Black history is American history, and the history of Black beauty brands is no exception. Indeed, one can look to Black beauty products and brands throughout the 20th century and see in them a reflection of the era: from straightening and lightening products during the height of Jim Crow, to the launch of brands and ranges specifically catering to darker skin tones during the Civil Rights era.
By the 1990s—a decade that saw Black sitcoms dominating the screen, Black artists ruling the airwaves, and the first Black woman rocketing to outer space—Black people were also starting to see increased visibility in the makeup aisle. In that decade, some of the first still extant, accessible Black-owned makeup brands launched, including Iman Cosmetics and Black Opal.
It’s the latter of these brands that caught the eye of entrepreneurs and businesswomen Desiree Rogers and Cheryl Mayberry-McKissack. The duo has known each other for more than 25 years, and both served as executives for the Johnson Publishing Company in the 2010s (Mayberry-McKissack as COO and president of digital media, Rogers as CEO). Soon after, they made the decision to enter the world of beauty. With the perfect combination of what it takes to build a successful brand in the 21st century—digital media savvy and the know-how to scale up a business—all they needed was an established, well-loved label to apply these skills.
It’s more than just selling products. The brand strives to be a driver of job creation.
Enter Black Opal. Launched in 1994, the brand’s pigmented products—including its hero product, the stick foundation—and affordable prices (everything is under $20) made it among the rarest of finds for Black makeup lovers: color cosmetics that were as easy on the purse as they were vibrant and ash-free on the skin.
Though Mayberry-McKissack and Rogers had been eyeing the brand for some time, impressed by its quality, the duo completed the acquisition in June of 2019. “A time and point came when the owner, after 25 years, decided he’d entertain the opportunity, so Desiree called me and asked ‘Are you still in?’” recalls Mayberry-McKissack. “And even though I’ve learned to be a little bit more careful when Desiree asks me that, I still said, ‘Yes! Now what am I in for?’”
She continues: “They already have the high quality and the affordable price, so we could take what we know on the digital side, on the marketing side, on the promotion side … and really be able to add to it, and really perhaps make it into the global brand that we know it could be.”
Since taking over Black Opal, the duo has maintained the products consumers know and love (such as the aforementioned stick foundation, Mayberry-McKissack’s personal “desert island” beauty pick) while giving the brand a slick, millennial- and Gen-Z-friendly update: think sleek black packaging, and a campaign fronted by singer and actress Ryan Destiny. Perhaps most importantly, the product has become even more committed to making sure its products are specifically tailored to Black women—a natural byproduct of being led by Black women. The formulations focus on issues that are often front-of-mind for Black and brown consumers, such as hyperpigmentation, oliness, and larger pores. “All of these things are specific to our community, and we’re working hard to make certain our products deliver against the things we need them to deliver on,” says Rogers.
“We believe that we can see the brand through our own eyes; because we use the product, we experiment with new colors that are coming out, new formulations…we have a really dynamic black woman as our lead on product development,” she continues. “Some things just don’t work on our skin, so we can eliminate those things right away.”
Toward the end of 2019, the duo made headlines for purchasing another black legacy brand: Fashion Fair Cosmetics. Launched in 1973 by Eunice Johnson and named after her wildly successful traveling fashion show, the Ebony Fashion Fair, Fashion Fair Cosmetics offered something that had been practically non-existent before its arrival on the scene: department-store quality makeup specifically geared towards those with darker skin. In its heyday, the brand was the go-to for Black makeup lovers looking for elegant formulations, sold from the Caribbean to the U.K.
Though deeply saddened by the news that the brand was up for sale, a desire to preserve its storied history drove Mayberry-McKissack and Rogers to bring the brand into the Black Opal family. “I believe it is a good thing to preserve these iconics brands that have always served our community, and to lift them up, and to grow them,” says Mayberry-McKissack. “Because the base they established can’t be duplicated.”
Their vision for Fashion Fair is to bring their own unique perspective to a market that, while growing, is far from flooded—higher end products geared specifically towards women of color. “We discussed the potential of the brand, and how it really was very different from what we’re doing with Black Opal,” says Mayberry-McKissack.
We want to be game-changers on the cosmetics side, surprising and delighting our consumers, but we also want to be game-changers in the business of cosmetics.
When the new products launch (date TBA), fans can expect luxe packaging, modern web features like digital tools to find your perfect color match, and sales associates that are experts in skin of color because they too have skin of color. “All products are not made to be for everybody, they’re just not …. there’s not a one-size fits all in cosmetics and skincare,” says Mayberry-McKissack. “And that’s one thing we want to be clear about: We are unapologetic about the fact that we are bringing out products for Black women and Women of Color. We’re not trying to be all things for our people. We’ve got our hands full just doing that!”
Though Rogers and Mayberry-McKissack have a reverence for and understand the importance of- the past, they make it clear that they are utilizing that knowledge to build the future. That includes using these legacy brands to uplift up-and-coming Black creatives and companies. This serves to not just ensure that the products are being created and marketed by people who understand the consumer; it also helps move the needle of wealth for Black business owners in the face of massive wealth inequality.
“It’s more than just selling products,” says Mayberry-McKissack. “The brand strives to be a driver of job creation, making sure there is a strong representation with the people they work with, from PR to legal, is owned by people of color."
And once those brands are established, the duo hopes to further open the lines of communication between the creators and the retailers. “I think for us, one of the things that we’ll be looking to do—and we’re already working on this—is partnerships. How can we hold hands and partner together?,” says Rogers. “There’s a lot of opportunity across the space for us to work together and present things to consumers, but also ... ensuring that the groups we’re working with, like retailers, know some of the specific needs of minority-owned businesses, because sometimes it’s just about education and a conversation—it’s not just them versus us. It’s how can we all work together, so that we can ensure that we’re moving the business forward. We want to be game-changers on the cosmetics side, surprising and delighting our consumers, but we also want to be game-changers in the business of cosmetics, ensuring that we can create wealth for as many different minority- and woman-owned companies as we can.”