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Grace Coddington says there is only one way to describe her great friend, superstar makeup artist Pat McGrath.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I always think of her as a very shiny person,” says Coddington, the creative director of Vogue. “Maybe it’s her manner. Maybe it’s just her personality. She is extremely warm and she is so pleasant to be with. And on top, she is totally brilliant.”
Coddington is, of course, right.
McGrath speaks with a smile in her voice, peppering her ideas, thoughts and observations with frequent terms of endearment like “my darling” or “my love.” She’s a physical conversationalist, always reaching out to give a little squeeze or leaning forward with eyes widened, completely engaged in the moment.
That charm, coupled with her unparalleled approach to make-up—those who work with McGrath agree the term “genius” is not an overstatement—has elevated her to the very highest echelons of the style world, where she is the makeup artist of choice for photographers like Steven Meisel and top fashion houses including Prada, Gucci, Lanvin, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein and many, many more.
She may spend much of her time in the rarefied world of couture, but what truly makes McGrath powerful is that when it comes to commercial considerations, she’s got killer instincts.
Take her approach to in-store appearances, which, as global cosmetics creative design director for P&G, she does occasionally for Dolce & Gabbana The Make Up.
“I’m obsessed,” McGrath says, using one of her most favorite words. “I tell the salespeople, ‘We have to beat every counter here. Tell me when the last appearances were, with who, which brand. Did we break the record?’ That’s all that matters.
“If you’re going to turn up at a store,” she finishes, “you want to know that people love the products.”
“Pat wants to win,” seconds Esi Eggleston Bracey, vice president of global cosmetics at P&G. “She feels like the brand’s success is her success. That is something I didn’t expect in the beginning.”
The line that snakes around the entire beauty floor whenever McGrath and her team turn up at Saks Fifth Avenue for a personal appearance attests not only to her product-development prowess, but to her power as one of the beauty industry’s most influential creators of trends. As fashion shows have become a global phenomenon avidly followed by the general public in real time, McGrath’s work as the most prolific artist working today—she does about 25 shows a season—means that every time she opts for a neon red lipstick or bold brow, the news is instantly transmitted and immediately noted by style-obsessed women worldwide.
“When a beauty trend is happening on the runway, 90 percent of the time Pat is behind it,” says Sarah Brown, Vogue’s beauty director. “She is the most directional makeup artist working today. It’s an understatement to say that her work for various runway shows filters down. What she does absolutely effects global beauty trends.”
McGrath herself has noticed the change in consumers firsthand. “Before, if a new product came to the market, they’d read about it and run out and buy it, whereas now, women want to know how to do it, how a certain celebrity did their makeup or how to do the look at a show,” she says. “They want to know how the look came about, the history of it—it’s all about information. The coverage of beauty has gone through the roof.”
Information is something that McGrath thrives on. “The thing that is so special is that Pat’s always supremely interested,” says designer Anna Sui. “She wants to hear the story behind every collection. She loves to be inspired, and ends up doing even more research on her own, and then shows up with all of the ingenious elements to create that ideal look.”
Creating the ideal look is no simple matter. McGrath is legendary for traveling to shoots and shows with as many as 50 large black duffel bags in tow. Each is individually labeled—there are bags for lashes, colored lashes, cream color, fabric, mesh, feathers, foundation, lipstick, lip gloss, Swarovski crystals, pigments, pencils, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—a practice which started at a very early age. “My mother started taking me shopping to buy makeup when I was six,” says McGrath, when asked if she remembers the first beauty product she ever bought. “I had quite a trunk of makeup from age seven. Tons.”
(Frequent travelers will appreciate the fact that McGrath checks her bags for each flight herself. While nothing has ever been lost, delays are not unknown. When McGrath went to Monaco to do the makeup for the Dior resort show in May, there was just such an occurrence. “The [conveyor] belt went round and round and the bag didn’t come off. The horror!” she says, eyes wide. “The special-services desk said it was on the next flight, so I waited in the airport and then all of those bags came off. Nothing. Finally, everyone was gone and off came my little bag.”)
There are also numerous bags—“five, eight, 15,” McGrath says, when asked how many—filled with books, many of which are bookmarked with yellow Post-it notes. There are art books, photography books, fashion books. Books on tattoos and books on beauty. There’s a book called simply “The Eyebrow” and another devoted to film stars of the Fifties. Photo albums filled with Polaroids of the looks McGrath has created for different magazines and designers round out the collection.
“She has a huge library, and she instinctively has a great reference of history, film, pictures, theater, characters on the street, club land, every kind of youth cult is in her mind” says hair stylist Guido Palau, who often works with McGrath on photo shoots and on multiple shows. “She might pull out a book at a shoot or a show. She’s looking for an eye, a period, a feeling. At a shoot, when she’s talking to the editor, she might pull out the Polaroids of the girl who we’re working with that show the different make-ups she’s done on her over the years or last season. She details everything.”
Snippets of everyday life also inspire her. “I walk into the most incredible fashion houses and see the most incredible things—new technology, new ideas, new music. Incredible lighting, new girls,” she says. “Maybe it’s a feature on a girl, maybe it’s her mouth, maybe it’s her eyes. It’s like an energy that just happens because of what you’re faced with. It’s almost like a puzzle.”
But what catches McGrath’s eye can just as easily be the mundane as the sublime. Terry Jones, the editor in chief, creative director and publisher of i-D magazine, met McGrath during her early days in London and quickly enlisted her to be the beauty director of his then-fledgling magazine. “She loved the way older women that she would see in London did their makeup. It would have that smudgy quality, because as you get older your eyesight goes and it’s not as specific and you favor brighter colors,” recalls Jones. “Pat used that as inspiration for a story. She wasn’t a makeup artist who just did as she was told. She brought creativity to the table, and she wouldn’t stop until she had what she wanted.”
