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RIP Claire's... Sort Of?

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FEATURE
What ‘Cult’ Means When It Comes to Beauty
A woman putting on makeup

You’ve heard their names before: the familiar litany of life-changers and skin savers that have earned one of beauty writing’s favorite epithets, the coveted title of cult favorite. They are MAC matte lipstick in Ruby Woo, which sells four tubes a minute globally, and Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion, which does 20. Maybelline New York Great Lash mascara, YSL’s Touche Eclat highlighter, Crème de la Mer, and Biologique Recherche P50 are longtime cult classics, but every year a few new products are inducted into the canon; recent additions have included Sunday Riley’s Good Genes and Glossier’s Boy Brow.

The phrase “cult favorite” is deeply evocative: It suggests mystery and obsession and even a little bit of madness. Which makes sense in the beauty space, which promises products so powerful that they can transform our very skin. “Everything about beauty has an air of unattainability to it; everything is a little mystical, and we’re always in pursuit of something,” as Brennan Kilbane, a senior writer at Allure and former Into the Gloss editor, puts it.

But the allure of “cult favorite” also hides the fact that the phrase is used to describe an array of incongruous products. Aquaphor, for instance, can be purchased for under $10 at any drug store; Recherche P50 is only available in a handful of US spas and via two websites, both of which require that you create an account just to be able to see how much it costs. (Between $26 and $112, for the record.) Crème de La Mer will run you a cool $170 per ounce.

That’s in part because the phrase has evolved over time. It originated in a pre-internet era, when models and makeup artists would get hooked on Parisian drugstore products or Korean essences you legitimately couldn’t find in the US. Then cult often did mean secret, or at least hard to know about, much less find. It was imbued with the glamour of insider knowledge; it had the air of the savvy and well-traveled. The potential stigma of drugstore mascara washes away when it’s from a French drugstore, or even just bathed in the approval of professionals. It attains some of the glow of celebrity merely by association.

But then came Online, and as the internet connected us — first via community forums like MakeupAlley, and now with cheap international shipping — “cult favorite” came to mean something very different.

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Look, Claire’s Isn’t All the Way Dead Yet
Claire's store

Hear that sound? It’s the Nostalgia Internet, in mourning once again. According to Bloomberg, Claire’s — a store chain full of shiny, inexpensive accessories, where countless tweens (and some clever adults) have gotten their ears pierced over the years — is making like many of its fellow mall brands and preparing to file for bankruptcy. On top of this, Toys R Us is reportedly gearing up to liquidate its US stores.

We’ve known for some time that Claire’s hasn’t been hitting the mark with young shoppers like it used to, and given how many other once-ubiquitous fashion brands have struggled to find their footing in the e-commerce era and filed for bankruptcy as a result, this news doesn’t come as much of a surprise. That said, if Claire’s files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it can remain in operation while trying to turn around its business.

Claire’s became a teen phenomenon under the guidance of Rowland Schaefer, a businessman from the Midwest who founded a successful wig business that he took public in the early 1960s. He bought a chain of hat stores called Claire’s Boutiques in 1973, and, as the Wall Street Journal writes, “transformed the merchandise and expanded to 1,000 outlets by 1990.”

In 2002, Schaefer suffered a stroke at age 86, and his daughters Bonnie and Marla took over as co-chairwomen and co-CEOs. (Rowland Schaefer died in 2013.) By 2006, Claire’s had more than 3,000 locations around the world (some of those were Icing stores, the company’s slightly more grown-up brand). Its sales grew to $1.37 billion that year.

In March 2007, the Schaefer family decided to sell Claire’s for $3.1 billion to a private equity firm called Apollo Management, which still controls the company today. Bloomberg’s report suggests that Apollo Management is now trying to pass the company over to new lenders.

For many Gen Xers and millennials, Claire’s is still a cultural touchpoint. If you were old enough to remember anything when you first got your ears pierced, you don’t forget where it went down. It was home to a zillion earrings, butterfly clips, Madonna-inspired rubber bracelets, and frosty, glittery makeup — none of it necessary, all of it crucial.

Bankruptcies and mass store closures can make it feel like all evidence of your formative years is about to be wiped away. That may be true for Toys R Us, but it’s not always so dire. American Apparel and BCBG were bought out of bankruptcy proceedings and are being rebooted under new management. Abercrombie & Fitch, having tumbled from its throne as the coolest of teen brands, has been trying to fix its finances by refashioning itself as a more friendly, accessible brand. When it gave its latest sales update on Wednesday, the company actually had good news to report: Hollister’s sales grew 11 percent, to a little over $2 billion, in 2017, and A&F sales dropped just 2 percent, to $1.45 billion. That’s way better than the 9 percent decline A&F experienced the year before.

Don’t pour one out for Claire’s. It’s not dead yet.

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