Makeup has always been fashion’s poor cousin. It is secreted away in bathrooms and back rooms while fashion swishes out on the runways and red carpets. Makeup is self-absorption; fashion is self-expression. Makeup artists take the service entrance; fashion designers take a bow. Even the words makeup artist seem like a plea for respectability for a task that’s essentially an extension of basic grooming. Applying makeup is a pantomime of art, with its paints and brushes and palettes, not art with a capital A and a retrospective at the Whitney. If makeup is artistry at all, it’s akin to court painting, a vanity project if there ever was one. At the end of the day, or the evening, or the photo shoot, or the fashion show, the paint is wiped off with rarely a tug of regret.
Pat McGrath is perhaps the only makeup artist who lives up to the second word in the job title, the Velázquez of the beauty world. She can make a celebrity gleam for a magazine cover, then gather scraps of patent leather or lace and start cutting and gluing bits to a model’s face until she resembles a butterfly or an unspecified exotic bird.
On a night in May, McGrath has packed away the lace and glue, taking a break from artistry for commerce. Her highlighter kit, for her line Pat McGrath Labs, hits the shelves at Sephora for the first time this evening, and at this promotional event, her fans want to get their hands on her, and maybe also on her powder and balm. They wear black dresses and leather jackets, bronze evening gowns and gold jumpsuits, giant silver headdresses and false eyelashes, as they stand in a line that snakes around the Sephora behemoth in Union Square. McGrath, 46, arranges herself stiffly in a swiveling office chair. Underneath her long black skirt, one knee is wrapped in a bandage, the result of a fall that has her waiting for surgery on her ACL. She looks as if she’s about to host a talk show, if talk-show hosts wore head-to-toe black. When her fans take a seat next to McGrath, they lose it. One woman collapses to her knees in her thigh-high boots and presses her palms together in prayer. McGrath holds fans’ hands and kisses their cheeks, calling them “darling.”
Before she became the most requested (at about 80 fashion shows a year), most prolific (creating makeup lines for Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, CoverGirl, and Max Factor), most rewarded (she’s the first global creative-design director for Procter & Gamble Beauty), and most wildly inventive (her mediums include rubber, vinyl, feathers, you name it) makeup artist, McGrath was a fan herself. One of three children of Jean McGrath, a single mother and Jehovah’s Witness who emigrated from Jamaica to England, McGrath grew up poor in Northampton studying movies and magazines with her mother, searching for clues about beauty. She examined the geometry of Dorothy Dandridge’s eyebrows, the bow of Bette Davis’s lipstick. Jean, who died in 1992, approached style and religion with equal devotion. Jean and Pat would often take a bus to a department store to line up for product launches. Every day after school, McGrath plunked herself down on the floor of the local newsstand, paging through the glossies. As part of her early education, McGrath’s mother taught her to mix eye shadow with foundation to produce a shade that matched her dark skin, which wasn’t well served by cosmetics companies at the time.
In the late 1980s, the teenage McGrath moved to London and joined the club kids — who then included the designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, the photographer Craig McDean, the fashion editor Edward Enninful, and the hairstylists Guido Palau and Eugene Souleiman. McGrath began to travel with friends to Paris for the ready-to-wear shows, where they would try to pass themselves off as magazine editors. “I’d wear a hat and get all done up and sneak into the shows,” McGrath says. “I remember we had a fake Vogue ID. Back then, we would stand in the gallery and scream the models’ names as they came out. ‘Naomi!’ ‘Linda!’ ” It was the era of Boy George and his expressive, androgynous makeup and hair — bright slashes and scribbles of color willy-nilly on the face. McGrath’s look still stood out: a neutral palette accented with bravado. “She wore all black even then,” says Enninful. “And hats! There was one I loved, a beret that was raccoon or mohair, like a mohair cat.” Through the scene, she met Caron Wheeler, the lead singer of the then-huge pop group Soul II Soul, who asked McGrath to do her makeup on her Japanese tour — which was the first time McGrath had ever been on an airplane. Soon, her work attracted the attention of magazine stylists.
By the mid-’90s, the prevailing makeup, hair, and fashion were so drained of glamour that they were almost undetectable. In photographs, slouchy models wore slip-dresses and Doc Martens in run-down apartments with only a dirty mattress as a prop. The makeup was Vaseline, smeared greasily on the eyelids, cheeks, and lips. It was not McGrath’s thing whatsoever. Enninful, then the fashion director of i-D magazine, hired McGrath to do the makeup for a shoot during that era. McGrath announced, “I want a yellow eyebrow,” Enninful remembers. “This was a time of no makeup. But she knew what she loved right from the beginning.” It signaled that McGrath — and the magazine — didn’t follow trends but rather created them, or ignored them. McGrath and Enninful formed a mutually beneficial team. “Pat had a job in the music industry, so she’d pay our train fares and buy us sandwiches,” says Enninful. “We called her the rich one.” McGrath began to establish a reputation. Models, in particular, wanted to work with her. Amber Valletta met McGrath on a Craig McDean shoot in London in 1993. “Pat wiped silver makeup across my eyes and put it on my fingertips. This was when people were still coloring inside the lines,” Valletta remembers. “There was so much freedom in the way she worked.”
