A brush with brilliance

A brush with brilliance

Originally published in Marie Claire South Africa

The fashion world is filled with Big Names. Once you’ve worked with a Big Name, you can officially say you’ve made it. For photography, it’s Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz or Steven Meisel. For red-carpet styling, it’s Karla Welch (at least for now). And when it comes to make-up, it’s always Pat McGrath. 

Pat’s name is legend in an industry that doesn’t necessarily always celebrate its behind-the-scenes crew. As Linda Wells summed it up in New York magazine, ‘Make-up artists take the service entrance; fashion designers take a bow.’ Then again, Pat isn’t just any make-up artist – this is the woman who almost singlehandedly brought about the beauty revolution of the late ’90s. She’s the idol of every beauty vlogger worth their brushes and is widely acknowledged to be the most prolific catwalk make-up artist of our time, booking around 80 shows per year with all the top design houses. This puts her at the top of the industry’s earnings list too. According to TheCut.com, she nets around $40 000 (almost half a million rand) for each of the big European shows, not to mention $10 000 a day for advertising campaigns (when it comes to these, Steven Meisel rarely shoots without her). The really big money comes from her position as Global Beauty Creative Design Director for Procter & Gamble. The multinational pays her in the region of $7 million a year for her expertise on brands including Covergirl, MaxFactor and Dolce&Gabbana. At the British Fashion Awards in December, Pat was presented with the Isabella Blow Award for her contribution to creativity in fashion. In 2013, the Queen (of England, that is) presented Pat with an MBE for her services to the British fashion and beauty industry, while the queen of fashion, Anna Wintour, has called her ‘the most influential make-up artist in the world’. Hers is an extensive resumé, to say the least. 

But before all that, Pat was just a British child of the ’70s, learning about cosmetics at her mother’s knee. Jean McGrath – a single mother of three, a Jamaican expat and a devout Jehovah’s Witness – is often credited as the woman who sparked in Pat the interest that would become her life’s work. 

‘She would stand in front of the TV and [my sister and I] would have to guess what she’d done differently with her eyes. I’d think: “Get out of the way!” but she wouldn’t move until I’d told her,’ Pat recounts to Sali Hughes in an interview for The Guardian. Under her mother’s tutelage, Pat learned to identify eyeshadows by name, mix pigments and – a trick that would become her signature in years to come – use the warmth of her hands to blend foundation into the skin, giving it a softer, more incandescent look. ‘She always put on a full face of make-up, then got in the bath to get that dewy finish. It was next level, but this is where I got my make-up tips from – at seven years old!’

By the time she was a teenager, Pat was ready to level up too. She identified strongly with the New Romantics, an early ’80s subset of British pop culture that took inspiration from the glam rock stars of the ’70s, most notably David Bowie. The ‘Blitz Kids’ (as they came to be known thanks to an affiliation with The Blitz nightclub in London) worshipped Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol and Boy George. They cultivated a fairly outré aesthetic that was a melting pot of eras and influences. So long as it was striking and unusual, almost anything went – even Pierrot the clown.

It was while she was camped outside a radio station waiting for Spandau Ballet to make an appearance that Pat first discovered make-up could be more than creative expression – it could be a career. With bold lipstick adorning not only her lips but her eyes and cheeks too, Pat was stopped by a TV presenter, who asked her to recreate the look on her own face. ‘I didn’t even know that was a job. She said it was, so I went home that night knowing what I was going to do with my life,’ Pat told The Guardian.

That was the beginning. Soon after, Pat moved to London, working as a receptionist in the music industry by day, clubbing by night, and all the while naturally gravitating towards other Blitz Kids who would go on to become Big Names themselves. These included young fashion-design students like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, the photographer Craig McDean, and hair stylists Guido Palau and Eugene Souleiman. It wasn’t long before people began to notice that Pat brought something new to the style party. Soon, she was on her first flight, heading to Japan to do tour make-up for the chart-topping band Soul II Soul (she’d met lead singer Caron Wheeler through the club scene). 

