Google became Ofunne Amaka’s unwitting frenemy while purchasing makeup in-store. The search engine allowed her to crosscheck numerous swatches that matched her deep brown skin tone. But one question always ran through Amaka’s mind: “why do I have to keep doing this?”
It’s a question Black and brown people navigating the labyrinth of complexion products asked themselves more times than necessary, and a scenario they’re all too familiar with. Innovation born out of frustration and passion helped Amaka fashion the answer: Cocoa Swatches.
Cocoa Swatches originated as a mobile app that caters to dark-skinned makeup enthusiasts. Other than some help with the code, Amaka created and managed the platform all on her own, and continues to do so even as it branched out to Instagram and YouTube. The sheer amount of work invested in the brand is evident. Sleek and earth-toned, Cocoa Swatches curates and recommends products from foundations to lipsticks that would suit the myriad of skin shades and undertones belonging to the dark spectrum.
Community interaction became the crux of Cocoa Swatches during its Instagram debut. “I created the hashtag #cocoaswatches. Anyone could submit their swatches through that,” Amaka told Culturas. She continued: “People with deeper skin tones really didn’t have representation from brands at the time about what makeup looked like on us. I would post them [the swatches] on the page with the idea that we were gonna help each other out by sharing our finds and our recommendations.”
Amaka mentioned that the act of swatching foundations on her arm — an image that’s now synonymous with her brand — stemmed from seeing websites display images of the complexion product in their bottles, which often misled consumers about the true shade of the color. “Swatches won’t steer you astray,” she said.
It’s also quite noticeable that the editorial isn’t merely a space raving about makeup. It is the product of thoughtfully crafted technology and a sharp understanding of marketing. Amaka’s Masters in Communication Practice from Columbia University armed her with such a perspective. She also developed a trained eye to recognize the nitty-gritty of skin such as differences in shade, undertones, texture, and type. Amaka went so far as to individually swatch all the foundations and complexion products that are featured on her BASEics page. It helped her create an algorithm geared towards matching foundation shades for darker skin tones, which is a massively underrepresented group.
“My why is to make it easier for people with deeper skin tones to navigate this industry,” said Amaka. She continued: “Foundation is something that almost everyone who wears makeup purchases. If you can’t even find your shade, a lot of the time it makes people not want to wear makeup altogether.” The content creator identified that makeup is now being used as an expression of creativity. It’s a noticeable break from the past where people would often depend on complexion products to hide parts of themselves like skin ‘imperfections’ and signs of aging. It bolstered her drive to devise a technology that serves those who are overlooked. The premise is simple: anyone who loves makeup should get the chance to enjoy it.
But this simplicity is deceptive. Red tape in merchandising is a significant reason why Cocoa Swatches and BASEics exist. To begin with, only a few makeup brands offered a wide selection of shades to choose from. But, there were gaps in communication between brands that had the range and their retailers. This means that shades for deeper skin tones may exist but they won’t be stocked in stores.
Amaka remembered a time when the in-store departments of brands like MAC Cosmetics, Make Up For Ever, Lancome, and L’Oreal, to name a few, wouldn’t carry shades for dark skin, in spite of manufacturing those products. She credited the “Fenty effect” for creating a slow but incremental change.
Makeup consumption was redefined when pop sensation Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty in 2017. The brand proved that people with darker skin would happily pay to get complexion products in their shade. It underscored not only how untapped this market group was but also the depth and impact of exclusion on a human level. Right up until months before Fenty’s debut, articles that guided people of color through the beauty world were commonplace. Now, less than five years later, there’s an oversaturation of foundations for darker skin tones and not all brands are hitting the mark.
Amaka identified hollow calls for representation by brands as a pertinent problem. “They’ll put people of color or those who appear different from the default in the front of the camera, but won’t give them any role, agency, or power in the workings of the company itself,” she said. Her “why” is also evolving in this regard, as she is consciously looking inward to spark further change in thinking.
“I want to shed light on the fact that we also need to work behind the scenes to uplift cosmetic chemists, retail specialists, merchandising people of color, Black folks who can help. If they don’t look like me then how can they help people with deeper skin tones who walk into their local Ulta?” Amaka laughed lightly.
The brand-retailer relationship affects what consumers think of the brand. Amaka believed the lack of shade range supply in stores was political. The usual excuse is that the darker shades aren’t going to sell as well as their lighter counterparts. She pointed out two reasons why this justification runs true to an extent.
First, the darker shades aren’t manufactured accurately. They don’t truly match the skin brands claim they have made it for. So, they collect dust on the shelves, prompting retailers to drop them.
The second reason is the racial makeup of a locality. Stores don’t stock a wide range claiming that fewer people of color reside in that neighborhood. But Amaka mentioned that this is the scenario even in areas where people of color are the majority.
“It’s political in the sense that people have an outdated style of thinking. I have yet to see data behind these decisions, so at that point, you have to believe that it’s more of a political bias against people of color, and it’s tied to the bottom dollar,” she said. Amaka continued: “I understand that brands have to make money but in the current climate of racism and anti-Blackness you have to have creative solutions in place that are different from the current ones.”
She highlighted Fenty for proving that people very much want the supposedly undesirable shades. The change did not happen overnight but Amaka noticed the Maybelline and L’Oreal counters at the local Target in her predominantly white Los Angeles neighborhood had warmed up to displaying more shades.
Sweet equilibrium for Amaka is staying authentic to herself and her community while also aligning with brands that understand what she stands for. The gap in connection has proved to be challenging. “Some brands send me products that don’t fit what I do. So, I have to turn down opportunities. They don’t give the tools or the shades that work for you, so you can’t work with them. I’m not doing this just for the money,” she informed.
Being a Black content creator advocating for cosmetic equality can be a lonely space, especially in Los Angeles. “What I do is rooted in a subject not many people feel comfortable talking about, so it feels isolating sometimes,” Amaka said.
She has noticed often being one of the two or three Black influencers in the city’s networking events. “People sometimes use me to make their brand seem more legitimate. I want to work with brands that align with what I believe in. It is a hard space to navigate when you are working by yourself, and when you are also working as an entity rather than as yourself,” she confessed.
Occasionally, Amaka receives pushback online. It’s the nature of the beast when having a social media presence. She mentioned followers who were critical of her for calling out brands and retailers who think darker shades don’t sell. “Some people might think ‘oh she’s always complaining’, and it’s not easy,” Amaka said.
“I can imagine a world where some shades won’t sell as well as others. However, I do think there’s a world where you can create and order different amounts of a shade in proportion to the demographic. Someone has yet to make me understand why that’s impossible,” she laughed.
Currently, Amaka is very much a one-woman show, though she does have plans to offload work once the mobile app and BASEics are “close to 100%” of her vision. “I think I can go faster with some help, but I’m very protective of what I’ve created and I don’t want someone else to come and mess it up. I want to be more rooted in what I’ve built before I expand,” she said. Amaka is also looking into the lack of inclusion that occurs when technology and beauty unite. She is staying abreast on topics like artificial intelligence, among others, to incorporate it into her app for a try-on feature.
A line of complexion products is a part of her ever-winding mental roadmap and Amaka wants to take her time to get it right. “There are a lot of gaps in this industry especially for deeper skin tones,” she said. Amaka is steadily figuring out how to close them.
Here are some of Ofunne Amaka’s Holy Grail products: