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Pat McGrath and the Great Runway Makeup Revival

Suddenly, people are talking about backstage beauty again, largely thanks to the ghostly looks McGrath created for John Galliano. Just as surprising: her brand didn’t immediately come out with a new product. Did we just witness an actual, authentic moment of artistic genius at fashion week of all places?
A model with heavy makeup
Pat McGrath's Margiela couture look was complete with a super-smooth and shiny coating that made model's faces look like porcelain casts. (Pat McGrath)

It is generally understood that the makeup artist Dame Patricia McGrath, of New York via Northhampton, is the greatest living practitioner of the form. In the future, when a temple is erected to the cosmeticians of our time, McGrath’s shrine will be appropriately outsized, and a site of its own pilgrimage; the Holy Mutha, to whom we pray.

There are few aspects of the cosmetic industry in which McGrath doesn’t excel. She has had a hand in creating some of the best-selling cosmetics in existence, from Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Foundation to Diorshow Mascara, while painting directly on the future’s face. In the bare-faced 90s, Pat said: Let there be yellow eyebrows. Before “Euphoria” makeup, she gave us euphoria makeup. It was inevitable that her own cosmetics line would upend the industry when it arrived. And when Pat McGrath Labs debuted, at Paris Fashion Week in 2015, it was both Patly impractical — a gold pigment which foiled on skin with a melty mixing medium — and clearly ahead of its time.

Recently, McGrath went viral again. John Galliano’s Margiela couture show in Paris was roundly applauded for almost every aspect of its production, which featured ghostly dolls haunting under a bridge. But it was McGrath’s makeup, which shellacked each model’s painted face in a shell of pure gloss, which was singled out for some of the most rapturous praise.

There was a brief and breathless craze. For days, my Instagram feed was an interminable scroll of endless angles of Gwendoline Christie sauntering, with a tulle body and plastic face. I sent it to a friend and asked: “Liquid latex???” She responded: “Or new Pat prod?” with the preening eyes emoji. After the show, tutorials on TikTok threatening to lay bare the #margielamakeup look were viewed almost 50 million times.


Nobody expected a beauty story to dominate the couture season, especially not beauty editors, who have seen a slow waning of interest in runway beauty stories, and apparently not Pat McGrath Labs, who seem like they really didn’t see her big moment coming, either.

When McGrath announced that Pat McGrath Labs had scheduled a Live masterclass amid the social media moment, it was as clear as glass skin that a new product was forthcoming. “I even have a surprise or two!” said McGrath. During the Live, McGrath revealed that the look had been less of a hero product and more a science project, the result of some off-label theatrical glam (Illustrator Clear Gloss, plus a few peel off masks, distilled water, and an airbrush gun). Her audience was grateful — we are always grateful to Mother — but it was possible to hear a quiet murmur of disappointment: so, wait… no Pat McGrath Labs Face Gloss?

Not too long ago, people were interested in what was happening on the runway above the neckline. Big beauty sponsors like Maybelline used to hide next-season launches in the kits of their key artists, hoping that a cruising beauty editor might notice. They’d also invite a certain number of press backstage to interview those artists.

I have done a few of these, and it has almost always been a demoralising experience. Fashion Week can be glamorous and even fun if you’re invited to attend it, and it can be backbreaking and even worse to work in the heat of it. It can be a third and empty thing to swoop in and out on behalf of a makeup sponsor. Certainly a great deal of artistry is occuring at these events, and it’s possible to bask in that glow for a moment, until you realise that you are probably in the way of it.

What’s worse was a feeling that, even when we got into the great show, even when we got the great interview with the great beauty tip, the beauty-loving population had already ceased to care; they saw it on an Instagram video and have moved on.

This season has already seen some newfangled approaches to beauty marketing. Perhaps in an effort to cut down on backstage press traffic, MAC hosted a masterclass with the artist Terry Barber on Zoom, where he explained a few salient trends of the season — pearl skin, blue eyeshadow, and “naughty” shades of cranberry. Dyson launched its hairdryer spontaneously, and conspicuously, on the first day of the shows in New York. It’s called the Supersonic r because it looks like a purple lowercase r. “These just showed up,” my hairstylist at Spoke and Weal told me, turning it over in her palm.

So you will have to forgive me for seeing Gwendolyn Christine and smelling, as I am trained to do, some savvy marketing. We may yet see a glass skin product in the works — and after the public response to Margiela, one can only assume that a launch calendar was reshuffled. But for now, it seems that what we have witnessed is merely some Pat McGrath-brand artistic genius, and not the kind you can buy. All the more beautiful, I think. Fashion Week is as much about art as it is commerce, the two as often in harmony as they are in discord, but still; it’s nice to notice fewer billboards in the museum.

Further Reading

Creating Cultural Moments in the Age of Algorithms

Can Gap create mass cultural relevance in a fragmented world? This week’s Grammys and Edward Enninful’s final Vogue cover may offer lessons for the brand’s new creative head Zac Posen, writes Imran Amed.

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The Business of Beauty Global Awards - Deadline 30 April 2024