Back home in London, Pat’s talent had been noticed by Edward Enninful. The 18-year-old Edward at just been appointed fashion director of i-D magazine, the youngest person ever to hold that title at an international publication. He hired Pat for a shoot for i-D, and it was the first step in what would become not only a fruitful, decades-long collaboration, but a beautiful friendship too. When Edward made history again last year as the first man and first person of colour to head up British Vogue, he appointed Pat his beauty editor-at-large. ‘Of course he’ll do amazingly!’ she told The Guardian before the release of the December issue, his first as editor-in-chief. ‘He’s lovely. I remember when I first met him, when he had just started working at i-D, and he was so shy. He’s so quiet when he speaks, but now he says, “I’ve become loud because I’m with you.” I’m so proud of him.’

Back in 1990, however, things were just kicking off. In true Pat McGrath style, they kicked off with a bright-yellow eyebrow. It was her first contribution to i-D. ‘This was a time of no make-up,’ Edward told New York magazine, recalling Pat’s insistence on diverging from the almost lifelessly bare aesthetic of ’90s grunge. ‘But she knew what she loved right from the beginning.’

And what Pat McGrath loves is pushing the envelope. To say she’s inventive is to undersell the unique vision of someone who can go from sculpting runway looks out of vinyl, feathers or lace (just a few of her past media) to creating ethereal magic for the cover of a fashion glossy, and then prep an A-lister for the red carpet. 

When she launched her own beauty line, Pat McGrath Labs, in 2015, fans fell all over themselves to buy the only product on offer at the time: Gold 001, a bright-metallic pigment sold with a special mixing fluid and brush, packaged in a little bag filled with gold sequins. The accompanying tagline was ‘use without caution’. ‘It was insane: 200 000 people tried to buy 1 000 units and it was all gone in six seconds,’ Pat writes in a blog post for Vogue.co.uk. In December, she debuted her fashion line, Apparel 001, at New York’s iconic Dover Street Market. The range includes bombers, hoodies and T-shirts, all black and all adorned with the Egyptian eye of Horus (in gold, of course – it’s Pat’s ‘spirit colour’).

She says the rise of social media has played a role in her wildly successful transition from catwalk to high street. ‘I’d spoken to make-up executives about my own line for the past 15 years and they’d say, “You know, nobody knows you, nobody really wants the kind of stuff you do in shows in real life.” And then I joined social media and all I’d hear from thousands and thousands of people was that they did,’ she continues in The Guardian.

Since then, every fantasy product she’s added to her line has been a huge hit. And yet, Pat herself – like so many true style arbiters – sticks to dressing in all black, with her signature wide headband and no encrusted lips or feathered eyebrows in sight. 

‘I wear very natural make-up, but it’s made up out of five foundations to make that perfect skin, and my lipstick might be three different lipsticks mixed together. So it’s a kind of obsession in a different way.’

This blended alchemy is another skill she learnt at her mother’s knee – out of necessity, this time. ‘There was no make-up for women of colour,’ she says of her upbringing in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘Nothing. That’s what my mother’s search was all about. When we were out shopping we were always looking for a product that, probably by accident rather than design, worked for us.’

She turned being underserved by an industry in which ‘nude’ meant ‘caucasian’, into one of her greatest skills. Nobody sends models down the runway in skin like Pat’s, and somehow, despite the swathes of colour and ornamentation, the luminescence of her models is still the main focus. ‘She never puts a lot of foundation on you,’ says Naomi Campbell, one of Pat’s longest-running clients and a dear friend. ‘That’s the art of it. She makes sure you always see the skin, and that’s not easy to do.’

Another thing Pat is making sure you see, is diversity in the industry. From her position on high she has the power to effect real change, and she’s doing it by marching a hand-picked selection of #McGrathMuses across our social feeds. ‘They’re infinite,’ she told Time magazine. ‘From Kim [Kardashian West] to Naomi [Campbell] to Paloma [Elsesser] to Duckie [Thot] and Miss Fame, I love them all! All these beautiful, formidable, strong, courageous women and men of all colours and sizes. They are my personal icons, and they are gorgeous proof that beauty has nothing to do with one’s age, gender, body size, socio-economic status, race, religion or culture.’

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