ABOUT FACE / Get in line for the Beauty Buffet

To those who may deny the power of the perfect lip gloss, let it be known: When Hillary Clark whipped up a batch of plummy pigment and wore it to a party one night, she met a man who was mesmerized by her mouth, took an immediate shine to her and later proposed marriage.

Hillary Clark

"It's true," said Andrew McCormack, the fiance and proprietor of the posh San Francisco restaurant Frisson. "I had just sat down, and I saw this woman with these eyes and these lips that were like they were literally glowing. I was instantly smitten."

Clark -- a longtime makeup artist who has primped celebs from Teri Hatcher to Tommy Lee, prepped Mayor Gavin Newsom before he gave his most recent State of the City address and counts his former wife, Court TV commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, among her most loyal clients -- decided to name the ultraviolet sheer tint "frisson" -- foremost to commemorate the shiver of excitement that came with their meeting, and conveniently coinciding with the restaurant's name.

But the legacy of that gloss has grown beyond a simple sentimental tale between two San Francisco lovebirds; it became the cornerstone of a new line of cosmetics Clark has created. The line, called Beauty Buffet, premiered last week at the brand new Sephora store that opened in New York's Union Square, and is expected to be available online at the www.sephora.com Web site later this week. The San Francisco Sephora store on Powell Street will begin carrying the line next month. The launch makes Clark the latest in a growing array of Bay Area women whose companies claim counter space at the nation's largest cosmetics retailer, joining behemoths like Benefit and Bare Escentuals, and smaller niche brands like Passport and the Balm.

Sephora spokeswoman Monica Rowe said the company selected Beauty Buffet because its "unique color line" and interchangeable tins that fit into palette cases were a perfect fit for the store, which is always looking for lines that offer "something special" for customers.

Clark's latest successes come after working behind the scenes painting models faces for runway shows in New York for designers Betsey Johnson and Randolph Duke, in Los Angeles and even San Francisco's own fledgling Fashion Week last year.

But it's no overnight success for the 30-year-old Clark, who could easily pass for a model herself with her tiny frame, elongated features and cascade of tousled hair -- she's been wielding a blush brush since childhood. She laughingly recalls her first makeup-related memory, when, as a precocious kindergartener growing up in Newport Beach, she pretended to be sick on picture day so she could have her photograph taken on the designated "Make-Up Picture Day."

"I woke up (my mother) at something like 4:30 a.m. and told her to hurry up, we had to get ready, she had to help me put on a lot of makeup because it was Make-Up Picture Day," Clark said. "She almost died laughing when she realized that I had misunderstood what that meant."

At the time, her mother and aunt owned a small cosmetic boutique of their own, so they understood her fascination with powder puffs and mascara wands all too well, Clark said. After moving to the Bay Area and working at a string of salons and spas as a beauty and image consultant, Clark became Nordstrom's regional beauty director -- a post she left in 1999 to become the West Coast beauty editor at the newly launched www.sephora.com Web site. In addition to interviewing the creators of leading lines and writing descriptions of thousands of products, she also contributed articles and advice to glossies like Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle, among others.

Explaining the world of makeup was fun, but Clark said she wanted to help women on a more personal basis, so she left the office life to open her own makeup and consulting business, Blush Beauty, in 2002.

She shares an atelier, a cottage that sits at the end of a floral-lined alleyway just off Union Street, with the jewelry designer Alana Leigh -- that she transformed into "a gentlemen's club-meets-apothecary-meets-boudoir" with sumptuous coral walls, beveled mirrors, tassels and other luxe decor.

There, hundreds of women -- from businesswomen to budding actresses and A-listers -- have sat on her leopard-print couch, dumped out the contents of their makeup bags and bared their cosmetically challenged souls to Clark. "Women have different levels of anxiety about makeup and beauty, and some of them are even embarrassed that they don't know how to do their own makeup, but it's not intuitive," said Clark, sitting on the couch and twisting her bed- head mane into a topknot.

A self-described "foundation-phobe" who wears very little makeup herself, Clark asks her clients about their lifestyle, what kind of look they want, and then she gets down to business. With red lip liner or white eyeliner, Clark begins by highlighting the architecture of the client's face -- John Madden- style with x's, o's and long lines -- to emphasize the best features. They practice together, wiping off mistakes with baby wipes and starting over, until application techniques are mastered.

"We really can't change society, and the fact is that we are appearance- driven, and just like a fragrance, a look is a part of a person's identity," she said. "That's why I do this, to demystify makeup and empower them to discover their own beauty and various ways of enhancing it."

Clark said she had often toyed with the idea of creating her own line, but liked much of what was already on the market, so she made client-specific recommendations.

It wasn't until a serendipitous meeting last year that she learned the woman sipping coffee across the table from her was an investor looking for a makeup artist to create a new, luxe collection of makeup. Clark passionately described her desire for a fun, accessible and easy-to-use set of glosses, versatile eye colors, blushes, bronzers and creamy skin-toned correctors that did not seem to exist among the plethora of products already in stores. A short time later, Clark said, the woman (a silent investor who did not want to be named) called her back and signed her on to the project.

Clark immediately set to work combining pigments, powders and creams on her arms and shoulders, and those of all her friends, searching for the perfect hues. She had many in-person sessions with the manufacturer to tweak the various samples and road tested (or, more correctly, purse-tested) the products herself -- she left the tins, about the size of a 50-cent piece, scattered on sunny windowsills to test the melting point, she dropped them out the window of second-story flats to see how the eye shadow survived.

Earlier this month, Clark took her collection to Dylan, the upscale clothing boutique on Vallejo Street, which will start selling the cosmetic line next month. She dabbed the glosses -- including frisson, of course -- on shoppers who had come for a sale event. The well-groomed women swooned over the jojoba and macadamia nut oil-based balm.

"It's got a really nice texture, feels kind of tingly and nice," said Eve Galazin, 30, who described herself as a lip gloss addict who owns more than 20 Lancome Juicy Tubes. It was the glosses that convinced co-owner Todd Palmerton to carry the line. After he sent one to his MAC-loving mom in Washington, she said it was her new favorite.

"For my mom to say that was pretty amazing," he said. "I don't know anything about makeup, but I knew it had to be good if she felt that way."

For now, Clark said she will continue to tinker with the line and perhaps create new products, but she's not sure she'll be taking much advice from her betrothed -- despite his expert assessment of that initial gloss.

"My joke with her is that women's glosses are all lime-, cherry- and vanilla-flavored; a guy wants to taste ham and cheese," McCormack said. "I think I'm ahead of my time."

Don't look for that at Sephora anytime soon.

"I'm sorry," Clark said, "but that's just gross."

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