How high street brands are disrupting the beauty industry

Topshop makeup and H&m Beauty - affordable and high quality make up on the high street

High street beauty has officially gone premium. Topshop’s beauty is five years old and thriving, J Crew’s lipsticks are a cult buy and H&M is going large on its beauty offer with a litany of launches happening in the next few months.

While Topshop kicked things off five years ago, launching its in-house make-up line on the LFW catwalk, the game changer was arguably & Other Stories in 2013, which paired a luxury Scandi aesthetic with an inviting experiential retail model. In fact, & Other Stories was intended as a beauty concept but was so appealing, it was extended to fashion. Its try-and-buy approach is one of beauty’s overarching retail trends, which has filtered up to the likes of Bobbi Brown, Charlotte Tilbury and even Estee Lauder (who has just opened a pop-up at hipster paradise Box Park in Shoreditch).

This month, H&M launched a 1,100-square-foot beauty pop-up in London’s Old Truman Brewery, a ‘beauty lounge’ showcasing make-up, hair, fragrance and body products. It ties in with the wider launch of H&M Beauty, a 700-piece collection sold online and in stores globally (below).

H&M Beauty - a 700-piece makeup, body and haircare collection sold in H&M stores globally

“The beauty concept is about “fashion for your face,” says an H&M spokesperson. “We see beauty as fashion and an important part of personal style. At the new dedicated beauty areas in H&M stores, there are endless possibilities with the colours, textures and looks available.” Inclusivity is key, with a broad assortment designed to appeal to H&M’s expanding global customer base. (The brand has just arrived in India and the beauty line is stocked in 900 stores worldwide.)

When I visited the H&M store in Oxford Circus, I was almost blinded by the jam-packed aisles of colour, including a kaleidoscope of £3.99 nail colours and foundation in a good spectrum of shades. “We have hundreds of colours for eyes, lips and nails as well as cleverly curated palettes of colours and textures that work together,” says H&M’s spokesperson. “All skin tones are catered for with a full range of bases and concealers.”

Quality is equally as important as quantity, and as well as this collection where formulations and packaging feel premium for the price, there is a higher-priced range yet to launch. While high street beauty tends to be seen as something cheap and cheerful for young customers, this could prove a challenge to legacy beauty brands, which until now have cornered the 25+ quality-conscious consumer.

I’ve already noticed this at J. Crew, where its lipstick colours (created by make-up artist Troi Ollivierre) are a cult buy. These classic shades and packaging are just as desirable as anything by say, Bobbi Brown – if the product, experience and branding speaks to the customer they will happily buy into it.

Meanwhile, Topshop (below) continues to innovate, not just with directional colours and trends, but with the kind of sophisticated formulations some say are comparable to NARS or MAC. While five years ago, customers would have a scoot around the beauty section while picking up a fashion fix, increasingly, the Topshop girl goes to Topshop as much to update her makeup bag as her wardrobe.

Topshop makeup

Topshop also has the advantage of showing at London Fashion Week, meaning it can turn those fashion observers into beauty shoppers. For AW15 it focused on an easily copied sheer, windswept look with a longwear eye contouring cream, skin-brightening highlighters and an inky blue nail colour (above – a similar shade was later spotted at Dior).

“The Topshop customer loves to contour and strobe, with quick, easy-to-use products like our contour creams and chameleon highlighter,” says a spokesperson from Topshop’s buying team. “Working closely with our design teams means that the Topshop Beauty range is the perfect accompaniment to the clothing trends of the season.” While Topshop’s beauty edit is admittedly not as vast as H&M’s, it has the advantage of being able to react nimbly to consumer feedback, thanks to its huge and engaged following of social media disciples.

Topshop bronzer and eye contouring cream shadow

Elsewhere, the innovation is to be found not in own label product but in wholesaling niche brands. Example: Urban Outfitters, which has increased its beauty offer by 18% with quirky brands like EOS and Korean favourites Tony Moly. As with fashion, there’s a fun factor in discovering newness, whether that’s a novel type of sheet mask or an unheard-of-over-here lipstick brand. And for the young but discerning Urban Outfitters customer, beauty is the ideal discovery playground for products that are covetable but relatively affordable.

Current brands doing well include Embryolisse and Korean cosmetic line The Skin Lounge, according to Urban Outfitters’ assistant beauty buyer, Nina Gill. “Such brands aren’t widely available here in the UK, yet they’re highly sought after,” she says. “Face masks from The Skin Lounge have proven incredibly successful in light of recent excitement in the UK surrounding Korean beauty and its improved availability.” At the higher end of the price spectrum, she highlights Mario Badescu and Egyptian Magic as skincare favourites. “We aim to offer a strong edit of staple brands that every girl needs to ensure that our store is a one stop shop, with a range of price points to make it accessible to everyone,” says Gill.

As with their clothing divisions, the beauty offer from high street brands is going through a major transition. It’s increasingly sophisticated in formulation, looks, packaging and brand perception. With beauty consumers so much more savvy (in part thanks to beauty bloggers and vloggers), the heritage beauty houses are going to have to work hard to justify their price points and maintain market share long term.


Topshop is doing well with skin-perfecting products for the no makeup makeup look that has dominated this year. Its bronzer gets rave reviews for its finely milled formulation (use a tiny bit for natural-looking results) and the new eye contour cream is a sophisticated neutral with long-wear properties. Buy it HERE.

If you’re Stateside, pick up Troi Ollivierre’s covetable pop-of-red lipsticks at J. Crew to achieve the signature fresh-faced Jenna Lyons look. Buy it HERE in the U.S.

The surprise break-out hit from & Other Stories? Its award-winning fragrances. I love Moroccan Tea (the eau de toilette just won an Allure Best Of Beauty award) which has spawned a host of Moroccan Tea-scented add-ons. Buy it HERE.

From Urban Outfitters, aim for anything by Korean brands such as The Skin Lounge, especially the skin-quenching sheet masks. Buy it HERE.

“Our favourite recommendation is the fantastic nail polish, with new improved quality and a beautiful range of colours,” says H&M’s spokesperson. “We also believe that the beauty enthusiast will love our new wide range of lip products, including everything from creamy and matte lipstick, to lipsticks in several different exciting variations.” I have tried the nail polish (in Well Red, a juicy shade of cherry) and for £3.99, the quality is truly impressive – smooth, rich and non-streaky. Ditto the Cream Lip Colour in pomegranate (£7.99), the perfect lipstick formula for me that’s well-pigmented but doesn’t suck the life out of your lips. Buy H&M Beauty HERE in the UK, or SHOP THE POST below to buy from the U.S site.