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As Minimal Makeup Trends on the Runways, Skin care Brands Pursue Fashion Week Sponsorships

Sheet masks aren't just for nights in with Netflix.
A model wearing a Dr. Jart+ mask backstage at Suno. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images

A model wearing a Dr. Jart+ mask backstage at Suno. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images

While it's almost in poor taste to complain too sincerely about fashion week — as far as getting paid to engage with designers' fresh collections goes, the struggle is not especially real — the churn of shows and presentations is without doubt grueling. That's certainly the case for the models sprinting from runway to runway, and for their skin, which might be painted with makeup and wiped clean half a dozen times (or more) each day. In the form of dryness, sensitivity and breakouts, the pursuit of beauty takes its toll.

In recent seasons, however, the sight of models hanging out backstage with hydrating sheet masks clinging to their faces has become an increasingly frequent one. A handful of skin-care brands have incorporated their products into runway beauty through show sponsorships for years, but an unusually large and diverse set got in on the action during September's New York Fashion Week. Given that makeup artists perennially stress the importance of prepping the skin before applying cosmetics to it, the opportunity has been there for a while. 

Wei Brian, the founder and CEO of Wei Beauty, said that her public relations team first suggested she look into sponsoring runway shows as a way of building awareness for her brand — which does most of its business in Asia — and getting makeup artists and models to test it out. Last week marked Wei Beauty's debut at New York Fashion Week, and its products could be found backstage at Kate Spade, Ulla Johnson and Nicopanda. Wei said she's seen an uptick in social media engagement since then, a measure of success echoed by Sabrina Tan, the founder and CEO of Skin Inc, which also sponsored its first New York Fashion Week show this season at Alice & Olivia. 

Relatively speaking, skin-care brands are late to the party. Makeup, hair and nail sponsors are an expected part of the backstage experience at this point, ever since MAC Cosmetics started pushing the practice in the late '90s. Sponsorships can involve furnishing a designer with a well-known lead stylist, a team and product; sometimes it's all that plus a hefty fee for the privilege of working on the show. But while a few big brands tend to dominate fashion week sponsorships in hair and makeup — MAC, Nars and Maybelline, for instance — skin care is currently a free-for-all, with a range of companies like Wei Beauty, Skin Inc, Dr. Jart+, Omorovicza, Patchology, Skyn Iceland, SK-II and Arcona doing just a few shows each. 

Aesthetically speaking, they've come at the right time. One year ago, the models at Marc Jacobs wore nothing on their faces but lotion, concluding a season that was all about fresh, glowing skin and very little actual makeup. The trend has continued into spring 2016, with designers like Baja East, Theory and Opening Ceremony still laser-focused on barely-there foundation and concealer.

Though skin products have always been a valuable part of the makeup application process, it's only recently that bare skin has become the main event. "I think the conversation before was, 'Let's prepare the canvas.' We can't put makeup on top of a canvas that's bumpy or rough," said Sarah Kugelman, the founder and president of Skyn Iceland. "Then there was the whole primer phase. But now it's about, How do you make the skin look healthy and glowing?"

Skyn Iceland is one of the few skin-focused brands that has been backstage at fashion week for years now — a full decade, in its case, though it does limit itself to only a few shows each season. Even after years of experience, Kugelman said it's difficult to quantify the business gains associated with sponsoring a show. When Skyn Iceland first started doing fashion week sponsorships, her team was looking to see whether sales would increase as a result, but it turned out there wasn't such a direct correlation between the two. Still, fashion week became a key tool for establishing the brand's story, getting to know professionals and generating interviews and visual content for use in presentations to retailers.

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"That's helped create credibility, which then filters into increased distribution," Kugelman said.

Skyn Iceland's masks at Rebecca Minkoff this season. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Skyn Iceland's masks at Rebecca Minkoff this season. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Margaret de Heinrich, a co-founder of the family-owned Hungarian brand Omorovicza, said that there's an intangible benefit to sponsoring a fashion week show that's "unquantifiable but absolutely worthwhile." Omorovicza has worked Rag & Bone for the past two seasons, a pairing that resulted from the brand catching makeup artist Gucci Westman's eye. (Westman, who is married to Rag & Bone designer David Neville, often creates the beauty look for the show.)

"When I work with [Omorovicza's] products, they work instantly. I guess I'm known for making really good skin on the girls, and it helps create a really luminous, immediate, supple finish for under makeup," Westman said backstage at Rag & Bone last week, while she massaged cream into model Mica Arganaraz's face.

"It has to perform under makeup," she added. "Otherwise I'm screwed."

From a top makeup artist who admits to being picky about skin-care products, that's a ringing endorsement with the sort of authenticity that elevates a brand's positioning in the beauty world. De Heinrich said Omorovicza, which was a sponsor at Budapest Fashion Week last season, will be doing more at New York Fashion Week next February and will be heading to London for the first time that same month.

After a decade in New York, Skyn Iceland, too, has finally decided to take the plunge at London Fashion Week this season. As of Thursday, the brand had one show locked down, with the possibility of adding a few more. 

"We have broad distribution in the UK, so it made sense for us to be there, too," Kugelman said. "We're in the process of expanding in Europe, so we'll see what happens."