Bésame Cosmetics’s founder tells us about being a cosmetics historian and her thoughts on the “fast makeup” trend
Bésame Cosmetics’s gold lipstick tubes have long been a mainstay on the vanities of vintage makeup fans, but the brand truly captured the beauty world when their Cake Mascara went viral in 2016. Known for their authentic interpretations of antique beauty products, Bésame released a solid-form mascara inspired by a real 1920s product. Different from mascaras of today, the cake mascara becomes activated with water, causing makeup lovers everywhere to squeal with awe. Each product from the company is beautifully designed, with the kind of attention to detail that only could be produced by someone who truly knows about the fascinating history of cosmetics.
Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame’s founder, is an artist and makeup historian who immigrated to the States from Argentina when she was 12 years old. A background in visual arts and design helped Gabriela launch Bésame Cosmetics in 2004. She also used her vast knowledge to author a book, Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup.
At Bésame’s store location in Burbank, California, Gabriela told us about her incredible vintage makeup collection, her process for writing such an informative book, and what it takes to be a Bésame Girl.
HelloGiggles: How did your fascination with makeup begin?
Gabriela Hernandez: It definitely began when I was young, watching my mom, grandma, and aunts use makeup to look a certain way. Color also fascinated me, especially, red, which was always my favorite. I thought it looked so vibrant and it just attracted me. My mom and my grandmother used makeup to look polished and put together, but it wasn’t like they were using a ton of stuff to do it. It was just basic things, and it was really about grooming, how you put yourself together, how you accessorize and do your hair. Like I said, they weren’t using that many products, but they were able to make themselves look the way they wanted to.
HG: Your vintage makeup collection must be massive. What are some of your most prized vintage beauty pieces?
GH: Well, I have some pieces that are really, really old. And I love pieces from the early 1900s to 1920s, because you get to see really early development of makeup in history here in the U.S. Those are the earliest pieces that we produced here instead of being imported from Europe. Before that, we didn’t make makeup products, unless it was a pharmacy. But I’m talking about mass production of makeup. That didn’t start until a little later on, so those early, early pieces are fascinating because they show not only partly what people were using, but what products caught on as more mass products. They’re very fancy, actually, for what we would consider a mass product now, or a product that you would buy like at a CVS or Walgreens. They had brass casings and engravings, but this was considered mass back then.
It’s very interesting to see how they adapted those things and the colors they used. Where these production facilities were placed is kind of interesting as well, because they were getting most of the materials from meat byproducts, like grease and things that you get from a slaughterhouse. Because you would have makeup manufacturing close to slaughterhouses. So not only the piece itself, but finding out where it came from, how they made it and why, these things are what actually drive me to find more.
HG: Do you have anything from your collection that’s really weird?
GH: I have a hair remover piece that looks like one of those baking stones for pizza, but it has kind of a textured surface and you’re supposed to rub it on your skin to take away hair. Another one that’s really fascinating is a powder from early 1900s that they sold in three little vats in bright pink, bright orange, and really bright blue. And they gave you something that looked like a cheese grater. You were supposed to take these three powders and put in different amounts and then shake it in this thing, and that would be your face powder. You would adapt it to your skin color, ’cause if you mix those three together, even though it doesn’t seem possible, they actually turn into a flesh color. They were expecting women to do this during this period of time, which is fascinating to me. So without having a lot of instruction, they were expecting women to mix and match to their own skin tone.
HG: Was there anything that was hard to find back then that is all over the place now?
GH: Shadows are especially hard to find because people didn’t wear a lot of it. It was mainly worn in the evening, like if you had an outfit and you wanted some shading on your eyes, or you were going out at night. I do have an example of a very early one, and it kind of feels like black charcoal. It’s very rough and really dark.
HG: What was your research process like with the book?
GH: I started the line in 2004, so 2002 was when I started actually doing research. I kind of pulled all the research together to put it into one place so that people who were working on a show and needed quick access to information could find it in one location. That was the idea behind it because there really wasn’t one book that had all of this in it. I have really, really old texts from the 1700s and 1800s, so some of the information is from those. It’s kind of a compilation of a lot of different things. It was first released in 2011 and this is the second edition, which actually has more content in it, and more pictures. We kind of went a little bit deeper into some areas and have a lot more visual information.
