Monthly Archives: March 2010

Sephora no mora…

Terrible headline aside, the very serious news this post brings you is that Sephora is closing in Hong Kong.

As a VIP member of Sephora (i.e. I have a loyalty card), I received an oddly-worded email last week telling me Sephora was ceasing ‘operations in Hong Kong market for strategic reasons’. All my VIP points would expire on March 31 but in the meantime, there was a clearance sale with up to 70% off to be had. My boyfriend and I duly made the trek to Mong Kok this Saturday and the photo of crazed women screaming that accompanied the email (see below) turned out to be scarily accurate. The shop was literally teeming.

sephora 2

I duly deposited my boyfriend in the 40-minute long queue that snaked around the entire shop whilst I tried to grab some bargains. What became obvious was that half these bargain-hunters had never set foot in Sephora before – as they jostled over the near-empty concession of Sephora’s own range of make-up to grab one of the few horrible shades of eyeshadow that remained (who cares?! It’s only $10!!!), I simply darted downstairs where an identical counter stood, albeit much better-stocked and in a location where I was able to breathe without getting my face wedged up someone’s sweaty armpit.

HKers are notoriously crazy for bargains – I’ve seen a line snake down an entire road in Causeway Bay for what turned out to be free mini-packs of Tic-Tacs, cordons set up at midnight for the Lane Crawford sale and when Happy Valley Racecourse gave away some free souvenir gift-sets, several elderly people were injured in the ensuing crush and commotion – so the crowds at Sephora did not surprise me. They certainly surprised the staff who looked on with an air of bewilderment and fear, like aliens shown the store to illustrate the concept of ‘crowd’ (or merely ‘crazy HK people’).

I might not know much about business (although according to Sir Alun Sugar, all it takes is an ability to not bull-shit or arse-lick, in which case I’m good to go) but I do know about make-up and Sephora’s demise is frustrating because they were doing so much right and had spotted a unique position in the sprawling HK cosmetics market. Unlike standalone stores selling just one brand (MAC, NARS, Clinique), Sephora housed several under one very spacious and luxurious roof. So do department stores like Lane Crawford, I hear you cry – but there, each concession is manned by an individual who takes the trouble to give you the hard sell for their brand alone. Other cosmetics stores in Hong Kong offering several brands certainly do not fall into the leisurely shopping experience category. Watsons and Mannings are more pharmacists, stocking standard drugstore cosmetics brands alongside cough medicines and condoms, whilst the likes of Sasa, Colormix and Bonjour are akin to cosmetics cash-and-carries – yes, their stuff is a little cheaper than the recommended retail price but that means stock supply is unpredictable (we couldn’t possibly speculate as to its ‘fallen off the back the van’ nature), any customer service above the likes of ‘That’ll be $20 please’ is out the window, and goods are stuffed into the shop with about as much care as a toddler cramming toys back into play-box.

Sephora’s staff were genuinely knowledgeable about all their ranges and offered relatively unbiased recommendations. The downstairs floor that so many of the bargain-hunters didn’t even know existed housed dressing tables where you could get free make-up consultations and apply different products to your heart’s content. The VIP card was not exactly a great deal (then again, what loyalty cards ever are?! but at least it was making an effort to give something back, with less strings attached than most VIP cards I’ve picked up along the way (ridiculously-high minimum spends are a perennial favourite).

And Sephora’s own range of make-up was brilliant. Their range of cosmetics was huge, covering every product under the sun, and married quality with reasonable prices. Their skincare range was equally dependable without costing the earth and their range of accessories (brushes, bags, tweezers etc) was extensive. This range was, of course, the most heavily discounted in the closing down sale and I stocked up on their eyeliner pencils (with a range of colours in such great quality bettered only by Urban Decay’s 24/7 pencils IMHO) and their cleansing water, a fantastic product that tackles eye make-up too whilst being gentle and not at all greasy. Basically, for someone that misses Boots and its brilliant Advantage Card as much as I miss anything from England, Sephora was the closest I could get.

That’s not to say they didn’t do anything wrong. The Mong Kok location raised expertly-plucked eyebrows from the start. Mong Kok may be a tourist hotspot for its Ladies Market (an open-air street market selling cheap tat souvenirs and designer fakes) but with its array of street food, pokey shops and hectic bustling streets, the atmosphere is very “local”. Sephora, with its feeling of quality, luxury and an airy ambience, would have fared better amongst the designer stores of Tsim Sha Tsui, the fashionable shopping mecca of Causeway Bay, or in gweilo central, the cunningly-named Central.

