→ 29 May 12 at 12 pm
THE FACE PAINTER
by Ian Parker
MARCH 17, 2003
Pat McGrath, a British makeup artist—the most powerful black woman in fashion who is not a model (and not an Irish man, as some of her early clients supposed)—flew to Paris in mid-January with three assistants and fifteen seventy-pound duffelbags that she takes everywhere. (One is marked “Everyday Bag”; another says “Lips”; and six bags hold scores of large-format art books—Fellini, Otto Dix, André Kertész, “Ritual Art of India”). She had been booked to make up the runway models for the couture shows of Christian Dior, Yohji Yamamoto, and Valentino. On the day she arrived, she was driven to a preparatory meeting with John Galliano, to learn about the clothes he had designed for Christian Dior. “On the way, in the van, I’m always paranoid that I’m not going to be able to think of something,” McGrath said. “And then I get there, and, you know, something always happens, because the clothes are so beautiful. It stops being ‘What on earth can I do?’—because they’ve already brought you the world.” She was dressed all in black: a black untucked shirt worn over black pants, and a black headband pulling back shoulder-length hair. Her skin had the sheen of thorough moisturization, but she was wearing no lipstick.
In the Dior offices, Galliano described his collection, using references to the Peking Opera, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the late Queen Mother. He showed McGrath scrapbooks filled with images collected on a recent trip to the Far East. Then McGrath and her assistants huddled in a corner and, in a flurry of productivity, began imagining makeup ideas, or “looks”—putting them first on paper, and then on the faces of four borrowed models. The first look was done in forty minutes. McGrath photographed it, and an assistant drew it and annotated it for her archives.
While McGrath is known for bringing a light touch to photo shoots, and for avoiding what she is known to call the “suède face” of heavy makeup (she once made Oprah Winfrey weep with happiness by avoiding it), her runway style is more elaborate. For Dior, she returned three times over three days, to produce about eighty looks. These included Chinese characters written on a model’s face; an op-art felt target stuck to the center of a model’s forehead; feather eyelashes; white makeup reaching from the chin to halfway up the cheek, directly inspired by a photograph of a half-made-up geisha in one of McGrath’s bags; eyes covered with black masking tape (with pinpricks to allow the model to see); a mask of sequins, each placed by hand (“In a way, you’re almost relieved if something like that isn’t used. You’re thinking, Oh, my God, it’s going to take forever to do”). Galliano, pleased, looked at the Polaroids—and said “Yes” and “No” until McGrath was left with about ten faces. The felt target and the feather eyelashes had been accepted, but there would be no sequins this time, and no masking tape.
The Dior collection was shown in a high-roofed tent on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris. Inside, two hours before the start of the show, a mist of gold glitter hung in the air between the model Stella Tennant, whose face was already geisha-white from mid-forehead to chin, and McGrath, who was painting gold on Tennant’s lips. Alek Wek, the Sudanese-born model, was being painted blue and pink, and was wearing the white feather eyelashes. She moved her head, testing. “I can see straight ahead,” she said. “But I can’t see to the side. And I can’t look down.” McGrath walked from model to model, talking to her assistants, who were working from Polaroids taped onto the mirrors. “Very good, perfection. Straighten it out. Take the mouth off, put the white on with your fingers. The brow is showing.”
At the place backstage where the models would step onto the runway, there was a handwritten sign with stage directions. “Hard-Core Romance,” it read. “Intense! Intense! Intense!” But around McGrath the mood was closer to a school field trip taken in the care of a permissive history teacher. McGrath saw a model with smudged lipstick, and, mock-scolding, said, “Did you just eat?” (“No.”) “Did you drink?” (“No.”) “Did you have a cigarette?” (“No.”) “Well, you did something.”
When the show finally started, more than an hour late, McGrath stood in a black cloth apron, a jar of gold glitter in its pocket. The models, wearing platform shoes that made them seven feet tall, and looking as if they had been overwhelmed by the Queen Mother’s curtains, passed McGrath for a final check (she could barely reach their faces), and then passed Galliano, before stepping onto the runway. McGrath lost her composure only for a moment, when the Italian model Mariacarla Boscono accidentally hit her quite hard over the head with a parasol. When the show ended, an hour later, Galliano took an extravagant curtain call, and McGrath said, “Genius, genius,” and was out of the tent immediately, into the van for the next show, and within a few minutes was at the Théâtre National de Chaillot, among men with tans and leather suits, deep in conversation with the designer Valentino Garavani about shades of red lipstick.