BeautyMART, Topshop Oxford Circus

Every beauty 'must-have' in one pretty space, curated by two of the smartest ladies in the industry...

Who doesn’t love a cult beauty product? I’m sure I’m not alone in having a soft spot for underground beauty buys - previously the preserve of Parisian pharmacies, Korean facialists and backstage at Fashion Week. Hence I'm a big fan of BeautyMART. Whereas customers are normally bombarded with shelves of product all screaming “buy me!”, together with pushy sales assistants trying to hit targets, BeautyMART is a smart alternative to all of that.

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A beauty ‘boutique’, they sell products online as well as regular ‘pop-up’ concessions and shops around London, from Harvey Nichols (together with Beauty Bazaar in Liverpool), to Shoreditch’s Box Park and Josh Wood’s Atelier. Their current home is probably their biggest coup - the high street mecca of Topshop, Oxford Circus, where thousands of teens and tourists are clamouring to get their hands on some Balmain Silk Perfume hair spray along with their Ivy Park leggings.

BeautyMART’s colourful wares comprise a curated selection of some of the little-known finds and up-and-coming brands from around the world, as well as several ‘hero products’ cherry-picked from big names like Rimmel and Revlon. And that is the essence and brilliance of BeautyMART - it echoes the way most of us have been shopping for beauty for years. Reading blogs and magazines; listening to experts; taking advice from friends; chatting to others on Twitter; we’re a far more savvy bunch of beauty boffins than we were before - and the select nature of BeautyMART is a reflection of that.

An idea as ambitious and unique like BeautyMART would probably not have got off the ground were it not for the considerable clout of the its two founders. When it comes to picking the best products out of hundreds on offer, you can’t get much better than the former Beauty Editor of British Vogue Anna-Marie Solowij and retail guru Millie Kendall MBE, who famously founded 90s make-up brand Ruby & Millie (with makeup artist Ruby Hammer - I think my first ever red lipstick was a Ruby & Millie) as well as launching Shu Uemura and Aveda. So its safe to say these ladies know their onions when it comes to what products work – and sell – and pull no punches when it comes to getting what they want. BeautyMART also has a PR division and consultancy firm to help promote and nurture the brands they're stocking, which some might call a stroke of genius on its founders' part.

"Do we look like a couple of girls who can be pushed around?" Millie jokes, when I ask if they encountered any challenges or push back from brands wanting them to stock their entire range, as opposed to a few select products. 

BeautyMART Founders Anna-Marie Solowij (left) and Millie Kendall MBE

BeautyMART Founders Anna-Marie Solowij (left) and Millie Kendall MBE

With her flaxen '90s Courtney Love' curls and vibrant lipstick, Millie is clearly in her element on the shop floor - readjusting stock displays and trying on swatches of lipstick ("I've got terrible ADHD - I switch lip colours every five minutes!") before continuing her point. "We went to see the head of a major beauty brand and we told him where it was at. I think his office were terrified of us! I don’t think anyone was going to say no to Anna, it was like dragging in a Trojan Horse - 'here’s the former beauty director of Vogue she said she wants that, that and that!' You’re not going to say no!"

"It’s easier now because we’ve done it and other people have done it – the idea of curation and editing down is chiming with how people shop." Millie explains. "It was really radical when we did it a few years ago, but people understand it.  It wasn’t just about the curation, it was about creating a fast-paced retail environment, the bits people liked about shopping online. When I go online, what I like is a drop-down menu; I like to navigate very quickly and get out very quickly I don’t want to come to shop and spend an hour browsing a shelf of 100 different products that all look the same."

Says Anna, "There’s been a whole 'mono brand' culture in beauty that’s starting to shift. Not a single woman I know buys everything from one brand, yet companies are still pushing the idea that all your beauty should come under one brand. As you approach a counter there’s this feeling of 'Oh my god, if I go to this well-known brand. I’m going to come out looking like a drag queen and I’ll have 40 products on my face!', because that’s how they’ve been taught to sell. I’m not saying the products aren’t good, but you’re not going to buy 40 things unless you’re a complete dope! Nobody wants to buy in such a focused way into one brand."

