And the Award Goes to…
Magazine – Fashion
WSJ. Magazine 2013 Fashion Innovator
The Beautiful Faces of
Pat McGrath Photography by Ben Hassett
MANY OF TODAY’S leading makeup trends come from a woman who wears very little of it herself. In fact, Pat McGrath, one of the fashion and beauty world’s most sought-after artists, wears very little color at all, preferring all-black ensembles whether she’s backstage at a runway show or holding court at a fashion event. Which isn’t to say she isn’t colorful. Within the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry, McGrath, the global creative-design director for Procter & Gamble, PG -0.59% is something of a legend—creating new looks on the runway and then distilling them into innovative products that find their way into cosmetics aisles and beauty counters around the world.
Makeup artist Pat McGrath is WSJ. Magazine’s Fashion Innovator of the Year.
Just how in demand is she? Supermodel Linda Evangelista puts it like this: McGrath is the only makeup artist who can cause a job to fall apart if she’s unavailable. Most of the time a shoot is canceled because they can’t get a date on the photographer. “Sometimes, it’s the model,” she says. “But I’ve seen things get canceled because they can’t get Pat. That’s how important she is.”
Photographer Steven Meisel rarely, if ever, works without her, and top fashion houses—including Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, CDI.FR -0.81% Louis Vuitton and Gucci—all count on her for runway shows and campaigns. Self-trained and charismatic, McGrath has become a muse to photographers, a mother figure to models and one of the fashion world’s most inventive talents.
“We go on these incredible journeys,” McGrath says of her creative process. “It’s always something different. It might be Blade Runner or a Fellini movie or Bette Davis —I could lose it over Bette Davis’s lashes. Whether it’s the Byzantine cathedral for Dolce & Gabbana or the modern film noir look we did for Prada, with the wet hair and undone makeup, it’s always an incredible journey.”
McGrath’s energy is renowned in the industry. Evangelista recalls visiting Meisel at Pier 59 Studios one day while he was shooting a fashion spread featuring an exotic dancer. McGrath was in the center of the action, throwing dollar bills at the dancer and egging her on. “She’s directing, she’s correcting, she’s collaborating,” says Evangelista. “She’s part of the whole process. A lot of what she does is not in the makeup chair.”
McGrath, who is in her forties, grew up in Northampton, a small town north of London, with her “fashion obsessed” mother, Jean McGrath, a Jamaican immigrant. Together, they would watch classic films (everything from Blonde Venus to Taxi Driver) and scour the local thrift shops. On Friday nights they trolled makeup counters for new products. For Pat—the youngest of three children—these mother-daughter trips were mandatory. “I was hothoused into the industry without even realizing it. Every Friday night, she would take me to the store. We would look for pigments that worked on black skin. There might be one color a month. She’d say, ‘That’s it! There’s a blue that works on us, it’s not ashy.’ ” McGrath’s mother mixed her own colors and creams, which is how McGrath still works today. “And I’d be standing behind her weeping, because I didn’t want to be there. Then it ended up being my career.”
After completing her A-levels, she moved to London in the early 1980s, just as the city was experiencing an explosion of colorful club kids. “I was obsessed with the New Romantics, such as the Blitz Kids, Boy George, Spandau Ballet: My friends and I would stalk them down along the King’s Road,” she says. Once, when she was loitering outside the Radio 1 studios, a DJ from the station noticed her unusual makeup: She’d used a red lipstick on her eyes and cheeks to create a dewy, rosy glow. “She said, ‘Why don’t you do my makeup like that?’ ” McGrath recalls. “And I said, ‘That’s a real job?’ ”
McGrath never went to beauty school or trained professionally—the DJ suggested a makeup course, but it turned out to be too expensive. Instead, she learned by trial and error, often experimenting on her own face. (The trick of applying lipstick to eyes and cheeks, which she popularized in the ’90s, was something she stumbled upon as a young girl, she says, “because stealing eye shadows from my mother’s drawer was difficult, but I could snatch a couple of lipsticks and she wouldn’t notice they were missing.” This technique later became the basis for her liquid eyeliners.) Some of her earliest jobs were as an assistant to British editor Kim Bowen on underground fashion shoots around London for magazines like Blitz and i-D, where she later became beauty director. “I did whatever they told me to: sweep up, get coffee, hold a light. I was just so happy to be on those shoots and participating in the creative process.”
