Back to Toxic Nature

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Illamasqua is a makeup brand that presents itself as created for artistic or theatrical use but sold directly to the consumer. They are a recent addition to the makeup landscape, but they’ve already created several highly conceptual collections. Their creative consultants include Dave Vanian from the seminal horror-punk band The Damned and Anja Huwe of German New Wave band X Mal Deutschland. Illamasqua’s spring collection is titled “Toxic Nature.” From the Illamasqua site:

“In retaliation against the genetically modified society that plunders it, the landscape has issued forth a torrent of hybrid shades. Corrupted hues glister amongst muted tones – extreme, intoxicating versions of their original selves.
This is an atomic-botanical environment where survival is key and camouflage by colour is the path to existence.

We scoured the abandoned toxic wastelands of the world to create an eclectic selection of corrupted hues for the eyes, lips, nails, face and body. Flitting effortlessly from poisonous pastel to hazardous neon, this cataclysmic mix of brave new tones take your look to the outer limits of nature’s palette.

Become a herald of the new age of Toxic Nature with uncharted night-time make-up.”

This apocalyptic imagery is starkly out of place among other makeup collections that tread well-worn paths between tropes of spring flower gardens and other pastoral imagery. This takes the expected spring pastels and recasts them as “Mould”, “Delirium” and “Radium.” The images that accompany the copy show women with painted doll-like faces posing in a smoggy wasteland. The makeup application closely resembles that of Japan’s Ganjuro Girls: a subculture devoted to taking the all-American California girl look to garish extremes, with darkly bronzed skin, harsh white highlights, and heavily exaggerated features, especially the curvature of the eyeshadow contouring and the semi-circular eyebrows. Why take this approach to sell peach nail polish and orange lip-gloss?

First, Illamasqua is cashing in the subcultural capital of consumers who grew up listening to The Damned or X Mal Deutschland or any number of other alternative bands. These consumers have traded in their Manic Panic and skateboards for VWs and Jeffrey Campbell. They probably aren’t in a position to sport green hair and ripped bondage clothes in their daily lives anymore. Some of them may be lucky enough to have creative jobs where a small amount of subcultural signals are tolerated–one tattoo peeking out, a nose ring, a discreet stripe of pink hair—but most of them have to pay the bills, and that means looking more like the boss.

So Illamasqua gives them an outlet. That office-appropriate beige nail polish isn’t beige, it’s “Bacterium.” For the wearer, the secret pleasure of the subversive apocalyptic narrative allows them to reaffirm their formative roots in punk, goth or whatever alternative culture they once felt at home in. The surrounding tale that accompanies this makeup is gothically nihilistic and (hopefully) off-putting to the consumer who wants a more naturalistic (read: normal) appearance. These colors aren’t just muted spring shades. Through the narrative, they become as threatening as a safety pin through the nose, even if it’s only the wearer who is aware of the intended menace.

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14 Responses to Back to Toxic Nature

  1. Pastabagel says:

    The first thing I thought of when I saw the poster was the ganjuro Japanese girls you mentioned. There is also a statement about soiled or lost innocence here. It’s clearly a grown-up model model, but her hair and makeup are garishly child-like. Raggedy Ann meets Tim Burton.

    “reaffirm their formative roots in punk, goth or whatever alternative culture they once felt at home in.” This statement is so true it merits repeating. This is a great example of a subculture being co-opted, stripped of its anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist politics and then sold back to the former members of that subculture. In that way it’s like Coke’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad which marketed Coke to ex-hippies who sold out and joined the corporate machine, maaaannn. Great post.

    • Carol the Long Winded says:

      This is yesterday’s news. Urban Decay has done this for years and MAC has too – in face, the current MAC ad is remarkably similar to this one. The “co-opting” started 15 years ago or longer when Urban Decay started up with its “toxic dump” kind of names. The only thing remotely new about this line of marketing is the use of obscure German singers to be “consultants.”

      If only they had used Nina Hagen!

      • vprime says:

        Urban Decay used to be edgy. They are now selling the same pink lipgloss as anyone else. Their latest collection is called “Rollergirl.”

        Yeah, the Mac Quite Cute campaign is a lot like this. I suspect it’s the Ganjuro girl/robot dolly thing that’s somehow in the zeitgeist. Then again Quite Cute is a rip off of Tokidoki.

        • AnonymousAtLarge says:

          To be fair, the rollergirl reference is reminiscent of the 70s, which in of itself is slightly edgy due to the sexual promiscuity/drug culture of that era. The “rollergirl” thing was not referencing a wholesome activity like rollerskating – it’s inviting you to think of discoteques and the seedy 70s.

          Urban decay typically puts out 60s and 70s themed collections for the summer. Two years ago they had the get baked palette (again, edgy name – baked as in pot smoking ala the 60s, as well as a reference to summer tans and bronzey eyeshadow). Then last year they did those bright colors for sephora with all the 60s themed names.
          This is just more of the same – another urban decay summer release with a 60s or 70s theme. Because summer is fun, light, and free, just like the spirit of the 60s and 70s.

