Beauty without frivolity

What does Nineties woman want? Moisturisers to be minimal and straightforward. By Rhiannon Batten

There are two kinds of people when it comes to beauty products. According to Nicholas Sullivan, senior fashion and beauty PR manager for Liberty, there are those who crave beautifully packaged products which are luxurious in an old-fashioned way - products in extravagant packaging that are best bought as a gift for someone else, or, even better, bought by someone else for you and left untouched in a prime display position; and then there are those who are more concerned with the contents of each bottle than with the packaging it comes in.

This second group is the one leading the way in bathroom trends at the moment. The no-frills, no-fuss school of beauty packaging has been emerging for the last couple of years. Nicky Kinnaird, the NK behind Space NK, says that the "plainness" of the products has been a key part of the Space NK philosophy - it would rather put money into a product than deliberately set out to look a certain way.

Fikkerts (01274 511550 for stockists), a beauty company based in Bingley, West Yorkshire, has taken this one step further by designing its products to look specifically minimal and clean, to fit in with the latest trends, but not letting this detract from the quality of the products themselves. Richard Fikkert, whose company has been around for 90 years, explains that "this is a modern image but the bottles and the quality of the products are very traditional".

However, there is no escape from the fact that packaging counts and the medicinal look really seems to have taken off this year. From Selfridges to Sainsbury, spartan shower gels and minimal moisturisers are everywhere - understandably so in an age where downsizing and simplicity are apparently the keys to a happy life.

Liberty is currently selling the Aesop range of products (prices from around pounds 15 each) which are based on natural ingredients such as cedar wood and tangerine. The brown, surgical-looking bottles have clear definitions of the contents prominently displayed on their chests and, better still, Mr Sullivan describes the products as giving "an immediate zing".

Another recent addition to Liberty beauty counters is the Wu range, based on Chinese herbal ingredients and costing from around pounds 10. Muji's body range (0171-323 2208 for stockists), which comes in very simple packaging, is selling well this summer. The Japanese concept here aims for quality products at reasonable prices and, for this reason, Muji products are never branded. This way, the value of the product comes from what it is rather than who designed it and the products are specifically selected to be simple and effective without unnecessary decoration.

The concept is obviously popular, as the success of the company proves. Two new shops are due to open in the UK this year - one at Manchester's new Trafford Centre and one in Kent. And the president of the company, Kaoru Ariga, states his goal as "the establishment of 50 stores in Europe by the year 2003".

Another reason why Muji products are disappearing off the shelves so quickly is that there is an emphasis on natural materials and colourings. A trend towards natural ingredients, particularly aromatherapy oils with their traditional associations, such as lavender to relax, is driving people back to beauty basics.

People just don't want synthetic products, no matter how many tricks they can perform. The new thing here, however, is that they want natural products in a clean, sleek kind of way, not with the older hippy associations.

The whole idea of the simple life is as appealing as ever and a very Nineties solution to attaining it is through the half-hour you can spend in your bathroom, pampering yourself with the latest beauty products.

There is no getting away from the fact that people have busy lifestyles and, with such a broad choice of beauty products on sale, people will buy products that have clear, well displayed information on the packaging, rather than the prettiest bottle on the shelf. Practicalities are of utmost importance, even when the subject is the bathroom and people have become bored with the idea of buying into a particular image or lifestyle.

What these people really want to know is "what is the product in this bottle going to do for my hair or my skin?" and "is the lid going to fall off while I'm travelling?". The Philosophy range is renowned for its no-frills packaging and the way that the product is described on the packaging. The labels almost read like prescriptions for a happy life; wonderful names and philosophies play their part in tempting customers to part with their money.

Natural Products (0171-372 4101 for mail order) come with the statement "Be yourself, see your friends, day-dream, sleep soundly, make time, love life". The idea is that you can take an athletic shower or give your hair a workout and you'll feel better about life just by jumping in the shower. This doesn't mean you have to spend a lot. Tesco currently stocks an aromatherapy range, for example, that includes "Tranquillity", "Unwind", "Sensual" and "Recharge" bath oils, all pounds 2.99 (inquiries 01992 632222).

However, if you want to splash out, there are plenty of products geared to total sensory indulgence. Mio products have been around for a few years but are certainly part of this category. Mio's Citreum Superfresh Bodysplash with grapefruit, lemon and cyprus (pounds 17.95, Liberty, 0171-734 1234) has a lid prescribing "Mio essential fragrances" as "Mio, because it's for me, essential because it's created with mood-inspiring essential oils and fragrance, because it's complex, balanced and beautiful".

Similarly, one of Lush's products (01202 668545 for mail order) is a "wow wow" face mask, pounds 2.65 for 100g, which includes shitake mushrooms and oatmeal in its ingredients and is designed to calm and reduce facial redness. Lush products are so natural, with no or very little preservatives, they have to be kept refrigerated.

The only drawback to all this clinical bathroom perfection is that it may not be here for much longer. The word is that Nineties shoppers are easily bored and we'll soon be moving back towards luxury and more elaborate packaging. So lie back in your minimal bath, and make the most of your tranquillity bath oil, while your row of Muji toiletries make a statement in your shower.

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