What’s In A Shade Name?

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To be a cosmetics copywriter sounds like something of a dream job. Just consider how much time you spend poring over the latest offerings on the nail polish market. These names aren’t just titles—they are flights of fancy, capable of turning a manicure into a two-week daydream. Saharan Sunset, Ballet Slippers, Thanks A Latte…How do they come up with these things? Also, how can I come up with these things? Just show me where to sign.

But beyond nail polish and into the wider world of cosmetics, there are a few products in particular that standout with names a little like secret passwords. Know the meanings of these and pass through initiation to the club of the truly makeup-obsessed. Because makeup with a fascinating origin story is always a good bet.

Let’s begin with those products named after celebrity X. In the 90s, Jeanine Lobell’s Stila released a lip color line named after bright young things of the moment. One shade, a sheer plum called Natalie (inspired by the makeup artist’s good friend Portman) became iconic—once the most sought-after and now the most missed of the discontinued collection.

The naming-products-after-people trend has been successfully rebooted in the past decade or so by the likes of Nars, Tom Ford, Chanel, and Givenchy. Nars’ most famous eponymous offering, Schiap, inspired by mid-century fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, is as close a match to her shocking pink signature color as you can get in a tube. The brand’s more recent Audacious line features the namesake lipsticks of iconic women including Charlotte (Rampling, a deep ox-blood), Brigitte (a mod nude-pink after the sultry Bardot) and Marisa (Berenson. Inspired by Schiap’s actress/model granddaughter, the shade is a slightly more demure orchid).

Givenchy used Liv Tyler as inspiration for its Rouge Interdit collection, conjuring the actress’ bee-stung pout with a limited-edition pH-reacting black lipstick called Liv’s Lips that goes on as a violet wash (though Givenchy sadly hasn’t found a way to deliver Tyler-family lip volume). Luckily, the lipstick was relaunched (though currently out of stock), so you can get the look but not the name—now it's called Noir Révélateur 62.

Tom Ford, who’s made a career of applying refined, masculine edges to women’s apparel, translated this tendency to his makeup line when he launched the limited edition Lips & Boys collection. With names like Kyril, Didier, Rory, and Sebastian, they reference the male friends, family members, colleagues, and celebrities who’ve served as inspiration over the years. In the same vein, Chanel’s contemporary Rouge Coco line features lipsticks christened after the designer’s dearest friends and associates, including Arthur (a flame red, for her lover and collaborator, Arthur “Boy” Capel) and the dusty rose Vera, for her friend, British socialite Vera Bate Lombardi.

In fact, it may have been Chanel to kick of the trend of meaningful naming in the form of her iconic numbered perfume line. Chanel No. 5 was the fifth vial of perfume created by the house perfumer Ernest Beaux, and in kind, was released on the May 5, 1921. The green Chanel No. 19, the signature scent of the designer, honored Chanel’s birthday, August 19, while the floral Chanel No. 22 was named for its launch year.

Yves Saint Laurent’s personal life also became fodder for his brand’s eventual nail polish line. In the late 1970s, the designer and his partner bought a villa in Marrakesh, having fallen in love with its surrounding landscape, called Jardin Majorelle. They painted the villa a bright lapis hue, which came to inspire La Laque Couture cult-favorite shade, Bleu Majorelle.

Far from heritage brands, both perfumers Frédéric Malle and Etat Libre d’Orange have a culturally angled eye when it comes to nomenclature. Malle harkens Isabel Archer, the independent-minded heroine of Henry James’ masterpiece, in the alluring, musky scent Portrait of a Lady, And Etat, quite the experimental perfumery, created The Afternoon of a Faunfor turn-of-the-century Russian ballet prodigy Vaslav Nijinsky. It’s a double-feature allusion-wise—the name is a translation of Debussy’s original symphony Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'Un Faune, which later scored the ballet featuring the flying Nijinsky.

—Lauren Maas

Photographed by Tom Newton. For even more in-depth behind the scenes coverage of your favorite perfumes...OK maybe just one: Here's the history behind Fracas.

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