Airports want your beauty dollars

Susana Chaves

A few years ago I was obsessed with the concept of ‘airport fashion’. A craze originating in Korea, it was about dressing up for the airport, shopping up a storm in duty free and documenting it all on social media. Back then we were witnessing the rise of K Fashion, street style and the experiential economy, all merging in a retail sweet spot for airports to reposition themselves as luxury shopping malls. In fact, so great was this opportunity that travel retail came to be known as ‘the sixth continent’, with a billion consumers passing through it.

Fast-forward five years and it’s beauty’s turn to grab the spotlight and the um, travellers cheques. With an explosion in skincare and wellness interest, coupled with a new generation of globetrotters, it’s a win-win for brands and passengers hoping to make air travel fabulous again.

Chanel SS16 Vogue Runway

As with ‘airport fashion’, the travel beauty adventure starts well before the airport. Pretty much as soon as you’ve booked your flight, you’re in holiday mode and as we all know, ‘holiday mode’ means that spending money is like Monopoly money. The treats start with the beauty minis. Part utility essential (you need smaller size products to comply with airline liquid allowances), part self-gift, retailers are now fully versed in the commercial opportunity here. I pitched a ‘summer holiday advent calendar’ to an e-tailer last year but it didn’t fly (pun intended), but there’s no shortage of mini must-haves flooding the market now, from SpaceNK to Niche Beauty, and Net-a-Porter to clean beauty evangelists Content Beauty.

Summer Fridays Mini Jet Lag Mask

And it’s not just about picking up one or two minis. Such is the playful aspect of toy-sized products, it’s hard to resist a pick-n-mix mentality. Especially when they’re presented as such by the likes of Boots and Selfridges. At Selfridges Trafford Centre you have a whole station of minis to stock up on, where you can pick up clear plastic bags for your carry-on haul too. (Nadine Baggott mentions it here.) I like how Niche Beauty is putting together small kits of niche products  – it’s the only place in Europe I know of selling Gucci Westman’s Westman Atelier blushers for example.

Another bonus of travel minis is they’re super photogenic, which makes them perfect fodder for the tray table flat-lay photo. Portuguese beauty editor Susana Chaves is a fan of the in-transit flat-lay (top), showing off her recs on Instagram, while Yana Sheptovetskaya of Gelcream fame has nailed the art of the aspirational window shot. Something of an in-flight beauty cult, it’s inspired its own memes and spoofs with a dedicated Instagram account (below).

Gelcream Travel - airport beauty
Gelcream Travel
Welleda Gelcream Travel
Gelcream Travel spoof

Looks like La Bouche Rouge is inspired as well…
La Bouche Rouge airport beauty

It’s all part of that ‘living your best lie life’ Insta culture, where every mundane moment has to be as #extra as possible. As such, why the hell shouldn’t your airline seat double as a mobile spa? If you’re in transit for ten hours, may as well make use of that dead time and load up on the sheet masks and under eye patches – all the better for arriving refreshed and destination-ready on touchdown.

I can vouch for Patchology’s eye gels (£4 each) (*sample) as a quick and relatively mess-free eye de-puffer, while Drunk Elephant’s The Littles kit (below) is like a portable facialist, complete with an 8ml vial of its brilliant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil (*sample). And what better way to while away the minutes than by jade rollering your jaw while watching a weepie?

Drunk Elephant The Littles airline beauty travel kit

But wait. While you’re watching your seat-back screen, consider who might be watching you. After all, there’s much money to be made from captive in-air customers. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in a couple of years, ‘smart’ airlines could routinely track our preferences by recording our inflight behaviours, selling them back to us as ‘personalisation’. As seat sensors measure body temperature to adjust airflow (or sleep habits, or fragrance preferences), we’ll likely find ourselves being offered certain ‘tailored’ options pitched as an exclusive upgrade. Or perhaps micro-targeted advertising on those innocent looking video screens. While that may seem radically futuristic now, these things have a habit of seeming reasonable over time. Would you be willing to give up your personal data for a few more zzzzs on the flight? Remember, that convenience could have a hidden cost down the line…

Michael Kors AW18 ad campaign

Anyway, for now, the real excitement is happening off the plane and inside the terminal. As always, all eyes are on Asia, where the future of airport retail can currently be seen in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Less functional concourse, more sci-fi playground-mall for all, everyone from the surrounding locality is welcome – traveller or not. This month saw the unveiling of Shiseido’s Forest Valley experience at Changi Airport’s Jewel mall, a multi-sensorial indoor nature-scape accompanied by a hi-tech Shiseido beauty pop-up. This sort of stimulation-packed activity is perfect for filling that dead time at the airport, allowing for beauty discovery excitement to get the serotonin kicking in. DRG retail editor Alison Farrington got a first look here.

Meanwhile, to offset the retail sensory overload and general gruel of long haul travel, calming wellness pods are currently all the rage. Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge at Hong Kong International Airport boasts a dedicated yoga and meditation space (below), while for Australians fliers, Quantas and Perth spa chain Bodhi J Wellness spa retreats have created a ‘wellness studio’ for pre-flight yoga flexing and meditation at Perth Airport. And at New York’s JFK airport, Delta passengers can now get foot massages alongside Deepak Chopra Dream Weaver meditation sessions.

Cathay Pacific yoga and meditation

But back to retail therapy. Airports are increasingly becoming a destination for Insta-friendly branded beauty pop-ups and ‘activations’. As Alison Farrington predicted in our Beauty Conversation newsletter in January, digital ‘brand experiences’ are proving perfect data capture opportunities, with Jo Malone and Dior among  the brands offering personalised digital experiences as a way to sell perfume.

Estee Lauder’s brands are proving front runners, offering Tom Ford facials and exclusive travel make-up sets (below) in duty free stores, which are of course, an integral part of the holiday-prep experience. For travel-focused heritage brands (I’m looking at you Louis Vuitton), there’s a huge opportunity to capture the beauty audience with exclusive fragrance, skincare and make-up activations. Why wait to reach your destination to start souvenir shopping when you can capture the scent of your trip right here in the duty free lounge?

Beauty products are the ultimate entry point luxury purchase and as such, anyone can indulge in this new airport beauty pamper playground. For new-gen Asian travellers, the airport is as good a brand discovery playground as any, giving them the cachet of finding new brands or exclusives that they won’t find back home. For brands, this captive audience is a godsend.

Tom Ford airline beauty exclusive duty free set

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the growing crisis around air travel and climate change. While some global markets are only just discovering the wonders of airport beauty and fashion, the rest of the world is rethinking its idea of air travel as luxury. Yes, ‘flight shaming’ (aka ‘flygskam‘) is a phrase we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the near future. Going forward, we’ll have to be more selective about the number of flights we take – if any. For now though, fasten your seat belts, slap on your serum, keep calm and carry on shopping.


WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES:  Susana Chaves, Vogue Runway/Chanel SS16; Summer Fridays, 4 x Gelcream Travel; La Bouche Rouge; Drunk Elephant; Michael Kors; Cathay Pacific; Tom Ford airport beauty
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