There is a boutique called Shen in Brooklyn where aficionados seek out niche British beauty brands. On the day of the latest Royal wedding, they served tea and Battenberg cake, wearing Wills and Kate masks. “Customers thought I was bonkers, but they loved it,” says the New York boutique’s British owner Julia Stringer.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yvonne Xu, beauty editor at Chinese magazine The Bund, enthuses: “We love British brands – they are sophisticated with a long history.”
British beauty brands are having a moment. “The global customer is on to the ‘Cool Britannia’ theme,” says Alexia Inge, founder of online beauty store Cult Beauty. And, according to PZ Cussons, a British company which owns St. Tropez, Sanctuary Spa and Charles Worthington brands, beauty exports are growing at an annual rate of 5 per cent. CEW (Cosmetic Executive Women) report that 50 per cent of British-born beauty sales are overseas. For example, 78 per cent of John Frieda product sales and 50 per cent of total revenue for Elemis are accounted for abroad.
The pioneers were the hairdressers; first Vidal Sassoon, then 25 years ago John Frieda, who took his own brand of glamorous, London hairdressing to America, solving frizz for millions along the way. The company was bought by Japanese corporation Kao for an estimated $450 million in 2002.
The secret of success? “Most successful British brands have a personality behind them,” says Roja Dove, founder of Roja Parfums. So, with Frieda: “John moved to the US, spent 15 years going to retail outlets to sell Frizz-Ease and appearing on local TV stations being the glamorous hairdresser from London,” says friend Kathy Phillips, founder of This Works skincare.
Hairdresser Lee Stafford attends every new market launch. His “quintessentially English cheeky chappie” charm, as his business partner Graeme Riddick puts it, is part of his success. Success being 36 markets, an overseas business that’s grown from 10 to 50 per cent in three years and is, Riddick estimates, on the way to 80 per cent export sales by 2020.
Most successful British brands have a personality behind them
The British spa industry has become a key global success story featuring Elemis, Aromatherapy Associates and Espa. British skincare sits within this; think of Liz Earle, and facialist brands such as Sarah Chapman and Elemental Herbology.
“I think there is a sense of trust rather than brands built on glitzy packaging or extravagant ad campaigns,” says Space NK founder Nicky Kinnaird. Elemis is present in more than 53 countries and growing. “We anticipate exports becoming at least 65 per cent of the total business in the next three to five years,” says managing director Sean Harrington.
But how does success benefit the UK when a company is no longer British owned? Elemis is a public company quoted on the US NASDAQ. “No dividends are paid to shareholders and profits are re-invested, therefore the British economy is the main benefactor,” says Mr Harrington.
Another critical pull for the overseas beauty devotee is the quintessential British faces. Let’s call it the “Kate effect” – and its value for “brand Britain” is evident.
“When Kate and William got married, and had Prince George, this was millions of pounds of free advertising for Britain around the world,” says branding expert Rita Clifton. Kate’s impact on British fashion is already significant – if the late designer Alexander McQueen’s fashion house wasn’t a global name, it surely is now – but how has the beauty economy benefitted?
“We sell an organic bee venom range and people recognise the ingredient purely from Kate having used bee venom,” says Ms Stringer of the Shen boutique. White Gardenia Petals, the scent she wore on her wedding day, is still perfumer Illuminum’s bestseller at Fortnum & Mason, whose customers are around 40 per cent foreigners.
China has been charmed. “We are inspired by British traditions such as the Royal Family. On Taobao [the Chinese shopping website], it would be listed in a product description if it is Princess [sic] Kate’s favourite,” says Ms Xu of The Bund.
But there’s a flipside to British tradition. In the United States, Americans love the side of Britishness which they see as breaking the rules with rebellious creativity. “Those things are embodied in one or two people who have become well known, like Kate Moss,” says Dominic Devetta, founder of perfumery Shay & Blue. The supermodel shifts product: when she became the face of beauty brand St. Tropez in 2013, it recorded a 26 per cent increase in global sales that first summer.
In China, British faces are a big part of the Burberry allure. Chinese guests watched open mouthed as Burberry darling Cara Delevingne flew through the air, Mary Poppins-style, at a Shanghai fashion show in April. “Burberry make-up counters recently opened in department stores and many items are sold out,” says Ms Xu.
But do British value tags, such as “Made in Britain”, up a brand’s British caché? Jo Malone recently rebranded as Jo Malone London. “It publicly announces its British heritage,” says Jayne Demuro, head of beauty at Selfridges department store.
Printing British provenance on the bottle could be the antidote to the British malaise of cynicism. “If we are not careful, we can elevate cynicism to a fine art and that can be corrosive to business,” says Ms Clifton. For Roja Parfums, the message is loud and clear. “Everywhere we put the brand, from Zurich to Dubai, people look on the back and it very clearly says, ‘Made in England’,” adds Mr Dove.
But the burning issue is how to maintain momentum. “Internationally, we are still building,” says Ms Clifton. “You have to keep having success stories to build the image you want to create about Britain.”
British perfumery, which is seeing a revival, is a case in point. The success story has been taken up by the GREAT Festival of Creativity, a government initiative which has partnered perfumers with creative teams for a series of overseas exhibitions. “It gives us a platform to talk about how innovative this country has always been and how there is this huge renaissance in British perfumery,” Mr Dove concludes.