Jared Bailey is the “global brow expert” for Benefit Cosmetics. He travels to about 40 countries every year, talking brows with women. According to Bailey, they like them dramatic in the Middle East, straighter in Korea and with a “soft, fluid look” in his native America. Even his email signature is brow-themed. “Don’t Let Anyone With Bad Brows Tell You Sh*t About Your Life,” it reads.
Bailey isn’t a beauty-industry oddity – Benefit is a global brand, owned by luxury behemoth LVMH, with more than 1,400 stores, and its retro-packaged products are sold in 45 countries. And brows are big business – worth £20m in the UK, up from £6.5m five years ago. According to the market research company NPD, British women spend, on average, £200 a year on eyebrow grooming. Bailey and colleagues are out to increase this. In June, Benefit launched a range of eight brow products, three years in development, and are now the market leaders, with 50% of the market share. Moving from a trend to a boom makes brows the beauty story of the decade. Along with Benefit, there is Amazon bestseller Wunderbrow, a pencil and mascara-type wand that promises semi-permanent brows, and HD Brows, a British company set up in 2008, which was the top brow-related search on Google in the last quarter of 2015. Net-a-Porter had 20 brow products three years ago; now, it has 150.
New brow advances include eyebrow transplants and microblading, a kind of tattooing where tiny strokes of ink are added to resemble hairs, a treatment that lasts up to three years. Beauty service booking app Treatwell reports that HD Brows and microblading are growing in popularity. Treatwell’s beauty director, Liz Hambleton, says HD Brows is in the top 10 most booked treatments in Liverpool. Tinting and threading searches are up 50% nationwide on 2015.
Eyebrows have a corresponding new visibility in popular culture. In 2014, a Vine by American teenager Peaches Monroee went viral with the phrase “eyebrows on fleek”, referring to eyebrows looking particularly fabulous. There are more than three million Instagram posts with #brows, and more than 600,000 with #browsonfleek. There are more than 500,000 tutorials on YouTube, all with different diagrams on how to get your brows on fleek. One, by makeup artist Zukreat, has been viewed more than three million times. It stresses that you need at least an hour to get your eyebrows perfect.
In 2016, we are at what is sometimes called the hinge of the decade, the moment where the look of the 10s (or whatever they are called) is being solidified. If Bernice’s bob defined the 1920s and Twiggy’s eyelashes were the 60s, Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows will surely go on to signify the decade we are in now. It is thanks to Delevingne – or Her Eyebrowness, as she is called in September’s Vogue – that young women everywhere now have a brow icon. The Delevingne brow sits low on the face, is long, extending towards hairline and nose, and darker than your hair. “She brought brows to the masses, and it’s been so powerful,” says Bailey. “They’re a bit oversized, but the way she has embraced them and made them a good thing has made women want natural brows.”
Delevingne is not the only brow reference. There’s the scouse brow, a much-maligned strong eyebrow seen on Desperate Scousewives, and The Only Way Is Essex’s tattooed eyebrow, almost as much part of Amy Childs’ look as the infamous vajazzle. The Duchess of Cambridge could even be included in the brow revolution – hers have been dubbed a scouse brow.
Brows have always had trends, of course – from Cleopatra’s carbon-lined brows onwards. There are the pencil-like styles of Marlene Dietrich in the 30s, Audrey Hepburn’s thick eyebrows to emphasise her doe eyes in the 50s, glossy brows on Marie Helvin in the 70s and bushy brows on Brooke Shields in the 80s. When I was growing up in the 90s, it was all about the pencil-thin look, and celebrities such as Pamela Anderson or Drew Barrymore. I duly plucked mine to almost nothing and proceeded to draw them on, in kohl. The noughties went further. The likes of Sophie Ellis-Bextor or model Lara Stone had squeaky-clean skin with brows as an afterthought.
Over the 20 years since then, I’ve laboriously, painstakingly grown mine back. If, once, brows were an afterthought of beauty, they are now a focus. Alice Casely-Hayford, the 27-year-old fashion and beauty editor of Refinery29, says features on brows are universally popular on the site because “post-Cara, everyone cares about their brows. I don’t wear that much makeup, but I religiously get my brows done every 30 days. It’s my biggest beauty extravagance and heaven forbid she [the beauty therapist] takes off too much.”
The variety of brow appointments are astonishing. At Nails & Brows, Sherrille Riley’s salon in Mayfair, the appointments are booked up for months in advance for Sylvia Delbar, who is in possession of a pair of beautiful, glossy black eyebrows peeking out over glasses. For an appointment called a “brow makeover”, she tints my brows, threads the area, and generally provides brow wisdom. Delbar is originally from Iran where, she says, with only slight irony: “Eyebrows are our life.” My eyebrows come out looking smart, more groomed, but also natural.
At Browhaus, a chain that started in Singapore, I go for a consultation for the £550 “brow resurrection”, a semi-permanent, vegetable-dye treatment. At the Covent Garden salon, therapist Chermaine Patia, who herself has square-edged, precise brows, gives me an idea of what my brows would look like resurrected, with skilful use of pencil and knowledge of the geometry of brows – lining up the corner of my nostril to make my nose look smaller, and aligning the “tail” of the brow to the outer corners of the eye. The result is closer to Nigella Lawson – thick and wider than in their natural state.
