Linda Wells Shows Flesh: Woke Makeup for Revlon

Posted June 22, 2018 5:38 p.m. EDT

In 1990, still the glory days of print magazines, Linda Wells was about to unveil the first issue of a new one called Allure when her office telephone rang. Since those were also still the glory days of telephones, she answered it.

“We have to change the name,” thundered Alexander Liberman, the formidable éminence grise of Condé Nast. “No one can pronounce it. They’re saying ‘Lure’ and thinking it’s a … fishing magazine.”

“Oh my God,” Wells thought exasperatedly and hung up, before going on to edit Allure for almost a quarter century.

Liberman is not around to opine on her new cosmetics line, fantasized about “always, always, always,” Wells said, and at last made reality in her current position as chief creative officer of Revlon. But she did have to contend with a trademark lawyer who objected to the name Fleshpot, given to a rosy gloss she developed after seeing petroleum jelly daubed on models’ eyelids backstage at fashion shows.

“'Do you realize what this means?'” the lawyer asked. “'That’s very controversial!'”

“I know — it’s going to be great,” chirped Wells, who had spent the early months of her employment punching up marketing copy for Elizabeth Arden and Almay as well as the flagship company that owns them.

“Then he sent me a link, to the most vile porn site I have ever seen,” she recalled the other day in the living room of her tastefully decorated apartment on Fifth Avenue, filled with abstract art and overlooking Central Park. “But he approved it.” After all, the Nars Orgasm blush has done just fine.

Fleshpot, which will retail for $20 at Ulta, is one of a dozen new products that Wells, 59, and her associates are introducing on June 24 under the brand Flesh, a word even more charged in the glamour business than “nude.”

“Nude” connotes a polite, tasteful, sculptural nakedness, while “flesh” is meaty, messy, spilling over: the title of an unsettling show by painter Chaim Soutine now at the Jewish Museum; what Billy Idol demanded for fantasy; and a meal for the zombies of “The Walking Dead.” Wells has no qualms about any of this.

“When you Google it, it’s a horrifying thing,” she said, “but it needed to be outrageous and it needed to be memorable and I wanted it to be one syllable. And I wanted it to be sensuous and voluptuous and carnal.”

Flesh also was the name of perhaps the most notorious crayon in history, which Crayola re-christened “peach” at the dawn of the civil rights movement, after people protested it didn’t describe every complexion.

Behooving a new, ethnically inclusive industry standard set in large measure by Rihanna, whose Fenty Beauty has been a hit for Ulta’s rival Sephora, Wells’ foundations come in 40 shades, all stubby sticks priced at $18 apiece. Her Swipe lip colors ($24) and rouges ($26) are embossed with fingerprints: coaxing Generation Snapchat into relaxed face painting, and suggestive of its casual surrender of personal data.

The brown, tan, cream and millennial pink packaging feels like the love child of Fenty and Emily Weiss’ Glossier, perhaps with the transgressive designer Tom Ford, who of course has his own makeup line, as godfather.

Revlon, known for matching lips to nails and Shelley Hack striding in silk blouses and trousers through its Charlie perfume ads, has flirted with the risqué before. Its Fire and Ice campaign of the early 1950s idealized the “tease and temptress” and posed breathy questions like “Do sables excite you, even on other women?"— inspiring a memorable number in last year’s musical “War Paint.”

And at the end of the 1980s, Ultima II, one of the company’s subsidiaries at the time, released a collection called the Nakeds conceived by Andrea Robinson, a former editor at Vogue.

“But it wasn’t about skin color,” Wells said (as she knows intimately, having covered the Nakeds as an editor then at The New York Times). “It was about brown. It was a full brown moment, and an aesthetic thing,” a backlash to the jewel tones that had dominated the decade.

Flesh, by contrast, contains plenty of deep and vibrant colors. “It’s the idea of self-expression and identity and you’re not stuck in one rut,” Wells said, popping open Treasure, a bright purple lipstick that glowed like a jewel or a bruise in her soothingly neutral parlor. “To be true to yourself doesn’t mean you have to be invisible, know what I mean?”