Credit Crunch? Get Lippy

The Obamas, everyone agrees, have got their look just right for these difficult economic times. He in a dark suit, as sober as a minister. She making much of her thrifty J. Crew habit, in contrast to Sarah Palin’s overdone regional news reader look, which cost a splashy $150,000. Malia and Sasha, meanwhile, appear cute but slightly retro, with hemlines firmly on the knee. Here are children, you sense, who are not going to be allowed a boob tube anytime soon.

This pared-down elegance, economical without resembling a hair shirt, is exactly what Karl Lagerfeld meant when he spoke recently about the “death of bling” and the return of a “new modesty”. This, he suggested, was a Good Thing, a kind of cleansing of the Western world’s over-bloated fashion soul. Karl, of course, became vague when pressed on some of the darker implications. Chanel, the couture house which he heads, recently had to “let go” one-tenth of its workforce, a crisis which one French TV station likened to the catastrophic moment when Coco Chanel shut up shop at the outbreak of war in 1939. Chanel, though, is hardly the only luxury fashion brand feeling the pinch. Louis Vuitton recently pulled the plug on a spectacular new flagship store opening in Tokyo, while American designers Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson have chosen not to have runway shows during New York’s recent fashion week. The implication is clear: it simply costs too much.

On the other hand, fashion’s first cousin, the beauty industry, seems to be one of the very few doing rather nicely. The cosmetics business is worth £12 billion worldwide and is feeling quietly confident about getting through these recessionary times. Growth may be muted in the developed markets of the US and Europe, but companies such as L’Oréal continue to post the kind of figures which couture houses and high street fashion chains can only dream about.

None of this will come as any surprise to seasoned cosmetic watchers, who take it simply as confirmation that “the lipstick index” continues to work. Coined by Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder, the term describes the inverse relationship between global economic performance and cosmetic sales. Put simply, when times are tough, sales of make-up, specifically lipstick, soar. It was certainly true in the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when US industrial production halved while sales of cosmetics boomed. The same thing happened in the subsequent economic downturns of 1990 and 2001, when the cosmetics industry was obliged to take on extra workers to cope with the increasing clamour for face paint. Now it seems to be happening all over again.

The phenomenon is, of course, startlingly counter-intuitive. When money is tight the first thing sensible people do is cut back on any expenditure which cannot be classified as an essential, like food, heating or children’s shoes. By this analysis, lipstick sales should go tumbling to the very bottom of the shopping list. Psychologists, however, posit the alternative view that, when times are hard, lipstick is reclassified in the household budget from an “essential” item to an “affordable luxury” (it tends to be women, after all, who are in charge of domestic spending). While a new dress from Prada, at £750, becomes out of the question for any rational person, a lipstick from Yves Saint Laurent, or even Chanel, is only going to cost £20.

What’s more, for that £20 you don’t just get a glorious slash of vermillion, rose or poppy to light up a face made pallid by winter weather and late-night poring over bank statements. What you get is nothing less than a little cache of feminine mystique. For lipstick, more than any other cosmetic, represents a kind of heady vibe that is eternally female.

First there is the canister which, if it comes from a premium brand like Estée Lauder or Lancôme, will be satisfyingly substantial, smooth and heavy as a pebble. The cap will be secured by a reassuringly solid click, the sound – in miniature – of an expensive car door shutting. Then there is the multi-symbolic act of applying rich, red colour to your mouth. Let’s not go into particulars. Suffice it to say that you don’t get the same kind of hit from smudging a bit of kohl over your eyelids.

The “research” – a kindly term for the surveys commissioned by PR companies and beauty product websites – certainly bears out the theory that, in times of economic hardship, women regard lipstick as an essential rather than a luxury. One such recent report from stated that one-third of British women would prefer to save money by eating less than curtail their spending on beauty items. Meanwhile, over at the benighted Bank of England female economists were recently briefed that the best way to weather the current crisis was to wear high heels and, yes, a slash of bright lippy.

Whether men’s cosmetics will be impacted in the same way remains to be seen. It seems unlikely. When dedicated male skincare first made its appearance 25 years ago, companies were careful to name individual products as if they were designing them for the car rather than the face. Indeed, Clinique still calls its toner for men “scruffing lotion”.

Since then the appearance of the metrosexual – a man so secure in his masculinity that he is unfazed by the implications of wearing moisturiser – has meant that manufacturers could release endless iterations of male skincare lines with the guarantee of healthy sales.

But economic depressions have a funny way of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Just as the female economists at the Bank of England have been urged to up their use of lipstick, it seems likely that homo recessionus may well retreat to older models of masculinity. A man who blows his cash on lip balm no longer seems like the sort of mate you want on your arm as you stride through life’s tricky stretches together. Suddenly, carbolic soap and a squirt of generic supermarket deodorant have never smelt so right.

Interestingly, the boost that the recession has given to sales of cosmetics may not hold true across the entire range of women’s self-care products. When it comes to skincare, common sense suggests that we may well go flocking back to what might politely be called “heritage” brands, in other words those solid but dull skincare ranges which your mother and grandmother swore by. Olay (Oil of Ulay to those of us over 35), Nivea and good old Boots have been doing remarkably well recently. Some industry watchers suggest that these old-timers have been taking sales away from the kind of skin creams which sell for £200 and boast a roll-call of high-tech ingredients.

In making this shift from pseudo-complexity to the tried and tested, consumers may well be thinking of what happened recently in the banking sector. Where once we were happy to believe that the people in charge knew much better than us about the workings of international finance, now we wonder whether a bit of common sense book-keeping, the sort of thing we all have to do at the end of the month, the quarter, the year, might not have been in order. In the same way, there now no longer seems any good reason to believe that a skincare product needs to sound as if it is on nodding terms with the periodic table. A dash of Pond’s cream – and a swipe of bold, bright lipstick – will do just as well.

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