          The edgy is still there, it’s just not quite as obvious or 90s as names like “roadkill” or “smog” like 15 years ago.

        • AnonymousAtLarge says:

          Quite cute is another japanese culture mock off, but to be fair I think it is one of the better MAC collections lately. I am not a fan of MAC but I totally want to pick up a lot from this one (I’m not even cool toned, but I love it anyway).

          MAC can’t really say it’s copying tokidoki because tokidoki is hardly original.

          BTW, tokidoki really does have fantastic eyeshadow. The quality is surprisingly good.

      • Fifi says:

        I totally agree Carol and these kinds of looks have also shown up on runways with some regularity – contemporary fashion is very often copied from what’s going on in the street. Though Dave Vanian is British not German (can’t say I really think of The Damned as “horror punk”, at the time they were just punk, which included all kinds of different bands – it wasn’t about everyone being the same). Which is not to say there isn’t a Japan-West-Japan-West off-pop culture cycle at work here but considering the consultants this seems more related to their punk aesthetics than it is ganjuro girls inspired – we’d have to talk to the makeup artist and art director to know for sure.

        This is fashion, they’re not just selling to aging punk rockers (if they really are at all) but to anyone who wants to be edgy (in a fashion sense, this is where haute couture and the street meet and always have) – this is actually more likely to be younger girls than us older ladies. Punk aesthetics got commodified a very, very long time ago and actually started out as fashion (Vivian Westwood being ground zero in London and Patricia Fields in NY). Also, the girly Japanese subcultures got “appropriated” and marketed by Pink quite a few years back now so that boat has sailed or was launched a while back. And, it seems like this is a German makeup company so the punk Fraulein look may well come from that source too (certainly Huwe would have that reference point). Considering that punk fashion has come in and out of style over and over again, it’s not like anyone pining for leather and studs can’t actually wear them at the office and be acceptably (and now quite conventionally) fashionable. Every fashion maven has a leather jacket in her closet by now!

        The other reference point for a photo like this is photographer Cindy Sherman’s work.

        Not sure about all the other old punk rockers out there but pretty much everyone from my crew (who is still alive) actually have jobs or lives where they can dress how they want (and not all punks leaned towards goth and heavy makeup, skate punks and US hardcore didn’t). Most of my friends have retained their individual aesthetics to some degree, however, for a lot of us punk was actually about innovation and not being stuck in the past like dirty old hippies who were all nostalgic for the “good old days” ;-) It’s always kind of odd to see some kid dressed in what amounts to a punk uniform with your band name sprayed on the back of their leather jacket – makes me want to go up to them and tell them that they can make their own culture and that’s what it was all really about. Nostalgia, it’s not very punk ;-)

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        Say what you will, I still like urban decay. I admit I have an embarrassing amount of it, probably every shade they make. It’s a guilty pleasure.
        To be fair, urban decay still sometimes releases edgy colors… their fall lip junkie lip gloss featured superdark plum and black with glitter. Though they have backed off on the shimmer and glitter and other fun stuff, they still do have way more glitter than other companies (even though most women and girls tend to shy away from the glitter because you can’t make neutral looks with it “omg glitter everywhere help”.

        All of these makeup companies are completely and shamelessly ripping off japanese subcultures – tokidoki, tara tarantino, MAC’s done it a few times, and now illamasqua. It’s pretty much ubiquitous in the fashion world as ewll as pop music/culture, whenever a makeup or fashion brand or a popstar wants to be edgy, they turn their eyes to japan’s punk-little girl lost-victorian-gothic style and steal what they can. Gwen Stefani has made millions doing this.

  2. operator says:

    At risk of being hyperbolic, is it more telling that there are those so desperate for an identity that they will settle for disingenuously-branded “alter ego” war-paint in lieu of buying a visibly “different” identity off the rack at Hot Topic or that there exists an industry to capitalize on them?

    • Pastabagel says:

      I think it’s more telling that there exists an industry to capitalize on them. Once you convince people that identity is constructed through the acquisition of products, the game is over, because industry can adapt in real-time to provide new identities. This is why ever advertisement also functions as an advertisement for consumerism generally. In other words, and ad that tells you can construct a goth identity by purchasing this makeup is also telling you that identity can be constructed through makeup (or Hot Topic, or BMW or whatever.)

  3. Fifi says:

    What I like about their campaign is that they’re blatantly promoting creating an “alter ego”, they’re recognizing that putting on makeup is playing at being someone else and not actually creating your personal identity. Like it or not, public identity is created via how we present ourselves – this is hardly something new or contemporary and predates advertising. It’s good not to mythologize the past as some halcyon time when looks and dress didn’t matter, dress and costumes (and makeup) have always been used as social signifiers – even when it was only rubbing pigment onto our naked skin.

    “Illamasqua is the product of a heady mix of influences. Its roots stem from the dark and illicit 1920s club scene, and combine a rich heritage in the manufacture of make-up for film and theatre. It also takes inspiration from members of the ‘alternative scenes’ for whom self-expression is paramount. Alternative cultures have always dared to be dramatic. They have an emotional attachment to making up. It’s an expression of their darker side, a release for their alter ego.