Elsewhere around the world, Sephora stores stock brands or items exclusive to their stores as prime draws to make-up mavens like myself. But Sephora HK was filled with brands that you could have procured easily at the same price in department shores or even in their own shops in malls without having to brave the Mong Kok masses (and potential acid attacks), whilst the few exclusives they did garner (excepting the BareMinerals range, for which there was a lot of positive press) did not have great brand recognition. Take just one look at the list of brands on either Sephora France or US to see how we’ve been short-changed here.

And, as the bargain brouhaha described above shows, a few more sales, promotions or freebies couldn’t have hurt – Sephora’s regular VIB promotions are the stuff of legend on beauty blogs worldwide. I hope somewhere out there a Sephora executive is reading this blog and making careful notes, as I’m sure Sephora will return soon enough (they already have 41 stores in China and over 1000 globally, though strangely none in the UK). And next time, Mr Sephora man, please bring Urban Decay with you.

Alphabeat – The Beat Is… album review

Alphabeat’s Fascination may well be one of my favourite songs of the last decade. Essentially Footloose re-spun Scandi-style, ground-breaking stuff it certainly wasn’t, but sold with such a boundless joie de vivre that you couldn’t help but smile (and the ‘Word is on your lips… say the word!’ section is just shiny pop brilliance). Sadly but perhaps not unexpectedly, there is nothing to match Fascination, or even some of This Is Alphabeat’s lesser moments, on new record The Beat Is

Whilst This Is Alphabeat saw the Danish band channelling the 80s in their inimitably feelgood fashion, The Beat Is… sees them mining the sounds of 90s dance acts (Black Box, Corona, Haddaway, Snap! et al) for inspiration. If you were frantically throwing shapes to Rhythm Is A Dancer whilst wearing shapeless clothes, perhaps you will fall for The Beat Is… but for me, the resulting marriage between house beats and sparkly Scandipop is far from successful. At times, some arrangements even seem to veer dangerously into pastiche.

Nevertheless, lead single, The Spell, does come close to recapturing Fascination’s magic (spell… magic – see what I did there?!), helped in no small part by the vocals of sole female Stine Bramsen, which retain their glorious radiance – shame these are often computerised to oblivion elsewhere. The other delight that remains in tact from This Is Alphabeat is the interplay between Stine and male vocalist, Anders; in an age where mixed-sex pop groups are an endangered species (in the UK and US markets specifically), this is a joy to listen to and it’s no coincidence that this occurs on pretty much all of the album’s best songs.

DJ and second single Hole In My Heart manage to turn the old-school beats into something new and alluring whilst Heatwave makes the most of the album’s unexceptional lyrics (mostly about being really really into someone… like really) by perfectly capturing the dizzy delirium of being in lust, but after a while, the beats start to grate. This is compounded by what feels like the vitality being slowly sucked out of the group throughout the ten-track duration – at times, it feels like a somewhat lifeless Alphabeat are content to let the beats do all the talking, resulting in dirge like Chess and Q & A that I have about as much desire to revisit as I do 90s fashion.

Remember those ads that had the Duracell bunny hopping about ceaselessly in contrast to the other one powered by the nameless-for-legal-reasons battery that slowly winded down after an initial spout of energy? Well, This Is Alphabeat is the Duracell bunny, still exuberant, fun and packed to the brim with joie de vivre two years on; no prizes for guessing which rabbit I’m comparing The Beat Is… to. Alphabeat could probably be catchy in their sleep – shame they seem to have taken me a bit too literally on this occasion.

3/5

Article also available at Teentoday.

Be careful what you wish for ‘cos you just might get it…

A while ago, I hastily-penned a short article expressing my disdain for the whole Sugababes v.27 thing. Just a few months later, in their eternal bid to prove that anything the Brits can do the Yanks can do better, the Pussycat Dolls are making the Sugababes incident seem like an event of ‘kid pushes over other kid’s sandcastle’ magnitude.

It currently looks as if Nicole Scherzinger is the last Doll standing – a mean feat considering she wasn’t even a Doll in the first place (she was added to give ‘vocal strength’ when the burlesque troupe became a band). Given that Scherzinger apparently manages to sing both lead and backing vocals on When I Grow Up (meaning should the post of PCD magician become vacant, Scherzinger is a dead cert), any other members are clearly dispensable and amidst tales of dressing rooms, drug tests, regulated screen-time in videos, non-sharing of vocals, broken ribs and even homelessness, Kimberly Wyatt, Jessica Sutta and Ashley Roberts have all confirmed their departures. The exit of Melody Thornton, the only other member even allowed within breathing space of a microphone and who had an outburst live on stage about not being ‘featured’ (a reference to the band’s new name of “Pussycat Dolls feat. Nicole Scherzinger” on their last singles), surely cannot be far off.

The fact that you’re probably scratching your heads trying to place these names – that’s if you’re even bothering attempting to place them at all (and no, none of them are the one who looked like a he-she – that was Carmit Bachar and she left 2 years ago) – illustrates the problem. These other members were little more than glorified back-up dancers for Scherzinger and in fact, salaried employees of the record company. This means they picked up pay cheques for a set amount just like you, me or any other average Joe flipping burgers at the local Machouse.

