Twenty-five years, 87 makeup trunks, 3,000 catwalk shows, 120,739 models, 351 covers, 3.8m followers — and two hands.
Growing up, Pat McGrath and her mother Jean spent their free time embarking on scavenger hunts; the two would head to local department store beauty counters to find shades that matched their skin tones, then returned home to recreate looks from the couture shows. At age eight, McGrath had already discovered how to make moisturiser (find the right balance between oil and water, stick it in the fridge), and was routinely engaged in catwalk reports with her mother. Did you see what Cyd Charisse was wearing? she'd ask her daughter. That's military green and was at Yves Saint Laurent.
"I always believed that, in fashion, if you didn’t do the contoured, supermodel look, you couldn’t be a makeup artist. Or if you didn’t do grunge, you were out of trend," she tells Refinery29. "And I really hated that, because I always wanted to do whatever I wanted to do."
That trajectory, a path of smudging, dusting, feathering — all with her index fingers — began at London's lively Kensington Market, where she'd stalk the three-storey centre's most talented outcasts, punks, and High Street degenerates. While her mother assumed she was at the Tate Gallery, she would get dressed on the train from her home in Northampton and follow caravans of New Romantics around for hours.
"[It was] me and my little school friend in our ballet slippers and our riding vests, and we’d stalk them the whole day, following them wherever they went. From Steve Strange, to a member of Spandau Ballet, we’d just stalk them. It was so much fun," she recalls. Though she only lasted a year in art school, McGrath was never lost for inspiration, as most of it came from the streets of London and the pages of New Sounds New Styles, The Face, Blitz, and i-D. "If you worked for those magazines, they were personal projects, so that was something you were doing for fun."
It was during her excursions that McGrath met Kim Bowen, London's renowned stylist and premier Blitz kid, a member of the John (Keeble), George (the Boy, née O'Dowd), and Marilyn cohort. In retrospect, their meeting feels like fate, as it was her connection with Bowen that would send McGrath to Japan on her first big makeup job, beating the face of Caron Wheeler of Soul II Soul on tour. It was also this fabulous group of "Kenny Market" ruffians that accepted McGrath into their squad and led her to Lee Alexander McQueen.
"I met Lee the day after he graduated from [Central] St. Martins. I was working with a young photographer at that point — maybe Richard Burbridge — and Izzy Blow came into the studio and just said, 'I’ve got this amazing young designer called 'Lee,' and there was this dress of only leaves,'" she remembers. "But he was a kid then." Though McQueen tragically took his own life just before his 40th birthday, the two created legendary and groundbreaking looks that are cemented in history as some of the greatest to have ever been.
Then came John Galliano, who McGrath met on set too, while shadowing Bowen in between what she fondly calls her "regular" job. But attempting to interpret and complete the vision of someone like Galliano is like asking McGrath to trade her all-black wardrobe for a crisp white tee — it takes a village. On that painfully exquisite Egyptian collection, she says: "One of those looks with the chainmail under the eyes took about 12 hours to build. It was really funny when the look was accepted, because I was like, ‘Ah, I’m so happy!' And then I was like, 'How am I going to do 10 of those in three hours?’ I didn’t do the math and the panic set in."
McGrath, however, is used to do-overs, re-dos, and starting from scratch. Why sit through hours of formal training when anything they could do, she could do better? Who wants to feather-in an eyebrow for 40 minutes when you could just glue a set of ostrich feathers on and call it a day? And eyeliner? Just use paper (pro tip: that way, they're all the same). And ask her why she dropped out of art school and she'll tell you, as any industry legend will, she traded normality for grit.
"Of course I can do traditional beauty, but I always believed that everything I did I wanted to do," she says. "Push the ideas and then draw a way in; challenge ideals in beauty. I think that’s one of the reasons why everyone became obsessed with a lot of the work I did, because I was always trying to do something really different. If somebody else did a glossy lip, I'd think: How do I do a lip that’s made out of paper or cellophane? That’s the whole idea."
Today, McGrath is everything she wanted to be: She's the global cosmetics creative design director for Procter & Gamble, the artist for brands like Prada, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, and the founder of her own line of cosmetics, Pat McGrath Labs. Launched last year in the form of periodical limited-edition capsules, her most recent release, the Unlimited Collection of permanent products (which is available now), is her love letter to her loyal followers. And it's supposed to include all of her secrets. Her launch parties for each Labs release have become notorious, too; the latest, McGrath's epic Mothership Ball, saw some of the city's most talented Vogueing houses strutting their stuff for the likes of Naomi Campbell, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more.
Her next chapter, working alongside pal and newly-minted British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, will be more of a reunion than the start of something new. The two plan to reimagine their days of freedom working together at i-D, which is sure to transform the pages of the fashion magazine from a whitewashed portfolio of playing it safe to a collection of inclusive, dreamlike centrefolds: "It felt right for Edward to call me up again. Back at i-D, he’d ring me and say ‘Want to do a cover?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, I want to do a cover,’ and then we’d start at 6 p.m. after the work day and go until four or five in the morning. We'd make these incredible covers. But at the same time, we'd have so much fun because there was no timekeeping."
After 25 years, McGrath considers herself something of a fashion beauty blender: constantly soaking up the tricks of the trade, relentlessly blurring the ugly and the beautiful, all to be passed down to the next generation of club kids, her eternal muses. But, beneath all of the glamour, McGrath isn't just a makeup machine — she's a time capsule. At a time when working in fashion feels more like a blip of nothingness, where Galliano-like visions are overshadowed by the constant pressures of commercialism, she is one of the only legends left paving the way for young experimenters to actually create something fresh and new. Like the post-war, pre-grunge era of the '80s when McGrath discovered who she was, the industry is recovering from a dry spell. And only those who have lived through it will be able to see it through.
"I was lucky. We were just kids on the street. I began when there was not a penny in fashion, especially in England. And because of that, it was so inclusive in a way," she says. "Everybody was crazy and wild and genius, so I wasn’t really in the industry thinking ‘I’m going to be rich.’ You were doing it because you were so obsessed with fashion that you would have worked for free. There’s a difference when you approach things from love rather than commerce."
Even though it's said she commands upwards of £30K per European show, McGrath still finds a way to view her work as a passion project — that's why you'll likely never spot her in a stitch of makeup. Apart from launching her eponymous line, McGrath's rhythm takes pride in itself for putting the art before the artist. Because, when she reflects back on what she learned from her mother, and her years of working for the greats, it's that the fashion always came first.
"What is so beautiful and great about this industry is that, once you choose this world for yourself, your feet don’t touch the ground ever again," she says, smiling. "And, through thick or thin, the worst things might happen or the best things might happen, but I sometimes ask myself: Why have I always stayed true and stayed strong? I've realised it’s the memories of my mother. Those were the happiest times. Beauty reminds me of her joy and freedom and peace."
She pauses, looking at a table scattered with her own products.
"Why do I keep trying to perfect that lash for the 10,000th time? Why do I walk into a department store and act as if I’ve never seen a lipstick before? I realised it’s her fault."