To The Beauty Products I'll Never Use

They signify youth, life, and loss.

by Alix Strauss
Originally Published: 

My first introduction to beauty was through Bonnie Bell’s Lip Smackers. I was in the fifth grade and I remember needing to have each flavor — watermelon being my first and favorite. Then came a second incarnation — a holiday gift set that I called The Untouchables. I wanted to keep them perfect and pristine. And that’s how they remained.

Fast forward several decades and my box of Untouchables remains, though its contents have been whittled down to just a few collections that have withstood the test of time: Urban Decay's tribute to Pulp Fiction, Nars’ homage to Andy Warhol and his Factory, and MAC’s whimsical and visual riff on The Simpsons, complete with Marg Simpson blue Lipglass, a nod to her 10-foot-tall bouffant hairdo.

For me, these beauty collections move the makeup needle closer to artistic intentionality. They are masterfully clever, irreverent, and highly sophisticated; tangible pieces of personality paired with sentimentality and nostalgia. And they’re rich in memory — for what they represented, where I was when they were launched, and the iconic moments they honored.

Each epitomizes a different creative piece of who I am: Pulp Fiction is the edgy, slightly dark, slightly misunderstood storyteller, often moving to a soundtrack only I can hear. The Simpsons is detailed and multi-dimensional; a deeply layered experience wrapped up in a seemly simple cartoon. And Warhol — a piece of New York history. Of being ahead of his time. The outsider who saw art, people, even the way we lived, differently.

Courtesy of Nars

Pop culture and beauty have long had an intense love affair. Limited editions that specifically highlight a celebratory milestone or pay homage to an icon, if done correctly, are a seamless marriage of wearable art; tribute meets usability. They are captivating and time capsule-worthy; filled with memory and dedication, immortalized in supreme shimmers, shiny glosses, high-pigmentations, and purposeful packaging.

Unfortunately, most limited-edition beauty collaborations these days now feel instant without the gratification; void of legitimacy or personal connection. Others have lost the cultural references, the iconic experience and historical moment.

What makes my collection of Untouchables feel different? “When you choose to collaborate with artists or something of cultural significance, there has to be a connection between the values of the brand and what the cultural [moment] represents,” says Silvia Galfo, general manager of Giorgio Armani Beauty. Melanie Dir, creative director at beauty incubator Flash Beauty, says they should be “authentic and visionary curated… there needs to be innovation paired with functionality, longevity, and credibility.”

Wende Zomnir, who created Urban Decay in 1996, was already a huge fan of Pulp Fiction when she launched the collection. The 2012 launch coincided with the 20th anniversary of the movie and was a throwback to the brand’s beginning. The collection included details for super-fans, including a nail and lipstick color that mirrored what Uma Thurman wore called Be Cool Honey Bunny; Zomnir put Samuel Jackson’s speech, “The Path of the Righteous Man,” on the front of the eye shadow palette.

MAC’s The Simpsons collection honored the show’s 20th anniversary and the cartoon family’s matriarch, Marge. The products highlighted everything the show was and is — original, intelligent, and satirical. Lipglass shades included: Nacho Cheese Explosion, a bright neon lime yellow; Red Blazer, fuchsia; and Itchy & Scratchy & Sexy, electric blue violet. There were shadows, blushes, false lashes, even Marge Simpson’s Cutie-cles Nail Stickers.

Perhaps my most treasured Untouchable is Francois Nars’ Andy Warhol Holiday Collection: 29 pieces of cosmetic art released in 2012. It magnificently and authentically emulated and paid tribute to Warhol’s milieu and muses — Debbie Harry, Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick, and his legendary Factory. Included in the assortment were images and sayings that were synonymous with its creator — think lip glosses housed in a metal soup can whose names depicted places and people from that time, the Silver Factory and Chelsea Girls; a lemon-yellow nail polish called 15 Minutes; and eyeshadow palettes imprinted with Warhol’s 1967 “Self Portrait,” and 1965 “Flowers” painting. A Warhol witticism was inscribed in each compact mirror: “I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” and “All is pretty.”

My desire to keep the Untouchables in perfect condition — unused, untouched, sealed away like artifacts — is personal, psychological, and emotional. It’s paired with a strong desire to hold onto a specific moment, and perhaps my youth.

Robert Thompson, director at the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, calls this nostalgia. “In this society, we label ourselves voluntarily by what we connect to. We advertise our identity through our taste,” he said. “These items express our identity. There’s a sensitive, intelligent, conscious that comes with the products we keep.” These items bring me joy because I understand the inside jokes. I appreciate the creative endeavors. The tangible promise of forever.

And these items represent loss. For the moments we can’t hold on to, and the lives that are no longer here. I was 18 in February of 1987 when Warhol died. I remember understanding his significance and contribution then, and even more so now. Pulp Fiction premiered two years later in ‘89. I recall being mesmerized by the performances as I sat with a few college friends in a room filled with strangers as we all shared a specific experience found in the very last screening of the evening.

Perhaps these collections ask or represent the questions I myself am still trying to answer: where do I belong and how do I fit in?

Today they remain in a sealed box currently located inside my closet where I keep my will, contracts, copies of my filed taxes, and apartment paperwork.

These items feel important to have, even more so to keep; unused, like my Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers. A product collection that serves as a “short chapter in your autobiography,” Thompson says. Memories and moments of my former self, frozen in time.

Galfo puts it simply: “If you use it up, you cannot get it again.”

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