It was model Amber Valletta who, in the early ’90s, told Meisel about a new makeup artist she thought he’d love. Valletta said McGrath was talented and had a wicked sense of humor. Sure enough, when Meisel met McGrath in 1996, the two hit it off. His first impression? “She needed a new wig. And I knew I had found a soul mate.” The duo went on to create a series of iconic images for American and Italian Vogue, introducing bold new colors to what was then a conservative cosmetics market in the late ’90s and dreaming up radical new beauty regimens into the new millennium. Meisel says their experiences together on set could inspire a miniseries. “Every day is complete insanity,” he says. “From strippers during breakfast, to wheelchairs during lunch, to screaming and fighting all day long, we are constantly tripping and falling over each other.”
“ “We go on these incredible journeys. It might be Blade Runner or a Fellini movie or Bette Davis. Whether it’s a byzantine cathedral for Dolce & Gabbana or a modern film noir look for Prada, it’s always an incredible journey.” ”
McGrath is notorious for traveling with an entourage—her team can climb to 50 during the busiest days of the fashion season—and for carrying a vast library wherever she goes: 75 bags filled with reference materials (books on film and art history, Polaroids of head shots, vintage magazines) and products (creams, mascaras, lashes, foundations, gloss, pigments, fabrics, sequins). She requires two vans, one car and four motorbikes. McGrath will leave a fashion show when the models have barely left the runway to speed ahead to the next on a chauffeured motorbike, weaving through traffic. And there’s no cutting back on the baggage because she knows she has to be prepared for whatever a designer might throw at her. Last year’s Louis Vuitton show required 48 models to wear 10 pairs of false eyelashes each, all procured from McGrath’s kits. “I’ve never seen someone travel with so much in my life,” says model Naomi Campbell, sighing. “And that says something, coming from me.”
All Polaroids Courtesy of Pat McGrath
Despite her formidable array of gear, McGrath uses brushes only sparingly, preferring to warm up the makeup and pigments with her hands, blend colors on the back of her palms, and apply them with her fingertips. “She uses her fingers to paint the way Van Gogh used a brush,” says Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci.
McGrath’s contribution as a makeup artist goes well beyond cosmetics. “I think in another life Pat could have been a comedic actress,” Campbell says. Whether backstage or on set, she cracks jokes, does impressions and keeps the energy up and everyone on their toes. Stefano Gabbana of Dolce & Gabbana says she is “absolutely hilarious.” Tisci calls her “funny, joyful, insane and addicted to connection.” On set, she always pushes her team beyond its limits. “She doesn’t just do her job and hang up the brushes. She gets the big picture, and that’s a true professional,” adds Campbell.
An undeniably influential chunk of her career was spent collaborating with John Galliano on runway looks for Christian Dior and the designer’s eponymous line. (Galliano was fired from Dior in 2011, after an anti-Semitic rant. Raf Simons replaced him at Dior and Bill Gaytten now designs John Galliano; McGrath still does makeup for both houses.) Runway moments from Galliano, with McGrath’s use of neons, gold foil and ridiculously long lashes, are credited with reintroducing colorful pops to the modern makeup palette. Lady Gaga specifically acknowledges Galliano’s fall/winter 2009 collection—inspired by Ukrainian brides, at the height of McGrath and Galliano’s collaborations—as the inspiration for her “Applause” music video.
McGrath has fond memories of working with Galliano. She laughs as she describes how he and the late Steven Robinson, Galliano’s head of studio at the time, would invent the most outlandish, ridiculous story as the official “brief” for a runway show. “But at the time, I didn’t know that most of it was fake!” McGrath says. References could be as varied as Queen Tut, Joan Crawford or a female matador. “They’d make up these wild tales, and I would sit there furiously writing everything down. Then I’d come back seven hours later with a concept.” That’s how many of their most provocative looks—such as the haute-couture female Egyptian pharaohs with royal-blue faces and gilded eyebrows in 2004—came to pass. “He would be like, ‘Is she going to get it?’ And I always did. Half of the things they said to me weren’t real, but I took every single word completely seriously, and we’d push the look as far as it could go.” She says her years collaborating with the designer were some of the most inspiring of her career.
