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From Harry Styles and Brad Pitt to Jared Leto, what’s behind the A-list male beauty brand trend?

<i>Le Domaine Skincare</i><br/>Pitt's co-founder of Le Domaine
Serge Chapuis
Le Domaine Skincare
Pitt's co-founder of Le Domaine

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The celebrity beauty brand train has become standing-room only, including Rihanna’s Fenty, Rare Beauty from Selena Gomez, SKKN by Kim (Kardashian), and Haus Labs by Lady Gaga, to name just a few. Until recently, the majority of stars launching lines to help us glow up were women.

But after Pharrell Williams and Harry Styles’ early entries into skin care and cosmetics (with Humanrace in 2020 and Pleasing in 2021, respectively), a wave of male A-Listers with good skin — and a lot of money to keep it that way — hoped to sell us their secrets over the past year.

The news releases in 2022 came in quick succession: Idris Elba and his wife, model Sabrina Dhowre Elba, launched an ethically sourced skin care routine from S’able Labs in July, then Travis Barker — perhaps influenced by his new bride Kourtney Kardashian — released CBD-infused skin care products via his wellness brand in September. In the following weeks, Jared Leto and entrepreneur Jonathan Keren debuted Twentynine Palms, working with Aesop’s Kate Forbes to deliver “products inspired by the majesty and myth of the desert,” while Brad Pitt announced his anti-aging collection Le Domaine, a collaboration with winemaker Marc Perrin — the co-owner of Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s vineyard — to harness the antioxidant power of their winery’s leftover grapes.

Some of these lines have been met with mixed responses, in part for their product pricing — Leto’s tiny eye cream is $97, while Pitt’s antiaging serum costs a wrinkle-inducing $370 — but they still arrived at a time when the market for men’s skin care products is soaring. In July, Future Market Insights reported that the sector’s global worth was around $13.5 billion in 2022 and is estimated to reach $28.3 billion by 2029. Last month, the AI-powered software and data analytics company Launchmetrics analyzed keywords around men’s and genderless beauty products for CNN and found that ad placements and social media mentions featuring those terms saw a 74% increase in Media Impact Value (MIV) in 2022 versus 2021.

“I think the rise of men’s beauty — especially backed by celebrities — is because there is a big margin in beauty right now. And there’s always been a big margin,” said David Yi, author and founder of digital beauty publication Very Good Light and personal care brand Good Light cosmetics.

And while beauty and skin care products are genderless — proven by a generation of popular male and nonbinary YouTube influencers, many now with their own successful brands — their marketing hasn’t been. Opening up the market to everyone, beyond men’s “grooming” products, has been both a social shift and a lucrative business strategy. Though K-Beauty in South Korea has catered to men for over two decades, the West has been later to the party. Clinique for Men began ramping up its global campaign efforts in 2015, while Chanel spun off a new cosmetics line called Boy de Chanel in 2018. In 2021, Hims tapped baseball star Alex Rodriguez (one of its investors) to collaborate on a concealer stick.

An ‘air of skepticism’

Now, the culture around beauty has changed: “Genderless” collections are no longer considered radical — they’re expected. Celebrity-owned lines aren’t novel these days, either, as more continue to edge into a crowded field.

“Beauty is a hot market. People see what Rihanna has been able to do with Fenty…and I think that a lot of celebrities want to jump onto that bandwagon because it is such a viable business,” Yi said. “But it’s also challenging, because there’s just so many brands.”

“The bar is high and getting higher,” said Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director of Allure, of what consumers have come to expect. “(With) the earliest celebrity beauty brand outings, I think it was a little more about their mystique,” she said, pointing to fragrances from stars like Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980s, which paved the way for the celebrity perfume bender of the 2000s.

Now, Yi said there is an “air of skepticism” when it comes to high-profile launches from famous figures — “and rightfully so.”

“Consumers in today’s age want to know: What does the brand stand for… Why is it necessary?” he said.

Fenty was revolutionary for offering a line catering to 40 different skin tones, Yi added. Jessica Alba launched Honest Beauty at a time when “clean beauty” products were increasingly in demand but still harder to find.

And if the collection isn’t groundbreaking, it needs to be good. Hailey Bieber’s Rhode — which promotes her highly imitated minimal, dewy look — has won industry accolades including an Allure Best in Beauty Award, as has Machine Gun Kelly’s crowd-pleasing nail polish line UN/DN LAQR. Williams’ simple, affordable skin care kits through Humanrace have received nods from Allure, Essence and Elle. (Products launched later in 2022 will be eligible for awards this year.)