Millie adds, "I think skincare is interesting though because when we started, the makeup brands were more happy for us to go in and pick out what we wanted - even the likes of Rimmel and Bourjois! It was much more acceptable for you to have a variety of things in your makeup bag. What wasn’t acceptable was skincare - the idea that you can have a cleanser, toner and moisturiser that are different brands was inconceivable until recently - so that was probably the hardest hurdle to jump. 

"What's interesting is that consumers are curating at home; you’re creating your own regime in the privacy of your bathroom, we just started the conversation its actually happening in real time in people’s bathrooms. That’s customisation and curation choosing what you want, but the brands don’t get it!" 

So what of the products themselves? What's hot at the moment? Anna leads me over to the skincare shelves - herself in possession of a flawless complexion that could only belong to a former Vogue editor. Whatever this lady has to say about skincare, I'm all ears ...

"Anything that’s a sheet mask seems to be popular," she explains. "Starskin over there have a popular range with us. The advent of sheet masks completely changed the mask category of skincare - the sale of masks was up 60% in 2014 and probably is more around 80% now. Sheet masks have created a new excitement around the category, whether it’s a cloth sheet or a gel sheet - it’s about the delivery mechanism and also no mess! Mud masks are coming back, especially individual pot masks. The last time masks were a significant part of our skincare routines was around the 1970s - those Sisley masks on the premium end and the 99p sachets on the mass end. And up until now, I don’t think anyone’s done anything in-between. In terms of price ratio, a mask is more of an investment, but it’s a way of dipping into specialist treatments. I think it works. I think the  current obsession with skincare and perfection has come out of the whole 'selfie' culture, our love of BB creams, promoting that idea of skincare from within etc."

"Pixi's Glow Mist and Makeup Fixing Mist - those particular products seem to do really well for our customer," Anna remarks. "Gallinée is a French skincare brand focused on the positive effects of bacteria on your skin. We’ve got the whole range - it's all about not stripping the skin too much, don't take away the very thing that keeps it balanced. Another newcomer is Cleanse by Lauren Napier [posh face wipes which come individually packaged - ideal if you don't want to carry a huge bottle of cleanser in your suitcase or gym bag]. As well as taking makeup off, these add to your skincare routine. These are made from 100% recyclable cotton too." 

We move from skincare to tanning and makeup. "Madame LA LA is new – a small tanning brand with just two products based around LA’s tanning culture, the Malibu Barbie-type bronze. Glo & Ray are a colour brand we’ve only recently started stocking. The concept is based around light and how important light is to the appearance of your skin. The fomulations are really really great, combine with an 80s design aesthetic. We have some eye mousses a range of lip colours and the textures are really nice. Another make-up brand is Stiks lipsticks, which you can apply with one hand - you literally flip the lid up twist it put it on. They have a retro feel to them, they're very pointy, you get a good lipline with them. I like the fact its not black packaging  - they’ve done something more standout in terms of how the product looks. Other than that Balmain's Super Silk perfume - which we had when it first launched - always does well. We were the first retailer to launch it. We did their PR in the beginning as well, and made a big noise about them. Then there's Colab hair fragrance, Ruth Crilly’s brand. Either we discover the brands or they find us." 

Millie notes, "Its our passion, its what we do. Brands have to jump through hurdles to get listed with us sometimes we find they need a little help, so  our consultancy firm will go in help them get to the point they’re ready to release in the UK. I think a lot of brands want to be here; the UK is an exciting market at the moment. We’ve got brands from the US, Japan, Korea, Australia they’re everywhere – the UK consumer is very open to new ideas, we’re so multi-cultural, we’re naturally globally aware, we’re creative country comes from our fashion culture, our street style culture – what’s the best way you can transform yourself..." 

I thank the ladies for their time and just as I'm about to leave, I look back and notice the two of them grabbing some testers and doing each other’s make-up in the mirror, with the excitement and finesse of 13 year olds who have just raided their mother’s dressing table...

BeautyMART is currently at Topshop, 214 Oxford St, West End, London W1W 8LG and online at thisisbeautymart.co