LOS ANGELES -- A line drapes the front of the store, as showy and provocative as a low-slung hip chain. Giggling 14-year-olds in vintage disco Qiana; women with silver pageboys pacing in Emma Peel boots; Eddie Bauer moms with Osh-Kosh babes in tow; club rats; and last season's slackers -- all queued up, eyes trained forward.
What's it all about? And who is the man in Johnny Cash-black, with porcelain-keepsake skin and kohl-lined eyes, jiggling a ring of keys?
He's not a bouncer, it turns out, just a clerk tending to crowd control on a typical Saturday afternoon at the Beverly Center M.A.C store. All of which begs the question: How did makeup get this hip?
When M.A.C counters started springing up in Southern California department stores almost 10 years ago, it was as if underground clubbies had invaded the malls -- black lipstick, cat's-eyes and all. Trend watchers gave that harried five-deep-at-the-lipstick-bar flurry the requisite 15 minutes. But M.A.C seems impervious to being branded passe.
The spectacle "doesn't always put us in the best light with our retail partner," admits Catherine Dimitrou, retail operations manager for the Toronto-based cosmetics line.
Imagine the Ladies Who Lunch mingling with Courtney Love as their respective makeup artists lean in to apply lip pencil, pinkies thrust skyward.
"Now you start at the cupid's bow and work outward," instructs one staff makeup artist who could easily double as a Smashing Pumpkin. The customer watches in a hand mirror as she is ushered out of cautious corporate dowdiness into the Klieg-light stare of high fashion.
"We have some very attractive, alternative people dressed in a way that is not typical to most cosmetics counters," Dimitrou continues. "But we encourage our people to be themselves and now most people just say: 'Oh, that's just M.A.C.' "
Just down the aisle, a 40-ish woman and her daughter, a teen with construction-cone orange hair, eye the lipsticks tiered in Busby Berkeley formation, seductively posed like the 64 colors in a Crayola jumbo pack. Mom, a staunch fan of M.A.C's Retro, is hunting for a new shade, something substantive yet subtle. "When you get older, you just can't wear those wild colors anymore. I want something with ooomph, but not outrageous."
At the other end of the lipstick bar, two Texans in their 50s stake out the corner, bending over the browns X-S, Film Noir, Paramount and corresponding lip pencils. They've yet to find a M.A.C outlet in Houston, they say, slashing their hands with a range of woody hues altered with hints of charcoal, redwood, berry and autumnal oranges.
Inevitably, a gaggle of model-actresses makes a pre-party pit stop to get a few show-stopping strokes of shadow for their eyes. Other customer requests come in rapid-fire French, Spanish or are sounded out through thick Russian accents: "Please? What is the popular color of lips?"
Make-Up Art Cosmetics, a k a M.A.C, was created in 1985 by Frank Toskan, a fashion photographer-makeup artist, and Frank Angelo, owner of a chain of hair salons. The idea was to develop TTC cosmetics that would work in all sectors of the fashion industry, from the runway to magazine layouts.
Cooking up colors and textures in his kitchen, Toskan built a local following that has grown to more than 126 counters and free-standing stores in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. Yet popularity has done surprisingly little to besmear M.A.C's underground, slightly-out-of-reach image.
Although the line's success has spawned imitators created by industry insiders like Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy and Laura Mercier, none has matched M.A.C's star power and mystique. Part of the fixation, M.A.C devotees admit, is the theatrical presentation. Even women who never bend to trend succumb to M.A.C's urbane aloofness -- articulated through sleek packaging, dramatic palette. "And," testifies one recent convert, "If you can make [M.A.C spokesmodel] RuPaul look good, well." The statuesque drag queen does look good, as does tough-but-sweet songbird k.d. lang, another unlikely spokesmodel.
Says one been-there-done-that counter vet, rooting through her bag of M.A.C matte-black tubes: "M.A.C is not as serious as Lancome or Prescriptives, but it's not like walking into Rampage, looking at the colors and thinking you should be 14 to wear them. It's very '90s with colors that are just so punkish and just kind of sexy in the way drugstore cosmetics are not. Maybe it's the lighting and mood that gets you in, but with the quality of the product, the stuff just sells itself."
Tamara Adam, a regional training and development manager for M.A.C, knows many people are intimidated by everything from the emphasis on using the proper brush to the salesman with the Lily Munster eye makeup to the high-gloss spareness of the store itself -- all of which might be interpreted as hipper-than-thou haughtiness. That's why the staff's knowledge is so vital.
"We like to empower customers and explain as we go along," says Adam, applying the first coat of Full Coverage Studio Make-Up on a woman. She's also gathered a daunting number of products for eyes, face and lips: Mystery, Crystal, Brulee, Carbon, Coffee, Freeze, Icon Taupe and Paramount. "Makeup is easier than people think. We don't want you to feel that you've been taken over. We want your input."
It's about selling products and confidence, she says: "We get people who are shy and don't know anything, who are overwhelmed by the products and the atmosphere." But, Adam stresses, "It's not an ivory tower thing. A lot of what M.A.C is about is street culture. Biker boots, Harley-Davidson, working-class culture. It's about breaking down those barriers between fashion and the street."
Where to get it
M.A.C cosmetics are available at area Nordstrom stores. (800) 387-6707.
Pub Date: 1/16/97