Models Iman & Philomena Kwao On How To Push Diversity In Makeup Offerings

It’s a disconnect that’s plagued the beauty industry for too long: Despite ubiquitous #blackgirlmagic and the fact that 35% of American women are women of color, beauty brands largely remain sluggish in creating makeup for darker skin tones. And model Philomena Kwao knows this all too well.

“Growing up as a young Black woman in London, [photographers and makeup artists] often struggled to buy makeup that works for my skin tone, which seems crazy in this day and age,” she says in a new i-D documentary. She and the i-D team took to London and New York to explore and raise awareness about the color bias in makeup. And unfortunately, they weren't overly surprised by what they encountered.
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In the film, other dark-skinned women share their plight. “I need a powder that doesn't look gray. I also need a foundation that doesn't [look] green on my skin. I don't think they realize that we exist,” half-laughs one subject.

Another adds, “You feel like you're not important. Like, what's happening? Why am I not being represented like everyone else? We're not just two shades.”

A third woman shares the dismal shopping experience that many women of color — whether Asian, Black, Latina, or mixed-race — can relate to. “It's just something that you grow up with and you get used to. But it's not fair that you have to struggle. I remember the first time my mom took me to Fashion Fair and I was like, 'Oh my god, there are other colors. [My face] can actually look like the rest of my body.'”(In case you hadn't heard of it, Fashion Fair is a line of makeup and skin care created for people of color.)

As supermodel and makeup entrepreneur Iman points out in the video, the problem is deeply rooted. She recalls a 1975 photo shoot in which the photographer asked if she had brought her own foundation. She had not. And in the resulting pictures, her skin looked gray, thanks to an ill-equipped makeup artist.

“I learned then that I had to really control my images,” Iman says. “So I went out...to every store I could find, and I would mix it and...put it on my face, and finally I found something a little suitable and I made a batch. This is 1976, and I carried it with me to every shoot I did.” When Kwao added that she does the same thing — 40 years later! 40! — Iman added, “Every Black model I know carries her own foundation.”

As Kwao shows in the video when visiting both New York and her native London, the makeup options today for women of color are seemingly just as sparse. Even shade names can be alienating: How many times have you seen beige shades branded as “natural,” for example?

Thankfully, brands like Iman’s own Iman Cosmetics and upstarts like MDMFlow, Black Up, and Juvia’s Place are leading the charge to bring makeup offerings up-to-date with formulas specifically targeted to people of color. Still, there’s plenty more work to be done. Iman’s advice? Find a group of like-minded people and blog about your experiences: “Collectively, it will be heard,” she says.