Nude lipstick is the cosmetic equivalent of a little black dress. It goes with everything, is appropriate for any occasion, and makes the wearer look polished but never overdone. Since I began wearing makeup, I’d been on the hunt for a color that seemed like a second skin. At 15, I received a copy of Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces, a book that pushed me (and millions of others) into a lifelong beauty addiction. Though it features a series of vivid celebrity transformations created by Aucoin at the height of his artistic powers, one of its most straightforward images stuck with me: a shot of Winona Ryder, barefaced except for the brownish-peach tint on her lips. The ideal complement to her porcelain complexion, it made her seem like the best version of herself.
While I wasn’t out to emulate Ryder—comparing yourself to an airbrushed picture of a movie star is never a good idea—I wanted a perfect lipstick of my own. Over the years I tried out every variation of the “your lips, but better” concept, and despite happening on a few reliable options—notably Marc Jacobs’s Le Marc crème in J’Adore and Pat McGrath’s Luxetrance in Attitude—most of what I tried failed to produce the desired effect. I could pull off a pinky-plum tone like nobody’s business (I own more than 20 versions as a result) or deep latte hues, but those weren’t accurate representations of my lip color. Though I experimented with sparkly beige glosses, rosy stains, and even the occasional matte liquid formula, the designated “nudes” or “universal” shades didn’t flatter me. On my brown skin, many registered as ashy or dull, even when I used the makeup artist trick of layering them on top of chestnut liner.
It turns out there’s a reason behind the lack of flattering nudes for darker skin. Just as old-school foundations relied on a base meant to mirror the undertones found in a pale complexion, many lipstick shades are created using the same logic. When Mented Cosmetics founders KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson set out to create a line focused on products for women of color, they quickly discovered that the manufacturing process hadn’t caught up with consumer demand. “Beauty is very similar to fashion, where it all starts with a fit model,” shared Johnson on the phone from the brand’s New York headquarters. “For most of these manufacturers, their ideal customer, if you will, is a paler white woman with two exactly matched soft pale pink lips. So, if you begin with her as your example, you’re also going to start your product with a white base, and build on top of that.”
As they met with manufacturers, Miller and Johnson realized that to create the colors they needed, they would have to take matters into their own hands. “When these companies were creating any shades for darker skin tones, they would just increase the level of pigment of what they were already putting in,” says Johnson, who points out that adding more pigmentation doesn’t always improve the final product. “They weren’t accounting for undertone and top-tone differences. They were doubling down on the formula they’d already created.” That lack of nuance resulted in lipsticks that looked good in the tube but wrong in swatches. “On a black woman or deep-skinned South Asian woman, it comes off ashy and pale,” she says. “Or it’s going to look weird in certain lights—you could look green or blue.”
To solve the problem, the pair embarked on a crash course in cosmetics production, tapping into an online knowledge base and teaching themselves how to make batches with the correct undertones. “Thankfully, you can find just about anything on YouTube these days!” says Miller. “We bought the molds, dyes, colorings, and waxes, then went to work. It was quite a learning process, but it was also a lot of fun, just discovering how to create these nuanced shades that really would look beautiful on so many women.” A diverse group of “fit models” of African-American and South Asian descent helped them perfect their output, but Miller and Johnson also thought about the kind of products they had been searching for. “We started by creating shades that worked for Amanda and me, and in the process, made shades that worked for thousands and hopefully, one day, millions of women,” says Miller. “It’s been quite a journey, and it’s humbling to know that by tackling our problems, we are helping so many women feel seen in the beauty industry.”
After chatting with Miller and Johnson, I felt invigorated and ready to give their brand a try. With more than 30 versions of nude within their range, finding the right option took some thought, but Miller offered a few words of advice on how to select my hue. “Start with your lips and identifying the shades you see, because a lot of women of color do have multitoned lips,” she says. “The second thing we say is to reference your skin. So sometimes when you’re looking for a nude, you’re looking for a nude that’s true to your lip color, sometimes you’re looking for one that’s truer to your skin color.” After a few moments of deliberation and several swipes of lip color, I met my match: Nude Lala, a warm brown with the slightest hint of pink. Subtle enough to pass for an enhanced version of my lips, it made me look refreshed and ready to take on the world. Watch out, Winona.
20 Incredible Nude Lipsticks for Women of Color
Originally Appeared on Vogue