For some of us, losing a favourite lipstick can be a little like losing a lover. Both are something we come to rely on, often on a daily basis, to lift our spirits and comfort and reassure us. “When you find that holy grail product, and discover one year later that it’s vanished from the shelves, it feels like the rug has been pulled from under your feet,” says makeup artist Jaimee Rose, who works with the band Haim.
Glance at the cosmetics forum MakeUpAlley or the beauty channel on Mumsnet and you will find hundreds of threads devoted to cherished products such as Clinique Superlast Cream Lipstick in Nude Bloom or Benefit’s tinted moisturiser You Rebel. “Noooo I can’t believe it’s been discontinued. It was my absolute fave product to use once I’d had a hint of sun,” is how Sunmakesmesmile laments the passing of You Rebel, echoed by MrsMarcJacobs, with: “WTF? REALLY? It’s so good.”
This obsession with tried-and-tested favourites is partly fuelled by the sad fact that most beauty products fall woefully short; this is an industry built on overpromises and underdelivery. We are accustomed to buying overhyped and overpriced cosmetics, tubes, sprays and bottles only to discover that, no, this primer doesn’t make our makeup last 24 hours at a festival, or, no, this texturising spray won’t give us perfect beachy waves in Kent’s hard water system. Most beauty products are a waste of money, a waste of plastic and a waste of hope.
But wherever there are consumers united in despair, there are entrepreneurs ready to capitalise on their thwarted desires. And so there has been a proliferation of sites such as discontinuedbeauty.com and cosmeticsfairy.co.uk, which stock products that are no longer being produced, while eBay has a robust Health Beauty channel brimming with vendors hawking “rare”, “vintage” and “cult” cosmetics and perfumes “for serious beauty collectors”. A gift set of Monogram cologne, fleetingly issued by Ralph Lauren in 1985, is on eBay at £209. An unboxed tube of You Rebel tinted moisturiser (original RRP £24) is priced at £79. The Body Shop’s Vanilla Perfume Oil, which along with Dewberry and White Musk blanket-scented virtually every British schoolgirl in the late 1990s and cost less than a tenner, is on sale on eBay at £299. A Rimmel Moisture Renew Lipstick in Rose Sorbet is £45; the RRP for current shades is £6.49.
The hopelessly heartbroken can have their loved-and-lost products cloned – or “duped” – by cosmetic colour experts who will custom-blend that beloved lipstick from the dregs of a tube of foundation or a stub of lipstick. In Manhattan, Giella Poblocki charges $34 for a tube of custom-blended lipstick, $60 for foundation and $25 for nail polish. She has received thousands of nearly empty bottles and tubes, posted from around the world, to be matched and returned to bereft beauty addicts. “People have an emotional attachment to a colour – perhaps the lipstick they wore on their wedding day, or a favourite holiday,” she says. “Or it could simply be the one product that always gets them compliments. Women spend so much money looking for the perfect shade and when we find it, we’re elated. The search is over. When the shade is discontinued, we have to start the search again. Or have it rematched by us.” Poblocki and her team colour-match by eye, combining pigments to replicate the precise shade. “There’s no machine that can tell you what texture or finish it is,” she says. “We’re all trained colour analysts and we need to see and feel the colour. It takes a long time to reformulate the shade, but the feedback we get from customers makes it worth it.”
When customers are prepared to go to these lengths, it raises the question of why popular products are withdrawn in the first place. Urban Decay has just discontinued its ultra-popular Naked smoky eye palette, a product the Duchess of Cambridge recommended to Michelle Obama and that shifted more than 30m units. And Boots has announced plans to withdraw its longstanding Seventeen brand, the gateway beauty drug of many a teenager. Why would they do this to us?
“The beauty business is a business, after all, and most brands are less concerned with keeping customers happy, and more with producing newsworthy new products, chasing column inches, and broadening their customer base,” says Rose. Although a lipstick or foundation may have a steady and devoted following, it can still make good business sense to take this reliable workhorse of a seller off the shelves to make way for some sexy new tube that generates industry “buzz” and gets hashtagged to oblivion by beauty influencers.
But customers are fighting back, furiously haranguing brands on Twitter and Instagram, lobbying for a reprieve of this lipstick or that tinted moisturiser. “In the age of social media and instant information, consumers are feeling increasingly connected to the brands and companies they buy from,” says Charlotte Libby, global beauty analyst at Mintel. “Brands have been able to leverage two-way communication; the success of companies such as Glossier showcases the importance of building a relationship with consumers and bringing them into the RD process.”
In the UK, the brand that has most visibly embraced “community engagement” is Lush, which since May has offered limited runs of retro (and new) products as part of its Community Product lines, which are voted for on social media via the hashtag #LushKitchen. “Being able to use social media to find out what they love, tell the inventors and then make it happen is really exciting,” says Danika Leigh, Lush’s Kitchen channel manager.
“Discontinuing products is a minefield,” admits Lush’s co-founder Mark Constantine. “Everyone loves a new product, but we don’t want to make room for it by losing one of our personal favourites. Sometimes I’ll be in the shop, peek into a customer’s basket and think, ‘Oh dear – that’s a product we’re going to have to discontinue, and they’ll be disappointed next time. Fortunately the internet – unlike our stores – has no confines on space, and we are able to run batches of old favourites that are not quite popular enough to put in the shop.”
Estée Lauder, meanwhile, has come up with the morose-sounding Gone But Not Forgotten programme, where customers can purchase a maximum of six discontinued favourites from a number of its brands, including Tom Ford Beauty, Clinique and Bobbi Brown.
Guardian beauty columnist Sali Hughes has an entire chapter devoted to discontinued products in her new book Pretty Iconic. Her biggest beauty bereavement? Suqqu Cream Foundation. “It is the greatest foundation that ever was,” says Hughes. “It was first recommended to me many years ago by Mary Greenwell, who uses it on Cate Blanchett. It feels nothing like other foundations – you simply forget you’re wearing it, and it looks like real skin, only flawless. A few years ago, they tried to discontinue it, but my readers and I lobbied hard and it remained for sale in the UK only.”
The victory was shortlived. “A few months ago, the worst happened and it went for good. The replacement is good, but not quite the same. The brand itself has given me what they had left. I have four large jars stockpiled, so I figure that gives me about four or five years to make them bring it back, or to bring out my own in its image.”
For those unaccustomed to this sort of relentless pursuit of the perfect lipstick or foundation, the passion might seem misplaced. Surely customers can just move on? Most brands discontinue a product to replace it with a newer version. Can’t we embrace the thrill of the new and learn to love that new shade of coral lipstick? How different can they really be?
If only it were that simple. It takes time to fall in love with a product; it’s not as shallow an affair as love at first sight. Our faith in a product is built up over those initial weeks when we learn it doesn’t clog our pores or lasts through our working day, and months of it-can’t-be-coincidental compliments. When we find something we trust, and that truly delivers, the task of auditioning hundreds of potential alternatives for the role seems insurmountable.
“Part of the problem is that there is a dizzying array of products on sale, with lines changing, and the choice can be baffling,” says Rose. “Only the most effective deserve a place in our hearts and our makeup bags, and when we find something that works, we’ll cling to it for ever.”
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