TWENTY YEARS ago Leonard Lauder, the heir to the Estée Lauder beauty empire, observed that during economic downturns consumers liked to sweeten belt-tightening with small indulgences. He called it the “lipstick effect”, after one common pick-me-up. Disappointingly for Italy’s “lipstick valley”, a part of Lombardy that, according to Cosmetica Italia, an industry group, produces 55% of the world’s eye shadows, mascaras, face powder and lipsticks, consumers mostly shunned these little luxuries amid the pandemic recession. Whether because maquillage is less meaningful on grainy Zoom calls or contoured lips invisible behind face-masks, sales of Italian makeup-makers fell by 13% last year.
Luckily for Italy’s beauty firms, shoppers are desperate to show their faces in public again. “When the masks come off in June people will go crazy,” predicts Dario Ferrari, who founded and runs Intercos, the valley’s biggest firm and the world’s largest contract manufacturer for makeup. Denizens of lipstick valley also stand to benefit from two longer-term trends: the rise of the image-conscious Asian shopper and of direct-to-consumer makeup brands that need contract manufacturers to bring their Instagram feeds to life.

Lipstick valley is the latest industrial cluster to emerge in northern Italy. Although France…
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