Humanrace and Pleasing, which launched as digital direct-to-consumer businesses, have partnered with major companies to bring their products to shop floors. Last fall, UK department store Selfridges launched its own exclusive edit of Humanrace products (Humanrace has also sold clothes through Adidas), while Pleasing partnered with American Express to open up holiday pop-up-shops in New York, London and Los Angeles.

Le Domaine, Twentynine Palms and Barker Wellness are still quite new, and did not provide insight into sales upon request, though Perrin said in an email to CNN that Le Domaine is focusing on retail at stores, including Harvey Nichols and BonGenie.

Launchmetrics analyzed the brands’ MIV since their fall launches, however, and estimated Le Domaine to have the highest value in terms of online impact, generating $5.8 million in reach, media rates, media quality and content quality (which includes audience engagement metrics) — despite the fact that Pitt does not have official social media accounts attached to his name and has taken a smaller role in promoting the brand. By contrast, Leto is active in promoting Twentynine Palms, with some 40% of the company’s $1.9 million in MIV since launch generated from the actor’s posts.

Styles, like Pitt, has been more sparing, despite the singer’s immense social reach. His beauty, apparel and lifestyle brand, Pleasing, had a successful first year, according to Launchmetrics’s data, generating over $61.3 million in MIV since November of 2021, with only 3% coming directly from Styles. The lion’s share has come from the line’s own social media presence, which promotes its products with a focus on joy, community and eschewing gendered clothes and beauty. Yi said he thinks Pleasing “feels authentic to who Harry Styles is” and how he expresses himself.

Brand and community involvement

While A-List status is sure to garner publicity around a new collection’s launch, aspects like quality, price points and brand authenticity will come into play once the starlight from celebrity association has faded.

In other words, founders need to have done their homework, according to Yi. Both he and Bailly pointed to interviews where Pitt and Leto admitted their unfamiliarity with the industry. (Pitt called himself “a tourist (in skincare) at best” in an interview with Glamour UK, while Leto called himself “a student” in the industry in an interview with Vogue.)

“This recent trio were head-scratchers, I think in a way that Pharrell wasn’t when his line came out,” Bailly said of Pitt, Leto and Barker.

“Pharrell has certainly stood out as someone who is very involved in the brand (and) is engaged,” she continued. “He’s talked about his skin care routine in the past, he worked on the line with his longtime dermatologist. And I think you can tell in the formulas, and just the way the line came together. It’s a really nice edited collection. So I think it does stand apart.”

While Barker Wellness did not return a request for comment about Barker’s involvement in the product line, a Twentynine Palms spokesperson outlined Leto’s role as spanning “strategy, creative influence, product development, packaging, design, and investment.”

“Jared was personally invested in testing and trialing all the products — through the product-development stage he provided his feedback, along with others on the team, and he really had this innate ability to weigh in on how the product experience should be for the consumer,” the spokesperson said.

On Pitt, Perrin said: “First and foremost, Brad has defined the philosophy of the brand. One day, he wrote to us, ‘There is no waste in nature. Anything left over or discarded becomes food for something else.’ This has become a pillar for the brand. He is also closely involved in the design of the products, and for the last two years, he’s been testing the formulas and giving us a lot of feedback.”

Given how many celebrities have recently launched beauty and wellness brands, it’s unlikely that 2022 was the bookend of the era. Looking ahead, Bailly hopes any celebrity looking to launch a new line does so with care.

What consumers expect from a beauty founder is what “you would expect from any founder — someone who wants to create a community, solve a problem,” she said.

Yi echoed similar sentiments, suggesting that if a would-be founder doesn’t necessarily hit those marks, there are meaningful options beyond launching something entirely new.

“There are so many communities that are still underserved (by the beauty industry). Instead of celebrities coming up with their own brands, it would be nice to see celebrities backing or investing into brands that already exist,” he said.

That could mean investing in business owners who would help shake up the demographics of leaders in the industry. Famous guys selling beauty products might still feel a bit novel, but most of the major companies in this space are still helmed by men.

“The biggest conglomerates are still (owned by) straight cis white males, from Estee Lauder to L’Oreal,” Yi said. “What I’d like to see with gender inclusivity is more leadership (that) reflects consumers….we need more women in power, we need more queer folks in power, and people of color in power. And I think that that’s just going to really make this industry more vibrant, innovative and beautiful.”

Top image: Jared Leto at an event for Twentynine Palms.

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