This already promoted the idea that members were interchangeable – in any corporation, no-one is irreplaceable – and this has led to a somewhat blasé attitude amongst some commentators regarding PCD’s (as we know them) demise. But this isn’t a corporation, it’s a pop band. You put these girls on every single record sleeve, you have an official website where each has a member profile, you send them out touring and you do this over the course of five whole years – of course, their job status is a little different to your average Joe flipping burgers and should be treated as such. It’s a little sad if we just shrug our shoulders and continue to lap up whatever material Scherzinger and her chorus line put out next.

The notion of modern pop fandom means having some connection with the individuals in the group, for better or for worse. Yes, yes, it should all be about the music blah blah blah but where would the fun be in that? People inevitably develop favourite members, bustling fansites and forums emerge and Thornton, Wyatt and Roberts have approximately 90,000 followers on Twitter between them; to the hardcore fans, the staple of pop groups who rely on such fans to religiously buy singles even when they’re at the tricky dodgy ballad stage, these women are not just interchangeable faces – whatever Robin Antin, the brains (and the botox) behind brand PCD, may believe.

Compare and contrast the videos for the lead single and last singles from the Doll Domination album campaign. By the end, the other members are lucky to get 20 seconds screen-time between them and aren’t even bothering to lip-sync to backing vocals. It shows disrespect to the fans, disrespect to real bands whose performances aren’t a total charade and disrespect to the girls themselves.

Line-up changes, bust-ups and messy splits are practically written into girl groups’ DNA and I daresay that if the Pussycat Dolls, in whatever Nicole-centric incarnation (lest we forget she had a prolonged crack at solo stardom and comprehensively flopped), continue to release highly-commercial material of a similar calibre to their work in the past, they will continue to sell decently. To lose one band member is bad luck, to lose two is carelessness… to lose four in one fell swoop hints at deeper problems. I hope the press give them a hard time because they genuinely deserve it. Come back Sugababes v.48, all is forgiven.

Make-Up Miracles: Clinique Cream Eyeliner review

Ages ago, in a dim and distant millennia, Benefit’s Get Bent brush was my very first make-up miracle. I proclaimed it the only make-up brush worth having and that its prowess for applying eyeliner was unbeaten. Well, that hasn’t changed. But now, I have found the perfect eyeliner for it to apply. Step forward Clinique’s Brush-On Cream Eyeliner.

Having never mastered the art of liquid eyeliner without looking like a jellyfish inked in my eye and sick of pencil eyeliners sliding down my face and making me look like a panda practically before I put it on (especially in HK’s humidity), it was obvious some kind of middle ground was required. Cream/gel eyeliner, here we come.

Clinique’s is certainly not the only cream/gel eyeliner on the market yet in my opinion, it’s the best. Having sped through Mac’s, Bobbi Brown’s and even my beloved Benefit’s without getting a feel for them being ‘The One’, I turned to the ever-dependable Clinque for answers.

Clinique the brand is practically a make-up miracle for me in itself. It’s one of those reliable, safe and well-regarded companies whose make-up counters are not fronted by some Next Top Model also-ran trying to plaster every shade of her brand’s eyeshadow on at once, but by someone in a white coat. Oooh, science-y.  All their stuff is allergy-tested (7200 times for each product fyi) and 100% fragrance-free, which is great if you have sensitive skin. Or in this case, sensitive eyes – like me.

Admittedly, Clinique’s Cream Eyeliner can’t compete with Mac in terms of colour – the four shades available (Black, Brown, Grey and Black Honey) are squint-and-they-all-look-the-same similar – but it beats them on every other front. It goes on like a dream, stays put all-day (pretty much the only eyeliner I’ve found that does so) and can be fiddled about with easily for either a low-key daytime look or a sultry and sexy night out.

My shade of choice is Smoke Grey – softer and less harsh than pure black for day but can still be layered on for proper darkness come the midnight hour. My appliance of choice, as you’ve established, is the Get Bent brush, which sweeps it on at precise angles to achieve the perfect flick. And my place of choice is perpetual residence in my make-up bag, where one tiny pot seems to take on Tardis-like levels of seeming bigger than it is by lasting forever; it genuinely is my ‘Can’t Live Without/Desert Island Essential’ product ever since I developed a deep-seated addiction to eyeliner in my teens. Thankfully, my look is a little more grown-up than the smudgy-eyed racoon style I sported in those days – and I’ve got Clinique to thank for it.

Clinique Brush-On Cream Eyeliner, $130 for 5g (doesn’t sound much but lasts well over a year!)

Article also available at Teentoday.