Rhiannon Harries: The ugly side of the beauty business - who'd pay £35 for a lippy?

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The lipstick theory has it that certain products – its namesake among them – are not just recession-proof, but actually sell more during shaky economic times. The man who coined that phrase, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was Leonard Lauder, the chairman of cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, so it's not surprising that his world picture is seen in terms of tubes of coloured grease. As yet it's not conclusively proven, but sales figures for the cosmetics industry as a whole have been famously good of late.

The supposed reason is that, like ice-cream or a rented DVD, cosmetics deliver a bit of distraction and indulgence at a price-point low enough not to activate your cerebral "waste of money" alarm. So big things, such as a designer frock, are bad; small things, such as a designer lipstick, are OK. But the small things' price tags have been getting disproportionately big of late.

As a beauty-hall habitué, I'm sorry to admit I am inured to this kind of thing. Three figures for a tub of moisturiser is not something I've actually paid, but it no longer merits an eyebrow raise, let alone outrage. Lotions and potions promise miracles, falsely or otherwise, and command corresponding prices. But when designer Tom Ford, never the sort of guy to undersell himself or his wares, launched his range of Private Blend lipsticks (below) earlier this year at the princely sum of £35 each, even I winced.

It's enough to make Burberry's new range of make-up, which has single eyeshadows and lipsticks for £22, look budget. And ultimately this is all about comparatives – you can't afford what you really want, so you buy the next best thing. So it would be a clever, timely move on the part of the beauty industry to substantially bump the price of next best thing, then.

It puts me in mind of a restaurateur I once interviewed who told me that opting for the soup on a menu because it was cheaper than the other dishes was a dumb move (unless you really like soup, of course). It may be £1 less to buy, but it was probably several pounds cheaper to make.

Don't worry, I'm not about to extol the virtues of "investment" purchasing – dropping a grand on a coat only makes more sense than spending thirty on a lipstick when you are in the fortunate position of having a grand burning a hole in your pocket. But if it's a game of relatives, I think I'd feel better going to Boots and choosing like a millionaire than playing the pauper at Selfridges.

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