Know How We Know You're Cool?

lorde embedPhoto: Courtesy of MAC.
It's a tale that suddenly feels as old as time: Girl finds herself in the spotlight, girl becomes super cool, girl drops a MAC line that sells out online within seconds. Where celebrities once aimed for fragrance deals, a MAC collaboration has become the ultimate marker of cultural relevance, a symbol of the kind of mainstream edginess that can coexist with an enormous fan base. The question: How and why did this become such a thing?
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"There's no formula. A lot of it is pure instinct," says James Gager, MAC's creative director and senior vice president. "I want MAC to be intelligent, tell a story, educate people. It should never just be pretty." It's that anti-prettiness that visually sets the brand's campaigns apart — take, for example, the trippy, surrealist-inspired photos of Cindy Sherman's run and the avant-garde, pop-art imagery for Beth Ditto's line. To that end, since its launch in 1984, the company's done collaborations with everyone from 91-year-old Iris Apfel to Disney's Maleficent and has designed collections with a variety of talent, from Proenza Schouler to The Simpsons. MAC is probably the only brand that could feature that kind of range and remain true to its mission — could you imagine Chanel putting out a line with Homer and Co.?
It has also managed to stay ahead of the curve, discovering talent before they become super famous. "Look at Iggy Azalea," says Gager. "She performed at our flagship store in 2012, and now she's a music sensation. We also signed Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj early in their careers before they went mainstream."
For Viva Glam, though, it's a little different. Since 100% of the line's sales go to the MAC AIDS Fund, celebrities who already have significant cultural influence are generally selected — for one, there's Rihanna, who has more than 130 million followers on social channels. "Their social-media presence is incredibly important here," Gager says.
Considering its reach to 92 countries worldwide, being selected as a face for MAC means the brand thinks you have what it takes to appeal to its uniquely diverse customer base. Gager says the brand is often thought of more as a "cult institution" than a cosmetics company. It's true: Even women who don't buy MAC tend to know that Kelly Osbourne has a new line, as though the significance of the collaboration transcends the details of the lavender lipstick.
Ultimately, says Gager, "Being with MAC means you are now part of the cool kids."
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