Bésame’s Gabriela Hernandez on the detective work that goes into bringing brands like Mary Poppins into cosmetics

Gabriela tells us about the happy accident that led Bésame into licensing, and we delve into the creative process behind her licensed cosmetics lines.

Looking for a return to the simple glamour of her grandmother’s beauty routine, designer and cosmetics historian Gabriela Hernandez started Bésame Cosmetics in 2004.

Since then, Bésame Cosmetics has gained a cult following around its meticulously designed, historically inspired cosmetics and licensing has also entered the scene – with recent collections spanning brands like Disney’s Mary Poppins, Marvel’s Agent Carter and real-world icons like Lucille Ball.

We caught up with Gabriela to find out more about the happy accident that led Bésame into licensing – and delve into the creative process behind her licensed cosmetics lines.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
Hi Gabriela! Welcome to Brands Untapped. So before we delve into your licensed ranges, how did Bésame Cosmetics begin?

My background is in design; I had a design shop for many years before I did any cosmetics. I started designing cosmetic pieces for other companies. It came about because I had a lot of antiques from my grandma and they really defined glamour for me. In 2004, I didn’t see a lot of that kind of product in the market – everything was very sleek and wasn’t the romantic style of cosmetics that I enjoy. I’m a designer, so what do I do about it? I make my own!

So I started making tiny 1940s-style lipsticks and I didn’t think anyone else would want it. The internet was in its infancy and there was no social media, so people found out about things by reading the paper or from people telling people. I started a little website and put the lipsticks on there and people found them! That’s how we started.

“As a designer, I approach everything with research. The more I know about something, the better I can interpret it.”

You delved into it a little there, but for anyone new to Bésame, how would you describe the style and aesthetic of your products?
As a designer, I approach everything with research. The more I know about something, the better I can interpret it. That’s what a designer does, they reinterpret information in different ways, adding their own style. So I took what I enjoyed from the past, added my own bits to it and remade it for the current generation. There’s a lot of stuff that was done before that was really quite neat, but that was lost – like lots of things – along the way.

Our whole process is about looking back at what was done in the past and finding out what was really good that we could rescue, add our own twist to and reintroduce to a new generation.

Was licensing always part of the plan?
No – I never intended to do licensing at all. It wasn’t in the plan and it wasn’t something I was ever interested in. The only reason we got into it at all is because I have a shop in Hollywood, in Burbank, close to the Disney studios.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
A lot of people who work at Disney come to my store and some of them were licensing executives. They said: “We like what you are doing, would you be interested in doing something with our characters?” I said: “Well, what do you want me to do!?” I had no idea what licensing actually was!

At first, they asked if I would do something with Tinkerbell, but the character is too young for my audience. Anything that I do – licensed or not – has to fit my audience and they are adult women, not kids. They are people that have an appreciation for design and they know what they like.

“I have to find the colour. With Snow White, I wanted to find the original cel colours. Luckily, Disney keeps little jars of paint for every cel colour they’ve used in the past!”

I thought Tinkerbell was too young so I said no, but they then said about Snow White, because she had an anniversary coming up. That I was interested in, because Snow White has a lot of history – she’s the very first Disney princess and was the first Technicolor film princess – so there was a lot of historical significance around Snow White and that’s what I wanted to bring out in a collection.

How was it working with Disney on your first licensed collection?
From a design perspective, it was pretty smooth! They thought my first idea was great and said: “Go ahead!” We’ve worked on launches with Disney every year since.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
So what is your design process like with a branded range? If we take Snow White, what did your first creative steps look like?

The first thing I do with any brand is to head to the source. We make authentic colours – they have to have a historical base. We don’t do ‘inspired by’, they have to be authentic. So, I have to find the colour. With Snow White, I wanted to find the cel colours. Luckily, Disney keeps little jars of paint for every cel colour they’ve used in the past. They have little jars of paint from 1936.

“It’s like detective work! I look through old requisition forms or purchase orders from the production, and then I can find out who supplied the make-up and what brands they used. Once we find that out, I can usually find the original colours.”

The people that run Disney’s archive are very nice to me. I appreciate and love the art – and the history of the art. They made me a painted sample of all the colours in the Snow White cels, so I took that to my lab and reproduced every one.

The colours in my collection are exactly the same colours from the original cels colours that were painted. These weren’t the colours seen in the film, because the Technicolor process actually added contrast. These were the raw colours and they are very soft and very different from what you see in the film.

That’s amazing. I would never have thought there’d be such a difference.
Yes! It was a real discovery for me to find that the colours from the paint that was mixed in 1936 don’t actually look like what you see in the film. But they are very nice and very wearable – more wearable than the very bright colours you see in the movie.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
Do your customers like that side of Bésame too? The detail, the research…

Yes, and they know that’s what we do. Every product we make has historical references. I have a huge library of antiques and all the lipstick colours that I make have a year attributed to them because I have originals of them. Every collection that we make, we research to ensure we have original colours – we don’t just make them up.

