How Revlon created the scarlet woman

In 1932, the company launched the very first red nail varnish. Since then, its products have become staples on dressing tables around the world. Rebecca Gonsalves charts its rise
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Red nail varnish is such a classically chic beauty product that you could be forgiven for thinking it has been around forever. But you'd be mistaken, as the first commercial incarnation was created in 1932.

In the midst of America's Great Depression the only shades of nail enamel available were pale and transparent. Brothers Charles and Joseph Revson paired up with a chemist named Charles Lachman (the 'L' in Revlon) to create the first opaque nail enamel. They did this by introducing a pigmented formula, which they sold door-to-door, starting with "Cherries in the Snow", a red that remains a bestseller.

The business soon expanded to selll in beauty salons, department stores and chemists. During the Second World War the company contributed to the war effort by manufacturing first aid kits for the armed forces, and when peace was declared its factory adapted to produce manicure implements.

Knowing that the key to a strong business is at least as much about marketing as product, in 1939 Charles Revson noticed a woman in a restaurant whose lips and nail polish didn't match, and so he set about creating the concept of "Matching Lips & Tips", with a lipstick to complement each of his now famous nail-enamel shades.

Reds were a focus of the brand during the early days with shades like "Fire and Ice" and "Fifth Avenue Red" becoming the most popular after featuring in the brand's glamorous full-colour ads. The campaigns were shot by top fashion photographers of the time such as Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton.

Indeed Avedon's work for Revlon soon became so desirable that models were willing to appear in them for a $1 fee. In 1952 Dorian Leigh, among the first models to achieve household-name status, starred as the Fire and Ice Girl in a campaign shot by Avedon, which went on to become the company's most famous. In 1955, Revlon went public and by the end of the following year was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It was at this time that Revlon launched twice-yearly promotions tied to seasonal fashions in clothing. In the Sixties the foundations for its huge international presence were laid as global campaigns featured models demonstrating the "American Look".

The brand continued to create cosmetic firsts, including the original mass-market female fragrance, Charlie, in the Seventies. The ad for this scent encapsulated the emancipated female of the time, and was the first to depict a woman going to work and wearing trousers. By the mid-Seventies Charlie was the number-one fragrance in the world, and Revlon's sales figures had passed $1bn in 1977.

A key part of Revlon's marketing strategy has long been the appointment of celebrity spokeswomen, largely cherry-picked from Hollywood to represent the brand, but with a few supermodels included for good measure. From Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor to the latest incumbents Emma Stone and Olivia Wilde, each one is chosen not only for their individual beauty but the personality they project on the global stage.

On joining the ranks of Revlon last year, Stone said: "Revlon recognises that every woman is multifaceted and magnificent in their own way and the expression of individuality is as important to Revlon as it is to me." This may sound like something of a cliché, but compare Stone's campaign, in which her freckles and red hair are allowed to shine brightly, to that of another mass market make-up brand's re-touching of their celebrity spokesperson into almost a lookalike of herself and it begins to make sense.

Looking back through the roster of talent that has been associated with the brand over the years there is a diverse range – from Oprah Winfrey to Salma Hayek, Julianne Moore, Lucy Liu, Cindy Crawford and Halle Berry (who has been with the brand since 1996).

In 2008 Revlon signed make-up artist Gucci Westman as artistic director. "Revlon is a leader in bringing innovation and on-trend products reflecting modern glamour to women around the world," she said at the time. Westman has ensured that the brand has a presence at fashion shows in New York and London.

In recent years too the brand has re-dedicated itself to tapping into high fashion trends in an affordable way, launching "On Trend & On the Catwalk" during spring/summer 2008. Each season one key lipstick and nail shade is inspired by the Revlon teams' catwalk work at London and New York fashion weeks.

In this the brand's 80th year, 20 new nail polish shades have been released to swell the ranks alongside original shades such as Cherries in the Snow and Revlon Red, which are unchanged to this day.