    Illamasqua is for the bolder person hiding inside all of us. It is an act and an attitude. A symbol of tolerance. A celebration of idiosyncrasies. A confident statement of self-ownership.”

    They actually seem to be British in origin.

  4. Fifi says:

    From my understanding, which may be less than perfect, a narcissistic personality disorder is mistaking a constructed self image for who you are (your internal sense of self is dependent upon an external image reflected back to you by others and that requires constant outside affirmation). NPD is not actually about alter egos – it’s about ego (or, more specifically, a disruption of ego where one mistakes the false or public self or public image for the private, internal self). An alter ego may express and reveal aspects of who someone is but the very fact that it’s an alter ego that one is conscious that it’s play acting, means that it’s not being mistaken for the entirely of who one is or one’s essential self. You don’t stop being you and get all upset if people see you without the costume or mistake the costume for who you are.

    The implied idea that going for a “natural/normal look” in makeup is somehow less artificial than an openly artificial look is interesting because, in reality, it is no less artificial (in fact, it’s the person trying to pretend they look a way they don’t really look – it actually seems more aligned with aspects of NPD in many ways because it’s intended to fool others and be read as a true self). We can say that people are just “enhancing” their looks but it’s really is an attempt to fool others in a way that blatantly artificial makeup isn’t. I say this as a woman who wears different styles of makeup, or no makeup, depending on context and how much bother I feel like putting into my appearance on a particular day. How I look doesn’t change who I am, it does change how the world and others respond to me (not my friends most of the time, who obviously know me, but the world at large – though some men I know respond differently according to how I dress up or down).

    I suspect many straight men may be a little bit less aware of how social drag works and it comes as a bit of a revelation to them when they do notice it. There seems to be an assumption that women are equally unaware but, in my experience, most of us aren’t – we may have varying levels of understanding and awareness, and serious or playful engagement with it, or non-engagement, depending on all kinds of factors, but the awareness is there. Men also have their own version of social drag but I’m not sure if there’s quite the same awareness for many straight men simply because a lot of men don’t play with identity/alter ego quite as openly (Gay men obviously do, even if they’re hyper masculine). I could be wrong, and I’m open to having my perception shifted about the matter, but this is how it seems to me from my experience.

    • philtrum says:

      I agree. TLP touched on that with a remark about women and shoes a while back, IIRC. We are basically playing dress-up.

      So the woman buying Illamasqua might be thinking a number of things: “I like this colour”, “I like this colour and it amuses me that a fairly innocuous shade is called Bacterium”, “I wear a colour called Bacterium and not a colour called Champagne Beige because I’m an edgy person”…it could be narcissistic, or not.

  5. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    Well technically illamasqua has quite a lot of extreme colors in their collection. If you go to an illamasqua counter I assure you that for every neutral shade there is a bright neon green or blue or yellow to counter it. An illamasqua counter looks like an artist’s palette – every color you need to create whatever look you want. In fact, the neutral shades are way less than the bold bright shades.

    The reason makeup advertisements tend to emphasize the milder office friendly colors is because these colors are the most popular and the biggest sellers. Most women don’t want bright green eyeshadow and nailpolish, they just want a little neutral makeup for work or whatever. It’s the makeup enthusiasts and makeup artists who care about those crazier looks and colors.
    MAC has vanilla pigment, ricepaper, shroom, orb, nylon and various other light, skin-colored shades.
    Stila has Kitten – a pink champagne shimmer, neutral shade.
    Urban decay has a shade called “midnight cowboy” which looks just like kitten except with medium sized glitter in it.

    So every makeup company has those shadows which are neutral and office friendly and sell well.

    But they also have their bold colors which everyone* loves* even if they don’t necessarily wear it all the time. For example, MAC has colors like Bitter (charteusse green), Brick Red (bright matte orange) or sunny spot (bright yellow. Urban decay has colors like fishnet which is kind of a cult classic – bright in your face shimmery magenta. NARS has the “rated R” duo which contains a matte chartreuse with a bit of shimmer in it, next to a cobalt blue matte with shimmer. You are not going to wear “rated R” every day assuming you are not manic, but makeup enthusiasts love it all the same because its gorgeous and unique.

    I’m not a fan of the illamasqua brand. They are like a second rate MUFE, a failed NARS, and now they seem to be trying to edge in on what urban decay usually does best (edgy punky packaging). I mean, it’s good makeup but there just isn’t room for them, I see no reason to purchase their products over other makeup brands which do what they are trying to do better than them.

    However one thing I can say for illamasqua is that their makeup counters are always so bright and colorful. One thing you cannot accuse this brand of doing is releasing office friendly boring makeup and selling it as edgy. That is blatantly false… scan an illamasqua counter is like looking at a rainbow, vivid bright and completely unusual colors.

    I am not and never was a fan of their names. They’re not particularly creative and try way too hard.