The Secret to MAC’s Cult Status Is In Their Backstage Testing Process

Rachel Adler


Season after season, we look to the runways of Fashion Week to hunt down the latest beauty trends and must-have products, and while some seasons may be more note-worthy than others (ahem, the Alexander Wang side braid of Spring 2010 or the wet hair trend of Fall 2013), there’s always something exciting to be uncovered if you know where to look.

Backstage, for example, there is a lot going on where beauty brands are concerned—and we’re not just talking about the runway looks. Brands like MAC Cosmetics, for example, use Fashion Week as an opportunity to test-drive all their new products before they hit the shelves. For a brand like MAC that works so hand-in-hand with their professional makeup artists, Fashion Week offers the ultimate road test—a moment to put any new product through the grind, with MAC artists as the ultimate feedback loop, operating at their busiest time of year. Why is this such an opportunity for the brand? Considering MAC is a makeup artist brand through-and-through, having their global artists as a staple in their testing process (and giving them the ability to have such a voice and collaboration in the development model) reinforces the ethos of the brand – all ages, all races, all sexes. So what’s MAC testing this year? We got the scoop.

Nick Gavrelis, the Vice President of Global Product Development, handles the development of all of MAC’s complexion products, as well as MAC Pro and artistry tools (he’s a busy guy). Gavrelis introduced us to two new foundations that are being tested during Fashion Week, with the goal to release them in September. These new foundations, according to Gavrelis, incorporate trends in raw ingredient suppliers, as well as overall trends the team sees outside the industry. Considering the complexity of the formulation, a robust round of testing is crucial.

“We work a good two or three years ahead. If we see a new polymer combination maybe used in the medical industry, or we happen to see that a particular new raw ingredient is providing a finish that we think could be really compelling or interesting—like a transparent, velvety matte but in the way of a liquid—we may adopt something like that. Both of these foundations are examples of where we leverage technology to fulfill certain needs. The whole backstage piece of testing, for us, is really critical.”

The New Guard of MAC Products:

Pro Longwear Nourishing Waterproof Foundation, one of the foundations currently being tested backstage at Fashion Week, originally started out as a concealer, according to Gavrelis. The product development team had been challenged to create a waterproof, modern concealer, and leveraged emerging trends from Korea around hybrid products to create something new.

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Working with MAC’s shade intelligence technology—something that already exists in the Matchmaster formulas—Gavrelis and team looked to change the “opaque, old-looking coverage to give a new, dimensional effect to concealer.” The result, they found, was a product that could do much more than simply conceal. “You could put it on and get medium-to-full coverage based on your application, but we also found that you could sheer this down to create a really beautiful, buttery finish that didn’t have the harsh, dry, chalky look that many waterproof and long-wear products have.” Taking things one step further, Gavrelis decided to work on a product that was not only a concealer-foundation hybrid, but could also work on the body.

The second foundation under review is Studio Waterweight, a product that “feels like liquid on the skin.” The fluid formula comes in a bottle with an old-school water dropper, and delivers sheer, lightweight, flexible coverage.

MAC Cosmetics Studio Waterweight

Sample bottle of Studio Waterweight Foundation; Photo by Luca Cannonieri for MAC Cosmetics

Going into Fashion Week, Gavrelis stressed, “It really has been so much about skin the past several years that I think that this formula will allow [the MAC artists] a new way of articulating skin, and that’s what I can’t wait to see … Whether it’s sheered down so it’s ultra-transparent, whether it’s really kind of pressed and buffed into the skin to create that kind of sexy, sensual coverage, or whether they’re combining it with other things or sheering it down with other things to create something brand new. That’s the exciting part. Out of that, we’ll also figure out again how to articulate this to our training department that will train the MAC artists in the stores to communicate appropriately to the consumer in store.”

In other words, the testing process isn’t just a way to determine if a product works the way you want it to, it’s a road map to all the various ways the product might be used.

The Testing Process:

To put the new Pro Longwear Nourishing Waterproof Foundation to the test, Gavrelis needed MAC’s senior artists to apply the foundation to any skin during fashion week—not just the face—and Romero Jennings, MAC Cosmetics Director of Makeup Artistry, had just the show.

At Carmen Marc Valvo, Jennings used the Pro Longwear Foundation on models (male and female) that needed a little more coverage, noting the coverage, while substantial, was buildable and lightweight—and best of all, didn’t budge. “We’re here for 3 hours and then there’s a runway, so if you’re doing something that is really detailed, and the foundation is something that will stay in place, it will help the detailed makeup stay in place as well,” said Jennings.

As for the Studio Waterweight foundation, Gavrelis was right that the senior artists would find new ways to use the product—and, as it happens, the senior artists were big fans of the new formula.

Senior Artist Rachel O’Donnell noted that Studio Waterweight gives a firm and natural look to models’ complexions, and offers a bit more support when she puts it on herself—like the skin is a bit lifted and plumper. Another pro tip: nearly all the artists recommended using the water dropper to squeeze a few droplets onto the back of your hand (or a makeup dish) and then buff the foundation into your skin using a fluffy brush.

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In the end, both foundations earned rave reviews, but of course we were curious to know if a product had ever straight-up failed the MAC makeup artist test. According to Gavrelis, every product that has been tested while he’s been working at MAC has made it to the sales counter, but it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of medical and safety testing that goes into each product before it ever even makes it to Fashion Week.

MAC Cosmetics Pro Longwear

Pro Longwear Waterproof Foundation; Photo by Rachel Adler

Why Testing Matters:

It’s clear from talking to Gavrelis and the many artists involved in Fashion Week that the lynchpin of MAC’s success is the way the brand works with its artists—offering up new products to test and then inviting honest feedback about the results.

“The most important thing we want to learn from our team is “How did you like it? What were you able to do with it? How far were you able to stretch it? How did it combine with other products? Is there anything that you wish could be different? And in some cases, we can effect a change. This [foundation] will be on counter in September, so the formula is the formula. For us, it’s validation. And it’s about all the different ways they can use it, manipulate it, and further take it places we hadn’t even imagined.”

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And it’s not all hype. Senior Artist Rachel O’Donnell remembers a moment when the artists spoke up about a need for more brow colors, and the team recently introduced additional brow pencils because of that feedback. O’Donnell also remembered a similar story around Matchmaster foundation—the artists loved it because it had the lightest shade of foundation ever and the darkest shade, and apparently the “extremes” proved so popular that the product team is now developing those far-flung hues in other foundations. The team will also often bring back “artist favorites,” making them part of the brand’s permanent collections. Huggable Lipcolours, for example, will become a permanent collection due to artist demand. For a brand with such a strong roster of artists, creating this kind of real-time testing and feedback loop seems like a no-brainer, and it’s clear that the model works—both for the product development team and the artists.

Gavrelis put it this way: “I could do consumer testing like some of our very successful and very established sister brands do, where you’re working on panelists that test a number of products—they’re real women, they’re moms, they’re career women. They wear products for a couple of days, fill out a form—that’s considered your consumer test. That doesn’t work for us. MAC artists and the makeup artist being our first customer, if they don’t believe in something with their core, there’s not a shot in hell it’s going to make it into the real world when it’s finally shipped. So, these tests are really critical for us. They’re also really exciting and they’re also nerve-wracking, especially when there’s a lot at stake, but the partnership with the artists has been there since the beginning, and it’s going to be there until the end, and I think that’s what makes us so unique.”