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A Big Impression for a Tiny Lipstick

Slide Show >>Gabriela Hernandez' sense of style has always been informed by the chic elegance of such film stars as Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis. So when Hernandez decided to create her own makeup company, B?same Cosmetics, it was only natural she would return to Hollywood's golden age of beauty.

A successful art historian and graphic designer, Hernandez had worked on marketing and advertising for a number of companies, including McDonald's (MCD) and Kodak (EK), at the Alma Group, the design agency she founded with her husband in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, Calif. However, it was in the midst of projects for major cosmetics brands that she began toying with the idea of creating her own beauty firm. Frustrated with what was available in terms of sophistication, glamour, and quality, Hernandez decided to create a modern line that translated the style and craftsmanship of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. It was a time when cosmetics were designed to be glamorous and even the packaging was considered an elegantly made showpiece.

Hernandez, who was born in Buenos Aires and raised in the Bronx, spent five years and poured $1 million of her own money into creating B?same—Spanish for "kiss me"—from scratch, half of which was used just on researching period makeup and container designs. She came up with a palette of modern cosmetic formulations that were lighter in texture and without some of the harmful original ingredients like lead, based on old recipes from archival books as well as the remnants of vintage cosmetics that she discovered in antique stores. Using period samples, including her grandmother's collection of antique compacts and lipstick tubes, Hernandez designed Bésame's vintage-inspired packaging. "I wanted the products to bring back memories of the people that lived in that period," she says. "I wanted to bring back the best of the beginning of the makeup industry."

WEB GLOSS. At Bésame, the gorgeous, richly pigmented colors—like noir red and peacock blue—are reproduced from the old silver screen and are housed in gold lacquer packaging embossed with chrysanthemum detailing. The custom double-sided-tip lipsticks come in pinky-size bullet-shaped metal containers, the rouges have red velvet puffs, and the makeup sets come in slim, gilded cigarette cases. "In fashion, everyone is refashioning," says Hernandez. "When something works, it always works. I did the same thing with beauty. I really discovered the classic elements that are attractive to women then and now."

Launched in 2004, and initially only available through the company's Web site, Bésame's unique retro brand caught on quickly. The Web site, designed with the same kind of attention to detail as the product, became a shrewd marketing platform for a company eschewing advertising. Evocative of the glamorous post-World War II era, the site features an imaginary 1940s ingénue, Margo, and offers makeup tips on models of various ethnic groups in five different period looks.

While makeup is aspirational, it is also a highly personal, tactile experience, and so the Web site also sells product samples for $1.50 apiece. Housed in tiny jars, each sample is good for about three applications and comes with a $5 coupon for future purchases. A swell of fans took notice. Beauty bloggers and interested shoppers began visiting the site, purchasing the line, and recommending it to friends. "The Web really gave us visibility," says Hernandez.

NICHE BRANDS RISING. Soon Bésame received the crucial validation of the beauty fashion magazines, earning mentions in some 20 of them. In its first year, the company reached $40,000 in sales. According to Hernandez, Bésame's revenue has tripled annually since its launch and next year she expects sales will hit $1.5 million.

In the past year, Hernandez rolled out Bésame to retailers, including 10 boutiques in California, Colorado, and Louisiana. Last fall, the upscale Manhattan department store Henri Bendel, one of the country's cosmetic trendsetters, began featuring Bésame. And Hernandez says she is currently in discussions with several major chains including Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, and Sephora. In September, haute Paris department store Printemps Haussman began selling the line.

Bésame is entering a highly competitive and crowded field. According to the NPD Group, a Port Chester (N.Y.)-based consultancy, in recent years a number of small niche brands have entered the $3 billion cosmetics market. Successful outfits like MAC, Bobbi Brown, and Philosophy have remade the industry once dominated by huge cosmetics giants like Estée Lauder (EL) and Revlon (REV). Ten years ago, niche brands made up only 3% of the market; today they make up almost 30%—a tenfold increase. Indeed, Estée Lauder eventually acquired both MAC and Bobbi Brown.

DELIVERING ON DETAILS. However, one of Bésame's best assets is how it differentiates itself from the pack. "The devil is in the details," says Karen Grant, senior beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. "[Bésame] is a good-looking product. The fact that the packaging stands out and can become little collectibles can be an interesting avenue. People like brands where the owner/creator behind it tells her story. People like to know that they are buying into something special."

That is precisely Hernandez' approach. "I put a lot into it, how things are manufactured," she says. "I am not going to go head-to-head with Estée Lauder." For her completely design-driven line, Hernandez says that she doesn't put a cap on what a product will cost. "We are making the best product possible. We don't work backward and try to engineer something to fit a price point." For instance, Hernandez says Bésame's cosmetics contain 40% pigment while most brands have 10%.

As well, Bésame differentiates itself on the many fine points of classic beauty with a nod to the modern, busy woman. For instance, an eyeliner pencil has two colors with twist dispensers ensuring that just the right amount of color is used. All of the packaging is reusable and beautiful enough to be displayed on a woman's vanity. And while the products themselves are small, because of the intense pigment they require fewer reapplications.

HOLLYWOOD CALLS. A large part of Bésame's appeal is its craftsmanship. "My strength is design," says Hernandez. She is involved in every aspect, from creating the container molds to insisting on utilizing local craftsmen to maintain tight controls. Next spring, Hernandez is introducing a new product line housed in Bakelite, a material first invented in the early 1900s and now highly coveted among vintage and antique jewelry collectors. She spent three months coming up with a mold for a Bakelite lip and eye pencil sharpener in the shape of a hummingbird that can also be worn as a brooch. "I have my own niche," she says. "I make special things. I hope women fall in love with it like I do making it. We're the romantics of the industry."

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that a cosmetics line inspired by the glamour of Hollywood's heyday has been discovered by modern Hollywood. Last year, Hernandez was tapped by the Lifetime channel for its Real Women series of mini-commercial documentaries. Moreover, Bésame is fast finding a place in the makeup kits of today's movie sirens. Soon, Bésame will be coming to a cinema near you. According to Hernandez, after a studio makeup artist was given samples of Bésame, she ended up using the line on the upcoming period thriller The Good Shepherd, starring Angelina Jolie. Très jolie, indeed.

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