Beauty Is in the Eye of These Beholders

One of the celebrities at Beautycon was Drew Barrymore, promoting her Flower Beauty brand. Fans crowded in to get a selfie with the actress.

LOS ANGELES — Thousands of cat-eyed, contoured-cheeked, glitter-doused women — and more than a few painted men — descended on the 347,000-square-foot South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center earlier this month, gathering at the makeup mecca that is Beautycon. For two days, as they wandered among more than 200 elaborately festooned booths sponsored by brands like Maybelline and Lime Crime, they searched for samples and stars. Some would be instantly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of reality TV (i.e., Kim Kardashian West). Others clearly had a more specialized fan base. (Nikita Dragun, anyone? How about Gigi Gorgeous or Manny MUA?)

Nearly all of the bathrooms at the Convention Center had been converted to gender-neutral. Staff throughout the floor wore T-shirts with a welcome list on the back that read: “All races, all genders, all ages, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all religions” as well as “all glamazons, all natural beauties, all unicorns.”

Clad in crop tops, Janelle Tejan and Phoenix Alden, both 22 and models from Colorado, were jittery with excitement an hour into the first day. “I held Laura Lee’s hand, she told me she loved my look,” gushed Ms. Tejan, of Colorado Springs, delighted that Ms. Lee, a makeup artist with nearly 5 million YouTube subscribers, had taken the time to speak briefly to her. Ms. Tejan stroked her ombre gray bobbed wig. She beamed when asked about the silver stars around her eyes, affixed with tweezers and eyelash glue. “I want to be a successful YouTuber some day,” she said.

Credit...Anna Beeke for The New York Times

“I came for Drew Barrymore,” interjected Ms. Alden, of Denver, her eyes ringed in pink and orange, the only pop of color standing out against her black suspenders holding up her black mini skirt, a black fedora perched on her head. Ms. Alden, who is in the Air Force, had just taken a selfie with the actress on her way to the booth for Ms. Barrymore’s six-year-old Flower Beauty brand. Ms. Tejan nodded in agreement: “My grandmother loves Drew Barrymore.”

As she participated in a meet-and-greet with fans, Ms. Barrymore said events like this were a particularly useful way to reach out to beauty shoppers. These consumers demand a personal touch — often literally, in the form of a hug or selfie. The question, she said, is: “How are you paying attention to me as a loud, confident individual?”

A record 23,300 of those loud, confident individuals attended Beautycon LA, an event that is equal parts competitive shopping scene, feel-good festival and marketing bonanza. Described as Sephora meets Coachella, Beautycon is not unlike a theme park, with hourslong lines, expensive food and the occasional chance to scream. Tickets range from $50 for a single-day pass to $1,000 for two days of skip-the-lines VIP treatment.

Beauty brands spend anywhere from $5,000 to more than a million dollars on their Beautycon build-outs. From these temporary havens, companies test and sell product, hand out samples, gather email addresses and host appearances with digital influencers.

“Consumers are now discovering and experiencing brands in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago,” said Gustavo Andriani, senior vice president and general manager at MAC North America, a division of Estée Lauder Companies. An ad in a magazine or a presence on social media is not enough, he added. “We need to physically be where they are.”

Both brands and attendees come with a #picsoritdidnthappen mentality. Shoppers are after social media bragging rights and companies see those same posts as a chance to spread their marketing dollars beyond the convention center’s walls. Dressed-up corporate photo bait filled the hall, including a dozen pink carpets, complete with flattering lighting and a Beautycon backdrop. Swings at Target, Aveda and Rimmel London and shirtless men almost everywhere — wielding lipstick-tipped power drills at MAC, covered in metallic body paint at Masque Bar — were the quick pic gimmicks du jour.

“You don’t need lipstick. Lipstick needs you,” one of Beautycon’s hallmark sayings, was stripped in pink block text across the wall behind a pink sofa in the pink-carpeted enclave of Moj Mahdara, the chief executive officer of Beautycon. Clad in a black T-shirt and Nike Air Max 1/97 sneakers, Ms. Mahdara slipped into this relatively quiet space backstage, her 4-month-old son, Neev, leaning against her shoulder.

A 40-year-old, gay Persian-American, Ms. Mahdara was born in Lexington, Ky., and grew up in Erie, Pa. She moved to Orange County, Calif., in 1998, then to Los Angeles two years later in search of a way into the music industry. Instead, she found a more viable path as a digital strategist, helping consumer and entertainment brands develop online campaigns with celebrities like Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani. She built and sold a digital agency, and worked with a number of large, consumer-facing brands, including HTC and Lacoste.

After briefly toying with the idea of getting an M.B.A., Ms. Mahdara decided instead to take that money and invest it in direct-to-consumer brands like Outdoor Voices and Harry’s razors. In 2013, as she was growing her new digital consulting agency, Ms. Mahdara’s lawyer told her about an upcoming gathering of beauty YouTubers, a group of digital personalities gathering in Los Angeles (IRL, as the kids would say). Although she says, “I’m not a beauty person” — she does not wear makeup — Ms. Mahdara was then looking to start her own digital influencer management company, on the hunt for what she said was “the next gen of QVC.”