McGrath’s particular magic lies in how she treats the skin. She draws out an incandescence, even when the colors and textures of the rest of the makeup are theatrical. “She never puts a lot of foundation on you,” says Naomi Campbell, who first sat in McGrath’s chair in 1994. “That’s the art of it. She makes sure you always see the skin, and that’s not easy to do.” It’s a secret technique that McGrath guards, like a soft-drink conglomerate with a special recipe. When I ask one of her former assistants, Vincent Oquendo, to explain her process, he pauses for a moment. “I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to share that.” He says it took him “two, maybe even three years to learn.” Valletta also refuses to say what, precisely, McGrath does. Grace Coddington, who was an early champion of McGrath’s at Vogue, has watched her work, as have I, but neither of us is entirely sure what she does to make the skin seem so unencumbered. Coddington suspects McGrath prepares the skin with a silver powder. “It doesn’t look powdered, but it is. It has that alabaster feel about it, that sheen that’s not oily.” There are other clues: She rarely employs brushes. The makeup looks as if it were caressed out of some hidden inner reserve rather than plastered on top. Or maybe it’s the other way around: Paul Cavaco, a fashion stylist, explains that the heat of McGrath’s hands as she presses them flat on a model’s face softens the makeup and helps it sink into the skin. McGrath is especially adept at dark skin, which can look ashy with the wrong foundation. “I don’t like to talk about color,” says Campbell, “but we’ve not had so many black female makeup artists. She knows all types of skin and how to work with them.” Any makeup artist can adequately cover spots and swirl on some blush, but McGrath makes the colors look as if they belong. “That’s the beginning of the mastery,” says Valletta. “A lot of people can do a killer eye, but if the foundation doesn’t look flawless and fresh, then you’re missing the whole point.”
Arguably the most important turn in McGrath’s career came in 1994, when she was booked to do the makeup for a jeans commercial. The photographer was Steven Meisel, fashion’s Louis B. Mayer. His unofficial star system has been responsible for shaping and grooming a long list of models, stylists, and hair and makeup artists, from Linda Evangelista to François Nars. To be accepted on Meisel’s team requires a fluency in the trends of every period, culture, and subculture. It was an accelerated version of the early research she had done with her mother; McGrath eagerly amassed a library on photography, painting, dance, ancient Indian art, and Kabuki. Her assistants studied, too. Oquendo remembers someone referring to an “Irving Penn brow,” “and I didn’t know what that was, but I wanted to know.”
With Meisel’s endorsement, McGrath was hired to do the makeup at shows and ad campaigns for Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, and Givenchy. The work grew increasingly experimental: For one John Galliano show, McGrath poured red, yellow, and blue pigment over the models. In another, she made their lips look big and rubbery, like the world’s scariest clowns.
The way Meisel and McGrath work is unusual in its degree of true collaboration. McGrath begins a shoot with Meisel by applying foundation to the model. “Then they go on set and build the look together,” explains Coddington. “He changes the lighting a bit and she works on the makeup, then they look at the monitor. And she can change it like, whoop! She doesn’t have to go to the dressing room. It’s a thumb of lipstick or a finger of eye shadow.”
Meisel expects absolute fidelity from his team, and McGrath has devoted her life to him and to her work. McGrath has had boyfriends over the years, but no one permanent. She lives alone in an apartment in the West Village, with another apartment below that she sometimes uses for meetings. She doesn’t sleep there often because of constant travel. When a fan at Sephora asked McGrath what is her favorite restaurant in Paris, McGrath paused and looked to an assistant for help. “What is it?” she asked him. “Le Meurice? We were always at the Ritz, but that closed.” In other words, room service is her favorite restaurant.
McGrath works about 80 shows in a season, making her a top earner in the field — about $40,000 for each of the big European shows and $7,000 to $10,000 for each American one; around $10,000 a day for each advertising campaign. Magazine work nets a mere $300, but it’s also part of what makes her so attractive to Procter & Gamble, where, as global creative design director, she commands an estimated annual contract of between $6 million and $8 million. She advises executives on trends — CoverGirl and Max Factor, the conglomerate’s drugstore brands, get a seasonal injection of McGrath’s wild color sense — along with bigger projects: helping conceive the Dolce & Gabbana line of makeup when it launched in 2009 and the Gucci collection in 2014. She contributed to a group of limited-edition Star Wars–themed makeup — she’s a fan herself — with silver and gold lipsticks.
