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MAC’s Creative Director Dreams of Cher, Dolly Parton Collab

Britt Aboutaleb
Managing Editor
June 18, 2014

Photo: M.A.C.

When we interviewed James Gager, SVP and creative director of M.A.C., La Mer, and Jo Malone Worldwide, he was so hilarious and had so much to say about beauty that we thought we should let him speak for himself:

I was born in Niagara Falls, New York of all the strange places—the honeymoon capital of the world. I’m the oldest of five kids; my father was a teacher and my mother was a housewife. He taught chemistry and physics, and was the swimming coach for Niagara University, but I didn’t really like sports so much. But it’s funny, because as I’ve gotten older I’m probably the most athletic and fit of all my siblings; there must have been some psychological thing where I rejected his universe and wanted my own universe.

I was always interested in art, design, and fashion. I had a wonderful grandmother on my mother’s side who was probably the most important nurturer of me as a kid; she really got me. I had two best friends and we did outrageous things such as renting out a toolshed in somebody’s backyard and starting art classes, teaching kids our own age to paint and draw – then we'd have conferences with their parents about how they were progressing. We’d throw parties in my friend’s basement, decorate, and call the local papers to tell them they should cover this party. I was very entrepreneurial. I started a greeting card company. I would do pastel or watercolor paintings of people’s homes and then knock on the door and try to get them to buy them. I was offbeat and kind of fearless; I didn’t care what people thought. I lived a lot in my own little world, which is not a bad thing as long as your own little world gives you happiness and pleasure.

New York was the place I’d always dreamed of living in and I was very lucky that I got a scholarship to Pratt, and I never left. I studied industrial design of all things. I was never going to design cars or anything of that nature, but I thought it had the best curriculum, based on Bauhaus design. I got my master’s in packaging design as well. I was always interested in graphic design and interior design too; even as a kid, my parents would ask me what I thought of this fabric for drapes or what color walls they should paint. I had very strong opinions. I knew what I wanted and what they should do.

I had always wanted to work for a cosmetics company because I felt like it was an industry that did very special packaging and I wanted to produce beautiful things that people wanted to buy — and have the budget to do that. And I had always wanted to work at Estee Lauder. A headhunter called me on a summer afternoon; I ran home, got my portfolio, put on a white linen suit, and ran to the interview. I got the job. 

Strangely enough, I just got a letter from Leonard Lauder because I’ve been here for 35 years. Time goes by so fast when you’re having fun.

When Esteé Lauder bought MAC, they asked me to come on. I’d always admired the brand from afar and was jealous they’d taken such a bold step using RuPaul as their first spokesperson. I thought I could really stretch my wings, so I came here with (MAC president) John Demsey and have been here for almost 15 years.

I don’t like to think of us as doing celebrity collaborations, but as this very special family with incredibly unique individuals —we’re working with people who could work in our office. They aren’t foreign to our universe and that’s a really important thing for this brand. Other companies pull in certain starts because it’s a way to garner attention or make a profit, but it’s not really about them as a brand.

My job as an editor for the brand, as a visual editor, is to find the right person, and to keep an element of surprise. I truly believe in the power of my own gut.

The most controversial partnership I did when I first got to MAC was with Cindy Sherman. Cindy is one of the most important photographers today and her images can be quite jarring, especially for women, but that was part of the intrigue for me. She is always transforming herself, we’re a brand of makeup, and makeup is about transformation. We gave our products to Cindy, and she took them and she used them to create three characters based on what she felt those colors represented to her. The images were so amazing, so cool. It was a bold move on my part and I’m still very proud of having gone down that route, but it wasn’t one of our best selling-collections.

There are three people on my wish list; one is Cher. I don’t think she’s so into doing a collaboration, but I got to meet her and have a face to face. Another person I think is incredible and represents the power of transformation is Dolly Parton and she’s so fun — and I like to have fun. But the ultimate iconic beauty for me is Sofia Loren. 

I’m older–no surprise–but my partner says, “You’re younger than anybody I’ve ever met.” I like to keep myself interested, to have fun, and be around neat people. I have a lot of great young people on my staff that I kind of like to mentor and I like to be surprised by what they’re showing me. I have an amazing partner and we have a life outside of our jobs, gardening, our pets, our wonderful life together; we like to go exploring and try new things. I believe in the balance of one’s life and I’m sure Bobbi would agree. I think being a workaholic is probably dull and there’s nothing worse than a bore. You have to feed yourself in many different ways.