Ms. Mahdara, who had given a somewhat rambling TEDx Talk that year titled “Everyone is a Media Company,” saw the potential to open the YouTuber meet-up to the fans. Six weeks later, she helped put together the first Beautycon to be open to the public, investing roughly $250,000 of her own money. Brands like NYX Professional Makeup and bareMinerals signed on and 6,000 people showed up to the free event, forming a line around a block in Hollywood. By the next year, Ms. Mahdara had bought out the majority of the shares of the event’s original organizer and became Beautycon’s C.E.O.

Ms. Mahdara envisioned a new experiential retail model. “There’s a lot of stuff for music and a lot of stuff for gaming and a lot of stuff for sports,” Ms. Mahdara said. “What became abundantly clear to me is that there was nothing for young women and people in general who were interested in beauty but not sure how they fit into that world.” Her goal was not just an offline experience but a marketplace, one that would translate into sales for participating beauty companies.

In 2014, Beautycon added New York to its lineup; by 2015, Dallas and London joined the list. (London is still in the mix; Dallas is not.) In 2016, the Los Angeles event was big enough to move into the convention center and last year it expanded from one day to two. This year has been a tipping point of sorts, starting with the two-day New York show warranting space in the sprawling Javits Center, and big brands like MAC and Target coming on board.

Traditional celebrities signed on, too, and their appearances on the main stage have drawn headlines and more publicity for Beautycon. The keynote by “Black-ish” actress Tracee Ellis Ross in Los Angeles last year about expanding the definition of beauty — “I’m inviting you to let your ‘you’ flag fly,” she said — became fodder for a later appearance on Conan O’Brien.

“Moj and her team recognize that beauty is about more than just slick advertising,” Debra Perelman, the chief executive officer of Revlon, said in an email. They “realized early that in the digital age you can’t just talk to women, but instead need to build a deep, personal relationship with them.”

Beautycon is a festival, yes, but it’s also a data-gathering machine. Two hundred beacons sprinkled throughout the floor in Los Angeles allowed organizers to heat-map the crowds, showing where the largest groups of attendees were congregating. Beautycon held eight focus groups each day that weekend, talking to 320 consumers about their shopping habits and attitudes on health and wellness. Each wristband was equipped with radio-frequency identification (R.F.I.D.) technology, allowing the organizers to monitor the path people took, how long they lingered, and if they visited a booth multiple times.

Coupled with registration information, Beautycon can paint a detailed picture of these shoppers. “We know what she wants, we know what she’s missing, we know what she needs,” said Richelieu Dennis, the chief executive of Sundial Brands, owner of Essence magazine and a Beautycon investor.

Beautycon’s connection to customers, paired with the combination of content and commerce, has helped Ms. Mahdara raise $20 million from investors. The most recent round of financing raised $6 million, led by the New Voices Fund, a $100 million fund that invests in businesses owned or managed by women of color and run by Mr. Dennis. “This is the future of beauty — this is the future of business,” he said of Beautycon.

In Los Angeles, about 60 percent of brands offered attendees a chance to shop on site, either at full price or a discount. Companies at Beautycon also keep close tabs on the e-commerce lift afterward, using special discount codes and tracking conversion rates from follow-up emails. The festival’s implied revenue per square foot, meaning both the dollars spent on site and the resulting online sales, was $4,288 last year, Ms. Mahdara said. (Apple, for comparison, saw sales per square foot upwards of $5,100 last year in its average store, according to eMarketer.) At this point, Beautycon does not take a cut of on-site sales, but organizers say they may revisit that option in the future.

Beautycon is expanding, both in the brands it attracts (B-Well, its push toward health and wellness, drew the likes of Kind snacks, Quip toothbrushes and West Elm furniture) and its locations (international dates and cities, beyond London, are in the works). Ms. Mahdara was tight-lipped on a new “experiential commerce” concept coming this fall, which she said was a “really exciting new format both digitally and experientially.”

The secrecy is tied, in no small part, to the new competition Beautycon now faces. Beauty retail behemoth Sephora, owned by LVMH, is starting its own festival in downtown Los Angeles this fall, dubbed Sephoria. Tickets range from $99 to $449; each level includes a bag of giveaways (Beautycon attendees needed to spend $199 for the “Hauler” package to receive such a thing). The overlap in participating brands is minimal. Sephora appears to be using its considerable clout in the industry to attract some of the most popular prestige names, ones that were not at Beautycon in Los Angeles, such as Pat McGrath Labs and Fenty Beauty by Rihanna (Fenty is produced by Kendo, another division of LVMH).

Ms. Mahdara says Beautycon had been in talks with Sephora for a year, presenting a similar idea, and that she was surprised at their decision to stage such an event themselves.Our audience knows that beauty is not just about products,” says Ms. Mahdara. “They can throw a party as they wish.”

A Sephora spokeswoman described its relationship with Beautycon as “complementary” and said “the concept for Sephoria was developed internally long before we shared anything with potential partners.” Beautycon was part of the proposal process, she added, but Sephora “decided to go with a different partner.”

