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Christian Louboutin’s Nail Polishes Set a Rare Price By RUTH LA FERLASEPT. 10, 2014
Christian Louboutin Beauté nail polish. The designer said his aim was “to bring beauty to the side of fine arts.” Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times.
Not long ago, Federica di Martino, a young actress visiting New York from Rome, sauntered into Christian Louboutin’s West Village boutique and slipped on a pair of six-inch stilettos. Perched on those heels, she was a knockout. But could she walk? Sure, she said, laughing as she leaned against the front door for support. “I can make it from here to the opposite end of the store.”
Function, for its own sake, has never ranked high on Mr. Louboutin’s list of priorities. For proof, look no further than the designer’s latest project, a collection of 31 violently colorful nail lacquers housed in a jewel-like faceted glass bottle, with a conical cap as spiky and tall as a steeple.
It’s a statement piece for sure, perhaps better suited for display than breezy application.
“The bottle is not practical,” Mr. Louboutin acknowledged last week. “But just as a high heel may slow your walk, this long cap obliges you to take some time to paint your nails.” His aim, he said, was “to bring beauty to the side of fine arts,” to create a rarefied object that assumes pride of place on a woman’s dressing table.
That sort of elegance comes at a price, a swoon-inducing one at that. Mr. Louboutin is not the first designer to affix his name to a luxury lacquer. He was preceded by, among others, Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, whose polish sells for $32 a bottle. But he is the first to reach the $50 barrier, a nervy move conceived to elevate nail polish to an unprecedentedly lofty terrain.
Mr. Louboutin ascribed that leap to the demands of doing business in the luxury sector. “I couldn’t think about price,” he said. “There was no reason to add an ordinary product to the beauty category.”
He would find little argument among industry professionals. “The packaging is great, and the exclusivity creates the demand,” said Karen Grant, a beauty industry analyst with NPD Group, the consumer research firm. Moreover, she added, Mr. Louboutin’s beauty venture, which made its debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in August, is not likely to meet much resistance among status-driven shoppers, whose thirst for high-end treatments and cosmetics has only intensified since the recession (never mind that such products tend to carry markups of 300 to 500 percent, rivaling those for fragrance and far outpacing those for designer apparel).
“The markup on that category is pretty astronomical,” said Ed Burstell, who as the managing director of Liberty of London has the final say on which cosmetics and treatments the store will carry. Mr. Burstell is a veteran of Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel, where he helped revitalize the beauty department. “Unless there is a secret ingredient,” he said, “a lot of that markup has to do with consumer psychology and branding.”
Bernard Bonneau, general manager of Fiabila USA, a French firm that makes polishes for clients here and abroad, pointed out: “We are not the paint industry, we are in the cosmetic industry. You are not selling a $1 product. You are selling what the customer is dreaming about.
Yet the customer may scarcely have dreamed of the gaping disparity between what she pays for her favorite varnish and the actual cost to produce it. Industry sources, declining to be named for fear of alienating their clients, put the cost of a bottle at 5 to 20 cents, a figure that can rise to 30 cents for special features.
The price of a brush is 2 to 3 cents. A filler, who funnels the polish into the bottle, charges from 50 cents to $1 a bottle. Its contents cost 2 to 30 cents.
“Even if they are using the best polish available, I can’t think that it costs more than 50 cents,” said a source familiar with the industry.
From there, costs can escalate. A customized bottle like Mr. Louboutin’s, made from a specially commissioned mold, runs 40 to 50 cents each. The price of the mold itself can be $35,000 to $40,000 for the European glass used by Mr. Louboutin.
But, Mr. Bonneau said, “Whatever you put on the shelf, behind that you have the development, the designer of the bottle, the marketing and the cost of meeting industry regulations for purity.”
“We are creating a product,” he added, “that’s almost at pharmaceutical levels.”
Certainly Mr. Louboutin has done his share to insure his product’s quality and aesthetic appeal, insisting on colors that mimic the effect of Chinese lacquer, colors that are achieved, he said, by layering as many as 20 coats of paint. “This is what I wanted with the nail color,” he said, “but with two coats only.”
Supporting the efforts of designers like Mr. Louboutin, and adding to the product’s cost, are corporate creative teams, who name colors, research trends and develop proprietary formulas (the colors themselves can be widely knocked off). And then there is the name on the label.
“You are selling, in some instances, 25 years of a designer’s history,” said James Slowey, the president of Baralan USA, a manufacturer of bottles and nail polish packaging. “Putting a $10 price on that would be a joke.”
In an overcrowded marketplace, elite products continue to thrive, said Jenny B. Fine, the editor of Beauty INC, which covers the cosmetics trade. She called the Louboutin introduction as groundbreaking in its way as the debut of Chanel’s best-selling Vamp was in the mid-90s. Before that much coveted blackened red lacquer made its mark, “we were all wearing drugstore polish,” she said. Now dozens of fancy polishes vie on the shelves for status — and the consumer’s pocketbook.
Even those shoppers inclined to do the math tend to shrug off markups, according to NPD research. While few women who have used both mass and upscale brands perceived a notable difference in quality, many inevitably return to the prestige brands. “When you have something that is not available everywhere, it gives you bragging rights,” Ms. Grant said. “You want people to ask what you’re using, and you want to show it off.”
Still, that $50 has led a few seasoned merchants to balk. “There is really something comical about paying that much for nail polish,” said Mr. Burstell of Liberty, which does not carry the Louboutin lacquer. But in fashion, elitism counts.
“You know what they say,” he said. “If you’re not in the front row, you’re not at the show.”