SHANGHAI — For Valentina Li, a single yet well-placed Instagram direct message made all the difference.
The freelance makeup artist, who had been working steadily in China for the past four years, had already created something of a name for herself here. She had notched a number of prestigious jobs under her belt — like working on a YSL film directed by Wong Kar Wai last year and was a regular with high-profile magazines like Vogue China. But she was yearning for the next big challenge that would help her grow creatively.
So just before Paris Fashion Week last September, she penned a message to Maybelline’s global makeup artist, Erin Parsons, telling her how much she admired her and asked if Parsons could use an extra pair of hands. It was a long shot, but it worked. A day later, Parsons, who typically receives hundreds of Instagram messages a day, replied and invited Li to Paris to work on runway shows with her.
Li packed her bags, booked her own flight and hotels, and traveled to France, where she was thrown into the deep end.
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“It was amazing,” Li said, nearly a year later after that experience while sitting at a cafe in Shanghai. “I consider it such a precious working experience. We did Jean Paul Gaultier with 120 models. It was Schiaparelli with water drop makeup. The haute couture shows had six makeup rooms and the biggest models — Karlie Kloss, Gigi and Bella Hadid. We just could not stop, it was [she waves her hand as if she’s holding a brush] for six hours straight.”
Li and Parsons hit it off immediately. “She really liked me and let me do major work,” Li said. “You usually need to be in her assistant group for a long time to do test makeup, but she let me do it the first time I assisted her.”
Li is part of a young group changing the perception of makeup in China, a category that is growing in the nation despite being challenged elsewhere. According to data from the NPD Group, online makeup sales were up 58 percent in June, driven by the eye and lip categories as people head back to work.
Her chutzpah and trajectory is even more impressive once you consider her humble beginnings. She comes from “a very small and poor village” in Guangxi, an area of southwest China that borders Vietnam.
“I wanted to study art,” Li said. “But my mom said we don’t have any background and we have no museums here. I never studied painting.”
Art class during her grade school years mostly consisted of the teacher handing students all the same painting and asking them to copy it, so she taught herself, with a sketchbook and set of paint brushes her mom had bought her. Middle school onward, she moved to the city of Baise, also in Guangxi province, which was a step up but with a population of 3.8 million, still a tiny dot on the map by Chinese standards. By her university years, she’d landed in the city of Taiyuan, eager to experience the different lifestyle offered in northern China.
It was during her sophomore year that she decided to become a makeup artist and headed to Beijing to study makeup at Tony Studio, the chain of schools set up by Tony Li, known as the godfather of Chinese color cosmetics. In 2013, she moved to Paris to study at the Make Up For Ever Academy, before returning to China two years later, this time to Shanghai.
Over the last couple of years, she’s honed her highly conceptual signature style, fueled in part because of her initial love of cosplay. “I’m really into dark or sci-fi movies like ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘The Cell,'” she said.
There’s also something cinematic in her approach, and she embraces the fantastical.
“For me, it’s more satisfying to create a whole character,” she said. “People think that makeup artists do beautiful makeup for celebrities or every day. From the start, I wanted to be a runway makeup artist, since you can talk to the designer. It’s more creative. It’s not doing the same thing every day. That kind of kills me.”
Four years ago, China was less accepting of that kind of expression, but she said it has evolved a lot.
“When I came back in 2015, people asked for natural nude makeup,” she said. “I kind of felt, why am I even here? But now, people are opening up, and especially this year we see a lot of Instagram filters and Y2K-type stuff. Very futuristic, really wild and people are more accepting. We’re expressing what we really want to become.”
“Before it was very closed and basic,” she added. “Basic is safe because you cannot make mistakes but now — and I don’t think it’s because of COVID-19 — but because people are using all sorts of social media that people are connecting to each other.”
Parsons isn’t the only industry figure that Li had caught the eye of. The photographer Mert Alas messaged Li in April to take part in his The Quarantine Days Renaissance project, in which he crowdsourced and highlighted the work of young artists globally.
For that, Li riffed on an old Renaissance portrait, drawing cracked lines all over the face of her friend Huang Jiaqi, who was also a frequent subject of the late photographer, Ren Hang.
“Maybe for other artists, they will really try to create a white mask on the model and make it look crunchy but I really enjoyed keeping the skin soft,” Li said.
This year, Li had plans to go the U.S. in hopes of working more with Parsons and to study special effects makeup, but the pandemic has put those plans on hold. But she’s not feeling deterred, instead taking inspiration from her role model, Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, with whom she had a small, but meaningful encounter with a few years ago.
“He speaks slowly and he knows what he wants,” Li said. “He did what he liked for his whole life. I just want to do makeup and do what I like for my entire life. I want to be an artisan.”