Twenty-plus years later and I can still recall them by name: “Toast of New York” and “Hint of Bronze.” The brown lipsticks by Revlon and CoverGirl, respectively, were my bullets of choice. In the ’90s pantheon of brown lipsticks there was also Revlon’s “Sandstorm,” Kevyn Aucoin’s “Dantrice,” M.A.C’s lip pencil in “Spice” (a favourite of Linda Evangelista, it was most often used to fill in the entire lip), Laura Mercier’s “Cocoa” and Nars’s “Hot Voodoo.” “François [Nars] made it for Naomi [Campbell], and I remember going to the counter as a young makeup artist and them telling me that, and I was like, ‘I have to have it,’” says makeup artist Troy Surratt.
The lipstick look of that decade is now being reborn—call it the Kylie Jenner effect. When the budding beauty entrepreneur debuted a matte chocolate lip on Instagram last fall, the anticipation for her then-forthcoming Lip Kits reached a fever pitch, promptly selling out upon release. This touched off a string of celebrities who wore brown lipstick, which the red carpet hadn’t seen since Friends was on prime time.
Surratt suspects there’s another reason why chocolate hues are gaining momentum. “It’s a reaction against all the bold reds and fuchsias we’ve been seeing for a while,” he says. “A switch to neutrality feels fresh and new again.” In its first wave, brown lipstick experienced a collective shift into neutral, propelled by makeup artists like Kevyn Aucoin, François Nars and Laura Mercier. “It was this phenomenon of makeup artists realizing for the first time that neutral and warmer shades were flattering to the skin,” explains Surratt, who assisted Aucoin in the latter part of the decade. Bobbi Brown kick-started her career on that very notion, launching her eponymous line with a now-iconic array of 10 earthy hues in 1991. “In the 1980s, I was always looking for shades with a brown base [because it’s] the most natural complement to a woman’s skin tone,” she recalls.
Both Brown and Surratt agree that many browns went wrong in the ’90s because they were too harsh in hue (severe taupes and greyed browns) and extreme in finish (either glossy and shimmery or bone-dry matte). But the current generation of lipsticks has nailed the skin-friendlier colour palette and offers much more forgiving textures. “Added humectant shine in formulas keeps browns looking pretty and lush, not dead,” says Surratt. Some guidelines for finding your magic bullet: “For lighter skin types, go for a brown lipstick with red or orange undertones; mediums can try a cooler taupe (and stay away from red); olives, a dark crimson brown; and dark tones should go for contrast with a nude brown or extremely dark brown,” explains Jerrod Blandino of Too Faced, whose latest Melted Chocolate collection is all about browns. Most importantly, he adds: “Don’t go too light or close to your skin tone or you run the risk of looking washed out.”
While the brown lipstick revival is an obvious boon for ’90s nostalgists, it’s also welcome news for women who embrace their natural beauty. As Brown says, this colour family is about “making lips look like lips, but better.”