TWENTY YEARS ago Leonard Lauder, the heir to the Estée Lauder beauty empire, observed that during economic downturns consumers liked to sweeten belt-tightening with small indulgences. He called it the “lipstick effect”, after one common pick-me-up. Disappointingly for Italy’s “lipstick valley”, a part of Lombardy that, according to Cosmetica Italia, an industry group, produces 55% of the world’s eye shadows, mascaras, face powder and lipsticks, consumers mostly shunned these little luxuries amid the pandemic recession. Whether because maquillage is less meaningful on grainy Zoom calls or contoured lips invisible behind face-masks, sales of Italian makeup-makers fell by 13% last year.
Luckily for Italy’s beauty firms, shoppers are desperate to show their faces in public again. “When the masks come off in June people will go crazy,” predicts Dario Ferrari, who founded and runs Intercos, the valley’s biggest firm and the world’s largest contract manufacturer for makeup. Denizens of lipstick valley also stand to benefit from two longer-term trends: the rise of the image-conscious Asian shopper and of direct-to-consumer makeup brands that need contract manufacturers to bring their Instagram feeds to life.
Lipstick valley is the latest industrial cluster to emerge in northern Italy. Although France makes more cosmetics, including skincare and body lotions, Italy has carved out a niche in makeup. The environs of Crema, a medieval city an hour’s drive to the east of Milan, in particular attracted such companies starting in the late 1990s, with proximity to the creative ferment of the Milanese fashion scene as well as the technical expertise of an earlier cluster of chemicals firms. Intesa Sanpaolo, a bank, reckons that around 350 cosmetics startups were created between 2012 and 2017, mostly in lipstick valley.
Today the area is home to more than 1,000 companies in the makeup sector, which generate annual revenues of €12bn ($14.5bn). In the few years before the pandemic they were benefiting from the bright and brash beauty trends rewarded on social media. Lipstick valley was in expansion mode. Ancorotti Cosmetics, a family firm which makes one-fifth of the world’s mascaras, acquired and repurposed a factory near Crema once owned by Olivetti, a defunct industrial giant.
Mr Ferrari is confident that his company will recover swiftly from the slump. Sales in March were already higher than in the same month in pre-pandemic 2019, he reports. He is particularly bullish on custom from upstart brands. Luca Solca of Bernstein, a broker, says that the combination of social media and digital distribution has led to greater fragmentation of the beauty business. Two decades ago the vast majority of Intercos’s sales went to traditional beauty firms such as Estée Lauder or L’Oréal. Today only half do; direct-to-consumer brands account for about a third (the rest is bought by retailers like Sephora for their private labels). ”You can come to us and we can make a brand in six months,” Mr Ferrari boasts.
He is also eyeing Asia. Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, expects sales of cosmetics in China alone to double between 2019 and 2025, to $145bn. Last year Intercos took full control of a joint venture with Shinsegae, a South Korean retailer, which allows Intercos to manufacture Shinsegae’s popular brands—and also tap into K-beauty trends, which have conquered the world. It already manufactures products for Perfect Diary, an Instagrammable Chinese brand whose parent company, Yatsen Holding, listed in New York last year.
Mr Ferrari’s fellow lipstick-valley bosses are likewise looking east. Investors—including eastern ones—are in turn looking at them. In December GIC, Singapore’s sovereign-wealth fund, bought a minority stake in Mr Ferrari’s family holding company. Giovanni Foresti of Intesa Sanpaolo calculates that Italian cosmetics-makers’ retained earnings are higher than for the average domestic manufacturer and they spend much more on research and development. Before the pandemic Mr Ferrari was planning to list Intercos on Milan’s bourse. No wonder bankers are nagging him to revive the idea. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Down and up in lipstick valley”