Meet Kanako Takase, the makeup artist pushing avante-garde beauty

The Japanese artist created four looks featuring striking eye make-up and skeletal face paint.

by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
16 September 2021, 9:00am

There has been a lot of talk about the effect Covid-19 has had on the beauty industry over the course of the pandemic. Cosmetic sales saw a sharp decline during the early months of lockdowns as our social calendars came to a halt, leaving most of us home-bound with little reason to contour our faces and overline our lips. Glitzy eyeshadows were quickly swapped for moisturising face masks, lipsticks replaced by fancy skincare gadgets, and we saw the seeming demise of some of the heavier make-up trends that had dominated the decade past.

Not for make-up artist Kanako Takase, who has spent a good part of the last six years painting faces for fashion’s most sought-after magazine covers. Most recently, for this issue of i-D, Kanako partnered with Mario Sorrenti on a series of portraits featuring model Celina Ralph holding the viewer’s gaze in striking eye make-up and skeletal face paint.

Indeed, Kanako has throughout the years remained steadfast in the creation of her elaborate, often avante-garde designs, crafting multicoloured artworks on faces rather than canvases. It’s a process Kanako describes as an out-of-body experience, one that’s led by intuition and instinct. “Most of the time it doesn’t come from me,” she explains. “It is always from the team on the day. I catch the vibe and let my hand play around.”

Kanako’s inquisitive approach to make-up artistry can be traced back to the beginnings of her career. “Flipping through magazine pages, I was curious about who made those images when I was a teenager,” she says. “I didn’t imagine that I was going to be part of it, but I just wanted to see them making the images.” And so, when it came to deciding on her route for higher education, Kanako applied to beauty school in Tokyo where she spent three years learning how to recreate complex make-up looks and practice effective skincare.

000872 IDM 03F MRS CC-F02_SD.jpg

At 22, only a couple of months after graduating, Kanako moved to New York in pursuit of work. It didn’t take long for her to land an internship with Pat McGrath during a chance encounter with one of the legendary make-up artist’s assistants at a restaurant on a night out. After just a couple of months under McGrath’s supervision, Kanako was asked to prepare one of her shows, an experience that helped showcase her creativity from the get-go.

It was during her stint with Pat McGrath that Kanako met Dazed’s then-beauty editor Yadim, to whom she would become first assistant in 2011. “I met most of the people who I work with while I was assisting Yadim when I was no one,” she says. “I just cherish the relationships, and try not to bore them. This is what has built my portfolio I think.”

During the four years she worked with Yadim, Kanako developed her career while helping out on shoots for a number of high-profile publications – including the August issue of American Vogue in 2014, where a last-minute change of schedule meant she had to step in for Yadim and work on the final look for Blake Lively. It was around this same time that she first encountered hairstylist Bob Recine, another meeting that would turn out to be pivotal to her career.

000872 IDM 04G MRS CC-F02_SD.jpg

“I don’t know if I can call it a break, but in 2015 Bob Recine had me do some crazy beauty story,” she says, referring to a cover story for Beauty Papers. The collaboration between herself and Recine offered

the fashion world a glimpse

at Kanako’s unparalleled imaginative approach; the cover image was a close-up of model Guinevere Van Seenus’s left eye adorned with miniature doll heads and pastel-coloured plastic penises.

Kanako’s technical expertise and artistic versatility has since seen her go on to paint for some of fashion’s biggest names, including Marc Jacobs, Saint Laurent and Helmut Lang. In 2017, she oversaw the naturalistic make-up for a Rick Owens feature starring Binx Walton for i-D with Mario Sorrenti, Alastair McKimm and Duffy, and – later that same year – she used over 20 different rainbow colours to create the paint splatter looks for Eckhaus Latta’s AW17 catwalk show.

“I would say my aesthetic is not perfect and not planned,” Takase said. “An idea can come from an accident and I’m OK with it. It definitely evolved by working with the people I work with. Every time on set, I just try my best to bring the team’s imagination to life.” This includes her recent collaboration with Mario Sorrenti for i-D, which you can see on these pages. Depicting power, strength and perseverance through bold make-up and conceptual face paint was the main objective. “When I’m asked to do intense make-up, I’m given freedom. I just enjoy the moment,” she says, referring to the project’s open-ended brief. “I just listen very carefully and my brain starts shuffling. Sometimes my brain is not working. I feel like my hands have a brain and automatically create and surprise me.”

It’s her spontaneous style of painting that repeatedly injects her work with a carefree joy that changes how we see what constitutes beautiful; in Takase’s world, beauty is found in the unplanned moments of pure creativity, in the happy accidents that spring from continuous experimentation. And she’s on a mission to share her laissez-faire attitude to make-up with the world, be it through her ever-growing portfolio of non-conformist imagery or through her creative direction for make-up brand Addiction Tokyo.

“I’m working on a new range of products at the moment,” Kanako explains, “and it means I’m using a totally different side of my brain compared to photo shoots. They are only sold in Asia for now but hopefully in the future I can extend the feelings of ease, joy and fun to other countries, too.”


Photography Mario Sorrenti
Fashion Alastair McKimm

Make-up Kanako Takase at Streeters using Addiction Beauty.
Nail technician Honey at Exposure NY.
Set design Philipp Haemmerle.
Photography assistance Javier Villegas and Brett Ross.
Digital technician Kotaro Kawashima.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich and Ava Langham.
Set design assistance Adam Dicarlo.
Production Katie Fash and Layla Néméjanski.
On set production Steve Sutton.
Production assistance William Cipos.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Model Celina Ralph at The Society.