From your first licensed range to your most recent one… Mary Poppins. Was your process similar for this collection? Were you knocking on the door of the Disney archives once again?
I was! But Mary Poppins is more difficult than any other property that I’ve ever worked on because of the limitations of the license. Julie Andrews owns the likeness of Mary Poppins, so you can’t use any of her likeness, without having her approve it and paying her a separate royalty. It was difficult for me to even get anyone to talk about the film! There’s a shroud of secrecy around it!

I have a podcast, so I ended up interviewing Karen Dotrice who played Jane Banks in the film. I asked her about what they did with the make-up. It’s interesting because the movie is supposed to represent turn of the century, like 1905 or so, but the make-up is from the Sixties. There’s a disconnect there and some creative license taken there. They didn’t want to make a historical film, they wanted to make a fantasy film. So our make-up reflected the Sixties.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
It’s like detective work! I look through old requisition forms or purchase orders from the production, and then I can find out who supplied the make-up and what brands they used. Once we find out what brands they used, I can usually find the original colours. I’m like a detective – but for make-up!

I re-watched LA Confidential last night, so now I have visions of you sitting in a Pontiac Chieftain parked outside Julie Andrews’ house, waiting to quiz her on the Mary Poppins make-up!
Ha! I know! “Hey Julie, what colour was it!?”

You mentioned your podcast – Classic Beauty with Bésame Cosmetics – where you interview different make-up artists, some of whom have been involved in some great TV shows and movies. Why did you launch that?
I wanted to explore how people use make-up in different industries and look at what their jobs are actually like. I wanted to show people that there’s more to make-up than to just make people look pretty. There’s so much to it – it’s a huge field. Somebody who does theatre has a very different job to someone working in TV or in the movies. All are creative and artistic, but they express it in different ways.

We’ll put a link to the podcast here, so people can have a listen.

Back to licensing, are you focused mainly on character-based collections, or do you think you’d ever do a collection based on a food brand, or a celebrity IP?
Well, it depends on your audience. If you’re a business that has young consumers, then an ice cream brand like Ben & Jerry’s might work. When you’re dealing with adults, that gets a little dicey.

For us, it’s about featuring women that other women can relate to. We have a branded series called Iconic Women and the first one we did was Lucille Ball. Not only was she a comedian and an actress, but she ran studios – the woman was incredible. I want other women to know this and be inspired by her. That’s the type of woman that other women would look up to and find some common ground in. That’s important to me.

I design for adult women, so I can’t work on brands aimed at younger consumers. It would seem out of character for me.

Absolutely – and is there any differences in your design approach when dealing with a real person, like Lucille Ball, compared to when you’re creating sets for Mary Poppins and Snow White?
It’s still all about the research. For the Lucy collection, I spoke with Lucille Ball’s daughter – Lucie Arnaz – and her granddaughter, and also with CBS as they share the license for the I Love Lucy brand. The Arnaz family owns the likeness for Lucille Ball and CBS owns the I Love Lucy show.

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
In consumer products, that license had mainly been used for kitschy things. It was not an elegant or high-end license, but the family wanted to change that. They asked me to do something along those lines, and I wanted to portray her like that too, because although she was a comedic actress, she was also a very beautiful woman. I wanted to show that side of her – not the zany side. I didn’t use any I Love Lucy stills because I didn’t want to focus on her as a comedian. I wanted to focus on her as a glamorous woman.

We do all our own art, so I created a glamorous portrait of her as the key art for the collection. Even for the Disney ranges, I created most of the art – I rarely use the art that partners give me!

Gabriela Hernandez, Bésame
The other part of her that I wanted to get across was that she married a Cuban. At the time, that was taboo, but I wanted to include the Cuban part of her life. So I created a picture that was based on a vintage postcard from Cuba, and used that as one of the palette photos for the collection.

Great – and the collection looks brill. Who else have you in store for the Iconic Women series?
I have two more launching this year, but I can’t say who they are yet! One is launching in April and the other is launching in December. These two women knew each other and they’re huge stars – so there are some clues!

Bésame has established a strong brand identity for itself over the years. Could you ever see your own brand being licensed into categories outside of cosmetics?
Yes, if it was the right fit. They could do bags or sunglasses better than I can! That’s the thing about licensing, things work because they feel authentic. The brand has to have credibility in the space that they’re in and the customer has to trust that the item will be of a certain quality. There can’t be too much of a disconnect between the brand and the product.

Finally, before I let you go, how do you fuel your creativity?
Every creative individual is kind of like a computer. Whatever you input, you output. If ever I get stuck, I need more input – so I’ll have a think, go out, visit museums… Anywhere where I can let my mind to wander. You never know where an idea can come from; anything can trigger one.

Amazing. Well a huge thanks again Gabriela for this; it’s been a fascinating chat and much appreciated.

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