If you live in Karachi (or maybe even if you don't) and you're into makeup, there's a big chance you've heard of Bina Khan. She's one of the most well-known makeup artists in the city and she just wrote a "love letter to desi women" in the form of her new makeup line Just B Cosmetics.
This is a love letter in many parts but the first one is a line of lipsticks made especially for desi skin tones. "We're trying to make everybody, whether you're fair, whether you're white, brown, green, a girl or whatever gender, I don't care — everybody should have the facility of waking up in the morning and going I'm fine, I'm beautiful, I'm awesome or if you're not feeling great, have a product that says yes you are, just put me on, I got you."
Khan's line of lipsticks features five shade spectrums — red, peach, pink, champagne and magenta — but all of them come with 'not just' before the name. That's because each lipstick has two separable ends — one featuring a lipstick or pigment glaze and the other featuring a liquid lipstick or pigment fluid. The idea is that you can wear either end on its own or mix them together to get your own perfect blend.
Pakistani women are no strangers to mixing lipstick shades. "We're used to mixing a lot of colours to get results so we were very passionate about creating things that just work. In fact that's one of our key phrases 'products that work for us straight out of the box'," Khan explained to Images.
The colours are special formulas Khan has been using throughout her career as a makeup artist and are meant to plug a gap in the market. She described it as a "solid core collection where you get all the things you need" and to create this collection, she partnered up with software engineering leader Madiha Chan.
"I don't want to make something that is the same thing [as what's already in the market]. I didn't want to mindlessly pump another red lipstick with a makeup artist's name on it so we found the holes in the market," she explained. Part of the allure of her collection is that they have targeted areas that desi women have struggled with and made an inclusive spectrum rather than just one lipstick colour. That way, it works for everyone.
One problem a lot of desi women face is finding a great peach as many shades make your skin take on a slightly greenish pallor. To solve that problem, Khan had to create a peach that works for our skin, with a pinky-brown base and beautiful rich brown toasty caramel backing. "This means that whatever your skin tone is, if you're warmer skinned, you can use a lot of the brown and less pink," she said. It's up to you to create the colour.
"Rather than saying here's one colour for everyone, which is obviously not going to work, we've tried to give spectrums of colour," explained the makeup artist. "You can make your colour, either one is quite wearable on its own, but...it's up to you to play within the very safe parameters of the spectrum," she said.
Their 'aha moment' is the fact that you can snap the lipstick in two. That means you can toss one end into your bag, swap it with another colour or maybe even share it with someone else. The lipsticks have two very different textures — one has a "yummy, juicy texture", think Bree Van De Kamp from Desperate Housewives, while the other is a liquid lipstick that acts as a mattifying agent. Both are advertised as having a rich pigment.
Another interesting feature of the liquid lipstick is the wand.
The bottle has a suction seal to prevent too much of the product from getting on the wand, especially because the actual formation is a bit "whipped". The shape of the wand itself is sort of triangular, so that, as Khan explained, you can hit those Grace Kelly angles. "We tried to think around all of the problems that annoyed us as consumers and gave you something that ticks all the boxes. We hope to get as close to making people go wow as possible."
Not a rushed decision
Chan said they came up with the idea of Just B 10 to 15 days before the pandemic and while it was tricky, they used the pandemic as an opportunity to create something you can wear under a mask.
She uses the product herself and said for day to day looks, she wears the pigment glaze first and then seals it with the fluid so it doesn't move around.
The makeup line isn't, as many would assume, a response to the hit salons took during the pandemic. We wanted to make something for South Asian skin tones and address representation in the beauty industry, she said, adding that they had to get creative during the pandemic. "Things that could have happened much faster [were slowed down]," she said. The artwork and product development for the lipsticks all took place in California while the content formulation and assembly went down in Italy.
"The product finalised and became its thing during the pandemic but we had started the idea of building something before the pandemic started," she stressed.
Brown women deserve representation too
One of the biggest issues Khan and Chan hope to address with Just B is representation for South Asian women. The tones are wrong for us and advice also seems to be a bit off, noted Khan. When you go to a makeup counter or a dedicated makeup store and ask what to wear on your skin, the things they suggest rarely work, she said.
This, she said, is because makeup companies aren't really making products for our skin. The general global conversation on representation may be changing a bit with Fenty and the Black Lives Matter Movement but we're still almost invisible, she said.
One example of a token moment of representation is Indian makeup artist Mickey Contractor coming in for MAC and creating Mehr, a very, very popular lipstick shade that suits brown skin. "They know it's a hot seller so you would think [MAC] would address the needs of all these brown women but somehow we are constantly getting left out of this conversation."
The issue, Khan believes, is of pigment and not having the right depth and base tones to a product. The bright colours that work so well on paler skin don't always work on brown skin because, according to Khan, "we get left with the vibrant upper edge of a colour". "So when you put on a peach, all of the stuff that helps someone with a paler skin tone or non brown skin tone, we just eat that right up and all that's left is that explosive orange, so we look kind of gross in those peaches," she said.
One of the problems they have been keen to address is how to deliver colours that pop. So for Just B, Khan has created a line of pigment packed, rich lipsticks that you can use in just one swipe. They're actually worried about the other side of things — people using too much product.
The good thing is that Pakistani women have been very vocal in telling them what they want, according to Chan, be it on Instagram or Khan's YouTube channel.
"Most of us who have had a little bit of money and tried products know what doesn't work for us. What we're searching for is what can work for us, and we keep making these solutions happen." They arrived at a very logical conclusion — we aren't one dimensional, why should our products be?