Creating the beauty look for a fashion show goes something like this: Several days before, the makeup artist and hairstylist study the clothes and any briefs they can get about the designer’s inspiration. For a Prada show, for instance, McGrath and Palau, the hairdresser she works with most frequently, meet with Miuccia Prada, who explains her vision, often a fragment of a narrative. “She might say it’s a filmic reference, or a moment in time,” says Palau. “Like, ‘The girl was caught in the rain with a 1940s hairstyle.’ She never gives you a clear picture reference, it’s words and emotions to create an emotion.” McGrath then brings in her army of assistants, often 75 strong, who specialize variously in foundation, brows, eye shadow, lashes, or lips. (Many of these assistants buy their own plane ticket and sleep wherever they can find a bed, even if it’s on a blow-up mattress in someone’s kitchen.) She also comes with as many as 85 trunks filled with reference books, sequins, red lipsticks, false lashes, and just about any other substance that could be smeared or glued on the face. McGrath and Palau gather about ten models in another room and start painting and smudging, pinning and curling. “We talk a little — ‘What do you think it should be?’ — but a lot of it is unsaid,” Palau explains. They present the models to Prada, who refines and hones the look. Usually, the group agrees on a specific execution, and the assistants take pictures and detailed notes, which become a recipe of sorts. It’s all very precise, until it isn’t. At one show, for instance, the models lined up to hit the runway when Prada decided she didn’t like the red lipstick, and that was that. “No lip, everyone!” McGrath yelled to her team. “Remove the lip! Off!”
The only time I saw McGrath lose her cool was when she was preparing the models for a Givenchy fall 2010 show, held at a high school in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement. On that night, the foundation on a few of the models looked thick and masklike, and McGrath asked the assistants to redo it. “You’ll have to start over,” she said with the firm tone of a disappointed parent. (She’s called “Mother” by models, stylists, photographers, and designers, which suits both her maternal warmth and her pointed scolding.) I was scheduled to interview McGrath, but she took my hand and didn’t talk. Fretting silently, she marched from prep station to station for a good 30 minutes. From time to time, she would huddle with her top assistants, break away, rub a model’s cheek and hold another’s chin, tilting it left and right before the lights. Then she clasped my hand again and pulled me along, saying only “Not yet, darling,” over and over until there was no time for an interview.
A fashion show lasts, on average, a mere 14 minutes, and in that flash it has to convey — and sell — a point of view and a lot of clothes and accessories. “These days, when the clothes aren’t very dramatic, when they’re commercial and ordinary, the designers want people to walk away saying, ‘That was an extraordinary show,’ ” says Coddington. “That’s when they have to make a statement with hair and makeup.” This is what makes hiring McGrath worth it. Fashion and beauty people see colors magnified and intensified; they can tell a red lip from a red lip from a red lip. McGrath’s painterly delineations of color and texture register to them. “She has 30 different ways of doing red,” says Palau. “Matte, gloss, sequins, velvety, dark on the bottom and light on top. There’s no end. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Her affinity for gold inspired the first product in her namesake line, Pat McGrath Labs. It is a wafer of gold pigment that she sells with a tiny bottle of mixing fluid and two brushes — makeup that demands mixing and blending. “I was in the lab, talking about gold, looking at gold, and this gold happened,” McGrath tells me. “It was haunting me. With most golds, when you play with them they become dull, gray; they become a metal. This became bright.” McGrath ordered 1,000 units of gold powder in cheap plastic compacts and, working with her team, slipped each in a glassine pouch, pressed a label on the back, and stuffed them in a bag of gold sequins that function as Bubble Wrap. The sequins attract and confound both customers and beauty editors. A group of six beauty bloggers I spoke to before McGrath’s press party at the Edition Hotel in the spring admitted they’d never actually tried her products, instead keeping the bag of sequins and makeup sealed as a collector’s item. It sold out in six minutes.
McGrath self-funded her business for nearly a year; in early August, she took on outside investors. In addition to the gold, there are bright-fuchsia, blue, and yellow pigments, black glosses and liners, silvery and golden highlighting powders and balms, and lipstick kits in beige, crimson, and dried-blood red. All of them are quirky, like runway fashion that’s made for photography rather than for department-store consumption. “I felt uncomfortable doing something that everyone’s already done,” says McGrath. “You don’t want to be boring.” (She considers the constant claims of newness in beauty products “a lie.”) McGrath’s idea is almost the antithesis of Bobbi Brown’s, whose friendly makeup in natural tones is the success story of this generation. Instead, she’s aiming to bring artistic makeup to a bigger, broader audience of people who want to invent their own appearance. It’s not a vanity project, it’s a bet that individuality can go big.
The drag queens hired to dance in the windows at Sephora for McGrath’s launch party are listless now, tugging up their bustiers, chewing gum. They’ve been at it for two hours and their energy is flagging. But the fans still wait in line for their moment with McGrath, who smiles and hugs and clasps each stranger with genuine, unalloyed warmth. One woman walks away from the makeup artist holding her index fingers under her eyes to keep the tears from blurring her liner. When I ask her if she knows McGrath, she says, “Oh, yes! But I’d never met her.” She cries again, and her makeup doesn’t budge.
*This article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.