‘the mother of make-up’, pat mcgrath, reflects on her iconic career
As she opens the doors to her new golden wonderland at Selfridges, the make-up icon and longtime i-D contributor tells us how she got here.
Photography Craig McDean, Styling Edward Enninful, Hair Eugene for Trevor Sorbie, Make-up Pat McGrath. The Performance Issue, No. 147, December 1995
There’s a reason why Pat McGrath has been dubbed ‘The Mother of Make-up’. From her wildly ornate show looks to her seminal campaign and editorial make-up designs, she has birthed some of the most iconic beauty trends of our time. There’s also the fact she’s managed to amass something of a cult following, in the most literal sense of the term. Pat’s fans -- or ‘children’ -- muse at length about their love for ‘mother’ online, and like, comment and copy her work intently on Instagram. They queue for hours and hours just to catch a glimpse of her when she drops products at Sephora.
But this motherhood was no immaculate conception: she’s worked hard for her position at the helm of the fashion industry. Cultivating early relationships with influential names such as Steven Meisel and then i-D Fashion Director Edward Enninful, Pat has been a long-time contributor and former beauty director for i-D, and has painted the faces of everyone from Naomi Campbell to Björk. She was awarded the Isabella Blow Award at the 2017 Fashion Awards in honour of her invaluable contribution to the global fashion and beauty industry, and she was the first make-up artist to receive the CFDA’s prestigious Founder’s Award in the same year. Oh, and she was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2014.
Now, for her UK homecoming, Selfridges has handed Pat the keys to its corner shop space, as well as all 24 of its windows, to give customers a glimpse inside her opulent and glamorous vision of beauty. "A Technical Odyssey Directed by Pat McGrath", or "The Mothership" as she refers to it, is the first physical retail space for her make-up line, Pat McGrath Labs, on British soil. Finally, you can swatch, try and buy her Skin Fetish highlighters, Lust lip glosses and Mothership eye shadow palettes 'til your heart’s content, as well as buying a range of limited edition all-gold merch made in collaboration with some of Pat’s favourite creatives and brands, from Valentino to Comme des Garçons.
After a tour of the new space by Pat herself, i-D caught up with the make-up master to find out how she has built such a lasting legacy in the world of beauty.
Tell me about your relationship with beauty growing up. Did you always feel a connection to this world?
I did, but I didn’t know it. Fortunately I had a mother who did. She loved make-up and her beauty obsessions became my obsessions. My early skincare routine was comprised of the many potions that I concocted at home. One of my childhood heroes was the Avon lady. She was the first make-up artist and businesswoman I ever laid eyes on. I eventually figured out that there would be a place in the world of beauty for a woman like me who was mad about make-up and wanted to build her own business.
When did you work out you wanted to be a make-up artist?
When I started working toward a degree in fashion, I would go clubbing in London and sneak into the Paris ready-to-wear shows. It was through this whole scene that I met Caron Wheeler, the lead singer of the then-huge group Soul II Soul. She asked me to do the make-up on her Japanese tour. From then I realised I’d found the job I was obsessed with doing.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest icons from the creative industries, but who were your idols growing up?
David Bowie, Mark Bolan, Debbie Harry, Pat Cleveland, Donyale Luna, Jerry Hall, Antonio Lopez, Andy Warhol -- so many idols! I was enamoured with fashion, art, film and music and how it could all fuse together in a technicolour odyssey of creative inspiration.
What are the films or artists that have had the biggest impact on your creative outlook?
J’adore the golden age of Hollywood glamour — Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe. I’m absolutely mesmerised by the works of Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Roger Corbeau, Man Ray, Brassai, Lartigue, Sarah Moon, Cindy Sherman and Steven Meisel. The first time I saw Leigh Bowery I was absolutely transfixed by his fearless creativity. From kabuki to 30s Berlin cabaret to burlesque to ballroom culture -- obsessed!
What do you consider as your first big break in the beauty world?
Working as a make-up artist in the music industry was a major turning point, as was meeting the woman I call my lucky charm, the supermodel Amber Valletta. I met Amber in 1993 at a cover shoot for French Glamour with Craig McDean -- my first mainstream fashion cover. After the shoot, Amber spoke about me to Steven Meisel, the already legendary photographer whose images had wallpapered my bedroom wall when I was a girl. 1996 marked another major break, when I got the call to fly from London to New York to create the make-up for a couture fashion story with none other than the legendary Steven Meisel.
What does the creative process look like to you?
I use the same approach as all the great couturiers, the true masters I’ve been fortunate to work alongside these past two and a half decades. Couture process. Sketches. Toiles. Rejections. Revisions. And finally, perfection. Excellence is always the goal.
Where are you the most creative?
When you’re backstage, it’s impossible to not get caught up in the momentum, the creativity and spontaneity, the fun. It's also ultra-inspiring; I become so engaged, I don’t notice the hours slipping by. And I love The Metropolitan Museum and The Louvre.
What do you do to switch off?
I’m always on the go, so any time I manage to get home by, say 10pm, I try to unwind with a relaxing bath.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Never take anything personally.
And what advice would you offer anyone hoping to make it as a make-up artist?
Always strive to be true to your vision -- be yourself and fearlessly follow your dreams. When I started my career, I was totally incapable of being anyone but myself. I was always obsessed with make-up and creativity in all its forms; they fuelled my irresistible urge to create. I feel so privileged that my love of make-up artistry allowed me to encounter the most extraordinarily talented creatives, and I know it’s because I pursued my dreams and could not be anyone but myself.
You’ve been dubbed ‘The Mother of Make-up’, but which up-and-coming make-up artists really excite you right now?
There are so many, and I’m fortunate to have several future legends working with me on #teampatmcgrath. I’m committed to creating an incubator for new make-up artists as well as creative talent in fields beyond make-up artistry.
Let’s talk about Pat McGrath Labs. When did you first have the idea for the brand?
I had the good fortune to collaborate with Mr Armani in launching his eponymous line of beauty products and was global beauty creative design director for Procter & Gamble, overseeing some of their biggest brands, but the time never seemed perfect to launch my own. Then, in the late spring of 2015, I was working in a private lab when somehow I formulated the most divine gold pigment I had ever laid eyes on. Even now I remember the giddy excitement of sliding it into my handbag and stepping out to phone my New York team to say, “Let’s go.” With no more than a skeleton crew, we launched Pat McGrath Labs on September 30 in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris -- Gold 001 sold out in a matter of minutes, and it changed everything.
What was your original mission?
These are the real products that I’ve been using on every shoot, every backstage and on every location. I’m sharing my secrets, opening my vaults and revealing my backstage hidden treasures. Everyone who loves make-up, from my most minimal, ‘no-make-up’ make-up looks to the ultimate couture extravaganzas, these formulas unlock the history of beauty, my history of beauty. The past, present and future are all here for beauty junkies to use without caution.
And now you’re here in Selfridges, with A Technical Odyssey Directed by Pat McGrath. What do you hope to be able to achieve with this collaboration?
It is such an honour to bring my vision to life in 24 of the iconic windows. To celebrate my UK homecoming, I’ve conjured a real life interpretation of my digital fantasy that speaks to the obsession, inspiration and addiction I and my fellow beauty obsessives feel whenever we look at make-up. It is my chance to share my secrets, unzip my 87 suitcases and reveal the tips, tricks and techniques behind every eye, skin and lip I’ve ever created to my fellow beauty fans.
What’s next for Pat McGrath?
Mother never reveals her secrets until the time is right, but something is coming...