The first thing I notice about South Carolinian Edward Bess when I meet him in person is his hair – the luscious chestnut locks he's always brushing away from his cherubic face. It's the sort of hair that girls dream of. Not that his thick lashes, pillow pout and other-worldly glow aren't also envy-inspiring. Or his whippet-thin waistline and long limbs. In fact, Bess is a vision fit for the Belle Époque – he makes TV vampire heart throbs look positively mundane; yep, Lestat, Louis and Edward would writhe with jealousy at the site of this willowy beauty entrepreneur.
The ex-model and theatre school graduate says he always knew he wanted to create a range of makeup. And so he did, building the base for his little makeup empire with a set of infallible lipsticks and lip gloss named The Lip Wardrobe: "I wanted a lip gloss that didn't have glitter in it." He wanted to buck the trend for sparkle and create something more sophisticated that would survive the fickleness of seasonal trends. With a few business contacts in mind from his days in fashion, Bess pitched the idea and at the tender age of 20 – while most of us were still on the lash at university – he became a self-made business man and brand owner. Lipsticks, glosses and eyeshadows (which double brilliantly as eyebrow powder) were followed by bronzers, mascara, liners, concealers, creme blushes, cream makeup and wildly popular sets (the original Lip Wardrobe, Jet Set, Midnight Skin and Private Eye).
On a unseasonably warm May afternoon in Bergdorf Goodman's beauty hall on Manhattan's glitzy 5th Avenue, it's hard not to notice the band of boisterous women crowding Bess's counter – a veritable oasis of charm in an otherwise catty scrum of sales people. In 2006, Bess was the youngest brand founder to snag space in the revered beauty mecca, earning an end-of-aisle shelf space to display his wares. Today Bess has a counter where he can often be found recommending products, chatting and flying the flag as the founder and ambassador of his cult brand. To the chagrin of the sales-hungry men and women nearby (all narrowed eyes and stage whispers) Bess's space, though smallish, is the most popular.
In fact, looking around, I realise, Bess is the only brand founder in this whole subterranean retail warren. No Bobbi, Laura, Thierry or Trish present. He's hands-on. Not quite a cult of personality, he is nontheless a character... come for Bess and stay for the makeup. And why not? Women love the passionate Bess in his uniform of crisp white button-down, black trousers and impeccable shoes. One die-hard fan who has long since purchased the entire range is sitting at the counter simply to hang out... as they seem to do. Zu Rafalat, founder of Zuneta.com, says, "Edward grew up in a close family-knit unit with many sisters and he has a very clear understanding of women and what makes them happy and feel beautiful". It's easy to see how he just gets it. It's in his blood. One of the things that most attracts women to Bess and the range is, in his words, his "desire to simply make women look like better versions of their natural selves". It's obvious he loves women and would love nothing more than to augment what's already there, turning up the volume a bit instead of turning them into someone or something else. Rafalat adds "for me there is absolutely no substitute to getting advice directly from the founder of the brand! I think it's testament to Edward's commitment to his brand and concept that he chooses to spend as much time as possible at his counter, meeting and advising his customers. It's also lovely to get advice from a man sometimes, as their view on beauty is always slightly different to ours. Edward is very gentle and shopping with him is a pleasure."
Oh, and lest we forget, the makeup is brilliant. Truly. In geometric Lucite and lacquered containers, the streamlined, timeless range has wearable, universally flattering colours and textures that can be as glamorous as they can be simple. From that first lipstick to the pending launch of Edward Bess skincare, it's clear that Bess has instilled in the brand an intuitive sense of his own quiet style. A David among Goliaths, the brand's winning edge comes from that inherent style, the intimate scale of the production, a hands-on approach, well-pruned inventory (nothing superfluous and you won't find thousands of SKUs) and – most importantly – his products do what they say on the tin. Everything is in perfect order. "It has almost a European sensibility", says Rafalat. And it does feels distinctly design-led rather than trend-led. With the brand's feet planted firmly in New York (Bess fell in love with the city when he visited at the tender age of 15 and never looked back) there is nevertheless something distinctly different about it, something other. There's a subtlety. It's not the Lady Gaga or the Rhianna of makeup. If his makeup were a woman, it would most certainly wear cigarette trousers or a pencil skirt in public.
While I'm at the counter, one of Bess's beauties (and his right-hand woman) Susan Babakhanova and I strike up a conversation and chatter away while she fondles the handsome compacts and tubes. Eventually she places four products on the counter, hands me a clean makeup brush and, step-by-step, patiently and encouragingly guides me through applying a smoky eye and nude lip (Bess's favourite look) so that I can learn the skills myself right then and there – a far cry from the usual ambush technique employed in beauty halls where the customer is sat down, face full of drag makeup is slapped on and a dazed, somewhat clownish woman exits the store with a billfold that's £200 lighter and products she doesn't need or don't work. As I labour on, compelled forward by Susan's gentle, positive words, the products glide onto the skin without any tug; eyeshadows blend effortlessly and both the lipstick and gloss are incredibly emollient (and, I am pleased to report, last for ages). A light dusting of Ultra Luminous Bronzer in Daydream is the finishing touch – Bess instructs me not to contour and "paint it on" harshly but softly place it where the sun would naturally kiss my skin. Bless him. "It's about empowerment" says Bess. And I, for one, believe him, leaving his makeup counter with brand new set of makeup application skills, which will last me a life time, and feeling like the cat that got the cream. My subtle smoky eye and nude lip even stand up to the harsh light of day. There's no street-walker vibe, just a more mysterious (dare I say better) version of me. I barely notice the madness around me as I walk away, side-stepping sales people who jump in my path, maneuvering around a wild-eyed women wielding perfume and finally having an inward giggle when I spy the grimaces from the other sales people that greet the sight of my little black Edward Bess bag (there's no pressure to buy but who can resist?)... and my newly confident swagger.
The good news? This open secret among female New Yorkers and the inner circle of makeup aficionados everywhere is finally making its way to UK shores this month. "Coming back to the UK feels like a homecoming", says Bess, "I love it". He laments that he hasn't been able to visit as often as he would like since moving from London, the city that gave this divine creature his start as a model, back to New York. Retailing on zuneta.com, Rafalat says she already has excited customers queuing for the launch. "Women in the UK like to try new things. They are quite experimental and can easily recognise a good quality, timeless brand. We have had some great launches in the UK recently – Illamasqua, Rouge Bunny and Hourglass all being well received even during a recession – so I am very excited for Edward Bess."
The biggest beauty secret in New York has been revealed. Time to join the queue.