MAC’s creative director james gager is still a make-up rebel at 70
MAC’s legendary creative director on ageing well and why drag queens make genius covergirls.
When the up-and-coming beauty brand MAC made a drag queen its face in 1995, James Gager was jealous. "I thought it was so genius," he says. "It was so much more modern than, 'Here's a pretty girl and she's dreamy and you're supposed to look like her.' That's a little boring. And a little not true!"
The drag queen was RuPaul. In the ads, some of the Toronto-based company's first, she wore platinum blonde hair, a red vinyl corset, thigh-high boots, and Viva Glam lipstick, whose proceeds went to help prevent AIDS. Gager, then an executive at Estee Lauder's Prescriptives, was jealous, but elsewhere, feathers were ruffled. Some department stores wouldn't display the images, but eventually came around after they became a hit.
James Gager joined MAC, where he is now creative director, in 1999, a year after it was acquired by Estee Lauder. In the 90s, MAC was known as an underground brand that eschewed advertising. Gager helped turn it into a $3 billion dollar company known for its visual campaigns, and without selling out, he says. "I don't like marketing in general," Gager tells me. Some things haven't changed. "People see through things that are marketing-driven," co-founder Frank Toskan told a reporter in 1995. [Toskan resigned as creative director of MAC in 1998. His co-founder, Frank Angelo, died in 1997.]
Of course, today's MAC does market. Gager oversees all of the brand's visuals, from the shirtless romance-novel hunks in last autumn's ads to a blush etched with an outline of Marge for a Simpsons collaboration. Many of the images Gager creates go on to inspire products, rather than the other way around. And he's quick to boast that they snag customers: "Beauty is all about seducing people into wanting stuff that they don't even know what they wanted," he says playfully, as if revealing a delicious piece of gossip.
That doesn't mean it has to be conventional. "You can be anything you want to be at any point in your life, as long as you have the desire to," the 70-year-old tells me. "Make-up helps you live out a fantasy, whatever it is."
Why is fantasy so important to MAC?
We don't stand for any stereotypical point of view on beauty. Our customer base is a really weird customer. It could be anyone from a 12-year-old girl to a 92-year-old woman. We did the collaboration with Iris Apfel—she's 93 and she's one of the youngest people you'll meet. She's really blossoming at this point in her life, which is phenomenal. It says, "Why give up on yourself?"
That's against the grain of what most beauty brands are about, particularly with the growing market for anti-ageing.
I don't like the notion. In Europe, ageing is accepted. We all get old! How I take care of myself is by thinking, "I just want to be as good as I can for my age." I don't want to look like I'm in my twenties. But I can eat right and exercise and take care of my skin and feel good about myself. I surround myself with people who have that attitude.
How is MAC different from when you first began working here 14 years ago?
Well, it's almost a $3 billion brand. But I try to think like we're not a big company because I still want to take risks. That keeps us interesting, and keeps me interested.
What's an example of a risk you've taken recently?
In 2011 we had Cindy Sherman take pictures for a collection. That was a rather bold step on my part. And financially it didn't live up to our other collections. But the people who knew her work thought it was the best thing a make-up brand could have done.
You've worked with everyone from Nicki Minaj to Suzanne Bartsch to Marcel Wanders. How do you pick collaborators?
I like to think when we collaborate we're just pulling in members of an extended family—some of them might be strange aunts, strange uncles, but they all somehow belong and seem to fit. The experience is very intimate. We ask people to bring in their make-up bags and spill out products. When we worked with Daphne Guinness—who, again, is not exactly mainstream—she came in and literally pulled a little watercolour kit out of her bag. She asked for some paper and a glass of water, and was mixing colours that she liked.
How do you get the ideas for MAC's other collections?
It's the ability to story-tell and have fantasies. Sometimes I think of a word first. One was Cook MAC, [shot by photographer and longtime collaborator Miles Aldridge]. There's this woman, and she probably doesn't know a thing about cooking. But she's got a nice, red vinyl outfit, so she if she spills anything on it it's like her plastic gloves. Her saucepans are filled with jewellery instead of real spaghetti, and she's cracking some eggs—but does she really know what she's doing?
This was a collection that was created based on the visuals. The product was developed after. That's a very unusual approach for a cosmetic company.
Do you think racial and sexual minorities still face discrimination in the beauty industry, like they did when MAC first launched Viva Glam?
I think it does exist. We're lucky we live in a place where people are more accepting. What's wonderful about MAC is that we've always loved diversity. We've always had a huge foundation range, from very dark to very light. It's really rather annoying to me to see all these companies who now feel, "We have to have a dark skinned woman, an asian woman, a light skinned woman." It's the way they are marketing, but is it really the philosophy the company was born with? Or, did they figure out, "We need to sell more product to a diverse group of people"? MAC was never like that.
Text Alice Hines
Portrait Brayden Olson