“We can be a lot braver than most brands.” What I learnt from the Harvey Nics beauty buyers

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beauty buyers

The phrase ‘dream job’ means different things to different people. As a woman who can’t go out to buy a sandwich at lunchtime without silently saluting the buyers and visual merchandising teams behind my favourite shop windows, it’s no surprise that being a buyer for Harvey Nichols meets my personal definition of being a dream job.

Plus, having first dabbled in the world of perfumery as a young child, when I sensed that the only thing that could possibly make my mother’s Chanel No. 5 even better would be decanting it into the sink where I lovingly mixed it with flowers from the garden and other delicious fragrances, I learned two things. Firstly, that I really love the creativity of fragrance, lotions, potions and colour – my mum’s make-up, skincare and fragrances were fascinating and magical to me. Secondly, that neither Chanel No. 5 nor indeed my parents’ garden was improved by my intervention. Quite the opposite, in fact. So I retired early from the perfume game, but I’ve taken so much pleasure in watching people who really know what they’re doing create beautiful fragrances over the years. And so these days I’m inclined to think that if there’s one thing better than being a buyer for Harvey Nichols, it’s being a beauty buyer for the brand.

Admittedly for me, writing this blog right now and getting to spread the word about some of the best brands, and in my opinion at least, the most interesting people in the world is my personal dream job. And it’s probably a relief to my mother that my career path has led me towards notebooks and computers and away from raiding her dressing table. However, I’ve retained enough of a fascination with the world of skincare, cosmetics and fragrance (especially at the luxury end of the market) that an invitation from the team at the Harvey Nichols Beauty Bazaar to join a group of leading stylists, make-up artists, bloggers and influencers to ask Virginie Duigou, Head of Beauty Buying, and Shannon Monteith, Buyer for Perfumery and Cosmetics, a few questions was an absolute dream assignment.

Upon arriving at the Beauty Bazaar, we were presented with cocktails, and fragrances, skincare and cosmetics were laid out to spritz, swatch and generally play with after we’d asked our questions. As we waited for Virginie and Shannon to arrive, there was a quiet hum of conversation and a general sense of anticipation. As I got out my notebook, it felt a little like going back to school (but so much better. There were certainly no cocktails and make-up samples to be had at my school!)

The first new piece of information I gleaned was that “there are more astronauts in the world than parfumiers,” as Virginie told us at the beginning of our Meet the Buyers session. That’s one of those facts that I sense will stay with me. (Learning the ratio of astronauts to perfumiers is incidentally also something that I’m pretty sure was missing from my secondary education, which is a shame, because it’s the sort of information that I sit up and pay attention to!)

We also heard about how Harvey Nichols launched MAC into the UK market back when people thought that bringing an artistry brand to the masses would never work, and how Tom Ford chose the brand to launch his fragrance collection (which, like MAC, we can’t help but feel has gone on to do rather well!)

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Another brand that’s made some serious waves in the beauty industry after launching with Harvey Nichols is, of course, Rihanna’s cosmetics brand, Fenty. Shannon told us: “Being involved with the Fenty launch was amazing in lots of different ways. To be a part of what was the biggest beauty launch in the UK ever was a fantastic experience. The make-up category in general was in decline, but Fenty changed that.”

She added that seeing how hands-on and passionate Rihanna was made the launch even more memorable, saying: “She picked two girls who had been queuing for hours and did their makeup. It’s nice to see someone so involved with their brand and their customers.”

Shannon concluded: “We couldn’t keep up with the press during the Fenty launch. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen!”

Shannon and Virginie both agreed that one of the things that made their jobs so exciting was that they could take a chance on fledgling brands and could be much braver than most retailers, with Virginie adding: “We’ve been working with Chanel in the Knightsbridge store and we’ve persuaded them to do a sticker pop-up, which is so much fun because it’s something that a brand like Chanel would never ordinarily do.”

As our Q&A session with Shannon and Virgine drew to a close, there was just time to ask whether we can expect any exciting brand launches at the Harvey Nichols Beauty Bazaar over the coming months (in a word, yes!)

In terms of emerging trends, the buyers told us that after the days of Kardashian-inspired heavy contouring, the focus has returned to skincare, with customers seeking a natural glow and make-up with skincare benefits. They added that rather than layering up products, we’re recognising that the most important thing is to get your skincare right first. They also said that lipgloss is making a comeback (look out for products like Hourglass’s Lip Treatment Oil, for the 2019 take on lip gloss with a big side order of hydration). Alternatively, if you’re not ready to embrace glossy lips again, they recommended La Mer’s lip balm as one of their ultimate desert island buys. Their final trend predictions? Sustainability and knowing that products are cruelty free is becoming increasingly important to shoppers.

As I put away my notepad and we all said our goodbyes, I was struck by how good it feels to hear people at the top of their game talk about what they do with passion. Admittedly the fact that Shannon and Virginie’s game happens to involve amazing skincare, beauty and fragrance brands was what got me through the door in the first place, but I like to think that whatever field they were working in, seeing two women making serious waves in their workplace and clearly having fun while they do it would’ve fired me up just as much.

Thank you to Shannon and Virginie for sharing your beauty know-how and to the Beauty Bazaar team for the invitation.

If you’d like to read about a woman whose early experiments with fragrances and potions made in her home turned out rather better than mine, here’s His & Hers’ interview with the legendary Jo Malone CBE.

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