Iran's booming beauty business

SUN JOURNAL

Fashion: Women spend countless hours getting their hair cut, teased and sprayed. Their makeovers are topped off with forbidden touches of color on cheeks and lips.

June 16, 1999|By Karen Mazurkewich | Karen Mazurkewich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEHRAN, Iran -- Two dozen women are packed into the beauty salon. The parlor merry-go-round goes something like this:

Manicure. Wash, blow-dry, tease, hair spray. Finally, eyebrow plucking, foundation, eyeliner, mascara, lip liner, lipstick.

Iran's beauty business is booming. Most upper- and middle-class women in Tehran visit the salon at least once a month. Among many women, it is the political protest of choice: a little lip color here, a little toenail polish there -- defiant acts in a sea of hijabs, the black head scarves and cloaks that are mandatory attire for women outside the home. Tattooed lip- and eyeliner is common. So are nose jobs.

Karen, a former Canadian schoolteacher, is one of the hairstylists. She barely has time to chat between clients. In this part of the world it pays better than teaching.

`Constantly changing'

"The business of beauty is huge," she says, while tucking a strand of hair back into a ponytail. "People are very concerned about the way they look; they are constantly changing their hair color and styles."

Karen has spent half an hour teasing her client's hair. To achieve the right height, she has an additional 20 minutes of work ahead of her.

The women waiting in the long lineup want bouffant hairdos. They request heavy doses of hair spray. Rarely do they fix themselves at home, says Karen. They come to a professional salon, and they spend money.

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, when women were officially barred from wearing makeup, a strange thing happened. The sale of locally produced cosmetics increased by 60 percent. So did the sale of perfume. Bic, a local firm that opened several years ago, is selling its new line of fragrances at home and abroad.

Women may be forced to wipe away the offensive rouge if caught by the Basiji -- black-clad morality patrols cruising city streets -- but they are obviously reapplying it. A lot.

Cosmetics have always been popular in Iranian culture. On average, women spend 10 percent of their income on health and beauty products, according to Pooya Negar, an Iranian marketing-consulting firm. That's more than they spend on transportation and communication combined.

So when a U.S. embargo cut off the distribution of foreign cosmetics, local companies rushed to fill the gap. Sormeh, a 23-year-old company, started as a supplier of hygiene products and expanded its product line to include a wide range of makeup.

Mohamid Najafabadi, the company's quality-control manager, displays sample lipsticks.

"We have 100 colors," he says: "brick red," "violet" and the very popular "F-17" -- an autumn brown. Packaging for the top-scale line is subdued. The tubes used in the cheaper product feature a floral motif.

Ahmad Pahlevan, Sormeh's manager, acknowledges that the company relies on friends and relatives in the West for updates on the latest trends. But it has developed more savvy marketing practices. "We mix a batch of colors and send it to our sales agents to get feedback from customers," he adds.

Cosmetic companies can advertise their products, but they cannot reveal what the product is used for. Commercials can't show a woman applying lipstick or wearing it. Advertising is reduced to a cutaway shot of the product package or an esoteric nature scene. Waterfalls, flowers and meadows are used to symbolize freshness and beauty.

Sormeh has developed labels and packaging to appeal to various target audiences: solid-color lipstick tubes and boxes for urban women and pastel floral motifs for customers living in the villages or countryside. Sormeh's two-pronged marketing approach is basic, but it speaks volumes about class differences and social awareness.

Lipstick has become a litmus test for the political climate. The stronger shades, says consultant Behzad Olfatpour, suggest that women are prepared to push the envelope.

Like marketing firms around the world, Sormeh has tapped into a cultural trend and is exploiting it for sales. But in Iran it has also tapped into a silent protest. The feminist saying "the personal is political" is enacted here every day.

A stroll in North Tehran shows that the government is losing ground on this cultural battlefield. The hills that border this affluent neighborhood in Iran's capital are packed with people young and old. Some wander up the paths for exercise. But most make the trek to escape prying eyes, to find a place to flirt and flaunt their fashions -- discreetly.

Young women such as 21-year-old Niloofar have embarked on a guerrilla war of color: She washes her hair with henna. Eighteen-year-old Zoya wears blue contact lenses to highlight her eyes.

Others wear open-toed shoes so that bright toenail polish can peek through, and many accentuate their mouths with dark red lip tattoos that cannot be wiped off.

`Psychological torture'

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