Why Do Cosmetics Brands Keep Collaborating With Late Artists?

MAC Cosmetics’ Whitney Houston collection is here, and it’s chock-full of the hyper-glam, 1980s-perfect staples with which the late vocalist remains associated to this day. Marked by bold smokey eyes and bold red and metallic-brown lips, Houston’s beauty regimen was as iconic as she herself was, throughout all her decades of fame. And now that it’s shoppable in luxe gold packaging, fans can get a small piece of her cult of personality, created alongside and approved by the Whitney Houston Estate itself.

MAC’s Houston line has been a long time coming. The brand announced the collection more than a year ago, last September, to be timed with the release of Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” It’s also “something Whitney always wanted to do,” the artist’s sister-in-law and former manager Pat Houston told People. “I’m pleased we can do something that I know she would have loved.

If any makeup brand was going to bring this to fruition, it was MAC. The cosmetics giant has collaborated with celebrities for decades, even before celebrity beauty affiliations became ubiquitous. Its charitable Viva Glam initiative, which raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS, has been releasing collections since 1994, including ones in partnership with living legends like Rihanna, Lady Gaga and, most recently, Rosalía. MAC’s first significant posthumous launch came in 2012, with a 28-piece makeup line inspired by Marilyn Monroe

Other late celebrities followed, including Selena Quintanilla, with a range that commemorated the 25th anniversary of her passing, and Aaliyah, thanks to a viral fan petition wherein shoppers went so far as to create mockups of products they wanted. Both sold out immediately. But experts attest that cosmetics brands like MAC aren’t just in it for the profits (although, yes, they do make money). For the estates of certain departed figures, like Houston, eye palettes and lipsticks are just one small, but not altogether insignificant, way to keep their legacy alive for a new generation. It’s also, somewhat uncouthly, good for business.

These posthumous launches aren’t necessarily money-drivers, but more so relationship-builders in a few ways,” says Kirbie Johnson, a beauty reporter and co-founder of beauty podcast Gloss Angeles. “If MAC and Estée Lauder have a great relationship with a movie studio, why not work together on promoting a film? Not to mention the fan relationship, which is important to a brand.”

Johnson goes on to explain that if an estate like Houston’s is angling for a makeup collaboration, it may feel more comfortable with a behemoth like MAC because, well, they know it will be done right. In Houston’s case, the packaging is elevated and the formulas are what you’d expect from a MAC product, Johnson says, and “you don’t feel like the brand skimped to make it.” As one of the top three global makeup brands, MAC sees a reported annual turnover of more than $1 billion, with 500 independent stores. 

I feel like MAC is a household name at this point, but some of this could be a play to either increase reach or awareness of the brand to the departed’s fanbase or simply to add consumer value,” adds Johnson. “MAC is a legacy brand; collaborating with icons like Selena, Aaliyah and Whitney positions them in the same category.”

A posthumous collaboration, however, is not without its risks. As Johnson says, the person the collaboration is being made for is no longer here, so how can they give approval? In 2017, for example, Urban Decay received a flood of criticism for its Jean-Michel Basquiat collection. (“An artist known for his highly critical takes on power structures like capitalism surely wouldn’t be putting out an eyeshadow palette,” says Johnson.) “You have to hope whoever is running the estate is someone they trusted and is acting in the deceased’s best interest,” says Johnson.

Indeed, fans of late icons, like Houston, are especially protective after their passing — which, ultimately, leads to higher sales. Cieja Springer, a longtime fashion marketer and founder of the “From the Bottom Up!” podcast, attributes this sensation to what she calls “brand regret,” which goes a step further than buyer’s remorse and tends to afflict those who, for a range of reasons, weren’t fans of the artist when they were alive. In the case of Gen Z, which is now captivating the cosmetics industry with its growing purchasing power, this is simply because they weren’t born yet.

In order for fans to not constantly live with the regret of not giving the artist their flowers while they were here, they jump on it now so they’re not left out,” says Springer. “It’s all about not being left out, at the end of the day.

With a posthumous product launch, fans are able to buy a piece of their favorite celebrity again (or for the first time) — and as Johnson adds, that opportunity may not come around again, which creates more incentive to buy the product. This is especially true in the case of figures like Aaliyah or Selena, who didn’t have a long period of fame before passing, “so perhaps there was less memorabilia for fans to purchase as a token of their love for both artists,” says Johnson. But of all the memorabilia and merch possibilities, why makeup? 

Whether the celebrity is currently active in their field or not, there’s a shorthand that exists with the ‘look’ and palette of a highly celebrated and media-visible celebrity that gives the consumer an ability to recreate famous looks or a style with which they identify, or find aspirational,” answers Professor Stephan Kanlian, chairperson of FIT’s unique master’s degree program for emerging leaders in the cosmetics and fragrance sector. “It’s a basic need of universal beauty that individuals aspire to copy the look of someone they see as having great beauty or style.”

After all, makeup products are more attainable than, say, fashion items for most fans, especially younger ones. Johnson offers the example of Harry Styles’s HA HA HA capsule for Gucci, which starts at $235 for a pair of striped logo socks, with T-shirts running around $750. “I’d bet most fans are sporting his $20 Pleasing nail polish instead,” she notes.

Most people cannot afford a Chanel bag, but they can afford Les Beiges Bronzer,” says Johnson. “As for celebrities who have passed, you can’t carry a record on your person to show you’re a fan, but you can pull a Whitney Houston-branded MAC compact from your bag.”

FASHIONISTA