by: JIM CLARK, Blush owner Deborah Haynes and her staff answer questions and offer advice without strong-arming customers into a particular product line.

Some women like help with their makeup; others think they know it all and prefer to be left alone. Having had a disastrous (and very brief) stint as a makeup rep, I have always been in the latter camp, convinced any 'assistance' actually was predatory. But recently a torrential rainstorm taught me the error of my ways.

I was staggering along Northwest 23rd Avenue trying not to impale pedestrians with my sodden umbrella when the rain became comically intense. I ducked into the closest store for some relief, and found myself in an oasis of beauty products.

I'd been to Blush Beauty Bar before but felt like I preferred the anonymity of shopping in a certain downtown department store. I was wrong.

Blush first opened at the corner of 23rd and Flanders Street nearly three years ago.

The friendly boutique is like a makeup freak's private den, packed with well-chosen cosmetics, skin care products and tools of the trade. The high ratio of Blush's makeup artists to customers means lots of individual attention.

These artists have mastered customer service; they don't ignore you, or plop you in a chair and make you look like something from a John Waters film. They generously assist in application technique and product selection, without the strong-arm sales pitch.

There's a reason this approach feels so different from that of a department store. In those cosmetic departments, the person helping you has allegiance to (and a sales quota for) a particular line, which can deter her from showing you the best products available. At Blush, products have been chosen solely for their quality.

Blush's superb customer service was on display the day I stopped in, dripping and dour. With no prior notice, owner Deborah Haynes gave me a special tour of the hot products for spring. I left with a sunnier disposition, some major cosmetic inspiration, and a personal breakthrough: the ability to ask for and accept help (at least with cosmetics). And that fabulous lipstick I snagged was much cheaper than therapy.

Color me impressed

Haynes informed me that pink and orange are the trendy colors for lips this spring. While these might sound cartoonish or unwearable, cowering with your tired-looking neutral lip color is a mistake.

Just choose a subtler formulation of the trendy looks. Opacity in lipstick determines the intensity of the shade, so sheerer consistencies can give alluring color without the painted-on appearance.

The go-to cosmetic brand for runway trends is Nars (lip colors $23). Created by famous makeup artist François Nars, the line is featured prominently at Blush. (I'm such a fan that before Blush opened, I drove to Seattle for my Nars fix.) This spring, Nars has plenty of ways to get perfectly of-the-moment lips:

New lipstick shade Flaming Dust is best described as fruit-punchy. Not quite pink, red nor orange, it's like a lovely sunset on your lips with a hint of glitter.

Also just released, Risky Business gloss is a warm pink with lots of shimmer and very little stickiness.

For a more intense shine (think Robert Palmer video), Capucine lip lacquer hits the orange trend spot-on, with color like the skin of a satsuma.

A Nars classic, baby-pink lipstick Roman Holiday looks straight off midcentury celluloid. On a nearly bare face, it adds a sweet wash of color.

The sun'll come out tomorrow

Haynes shares my long-standing obsession with sun protection. Now, thanks to product innovations, there are more ways than ever to get one's SPF on.

Last year, makeup primers were the latest in cosmetic technology, promising to turn skin into a smooth canvas for better, more lasting makeup application. Nars has just introduced a primer with SPF 20, so prepping and protecting can be joint activities ($33).

Freeze 24/7, best known for its wrinkle-minimizing serum, has introduced Ice Shield, a face wash that will leave a SPF 15 residue ($65). Rub it on, rinse it off and you're protected. The product has even earned the Skin Cancer Foundation's seal of approval.

You've probably heard about mineral makeup, which uses milled mineral powders for great coverage without the pancake effect. An added benefit is that the minerals provide an effective sunblock (versus a chemical sunscreen, the key ingredient in the vast majority of sun-protection products). Haynes calls Susan Posnick's Colorflo the 'Mercedes' of mineral makeup, due to its ultrafine texture. It comes in a handy brush dispenser that's perfect for travel ($65).

Notable new products

Recreational drinking: Lorac's new lip product, the Mocktail, offers hues usually seen in tall glasses with umbrella garnishes. Each color has its own intoxicating flavor, such as Sex on the Beach or Guava Tiki.

Often gimmicky products lack in quality, but these are an exception - the nylon brush dispenses a lovely wash of tropical color. $18.

Three-day mascara: Lorac's Publicity Stunt Mascara is intended to last for three days, making the prospect of a weekend sleepover a little less scary. $18.50

One of Blush's specialties is makeup tools and storage. The store stocks an impressive array, from rigid metal minitrunks to feminine carryalls, sadistic-looking eyelash curlers to girly pink tweezers.

Blush's own set of six handmade makeup brushes is bound in a stylish case and an especially good value at $39.

Stephanie Johnson has mastered the art of the makeup bag. Her K Cosmetic Briefcase ($79) has breezy Hamptons-style chic. An aqua-blue grass cloth exterior with white piping opens up to a Pucci-esque print interior. It's loaded with mesh bags, zip compartments, a detachable mirror - everything you need to keep your concealer and blush from commingling.

Johnson's Lucinda bag ($58) is both edgy and functional. The shape is compact, with a pullout pouch and brush holders.

The fail-safe bargain

It would be remiss of me to write about beauty products without mentioning that Blush also stocks the godsend that follows me wherever I go - Smith's Rosebud Salve.

At $6, this little tin of magic smoothes cuticles, moisturizes lips, hydrates hands and tames eyebrows. And the charming retro packaging doesn't hurt either. Don't leave home without it.

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