Research for Design — Part 1

Research Keywords: Covid-19 Beauty Consumption, Economic Recession, The Lipstick Effect, Lipstick Consumption during the pandemic, Masks, Commodity Activism Campaign

In this last yet biggest project (Research for Design) of my Ideation & Prototyping class, I decided to utilize the opportunity and make this project into an expansion of my graduate thesis — Beauty Consumptions during Crisis Moments in American History. This project, however, will only concentrate on studying subjects and observing phenomena in the current Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

I created a rough mess map through Kumu to map out my thoughts and ideas. (The mess map will continue developing as my research progresses.)

The Author’s Mess Map, Created through Kumu.

Link to the site for more detailed observations.

The concept of the Lipstick Effect is where all the ideas began. The Lipstick Effect is a phenomenon that when economic recessions happen, consumers tend to spend money on small indulgences such as luxury lipsticks even though they are tight on money. This theory is originally invented by Leonard A. Lauder in the Post 9/11 America. Mr. Lauder found that despite the general decline in consumer spending in the 2001 economic crisis, lipstick sales in this company increased. Consumers would spend money on little pick-me-ups to cheer themselves up. Although this concept is largely vague and not scientifically proved, it surprisingly explains well about the patterns of consumer spending in several economic crises in the U.S history. For example, the Great Depression, WWII, the 2008 Stock Market Crash, etc. Mr. Lauder’s informal Lipstick Effect theory is then broadly borrowed and cited by researchers and scholars in contemporary society. It is used to not only predict the economic tendency in the future but also describe the events happened in the past.

The Lipstick Effect might be impactful and all, but it doesn’t really work in the case of Covid-19 pandemic. A primary reason is the face covering policy in the present social and political environment. Under such circumstances, even if people have the intentions to purchase lipsticks to brighten up their moods as a means to maintain the normalcy, they don’t receive the feedback that they expect to get from others. Nobody can see what the lips look like behind the masks and in addition to this, lipsticks simply don’t go well with the face masks. According to many beauty consumers, their lip colors always get smeared by the masks at the end of the day. These realities, therefore, discourage many beauty consumers from investing and consuming lipsticks in the pandemic. The above facts also reflect that lips are the important body parts that communicate and pass on straightforward visual messages. The covering of lips put a halt to the usual forms of self-expression and representation. To the majority, wearing lipstick, in a way, is a bodily statement of one’s desire to be seen by the others. The beauty mentality in the now situation is: if nobody can see my lips anymore, why would I bother to put makeup on them?

Lipstick Stain on Mask. Photo Credit to Stylist.

Certainly, there are also other factors, such as the new WFH lifestyle, decreased social activities or events, that influence consumers’ decisions in whether continue consuming lipsticks or not at present day. Face mask, nonetheless, is the biggest turndown among other reasons. Here in my research, I’m not following up on the lives of people who have stopped wearing lipsticks, but instead people who still consider lipstick as a necessity in their daily routines and continue wearing them no matter what kind of occasions they are in. Nowadays, although vaccines are becoming more and more available to the population, I don’t see face mask is going to be away from our daily lives any time sooner. Humans will have to learn to cope with the fact that face mask is now our mandatory accessory. My research goal here is, therefore, how to invent a design that transforms face mask into a kind of acceptable aesthetics in the Western culture and how to make face mask out of recyclable environmentally friendly materials that won’t mess up the lipstick and allow the lips to be seen by the others?

Questions to tackle through my design research:

1. Are people still maintaining their makeup routines since the pandemic started?

Yes, but not all of them. A lot of articles online talk about how the pandemic has affected people’s lives and beauty consumers have transitioned their focuses to skincare products from cosmetics. However, beauty really goes both ways. To some people, putting on makeup is not just a daily routine, it is also a practice of self-expression and self-empowerment. Makeup allows them to appreciate the very simple pleasure in life.

2. Does the Lipstick Effect still work in the current economic crisis?

Not really. It worked in times like the Great Depression and WWII because people did not wear face coverings back then. Face mask really is a lipstick blocker for now. While the Lipstick Effect is not as accurate and popular in the present economic crisis, a new economic indicator is invented — the nail index. Instead of purchasing and consuming lipsticks, consumers buy nail care and nail polish to do their own nails, according to the Market Research by Euromonitor International.

3. For consumers who are still wearing lipsticks during the pandemic, how do their wear them despite the facts that nobody sees how their lips look like behind masks and that face masks smear lipsticks easily?

Leslie Camhi, a Vogue writer, talks about her opinions on lipsticks in her article “One Vogue Writer on the Transformative Power of Lipstick — Even in the Mask Era”. As she describes, “Life had been unfolding in black-and-white for quite some time. And my lipstick, though invisible to other, had changed something in my body language or my approach to world”. To her, though lips are rendered invisible in the era of face covering, lipsticks have the power that gives us a mood boost and confidence.

Parisian influencer Jeanne Damas, for example, regards lipstick as her second skin and a form of protection. She puts on a vibrant lip color everyday even when she is wearing a mask. But of course, instead of wearing regular masks, she relies on the KN95 masks that have their recognizable center crease. They might make her look like a duck but do a great job in avoiding smearing, Damas said.

4. What are their methods to improve or solve the above situations?

KN95 mask is an option, also something like a 3D Face Mask Inner Pad Bracket Holder. Some beauty consumers even look into how women from communities that require them to cover up their faces do their lips makeup and without getting them smeared. According to Jessica Richards, owner of beauty boutique Shen in Brooklyn, people are also booking lip blushing treatments which basically stain the lips with mineral pigment for up to six to twelve months. Beauty brands have also come up with lip stains and tinted lip balms that promise consumers non-smear lips.

5. So far, face masks will continue being an inseparable self-protective accessory in our lives until the Covid-19 virus is completely out of picture. If there is a design or a material that can be applied to the making of face masks and prevent makeup from getting messy, what would that be?

Recently, I read about a really interesting article about a new kind of Xylinum Mask prototype made by the Sum Studio in Brooklyn. Why will the xylinum mask be an amazing invention if it is actually put into use in our lives? As the founders Garrett Benisch and Elizabeth Bridges explain on their website, “the KN95 masks are made from melt blown non-woven plastic fabric at the perfect precision in order to filter particles containing pathogens. These materials are paramount in our fight to stop spread of Covid-19, yet our essential workers are lacking supply of them. This is due to the machining and precision required to make the fabric”. The cost of producing the xylinum masks, in comparison, is relatively low and environmentally friendly. Benisch and Bridges simply grew their own bacterial cellulose (a substance created by a common bacterium called xylinum acetobacter) in their home kitchen. The bacteria require very little nutrients to feed on and as they multiply, they “knit cellulose fibers into a single membrane”. Through microscopic images, people can see the woven web of cellulose fibers that look as tight as the KN95 mask. If face masks will continue being our companions in the future, this might be an amazing replacement. Because just as the inventors comment, thanks to the translucency of the material, people are allowed to better communicate with others and have their lips read as if not wearing a mask at all. In this case, this might be good news to the lipstick lovers, for they will be free to show their lips to the world again. Hey, they are kept safe and pretty by the mask at the same time.

Display of a Xylinum Mask. Photo Credit to the Sum Studio.
Microscope View of Bacterial Cellulose. Photo Credit to the Sum Studio.

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