Makeup for men – and genderless makeup – is becoming mainstream.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Makeup for men – and genderless makeup – is becoming mainstream. What’s fuelling the trend, just how different is it from cosmetics targeted at women, and what will happen next? Aileen Lalor reports.

When makeup artist Larry Yeo started his career on the retail floor at M.A.C in the early noughties, male customers weren’t a rarity as such. “They would buy concealers to hide zits, under-eye circles or hickeys,” he says. “Or sometimes, I would see them in foundation that was three shades too light for their skin, because they’d borrowed their girlfriend’s makeup.”

That’s no longer a necessity. Makeup for men has bubbled along for years – JeanPaul Gaultier’s now defunct Monsieur line came out in 2008, while men’s skincare label Lab Series launched BB Tinted Moisturizer (£33, or S$57.30, in 2012. Then, there are genderless products from brands like Make Up For Ever, Sisley and M.A.C, which have never overtly aimed their products at women. M.A.C, in particular, has always championed inclusivity with its “all races, all genders, all ages” mantra, and has a number of products that are particularly loved by men, including its Brow Gel ($34), and Face and Body Foundation ($56). And of course, periodically, cultural movements would make it acceptable for men to don makeup – from the ancient Egyptians to glam-rockers, punks, goths and New Romantics.

Now, things seem to be reaching the mainstream, both in terms of launches and interest. Market research firm Mintel predicted that gender-neutral beauty was one of the big trends to watch for last year, reporting that “consumers are moving away from traditional gender stereotypes and expectations… they are going to come to expect brands to push a gender-neutral message to the fore of their new product development and marketing campaigns”. And beyond gender-neutral, more are launching men-specific products – in 2017, there was Tom Ford with a small “For Men” range that included a Hydrating Lip Balm ($51) and Concealer ($78, Tangs). Now, there’s Chanel with its Boy de Chanel male makeup range of three products: Lip Balm ($55), Foundation ($114) and Brow Pencil ($62).

Several factors are fuelling all this. First, there’s the blurring of the gender binary and an expansion of what masculinity means. K-pop stars have always been groomed and perfected, but they’ve become increasingly so – compare photos of Rain from a decade ago with that of BTS, the most phenomenal and trendiest of male K-pop stars today. According to Korean Research firm Opensurvey, 15 per cent of Korean men regularly wear BB cream. At the end of last year, Korean beauty company Hera joined forces with Korean fashion label Blindness on a limited edition makeup collection. This was not aimed particularly at men, but the packaging reflected Blindness’s genderless aesthetic. Products include a special version of Hera’s wildly popular Black Cushion ($75, from the brand’s Ion flagship and Takashimaya counter) printed with an illustration of a king’s and queen’s faces merged into one gender-ambiguous entity aptly dubbed “Quings”.

“Koreans attach a high significance to one’s appearance. Consequently, many Korean men are highly interested in grooming,” says Jason Lee, Hera’s chief makeup artist. “Soft, charismatic characters that show strong masculinity and strength are well-loved. The ideal male image is highlighted in advertisements and dramas, where men are required to become perfect physically, mentally and emotionally. The perfect guy needs to be healthy, as well as muscular, and have beautiful, clear skin.”

There is disagreement, though, on how progressive Asia as a whole is. “While Korean men have gained a rep for being more “delicate”, this seems to apply only to celebrities in the cloistered world of K-drama and K-pop. There is still a roiling undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia across Asia that prevents your average man from shrugging off the shackles of ‘traditional’ gender norms,” says Eugene Quek, a former beauty editor. Indeed, Valerie Khoo, marketing executive for M.A.C, says only a small segment of the brand’s customers here are male – and they tend to be from the performing arts.

Meanwhile in Western cultures, things are clearly changing. While maleness used to be about hairiness and scruffiness, today Ezra Miller is a heartthrob wowing in a Moncler x Pierpaolo Piccioli puffer dress at the premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. “I think a greater awareness of gender fluidity in the West in recent years has encouraged a diverse and more inclusive approach to ‘performing’ masculinity,” says Quek.

Social media amplifies the men-andmakeup trend. Male makeup artists have always been around – from Kevyn Aucoin to Shu Uemura – but they were typically making up women. The new breed of male makeup influencers demo the products on themselves, in turn normalising the idea of men wearing makeup. They’re also increasingly powerful. Jeffree Star and James Charles have millions of followers across Youtube and Instagram; the former was the world’s fifth-highest-earning Youtuber of 2018 across all categories and has his own range of makeup, while the latter has fronted campaigns for and collaborated with Covergirl and Morphe.

So much for the trend, but what about the products? Why do men need specific makeup, and what makes male products fundamentally different from women’s? The honest truth: not much, it seems. If anything, it’s about less choices, not more – there are usually just a few colours and products. That might be a downside for women, but it’s seen as a boon for men, who might be inexperienced with makeup and flummoxed by large collections.

A lot of the difference lies in the packaging and – it could be said – marketing. However much men might want to wear makeup, brands still believe that they shy away from things that look typically “girlie”. So Boy de Chanel comes in matte navy blue (though it must be said that the brand’s classic black-and-white packaging has never been overtly feminine). Similarly, Tom Ford’s male grooming products come in slick dark brown tubes and bottles, while the women’s have gold accents. The contents are also intended to be discreet: matte lip balms, easy-to-use brow products, and subtle fake tans, foundations and bronzers, all light in texture. The emphasis is on not being showy; on correcting, not emphasising.

Could that change? Says Quek: “I’m fairly certain we won’t be seeing men donning a cut crease daily any time soon. (In fact) most Singapore women are wont to stick to the basics (liner, lippie, foundation) for day.” And could this mean a new generation of makeup-wearing, overly image-obsessed dudes? “Men have always been pressured to look good, which may explain – for one – the under-the-rug epidemic of men struggling with eating disorders,” says Quek. “I don’t think it’s fair to blame the rise of men’s makeup or media depictions of the ideal male face and body. Instead, policy-makers and people who care for the psyche of the men in their lives should start having open and empathetic conversations on the toxicity of traditional masculinity, so as to help boys understand that there is more than one way of being a man.”

My Reading Room
K-pop’s experimental approach towards beauty – personified by the likes of boy band BTS  – are helping to break down traditional gender rules and normalise the idea of men caring about the way their skin looks.
My Reading Room

(From left) Boy de Chanel Stylo Sourcils, $62, and Le Teint Foundation, $114. M.A.C Face And Body Foundation, $56, Eyebrow Styler, $34, Brow Gel, $34, and Studio Fix Fluid Foundation SPF15, $56. Hera Blindness Black Cushion SPF34/PA++, $75