Home / Fashion / An Oral History of How MAC’s Ruby Woo Became One of the Best-Selling Lipsticks in the World

An Oral History of How MAC’s Ruby Woo Became One of the Best-Selling Lipsticks in the World

The iconic red lip color has a surprising backstory.

mac ruby woo oral history

In this series, we will take a look at the historical evolution of how iconic beauty products came into existence and grew so popular that they became cultural touchstones in their own right.

Some of the best things in life have been the result of happy accidents. Did you know that popsicles were invented when a young boy accidentally left water, powdered soda mix and a stirring stick outside overnight? Or that slinkies came to be after a naval engineer knocked over some coiled wire while working in a shipyard? MAC Cosmetics Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo, the brand’s iconic red shade that launched in 1999, also happens to fall under the accidental genius category.

The 21-year-old lipstick has been one of MAC’s best-selling lip colors since its debut. But the brand’s product developers never actually set out to create it; instead, they were trying to tweak the formula of the brand’s other well-known scarlet shade, Russian Red, which was the best-seller at the time. (Madonna wore it all throughout her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990, after all.) 

“In the late ’90s, MAC made the decision to make all of our formulas globally compliant,” says Gregory Arlt, the company’s director of makeup artistry. “So if you were in Japan or Germany, and you wanted to buy Russian Red, it would be the same formula [across the board], as opposed to what’s compliant for each country.” With this reformulation came an ever-so-slight change to the texture, making Russian Red a little less matte and a little more comfortable to wear. “Fans revolted, saying they missed that ‘drag your lips off’ dry, matte feeling,” recalls Arlt, who has been with the brand since 1993. “So we quickly ran back to the labs,” he says, and MAC returned to Russian Red’s original formulation, never touching it again. Lesson learned.

However, during the initial reformulation process, the new, slightly less matte version of Russian Red caught the eye of the team. “When product development showed [then-Creative Director] James Gager and Jennifer Balbier (who’s still the senior vice president of global product development) the new shade, they were both like, ‘Oh my God, that’s an amazing color.’ And that’s how Ruby Woo was born. The product development team really tried to match Russian Red. It’s the same combination of pigments, just put into a different base,” says Arlt. “But it was a little brighter and more dynamic, and it just became a standalone color.”

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When Ruby Woo launched in the late ’90s, it was part of a line called Retro Matte Lipsticks, along with five other shades (which have since been discontinued). Ruby Woo, however, became an instant success. “Customers would flock to the counters, saying they needed Ruby Woo because they didn’t have another red like it,” says Arlt. “And they didn’t realize it was actually supposed to be Russian Red.”

Decades later, Ruby Woo hasn’t been tweaked since its release. It remains MAC’s best-selling shade in the U.S., and the brand’s second-best-selling shade globally (Chilli currently holds the top spot), with seven tubes of Ruby Woo selling around the world every minute.

“I actually grew up dancing, and long before I began my career as a makeup artist, I was wearing Ruby Woo onstage and for performances,” says makeup artist and founder of Beautifoles, Brittney Foley. “From the time I started competing in elementary school, all the way through college, Ruby Woo was the lip color of choice of all of my directors and coaches.” These days, Foley still reaches for it when working with clients. “Other red lipsticks can definitely be more ‘trendy’ if they get too deep or bright, but Ruby Woo is able to transcend years of trends and always be classic and current. It can’t be defined by a time period.”

Aside from its legions of devoted customers and makeup artists, Ruby Woo is also a celebrity favorite, with everyone from Janet Jackson to Rita Ora to Taylor Swift (who allegedly reaches for a trusty tube of Ruby Woo before concerts) relying on the formula. “I’ve used it on Dita Von Teese and Angelina Jolie,” says Arlt. “I actually used it on Angelina for the September issue cover of Vanity Fair in 2017, and it created a little bit of a frenzy. Everyone was like, ‘What is that red lip?'” Of course, “it was good ol’ Ruby Woo.”

“So many celebrities started to talk about Ruby Woo, and it eclipsed poor Russian Red,” says Arlt. “It’s what we call in the industry a clean red. There are blue-reds, orange-reds and brick-reds. There’s no other color to influence the state of Ruby Woo. Like, if you’re looking at a color wheel, the red — which is a primary color — is basically Ruby Woo.”

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