Cover photo from “Pencils, paint and powder”

Pencils, paint and powder


In the rarefied air behind-the-scenes at a couture show, it’s not uncommon for designers or models to sweep in with entourage in tow.

But when Pat McGrath breezes backstage with her army of assistants, it is the designers and models who themselves make way. This is partly because McGrath, 37, is so revered in the fashion industry (she is known to influence trends from New York to Paris), and partly because she carts with her up to 15 Samsonite cases filled with the pencils, powders and paints that are the tools of her trade.

The cases are individually labelled: ‘eyelashes’, ‘eyeshadow’, ‘Pat’s faves’, ‘books’ and so on, and McGrath dutifully exports them around the globe whether she’s working in L.A. or London. “It never gets mundane or predictable,” says McGrath. “Every shoot and show is different.”

A Northampton, England native, McGrath is a makeup artist par excellence. She is called upon to design looks for runway shows by top designers, as well as undertake fashion editorial work for magazines like I-D and Vogue Italia, to name but two.

McGrath and model Naomi Campbell.
Women of excess: McGrath and model Naomi Campbell.

And when fashion legend Giorgio Armani wanted to create his namesake cosmetics line, he quietly tapped Pat on the shoulder for direction. The result; a series of rich, exquisite formulations were entirely in keeping with Armani’s signature restraint and understated style. It was another feather in McGrath’s already well-decorated cap.

“I love being a makeup artist because of the creative freedom I have, and the opportunity to work with the most talented, visionary people in the industry,” says McGrath.

International in work and by nature, McGrath is for the time being calling New York home. She has an apartment in the West Village, and has been hired by consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble to work in their Beauty division. As global creative director, she works with the company’s CoverGirl, Max Factor and SK-II brands, updating colour palettes and rolling-out new product lines.

When Pat McGrath breezes backstage with her army of assistants, it is the designers and models who make way.

Far from being confined to a lab, Pat still does magazine editorial work and couture shows (over 20 at the last seasons’ collections), not to mention keeping in touch with what’s happening on the streets. On days off, she’s frequently out until early in the morning, mixing it with New York’s next generation of club kids and immersing herself in the burgeoning trends found in the city.

Pat’s work is driven by a swirl of diverse and competing influences; she reels off a list noting everything from Weimar Republic cabaret and Madame de Pompadour to Chinese Opera and Pop Art – not to forget Otto Dix and Punk rock.

Although Pat has made up everyone from Madonna to Oprah Winfrey, her inspiration comes from a range of strong women in the public eye. They tend to be in surname-only league – women like Dietrich, Bardot and Loren.

“I don’t have a favourite,” she says of her present influences, “but some of the most inspiring women to me at the moment are Karen Elson, Gisele Bündchen and Sandra Bullock.”

When asked to describe herself, McGrath once told the New York Times magazine that she is a “woman of excess.” A child of 80s London, she was regularly taken on makeup shopping sprees by her mother, who would frequently bemoan the lack of makeup options for black skin. Instead of giving up, her mum took a more punk/DIY approach and resorted to mixing her own tints from what was available on the market.

London’s larger-than-life characters from the era, like Leigh Bowery and Boy George also clearly had an impact; and just how much is evident in her work today.

Wildly imaginative, she easily compares to her friend John Galliano, with whom she has collaborated for a number of years.

“My style is painterly and bold,” says McGrath, and summarises her work with the term “wild refinement.”

Like Galliano’s work, McGrath’s can be an extreme flight of fancy. So much so that Time magazine jokingly said that said that judging by her work on some shows, one would be excused for thinking that McGrath “learned her trade at a carnival.”

Although Pat has put false eyelashes on eyebrows, and used sequins on cheeks in a way never thought possible, she can just as easily create a nude, sun-kissed look on a Gucci gamine.

“I’m a big fan of simplicity too, of natural perfection and modern beauty,” she says.

It’s what Pat thinks of when she hears the term ‘Australian style.’ “I’ve met quite a lot of Australians, and they seem to have a casual independent style,” she says.

“Australian women are clearly influenced by British and European fashion, as well as unconventional Asian designs. What I see is a funky mix of eclectic designer pieces and wardrobe staples like t-shirts and jeans.”

In terms of makeup trends, Pat says that last winter in Europe, she saw “a lot of metallic color on the eyes and lips.”

Describing the rich look happening in makeup at the moment. Pat says that cheeks are “sculpted,” and skin is “fresh and matte.”

“Brows are strong with dramatic lashes – both real and false,” she adds.

In between all the brushing and brow-shaping, Pat always makes time for the shops. “I love being able to travel to Europe several times a year. I try to fit my shopping in during the fashion shows to treat myself,” she says. Provided, of course, there’s room in her luggage.

This article originally appeared in The Age.