Instead of singing for their supper, Beautycon-goers selfie for their samples. At the recent gathering, staffers in the CoverGirl booth scanned phone after phone to make sure attendees who waited in line to take a photo in front of its branded backdrop (with its new slogan, “I am what I makeup,” in neon lights) also followed the brand on Instagram before they would hand over a full-size mascara sample.

The exchange was surprising to watch, if only for how normal it appeared to be for both sides. This younger generation of shoppers knows that in order to get something, you have to give something.

An email address is typically the bare minimum. Amorepacific, a South Korean beauty conglomerate of 28 brands, wove attendees through a multistationed testing tour, with a representative explaining the benefits of products at each brand stop. At the end, shoppers received a tote bag with five single-use samples. Those who shared their emails were given an additional travel-size sample.

The goal of the booth, which cost “multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to Jessica Hanson, president of Amorepacific US, was to introduce its family of brands to more shoppers. To that end, perhaps more popular than the samples were the headbands Amorepacific gave away: white, flashing branded crowns, which attendees then wore, voluntarily and enthusiastically, throughout the convention hall as a kind of walking advertisement for the company.

On its maiden Beautycon voyage, Aveda, a division of Estée Lauder, lured attendees to its booth with a towering paper cherry tree next to a swing for photographs. The prop was a popular gathering spot over the weekend, providing ample backdrop for a logo and solving the eternal what-do-I-do-with-my-hands posing question.

As people waited in line, Aveda staffers chatted with them about the Cherry Almond collection, which the company introduced the week of Beautycon, handing out scent sticks and samples. The collection was designed to appeal to women with long hair — 73 percent of Millennials have hair that is shoulder length or longer, the brand says — with promises of “touchably soft” tresses. It comes in bright-pink packaging and has a sweet scent.

Aveda also handed out coupons for 15 percent off a shopper’s first online order if placed by the end of the month and offered 20 percent off all purchases on site, a rarity for the brand. “We don’t discount very often at all,” said Cydney Strommen, director of marketing communications for Aveda-North America. Unlike the fashion world, which has been plagued by pricing pressure and rampant discounting, beauty brands very rarely go on sale.

Nearly three-quarters of Beautycon’s target audience — Gen Z-ers and younger millennials that Ms. Mahdara calls “pivotals” — say they are influenced more by “content creators” than traditional celebrities, according to Beautycon’s research. Many of the digital stars that were the original draw have catapulted into massive, and massively profitable, operations, some boasting major sponsorship packages with five-figure appearance deals.

“For regular people, you are like, ‘Who are these people?’” said Ukonwa Ojo, chief marketing officer for consumer beauty at Coty, which had booths for CoverGirl, Rimmel London and Sally Hansen at Beautycon in New York and Los Angeles this year. But beauty junkies “know them and they love them,” she said.

Coty sees Beautycon as a rare chance for consumers to experiment with its products. The three showcased at Beautycon are primarily sold in drugstores and big box chains without a testing option. “For a lot of people it’s the first time they have ever been to a place where they could try all of our products before,” Ms. Ojo said.

These beauty-obsessed consumers are particularly valuable resources for companies, she added, as they are more open to fashion-forward looks and willing to experiment with new products that have yet to go to a wide market.

In Los Angeles, Rimmel London introduced 14 new shades of its Stay Matte Liquid Lip Colour, as well as the Wonder’Fully Real Mascara. “If they love it, you’ve won an advocate,” Ms. Ojo said. And winning an advocate, she added, means that that shopper will share it with his or her followers, who may then want to try it themselves. Every one, after all, is an influencer.

From his perch in a hall conference room, one floor up and overlooking the mazelike scene below, Beautycon’s executive vice president, Tripp Mahan, smiled. He considers himself the event’s “conductor,” with the stated goal of “curated chaos.”

“It has to be a very amped-up atmosphere,” he said.

How does one turn a light-filled, cement-floored, 347,000-square-foot hall into a party before noon? With a thumping DJ booth at the entrance and a series of choreographed mobs. Instead of escorting the talent to the booths quickly and discreetly in a golf cart, Mr. Mahan prefers to parade them through the show floor with security detail. The resulting swarm leads to what Beautycon calls “fandomonium.” Ms. Kardashian West was a notable exception; the Beautycon team went to great lengths to remove people from the backstage area where she entered.

“If Meryl Streep walked up to you and me, we would just act cool and move on,” Mr. Mahan said. But the fan-influencer relationship is much more intimate and intense. “Stars are just obligated to do a selfie,” Mr. Mahan said.

Michael David Magaraci, a 20-year-old from Long Island who trekked to Beautycon by himself, walked into the hall and straight to the main stage, where he snagged a seat in the front row and waited for hours to see Mrs. Kardashian West, who was promoting her KKW Beauty line.

“Growing up, I was always taught, ‘You don’t wear makeup, you’re a boy,’” he said. He was wearing no fewer than six of Mrs. Kardashian West’s products on his face, including lip gloss and concealer, his thick brows groomed and filled in, and KKW’s blue eye shadow artfully swiped across his lids. “Beautycon is celebrating diversity, and through that diversity comes confidence,” he added. “I feel so amazing here.”

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