reusable masks, in particular, have fueled the brand's growth. The silicone masks, which are housed in a tin that allows you to easily reapply the serum, was the brand's solution to a common packaging issue, says co-founder and CEO Charlotte Palermino.

'This was part of the intention', says Palermino. 'Masking moments and beauty moments tend to get shared on social media so we were hoping people would have fun using them and sharing them. What drives us is how we can shift the industry to sell consumers less, be as effective as possible in our formulas, and be honest about what our products do.'

Of course, it helps that Palermino is an influencer in her own right. As an online 'skinpert', Palermino has won the trust of hundreds of thousands with her honest product reviews, reactions, and skin-care tips. Recently, when reacting to Gwenyth Paltrow's Vogue 'Beauty Secrets' video, she emphasized the importance of 'fact-checking' aspirational content, 'because people are going to copy what this person does, because it's aspirational.' Palermino's promotion of her own line is notably only lightly interweaved through her content. Instead, her social media presence presents as a kind of skin-care masterclass, frequently outlines the difference between healthcare and self-care. This online approach, says Wellman, inadvertently preserves a sense of 'authenticity.'

'[Social media] has been hugely important in helping to tell our story, engage and grow our audience in meaningful ways', says Vallillo. '[It was rewarding] to create a viral sensation out of our Foam Flower Hand Wash during a time when people are looking for a little joy in their lives, and ways to stay healthy.'

These products' value lies as much in their capacity to communicate 'cool' as their individual efficacy. Sharing a floral-imprinted palm, Dieux-emblazoned under eyes or hair held in place by mint-green clips, reads as trying without really trying. Because each product is a method for self-care a ritual we might have once carried out only in utter privacy posting feels like a more casual way to signify one's access to small luxuries. It may not be private jets or popping bottles, but it's still a highlight for the reel.

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