FACE Stockholm is a makeup company with a mission: to have women feel good about themselves by providing cosmetics and services that help them look their best. Founded in Sweden by Gun Nowak, a fashion-boutique owner at the time, it has become an international success story, with over 100 retail outlets worldwide and (lucky for us) two in the Hudson Valley. FACE Stockholm products are also carried by other major businesses, such as Anthropologie, and can be purchased online.
Unique in the industry for its dedication to personalized service, the company maintains its mission by remaining a privately owned concern. Nowak opened shop in 1982, originally to have access to a broader selection of colors — what has become literally thousands of shades of lipstick, liners, shadows, foundations and blushes — that would complement all the hip neon clothes of the era. Now joined by Nowak’s daughter, Martina Arfwidson, FACE Stockholm continues to fill a niche in the industry in its bright, welcoming boutiques where customers can experiment and be pampered and learn a trick or two about applying makeup to their own faces.
Helen Andersson, also from Sweden, has been with the company from the beginning. “I actually started 30 years ago as a hair model for the biggest hair salon in Sweden,” she tells me. “They worked with Vidal Sassoon doing these big hair shows. I was always fascinated by the makeup artists: how they could transform someone for the stage. I wasn’t the kind of girl who was into putting it on myself. I was more interested in makeup as an art. One day they said, ‘Can you do your own foundation?’ and a woman [who lives in New York now and is a big makeup artist] said, ‘Who taught you how to do that?’ I started helping them at shows, and before I knew it, I did a test and became their apprentice. It all happened very fast.”
By the time Andersson moved to New York at 20, she was doing makeup for magazine covers and getting ready to study psychology. “Now I say, I had the best psychology education anyone could ever have; that’s the thing that I still love about what I do. I can do without the fashion world, but I love the interaction with people. I love hearing people’s stories. When you touch somebody and they feel safe with you, it just kind of pours out. And I love sharing, too, and helping people to feel better about themselves.”
Feeling good is the theme that runs through the FACE Stockholm experience. Arfwidson maintains that putting makeup on a woman is as intimate as it gets, with perhaps even closer contact than she might get from her doctor. Nowak has said that the most important thing is for customers to get in touch with their own beauty. Andersson echoes that sentiment. “We do a lot of weddings on location. When they come in for a trial, they sit down and show me pictures — Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Anniston are pretty common — and they want to look like that. They see the makeup that celebrities are wearing and think it’s gonna look good on them. Sometimes even if I tell them, ‘Well, your eyes are kind of different, I think this might work better,’ you actually have to do it to prove that it maybe is not the right thing for them personally.
“Unfortunately, I think looks have become such a huge thing amongst young girls. The idea that everyone should look the same, I think, is really sad. I try to celebrate diversity. It was much more like that when I grew up in Sweden. Here even young people are thinking about Botox and plastic surgery. They start so early. I see myself as this experiment. I have never done anything, and I feel like one of the few people who hasn’t. I do think it’s a natural course of what’s happening that you can change the way you look. If someone feels really bad about something, I’m not against it. But I would love for people to celebrate the way they look, and not want to look like a cookie-cutter. It’s boring, super-boring.”
As lead educator for FACE Stockholm, Andersson travels around the US to train makeup artists in best practices for the products. She manages the Makeup Academy in the Rhinebeck location, offering three-day and five-day courses in the craft of applying makeup. “The five-day is a more professional course, and it’s seven hours a day,” she explains. “It’s very hands-on. Almost all the people who want to learn about the craft have watched videos and done makeup on their friends; but it’s completely different doing makeup on a stranger who might be asking you to do a specific thing with them.”
She returns to the psychological aspect of working with people, most of whom are not professional models. “What I try to teach is what it’s like to work in the fashion industry or to do weddings. Not just ‘Put the eyeliner on like this,’ but what is it like to work with people that closely and have them feel safe with you. There are so many things to think about. I’ve worked with models and celebrities who didn’t want to be touched. You have to be quick and feel things out. Most of my students here are either aestheticians or have gone to cosmetology school where they had hoped to learn more makeup, but unfortunately they don’t. They don’t have teachers who teach the makeup craft. Students come here to add on, and a couple of schools — such as BOCES — will honor the 30 hours students do here.”
As we talk, people wander in and out of the shop. Many women, myself included, come in tentatively, self-consciously. For many of us, the glamour train has left the station, and we don’t have a lot of time or interest in presenting ourselves as if we’re getting ready for a photo shoot. Others more familiar with FACE Stockholm products might be searching for the right color, trying to match a lipstick and generally easing their way into the idea of enhancing their own looks. Andersson urges them to try this and that depending on what they want, and talks about how to blend a foundation or blush so it looks more natural.
The first time I stepped into the shop in Rhinebeck, Lara Chkhetiani immediately sat me down and began gently stroking my age-worn face with moisturizer. I was hooked. “Lara is a painter and a healer, and an amazing woman,” says Andersson. “I love the way she does makeup — like a painter. I’m more of a sculptor. In no way do I say my way is the right way.” She reiterates that it’s not just about looking glamorous, it’s about feeling good. It’s about having someone with a trained eye look at your skin tone and determine what will complement it. “No one even needs to know you’re wearing makeup.”
I ask if concerned customers inquire about the ingredients in FACE Stockholm products. “Yes, people do realize that whatever you put on your skin goes into your bloodstream. Most of our stores are in Europe or Scandinavia, and the EU regulations are much stricter. So we have to follow some strict rules. This company started almost 40 years ago, when no one was talking about parabens. We’ve slowly taken products with parabens and some mineral oils off the market. Most of those products now have a base of coconut. There are some things — out of 160 colors for lips, for example — that have to last, and all the creamy products are a little difficult. Anything that’s creamy can go rancid. They’re perishable.
“All the cream blushes, all our skin-care products are now natural. I would love it if one day professional makeup — the kind we need for strong lighting and photos — could all be organic and natural, and there are people out there working on it. Some of the more natural lines often have pigments or textures that just don’t hold up to what you need for professional use. Or if there are no other preservatives, they use alcohol, which dries up the skin.”
In between customers, Andersson talks more about working for FACE Stockholm. “I’ve known Gun and Martina since I was a teenager. Martina is the business person, and Gun is the creative, like a whirlwind of creativity. She’s 75 now, and is still active in the business. One thing that makes me happy to work for them is that they haven’t sold the company to, like, Estée Lauder. It’s not so easy to run a company and be a mom-and-pop store. We used to be in New York City, but there are all these big stores there. All the cute little stores are disappearing. There’s a CVS on every corner. So we have our stores up here.”
“I used to do David Bowie’s makeup for many years,” she tells me, “and I was asked to work on his last project: his last two videos and some pictures. The director and cameraman were Swedish, and they said, ‘What are you going to do now? You can’t top this.’ It was a beautiful experience to work with Bowie — one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”
Even so, I get her joyful commitment to working with all us un-famous commoners in a place that advertises itself as “eco-conscious, using minimal and recycled packaging and never testing on animals.” All FACE Stockholm employees seem entirely unpretentious and approachable, and promise to “give you a makeup lesson that looks like you!”
Visit FACE Stockholm at 41 East Market Street in Rhinebeck, (845) 876-2200, or at 401 Warren Street in Hudson. For more info, call (518) 822-9474 or visit www.facestockholm.com.