As the sun sets over the water in Nassau, Bahamas, 25 beauty influencers from around the world crowd onto a luxurious catamaran with “e.l.f Cosmetics Beautyscape 2019” emblazoned on the side. The group, competing to develop a makeup line for the cosmetics brand, pose for countless Instagram photos in the last bit of free time they have before the flurry of activity begins. “It’s gonna be a lot of work ahead of them,” says Beautyscape emcee Frankie J. Grande. “Right now, it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but soon, it’s gonna be really stressful. That’s the part I’m most excited for.”
This is e.l.f.’s fourth Beautyscape competition, in which contestants are split into teams and work together to conceptualize a full collection. To get a firsthand look at the creative process, I headed to the Bahamas with the influencers to follow their journey from the initial day of inspiration all the way to the judging room.
The rules: Each team must develop a Bahamas-inspired collection consisting of an eyeshadow palette, a face product, and a lip item. Oh, and they have to do it all in a casual 24 hours. The following day, groups present their creations to a panel of judges — including e.l.f. Cosmetics CMO Kory Marchisotto, Target buyer Alison Conlin, professional makeup artist Nam Vo, and Bustle Digital Group CRO Jason Wagenheim — and answer questions. The winning team is awarded $10,000 each and the opportunity to collaborate with e.l.f. on developing the collection, to be released in Target stores in summer 2020.
The first "challenge" participants encounter — one that seems more like a glamorous excursion than a challenge — is to find inspiration for their collections. e.l.f. organizes a tour with Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts, who leads us through Nassau's winding neighborhoods to look at vibrant murals and learn about the island's art history. Many photo ops later, influencers hop on the catamaran before returning to the resort and splitting into five teams to begin brainstorming in breakout rooms.
There, influencers run into speed bumps. I see teams present packaging with simple palm motifs, or pretty yet simple palettes with a pop of color here and there. But e.l.f. reps tell contestants simply mimicking hues or a piece of art they saw isn't enough. Sydney Dake and Miles George, who work in product development, frequently say, "Beauty is emotional." Meaning: Collections need stories that resonate with consumers and shine through in the physical design. Panicked looks materialize as some people frantically scroll back through pictures they took, flip to a fresh page of their notebooks, and essentially start from scratch. “You guys definitely have work ahead of you,” Grande tells one group.
With all this advice — and other tips, including how to market the line — thrown at them in just a few minutes, I half-expect teams to recoil in defeat. Despite their nervousness, they take the feedback in stride. Later, contestant Valeria Orellanes tells me that she remembers feeling so many “jitters” but used the event's “energy and excitement” to carry her through the night. Still, I spot groups let out a collective large breath following the check-ins. “Oh my God, it’s gonna be a long night, you guys,” one person says before the door closes.
The next day, contestants sit in a masterclass with judge Nam Vo, who eases presentation-day stress with her signature #DewyDumpling makeup tutorial. Afterward, I chat with her to get an idea of what she looks for in a collection. Two words: innovation and practicality.
"You could show me a beautiful neutral palette, but, to be honest, I might not be that excited by it, because I want a team to be innovative," she tells Bustle. "But there's also a place for ... something people are going to be inspired by and want to wear."
Also important: ensuring the collection's on trend — a tall order in an industry in which fads seem to come and go in a millisecond. Though the Bahamas' bright color palette mimics recent bold beauty trends, Vo thinks the pendulum might swing the other way. She mentions in her masterclass that the industry's focus now is on maintaining clear, healthy skin rather than a passing trend. “We've seen so much of this over-the-top makeup,” she tells me after the class. “I think we're going back into really creamy, cushiony, bouncy, seamless, comfortable makeup.” Spring 2020 runway trends support Vo's thoughts, with houses like Chanel, Michael Kors, and Proenza Schouler opting for more natural, skin-first beauty looks.
When it's time to present, judges grill the influencers on just about everything — most notably, what unites the collection, what the story is, and how it'll be marketed. Some teams tense at the questions. Others freeze. And, to their benefit, other groups respond as a united front.
Ultimately, the winners — Jessa Green, Diana Curmei, Elicia Aragon, Alissa Holmes, and Orellanes — take every piece of advice and synthesize them into a clear, on-trend story, one rooted in nostalgia that many can relate to. Creating a palette that factored in Vo's opinion on trends, a lust-worthy face product, and an innovative lip idea, the group impresses the judges with their poise and excitement for what they created. (Although the collection is top secret for the time being, trust me when I say it’ll be worth the wait.)
“I never knew how time consuming [it is] and strategic you have to be to create a makeup line. It’s not just about creating an aesthetically pleasing product or what’s trending,” says Orellanes. At the end of the weekend, I watch the winning team wrap their arms around each other, their heads touching. They let out a huge collective breath like the ones I'd seen before, only this time, it's followed by joyful tears. Being pushed to their limits paid off for them — literally — in a way they’ll never forget.