Photo: Thomas Holton
One Saturday afternoon not long ago in a New York City department store, I inadvertently wandered into a party so lively, I couldn't bring myself to leave: a hundred people at least, mostly women, young and old and in between, laughing, sharing stories, thoroughly engaged. Though I hadn't actually been invited to this party, I felt very welcome. As I made my way through the chattering, excited crowd, a number of strangers smiled warmly at me, asked me how I was, and offered treats. A cup of exotic jasmine tea? An exquisite cream puff—or how about two? A hand massage? A shoulder rub? I might have taken them up, but I didn't want to be distracted from the action, of which there was plenty. And it wasn't just the collegial kind. Money was being spent, a lot of money. I was on the department store's cosmetics floor, it was a typical weekend day, and the crowd were not party guests but women on a mission. They were there to invest in themselves, to make themselves more beautiful, seductive, fresher, renewed.
If you've ever bought a lipstick, you know the remarkably large satisfaction that can accompany a small purchase. I wanted to find out what that satisfaction looks like from the other side of the counter: Do women shop for cosmetics knowing what they want? How vulnerable are we to the power of persuasion? Why do we love to buy so much?
Bobbi Brown, celebrity makeup artist and founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, agreed to allow me behind one of her counters so that I might get firsthand some answers to those questions. Before I started work, I read through the company's training manual: I wasn't going to be chewing gum, wearing any distracting jewelry, or sporting wildly colored stripes in my hair. I familiarized myself as much as I quickly could with the huge product line, which includes every kind of makeup imaginable as well as powder puffs, lip brushes, and something called a conditioning brush cleanser—not to mention a complete skincare line. Oh, yes, and also fragrance. In the end, I knew a shimmer brick from a concealer stick, but my grasp of the range of cosmetics was limited to the assumption that if Bobbi didn't make a color, it probably didn't exist. So to some extent I was going to wing it, and rely on charm. Which, I found out right away, is useless in the face of a woman looking for the right lipstick.
In Bloomingdale's in New York City, the Bobbi Brown counter sits smack in the middle of the bustling first floor. It's well stocked, terrifically organized, a candy store for anyone with a sweet tooth for cosmetics. From my side of the counter I watch woman after woman walk by, focused fiercely on some shopping objective down the line. I can see the moment when she is distracted by the display. Her eyes dart to the side, take it in, and that's it, she's done for. She's been mugged; the makeup has pocketed her attention without her even knowing it.
My guide behind the counter for the day, Tia, a makeup artist, gently instructs me on how to greet customers. Friendly but professional, she says to me, "What brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" I repeat, mimicking her tone, as if I'm learning a foreign language, "What brings you to Bobbi Brown today?" Saying it, I feel completely inauthentic. "I always like to compliment a potential client on something too," Tia says. "Like that brooch you're wearing," she says, pointing to my favorite little Victorian pin. "Why, thank you," I say, not really sure whether she likes my pin or is simply demonstrating her technique. Whatever; she's so warm that it doesn't matter.