This led to the colour spectrum in their products. "If you want to do a simple pink today, that's fine but if you want to do a punchy Sunday look , you should be able to do that and you shouldn't have to buy multiple products to do so," Chan explained. It's also more eco conscious to have two products in one, she added.
The two sides are full sizes and, according to Khan and Chan, the amount of product they're providing in each lipstick is more than other products. The price of a single lipstick is rather steep at Rs7,000 (or $38) but they reason that the consumer is getting two products in one.
L'Oreal's lipsticks aren't very far behind, Khan said, at Rs3,500 and people buy those like candy. She believes that Rs7,000 isn't an inconceivable spend considering the customer is getting two products and that people can be convinced to try one. She's also very confident that their products are such problem solvers that one won't be enough for most consumers.
The reaction to her lipsticks and the shades online has been positive so far, with people guessing the colours and some of the names — like the Kashmiri Chai — before they even dropped.
The little black dress of makeup
Initially, Khan wanted to call the company LBD — she wanted to make the little black dresses of makeup products that can be dressed up or down. It would be the core set of products that every woman needed.
The products are only available on the Just B website that went live today (October 21) but that doesn't mean people can't try them on. The website uses Augmented Reality to allow people to use the cameras on their phones to test out the lipsticks on themselves in real time. They can also upload pictures to see what the shades will look like.
Covid was one of the deciding factors for a website-only launch. Chan and Khan don't want to create a reason for people to be exposed.
They also aren't ready to disclose too much about their future plans because of the pandemic — it's too unpredictable and has already thrown many a plan for a loop. What they will say is that they want to cater to all the areas desi women struggle with.
We will always play with the concept of duality in our products, said Chan. Duality, she believes, is in the DNA of their brand — take the owners for example. Chan is a software engineering leader while Khan is a makeup artist — two very different fields. "Bringing innovation and experience together is our secret sauce. That's what makes us distinct and we want to keep bringing that in our products so you will see play with colour, textures, and the part that takes us longer is that we also want to deliver [our products] in a smart way."
Makeup with pyaar
The smart way, it seems, is to highlight desi skin tones rather than covering them up. Khan says the three models they chose for their campaign are of three different skin tones and aren't covered with "20 tonnes of makeup". "We were very specific about that. We [wanted] to honour each skin tone and make their skin as rich and beautiful as our desi skin [is]," she explained.
There's a lot of pyaar [love] going into this line and it even made Khan teary-eyed. "I accepted being a second class citizen in the beauty citizenship and now it's like someone cares about my face, my skin and me. The love we're putting into it is like saying 'you look so pretty girlfriend!'"
As a makeup artist, Khan has seen more than her fair share of desi skin and to her, it's all gorgeous. She sees a glow to our skin and has tried to incorporate that in her products. "We've tried to put that in the products and tried to have representation. If you see that you'll also believe it. If all you're being shown is blonde hair and blue eyes, no shade to people with blonde hair and blue eyes, but that's all we've been fed," she said. And she's fed up.
"We're trying to wear lenses and make ourselves white and all that jazz, but I think it's very important that we bring the representation for the love we have for warm skin to the table visually so girls can see themselves in these pictures and see themselves using the AR using these colours and feel that someone is looking at them and saying 'you're beautiful and you don't have to change yourself'. That's why the name, Just B, you can just be, you're good."
The makeup is the problem, not you!
One problem Khan sees as a makeup artist is that people don't seem to want to embrace their skin. Colourism is a huge issue in Pakistan and the rest of the Subcontinent and the battle to get women to love their skin colour is one Khan has been fighting for 25 years.
She acknowledges that there are a lot of reasons for people wanting to look fairer — classism, post-colonialism and a host of others — but it still genuinely shocks her when people say they don't like the colour of their skin. In the 90s, she saw pictures of supermodel Cindy Crawford who has "incredible caramel, tawny skin" and thought her look would be perfect to recreate in Pakistan but that was quite the opposite of what the brides who came to her wanted.
People come to her and reveal their insecurities which are almost always not as bad as they think. "Within our desi society of 'commenting love', we see people expressing love by saying 'acha beta we must fix your xyz', this is desi care but what it's doing is destroying everyone's self esteem!" she said.
Khan believes there's a lot of deep conditioning at play — "You've been convinced that there's something wrong with this, that's why just be."
She wants her fellow desi women to enjoy rich pigmented colours.
"Ladies, you're beautiful and blind to it. We are trying to shine a light on it. It's like, 'you are beautiful, here's stuff to make you realise you are beautiful'. No one has been looking at them that way or creating stuff for them," she lamented. "Imagine being a blue eyed blonde girl and putting on that bright peach in one swipe and being good to go. Why don't we deserve that?"
Most desi women look at the problem in the wrong way, believes Khan. "You don't think the lipstick is the problem, you think I'm the problem, there's something wrong with my skin," she said. People don't realise that the makeup is blind to you and the company doesn't want to make stuff for you.
"We have accepted low lying, incidental discrimination — you can call it by other names [and say] 'oh the market is not of interest — but even our own people, why has no one done this? Why is no one making a product [that] shows and enjoys the beauty of our skin tone?"
Chan said that's why they didn't go the route of private labelling, where manufacturers or companies can create 12 to 15 shades — your normal red, nude or something else along those lines — and artists can buy that range and just slap some branding on top. It take four to six months to come to market as the only thing that's left there is just the packaging, she explained. "And that's a viable option if you're addressing a skin tone that has been well addressed. For us though, that was a nonstarter."
Khan says this is not just a vanity product with her name on it in big lights. "I felt hurt hearing women go may itni woh hoon [I'm so that], no boo, you can't think like that! This is our love letter to desi women. You're stunning guys, and just a bit blind to it."