Galliano’s dismissal was an emotionally difficult time for many people in the fashion industry, including McGrath. That’s because she forges tight, intimate relationships with her peers. Nearly everyone contacted for this story—from models Campbell and Evangelista, to the new faces Meisel routinely plucks from obscurity, to stylists and designers—uses the same nickname for McGrath: “mother.” In a field where the relentless pursuit of perfection and beauty is often more valued than having a sense of humor, McGrath’s lighthearted maternal instincts stand out. She often feels like a mother hen to the entire industry. “But not only to the young girls,” she says. “I work with girls who are 16 and women who are 60. That’s what is so brilliant about our industry now.”
SNAP MAGIC | A Polaroid of McGrath taken in 1996, with makeup by Steven Meisel, styling by Paul Cavaco and hair by Garren Courtesy of Pat McGrath
Off the runway, McGrath is responsible for many of the last two decades’ worth of makeup trends, including the dewy, plump skin that was so popular during the late ’90s and the use of crystals on eyes and lips, fashionable in the 2000s. At Procter & Gamble Beauty—where she was hired in 2004 and now oversees CoverGirl, Max Factor and Dolce & Gabbana: The Makeup—McGrath helps translate the trends she sets on the runway into affordable, accessible products. The 10-pair-thick eyelashes that she whipped up for Louis Vuitton in 2012—those led to CoverGirl’s two-step Bombshell mascara. More recently, she created a foundation in response to today’s “selfie culture,” so there wouldn’t be a need to retouch—a response to more and more women taking pictures of themselves with cell phones and instantly posting them on the Internet. “Women are not going for that super-glowing, supershiny skin because you don’t look that good when you’re doing a selfie,” notes McGrath. Thus, she introduced Perfect Matte Liquid Foundation for Dolce & Gabbana: The Makeup, which is more forgiving when captured by today’s high-definition cameras.
“Pat has a gift for pioneering new trends and techniques, season after season, that women around the world take inspiration from,” explains Esi Eggleston Bracey, vice president and general manager of Procter & Gamble Beauty. “She’s a terrific business partner. Our success is her success, and vice versa.”
McGrath’s creativity has touched other industries, too. In what has become one of her more widely seen looks, in 2011, she worked with director David Fincher to transform Rooney Mara from a fresh-faced American girl to the pale-skinned Goth icon in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “I went to Stockholm and spent two solid days on her, 22 different makeups, just pushing all the boundaries and having fun,” she says. “I would love to do more film.” She has books in the pipeline, and other makeup-based products, though she says she’s too superstitious to discuss them now. Despite the buzz about whether she will launch her own line of makeup products, she smiles at the prospect but remains mum about a time line.
The majority of people she works with now are her friends, or “her children,” as she calls them. (“I’m sad when it’s the last shot, because I don’t want to leave her,” Campbell says.) Even so, she admits that she sometimes still gets nervous around the talent. Two names spring to mind: Oprah and Madonna. The queen of daytime TV had McGrath on her show several times to talk about makeup, and she did Oprah’s makeup on her 1998 Vogue cover. With Madonna, McGrath is often requested for editorial work, and she was responsible for her makeup in the influential Louis Vuitton campaign in fall 2009.
What’s it like to work on these women? “Your throat is closing. Your brow is sweating,” she says. “But, in a way, I’m always a little nervous on any job, which is a good thing. I don’t want to let people down. When you walk into a room and there are racks and racks of beautiful clothes, do you really want to ruin it all with a bad lipstick?” She says an anxious desire to constantly create is what still fuels her work. “Every day is the beginning of your career. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a new model, or Madonna, you have to be nervous.” She lets out a laugh and winks. “Obviously extra nervous with Madonna.”