Hair painting might be on the rise today, but for longtime beauty watchers, what’s old is new again.

Rewind a few decades, back to 1997, for the advent of hair mascara. It’s a case study of a beauty product hitting the market and creating a major, unexpected trend that literally painted the town.

It all started with Christian Dior’s Mascara Flash. A WWD article, dated Feb. 14, 1997, teased its arrival with the opening paragraph reading: “This spring, Christian Dior will paint its customers’ nails, lips, cheeks, eyes and … hair. That’s right. The company is launching Mascara Flash, an unusual type of ‘makeup’ that is applied to the hair like mascara. The color washes out with the first shampoo.”

There were seven shades, ranging from golden highlights to orange and bright blue. Mascara Flash would retail for $18.50 and go on sale in May 1997. In the U.S., Dior planned to promote the product with national advertising.

Mascara Flash was originally planned as a one-shot spring promotion, with fewer than 500,000 units produced worldwide. But due to the enthusiastic reaction from Dior sales teams and journalists pre-launch, the quantities were upped and promotion time extended. More colors would be added to the lineup, such as iridescent green.

Dior hair mascaras began being snapped up like wildfire. In September 1997, executives at Dior’s U.S. subsidiary said Mascara Flash was the company’s biggest launch, outselling Dior Svelte in units.

By then, entries from numerous mass market manufacturers were already in beauty supply stores, independent clothing stores and drugstores in the U.S. L’Oréal and Revlon were scheduled to introduce versions before Christmas, and several other companies had variations pegged for early 1998, according to a WWD article dated Sept. 26, 1997.

Meanwhile, in the prestige market, Lancôme would venture forth with a promotional line of hair and eyebrow mascaras, called Lumi-Hair, for department stores in October.

No one expected Mascara Flash to be the instant success that it was. This included Christian Dior, which was caught off guard by the strong demand and was plagued by out-of-stocks for several months. But the company began taking the necessary steps to keep the distribution pipeline filled.

Vintage advertising for Christian Dior’s Mascara Flash and nail polish

Hair mascaras were finding a hotter reception their second time around than 10 years prior, when some such products were first launched, because hair coloring had gotten a much broader appeal, according to marketing executives.

Another reason for the success of hair mascara was the craze for color cosmetics, which had results also in skyrocketing nail color sales. Women were more willing to experiment with their makeup and hairstyles than ever before, too.

Still another explanation why the latest versions were faring better is that they came in shades such as bronzes, golds and platinums, which could be used to create realistic highlights in most women’s hair. A few really wild colors, such as blue, orange and pink, were being picked up by young women 18 to 24 years old, according to retailers and manufacturers at the time.

Deborah Walters, then divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics and fragrances at Saks Fifth Avenue, lauded Mascara Flash as an instant success.

“Hair mascara appeals to all ages, mothers, daughters, East Coast, West Coast, Midwest,” she was quoted as saying in the article.

Others jumped on the bandwagon, including Sally Beauty Supply stores, under its house brand; Hair Flair from Ardell, and Chic Streaks by Biocosmetics. In prestige, there was Calvin Klein, among others.

“As we near the end of the century, consumers are looking for new ways to express themselves,” said Carol Hamilton, senior vice president of marketing at L’Oréal, at the time. “This is slightly more cosmetic than a hair product, but it’s critical to understand hair to make a product that performs.”

One prediction in the WWD article was that as hair mascaras became a permanent part of brands’ product lineup, they had the potential to turn 20 million units a year for at least a couple of years.

Another was that the hair mascara craze would last “as long as the consumer is interested in color,” according to one executive at the time. “The trend is about having color without the commitment. We’ve just entered the cycle, and they usually last between five and 10 years.”

Someone else thought the trend would last into just the first quarter of 1998, and they were closest to the truth.

In fact, by May 1998, some retailers reported to WWD that the category was leveling out.

Gone soon thereafter — but never to be forgotten — the hair mascara phenomenon lay the groundwork for more inventive hair products and grooming techniques, and was a springboard for creating newfangled in-store excitement and trends.

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