HG: The beauty industry has changed so much since the book first came out in 2011. What would you say is the most different and still the same?
GH: Well, the most different is the speed to market. A lot of these trend-driven things, are really driven by the youthful culture of what people are into like for three months, and then they’re into something else. Because of how fast things can be made, there are people who just specialize in trend-driven. Just like fast fashion, we have fast makeup now. If unicorn highlighter is in, there are people who can can actually meet that demand, put it out, and then move on. So there are tons of companies who do that, which is totally a different thing from traditional makeup companies that take two to three years to develop product. Product development is a lengthy, lengthy process, especially when you have safety concerns that maybe these newer people really aren’t concerned with, because they’re in and out of the market so fast.
It’s a very interesting time, actually. There’s a lot of experimental, different voices in makeup. Not that it’s that different, because if you look at the book, we had men that actually dressed as women and performed as women, and they were envied by women because they thought they were so beautiful. This is not a new phenomenon — that women look to a man as an icon of beauty — this was done before. It’s just, you never hear about it. In the book, there’s a part where I actually talk about these characters that influenced fashion and makeup, so it’s not a new thing like people think. But it’s kind of coming around again, which all history does. When you read through the book, you kind of notice that things actually cycle where you thought, “Hey, wait a minute, I thought that was a new thing.” Like primer for shadow. No, it isn’t new.
HG: Bésame’s Cake Mascara went viral last year. Did you have any idea that it would have that kind of reach?
GH: No, actually, when I made the Cake Mascara I actually thought it would be my own pet project. I thought it was neat because it has a really early history. It was used in the early 1900s, mainly by men in a barbershop setting to darken their mustache or sideburns — it was called mascaro. Maybelline was the first to take that idea and actually sold it to women as Maybelline mascara to darken the lashes. So we brought the idea of that product into being relevant today. Before, cake mascara was made with a soap base and kohl, it was kind of brittle and hard. We reinvented it with vegetable waxes so that it’s soft and pliable and not harmful to your eye, but doesn’t flake off. And it works anywhere on your face, your eyebrows, hair, your liner, your mascara. And I think that’s probably why people took to it, because you could use it for so many things, and it doesn’t actually go bad. Because it’s water-activated, it doesn’t get any bacteria building up on the product itself. But I never thought anybody would want it. I thought, “Well, it’s more labor intensive, maybe people don’t want to go through the trouble of wetting the brush,” but I was surprised. I was really surprised.
HG: Bésame’s packaging is always so gorgeous. Do you still have a big part in the design?
GH: Yes, I still design everything that we do. A lot of my time is spent on product development, formula and packaging. I spend a lot of my time on that side of the business because all the pieces have to be designed. It takes us a while to design because a lot of time we move pieces to fit within a collection. There isn’t anything that exists and looks the way that it needs to look, so a lot of the things are made for us from scratch. It makes our product look definitely more unique than other products. But it’s a lot of fun, because we get to play with molding things and making pretty boxes and pretty appliques. These days with 3D printing and molding techniques that exist we can just do all kinds of really wild things. It’s kind of endless what we can do, which sometimes makes it harder, because there’s just so many choices. But we’re still focused on the product, what would make sense, and what would people want. I always go with, “Would I want this? Would I buy this?” If I would buy it, then other people might as well. If I don’t like it, I definitely don’t make it, that’s for sure.
HG: How would you describe the Bésame girl?
GH: I think the Bésame girl is kind of a frame of mind, because you have to feel glamorous. You have to feel pretty and it’s really that confidence to help you feel this way. It doesn’t really matter what you look like, because there are a lot of women in the past who weren’t traditionally a beauty, but they were very, very enigmatic and influential and charismatic. It’s the whole package, it’s not just the way you look. That’s the idea I really want to give girls. It’s not just what you put on your face, it’s really how you give yourself confidence and express yourself. It really is about you and how you carry yourself and how you address other people.