505 Particulière: The Unlikely Catalyst Behind A Nail Revolution

How one nail polish shade changed an entire industry.
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Publish date:
October 23, 2013
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nail art, chanel, nail polish

Nail polish is the most dynamic product category in the makeup world. The last couple of years has seen an explosion in creativity and output by cosmetics companies at every price position. Dior alone launched 27 new shades of nail polish in 2012. The market is flooded with new colors, new textures, and new packaging.

At the same time, consumer behavior has changed dramatically. Our generation has very different nail polish habits than previous generations. We buy more nail polish. We change our nail polish much more frequently. We are less likely to use nail polish as part of a manicure, complete with a base coat and a top coat.

But more than that, our relationship to nail polish has changed. It is no longer simply a part of personal grooming. It has grown to represent individual expression. We match it to our mood, not our outfits. It’s a fashion accessory--a significantly less expensive one than a handbag or jewelry.

Why is our relationship to nail polish suddenly so personal, so profound? Why are brands fueling the movement with more and more shades, more and more collections? Why is the market growing as fast as it can?

THE CATALYST

There was a catalyst to this recent explosion. It was linked to a type of creativity, expounded by certain people, and symbolized by a particular shade.

The creativity in question is color expertise. The people in question are brilliant creative directors of influential cosmetics brands. In particular, Peter Philips at Chanel. The shade in question: Le Vernis de Chanel 505 Particulière.

You may already know the legend behind the shade. Peter Philips, who had historically worked as a makeup artist for the Chanel fashion shows, was helping Karl Lagerfeld plan the barn-themed SS10 women’s ready-to-wear show. As he later told the LA Times, "In French, the color is taupe, which is a kind of animal, a mole. I said, ‘Karl, I got a taupe for your barn.’"

So why did a rodent-inspired shade act as the symbolic catalyst? Because the following spring, Particulière was released to the public and sold out. It was restocked, then sold out again. The sales continued for months. For years. A weird soft greyish purplish brown became the most extraordinary commercial success in years.

In a nail polish market dominated by reds, roses, and pinks, suddenly weird was cool. Weird was in. Color could mean more than “cool-toned red,” it could mean the expression of a rather sophisticated concept. It could be art.

THE ECONOMIC CONTEXT

The economic context of Particulière helps explain its success. In 2010, the global economy was in a deep recession. Consumer spending was down across the board, with only some tiny pockets of spending growth. Luxury cosmetics was one of those pockets.

The rationale for the success of luxury cosmetics during the recession is pretty simple. Luxury cosmetics are one of those luxury sectors that belong to the middle class, not the ultra-wealthy. They are expensive in comparison to the mass-market cosmetics distributed through grocery stores and drugstores, but they are positively cheap in comparison to other luxury goods.

For a woman in the middle class of the Western world, nail polish is the most accessible way to participate in the magical world of luxury and fashion. She may never own a Dior handbag, or even have any desire to do so, but she can purchase a little bottle of the color worn by the models in the Dior accessories show. This little bottle was as carefully developed and creatively supervised as the most expensive handbag. It is stamped with the same brand, the same mark of taste.

To the consumer during the recession, her choices for self-indulgence were stark. All other luxury products were hopelessly out of her reach. But the only thing standing in her way to owning 505 Particulière--the new color straight from Peter Philip’s genius studio, the newest thing on the fingertips of every model, every editor, and every tastemaker--was $27.

THE REACTION

When Particulière blew up, two things happened.

The first thing happened at a brand level. For years, other beauty brands had contented themselves to compete on other makeup segments--like the highly profitable face-makeup segment--and leave nail polish alone. Yet now, because of the sustaining success of Particulière, complacency didn’t feel so good anymore.

Brands started tripping over themselves to develop unique shades and renovate their old formulas and packaging. They experimented with nail-centric campaigns with more powerful visuals. They sped up the development process to launch more, more, more.

New brands jumped into the game. Niche brands emerged to take over niches in the market, like organic nail polish or nail art kits. The market started changing so fast that every month saw a game-changing launch.

The second change happened at the consumer level. For decades, women had only seen reds, pinks, and natural shades at the department store counter. The more diverse shades--usually flat, infantile Crayola colors--were usually at the drugstore level. Consumers hadn’t been offered true creativity in a long time.

The launch of Particulière and the subsequent nail polish explosion sparked an appetite in the consumer for innovation. The creativity of the consumer manifested itself in the popularity of general beauty and nail polish blogs. Nail art grew to a true global phenomenon. Consumption of nail polish shot up.

Right now is a good time to be a consumer of nail polish. It is rare to be so close to art in our daily lives. There are some very gifted creators developing new innovations in color and texture, and we can actually imagine owning their works of art. We can use these works of art to express our personalities.

We can paint our moods onto our fingertips.

Particulière is one of my top-five favorite nail polish shades. The soft neutrality of the mid-tone brown works beautifully with fresh, acidic lip colors. Here, I am wearing it with my YSL Glossy Stain in 05.

Have you tried it? What do you think of 505 Particulière?