Fashion Fair makeup

Makeup artist Amelia Washington applies makeup to a customer at the Fashion Fair cosmetics counter at the Carson's store in the North Riverside Park Mall. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune / July 16, 2014)

Terez Baskin used to bypass Fashion Fair Cosmetics when she shopped for makeup.
So did Courtney Waldon.

But on a recent visit to the company's downtown Chicago headquarters, they and a handful of other fashionable young women were oohing and aahing over the brand's new lipsticks and eye shadows that carried names such as Catfight, Lace and Rage.

What changed their opinion? A makeover, of course.

Aiming to shed its image among young African-American women as the brand their grandmothers and mothers wear, Fashion Fair Cosmetics is in the midst of a reset. The storied cosmetics brand, designed for African-Americans, wants to be better known for its trendy turquoise eye shadows and of-the-moment nude lipsticks.

Over the past few years, Fashion Fair, a unit of privately held Johnson Publishing Co., has shed its products' cotton-candy pink packaging for sleeker cases sporting chocolate and silver tones.

It has launched new cosmetics and is working to boost its online and international sales.

Department store displays are getting face-lifts too -- the first was at Macy's Herald Square in New York -- with mini-face-lifts in several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and Miami, to follow this year.

"We have the legacy of what this company represents and the passion and energy to keep evolving," said Amy Hilliard, who joined the company in February as president. "It's coming from a base that no one can take away from us. How fabulous is it that I'm able to buy cosmetics from a line that (has) always been geared toward people who look like me?"

To get the word out, Fashion Fair is taking a step beyond its traditional advertising on the pages of its parent company's Ebony and the now digital-only Jet magazines. That includes courting influential beauty bloggers such as Baskin and Waldon at informal gatherings featuring croissant sandwiches and sweet tea.

During her visit to Fashion Fair's offices, Waldon tried the foundation and a brightly colored eye shadow called Livid. She left the luncheon with a bag full of samples.

"It (feels) very light," she said of the makeup. "It was no more of that orange look the foundations used to have."

Fashion Fair, founded in 1973, describes itself as a prestige brand, positioning itself among power players such as M.A.C., Estee Lauder and Clinique. Such cosmetics generally carry a premium price, often five times that of a drugstore brand. For instance, Fashion Fair's True Fix foundation is $29, compared with CoverGirl's Clean Liquid foundation, which is $5.94.

Across the country, Fashion Fair cosmetics can be found at 500 department stores, including Macy's, Carson's and Dillard's.

Department stores account for about 27 percent of all U.S. cosmetics sales, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. But that has been shrinking, squeezed by rapid growth online, which accounts for about 14 percent of cosmetics sales.

Fast-growing specialty beauty shops such as Sephora and Ulta Beauty also are pressuring department store cosmetics sales, analysts said.

Officials said Fashion Fair has no plans to lessen its focus on department stores, but it also isn't set to say if it will try to expand into Ulta or Sephora.

Its online sales, which make up less than 5 percent of total revenue, are growing quickly, up 17 percent last year.

"Our first priority is to ensure we have optimized our business with our existing partners," said Desiree Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. "We believe there is tremendous untapped opportunity with our current footprint."

Much of the revamp has been plotted by Rogers, brought in several years ago as CEO to breathe new life into Johnson Publishing Co. and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

When she arrived in 2010, Rogers, who previously served as social secretary at the White House and is a former executive of Peoples Gas, said she found a business in mourning.