While she’s adept at referencing the past, what really drives McGrath is the future. “I’m always looking for new things,” she says. “Wherever I am in the world, I try to find the time to go and look for something new. Doing so many shows every season is very demanding. Every show has to be different.”
And every show is, from the starkly minimalist to the wildly theatrical and everything in between. “What sets Pat apart is her enormous variety and range,” says Coddington. “She can turn her hand to anything, from no makeup to almost stage makeup. She attacks whatever it is with the same vigor and enthusiasm. That is why she works for absolutely everybody. She works on every show. I don’t know how she does it.”
Coddington is exaggerating when she says McGrath does every show—but only just. Last season, McGrath did 26, the bulk of them in Milan and Paris. She likens the entire process to a military operation, complete with multiple motorcycles to transport herself and her team of 50-plus artists from show to show and multiple vans to ferry their gear. “It’s like a huge makeup army,” McGrath says. “I love it. Sometimes nothing happens at a show for the first two hours and in the last hour we have to do all 70 girls. It’s an adrenaline rush.” (McGrath adds a big black duffel devoted exclusively to flu medicine, relaxing aromatherapy bath oils and the like during show season.)
Those who have seen her in action say she thrives on such moments. “Under pressure is when she works best,” says designer Donatella Versace. “When the pressure is on backstage, there is no more welcome sound than Pat’s infectious laughter. You know everything is going to be all right.”
Some of the most memorable looks McGrath has created were for Dior under its former designer, John Galliano, fantastical creations that might feature multihued paper cut-outs, crystal-studded lashes and feathers, all on one eye.
“John and his team really played with makeup. I remember bringing a girl down once, and she had on probably 10 pairs of lashes and three pounds of eye shadow and the hugest, glossiest lips,” McGrath says. “We brought her into the studio for a make-up test, and John said, ‘We’re not doing a beach story. This is not about a natural look.’ He wanted more.”
McGrath relishes executing the wide range she’s become known for, and notes that simpler doesn’t always mean easier. “People always say the wildest makeups are the most challenging, but the most natural can be challenging, too,” she says. “When you have to make every girl serenely beautiful with the most perfect skin and then for that girl to look as if she’s not wearing an ounce of make-up, when one girl has rosy cheeks, one has eyelashes, one doesn’t, one has light blonde brows, one black brows. That can be the most difficult thing to do because you’re trying to replicate Mother Nature.”
There is one signature to her work, no matter the look, says Palau. “Pat has a way of making a face feel alive and breathing. It doesn’t matter how much makeup there is, it still feels like it’s breathing,” he says. “She is an expert at creating different balances of light and dark, moist and dry. She makes the face come alive like no other.”
That ability hasn’t gone unnoticed by the corporate arm of the beauty industry. In her current role at P&G, McGrath works on Cover Girl, Max Factor, Dolce & Gabbana The Make Up and SK-II, with wide-ranging duties that include ideating shade ranges, starring in how-to videos, providing product-development feedback and consulting on creative direction for ad campaigns. “She’s more than a makeup artist. She’s really a creative director for our businesses,” says Eggleston Bracey.
“Pat sees things differently than other people,” says Luigi Feola, who, as vice president of the luxury pillar of P&G Prestige, oversees Dolce & Gabbana The Make Up. “She sees nuances in shades and application that others miss. She helps shape the palette with colors and textures that express the designers’ vision and advises us on how the product needs to perform, where we can make it better,” he adds. “She brings to our product line a level of depth and refinement that wouldn’t be possible without her.”
McGrath tests products on herself, on models, on friends and at shoots and shows. A true product junkie who likes to hit Barneys and Saks early in the morning to buy the latest launches, McGrath describes what she loves about products as if she’s reciting poetry and says too much is never enough. “When people say products are always the same, well, they aren’t. There is always something a little different,” she says. “If you’re a makeup addict, there’s always a reason to buy cosmetics.”
Her passion for all things makeup begs the question: Is McGrath considering her own line?
“Maybe soon,” McGrath says. “I’d love to do my own line in the future.”
Still, rumors have swirled for years—she is, she isn’t, soon, maybe not. As to what’s stopped her in the past? “I’m a busy girl, you know? I work with a lot of amazing brands,” she says. “Every day my life is nonstop. It’s challenging and exciting.”
McGrath may be tentative about the timing of such a venture, but not about the clarity of her vision. “There is always space in the market,” she answers when asked if she sees white space. “Women never stop needing new ideas—there is a lot of space for new ideas and new products and different approaches.”
As someone whose livelihood is based on creating the next trend, McGrath’s ideas about limitless possibilities for new products mirror her approach overall. She professes to never becoming attached to a look, idea, color or texture. “She has no qualms about erasing what she’s just spent an hour creating,” says Palau. “She is not scared of doing things, of pushing herself, of wiping it off and starting again. She is passionate about her work, but not precious about it.”
McGrath would be the first person to agree with that assessment. Ask her if she ever goes through phases where she’s loving a particular direction, and she just laughs. “Maybe for a minute. No one will allow you for longer,” she says. “Trust me, you think you’re on to something, but the next thing, you’re thinking, I love the color but now it’s too heavy, I need to sheer it out, now I need it to stay.
“You are always constantly moving,” she concludes. “In this business, you are never resting on your laurels.”
WOMEN McGRATH WOULD LOVE TO MAKE UP:
Jordan, the original punk icon
Tamara de Lempicka
Renee Perle, the muse of Jacques Henri Lartigue