HD is the ultimate in the celebrity-like brow – as the No 1 salon brow brand in the UK, with clients including Rita Ora, Nicole Scherzinger, Ellie Goulding and Nick Grimshaw. It was set up in 2008 by The X Factor makeup artist Nilam Holmes Patel (Twitter handle: @EyebrowQueen) and became associated with the strong, glam brows seen on Towie. Brow trends have changed since then, and it’s now all about the “fluffy brow”, using all the tiny hairs to create a more natural finish. At the Notting Hill salon, full of women with designer handbags, therapist Rebecca Morris says Delevingne and model Chloe Lloyd (a woman with serious brows, and more than 200,000 followers on Instagram) are the most common eyebrow icons. Morris gives me the 45-minute treatment, which costs £40 and involves tinting, waxing, threading, tweezing and filling in with two types of pencil. There are three colour choices for dark hair like mine – the Bombshell, the Foxy and the Vamp. My eyebrows, post-HD makeover, are now a defined, Instagram-ready statement. Most of Morris’s clients have this treatment every two weeks.
If the very English Delevingne is one face of brows, the general aesthetic could suggest there is a widening of the beauty ideal beyond blonde and caucasian. As Delbar suggests, brow beauty has long been a focus in the Middle East. “Threading and the heavy brow has heritage in the Asian and Arab communities where there isn’t really a history of the thin brow,” says Anna-Marie Solowij, beauty editor and co-founder of site Beautymart. “Those cultures have shaped, strong brows.” Bailey describes the Middle East as an influence: “It is so interesting for me to go there. Brows have been huge there for such a long time.” He namechecks Kuwaiti-based beauty blogger Dalalid – with 1.8m followers on Instagram and avatar-like brows – as one of his top influences. Meanwhile, at Browhaus, Patia says the so-called Korean brow – a straighter, but still strong look – is becoming popular.
Women of Indian descent dominate the brow industry, partly because threading originated in India. Vaishaly Patel, the woman credited with popularising threading in the UK, has Indian parents, as does Holmes Patel. Shapes, a brow threading bar worth more than $14m (£10.8m), was set up by Indian-born Reema Khan. Blink Brows’ Vanita Parti, whose parents are from India, is profiled in the most recent issue of the Gentlewoman magazine. She says most of the therapists at her 22 brow bars are Indian or Nepalese.
Age is also a factor in the brow boom – or the sweet spot on a Venn diagram where thirtysomething women out to thicken their brows (notably more youthful than a thin or sparse brow) meet the post-Delevingne generation that has ditched the tweezers and gone straight to the salon. “I don’t think my niece who is in the fifth grade will ever pluck her own eyebrows,” says Bailey, “and not just because she’s my niece. Young girls are being warned by their mothers who overtweezed in the 90s.” “There’s lots of debates on forums about whether girls who are 15 or 16 should get Brazilian waxes,” says Solowij. “It is a moot point, really, because they are, along with blowdries and mani-pedis. You can put brows into that.” At all the salons I visit, the therapists say teenagers are now regulars, although they won’t give them treatments until they are 16.
In 2005, Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs about teenage girls’ dressing and grooming not as a hobby but “as a kind of Sisyphean duty” to engage – and keep – the attention of men. More than a decade later, with the advent of social media in the mix, the perceived necessary grooming levels have increased. Treatwell’s Hambleton admits: “There’s an increasing pressure on women and men to look groomed at all times.” Contouring – a makeup technique first practised by drag artists to feminise features using shadow and concealer – is now standard for twentysomethings who grew up watching reality TV stars on Towie and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and consuming a constant stream of Glam Squad-created “selfies” on Instagram. Are brows part of a cartoon-like femininity designed for a phone screen rather than IRL?
Victoria Anderson, a researcher at Cardiff University who writes about social media, believes brows are a part of the power play underlying every selfie. She points to the Latin for eyebrow – supercilium. “It is the root of ‘supercilious’, a way to be superior and look down on other people,” she says. “That’s mapped into the selfie culture, where there’s an image to let other people see that you have status and power in the world.” The profile of the eyebrow and the selfie have no doubt grown side by side in the 2010s, with selfie queens such as Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Delevingne all in possession of power brows, but Anderson sees the connection between brows and power going back to Dietrich’s day. “All of these women were about control of their image,” she says. “With those Hollywood women, there was a weight behind them. Without wanting to sound judgmental, there’s a lot of emptiness in these images [selfies].”
If this is some of the cultural symbolism of brows, they are – for most women – the minimal toe-dipping into this extreme beauty world. “Women are aware they will be perceived and judged at any time and that’s not just the male gaze, it’s the peer gaze,” says Anderson. “Eyebrows are about power and self-definition.” Most women I know have a brow story, and a preoccupation. They’re the discussion topic around bar tables – a kind of beauty obsession that might be part of an objectified Identikit face designed for men but, on their own, not something generally on the male radar. “My friends who have no interest in fashion are engaging with beauty more, especially brows,” says Refinery29’s Caseley-Hayford. “False lashes and lip fillers, as seen on the Kardashians, are not for everyone. But everyone can do their brows.”
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