The air crackles with a frenetic energy backstage at Coach’s fall presentation. Draped on the racks around us are swaths of rich, earth-tone fabrics and buttery-soft shearlings soon to be marched down the runway. Hairstylists fluff models’ strands into slightly more polished versions of their natural texture, clouds of hair spray wafting in their wake. In a corner, a gaggle of models peers over an iPhone. Kaia Gerber is sipping a smoothie. In the center of it all, a growing crowd of beauty editors gathers around a commanding figure dressed in all black. “Isn’t it marvelous?” the figure bellows. “Isn’t it divine?” We all nod eagerly, eyes gleaming with fervor. In the midst of the backstage frenzy, Pat McGrath holds court.
One by one, McGrath—or Mother, as her adoring team of makeup artists refers to her—personally chooses a (holographic, impossibly iridescent) shade from her newest eye shadow palette and pats it onto our eyelids, like a divine saint giving blessing. Never mind the quotes we should be jotting down; never mind a slew of recognizable models just five feet away, all of whom we should probably be trying to interview. To be touched by Pat—even for a second—is the ultimate anointing.
Calling McGrath a makeup artist is like saying Madonna is a woman who sings, or Grace Jones has good bone structure—factually correct, yes, but grossly reduced. In the world of makeup today, there is perhaps no name more recognized than Pat McGrath’s. With a career spanning two decades, she has left a distinct mark—dramatic, fantastical, never predictable—in the form of makeup that makes you fully understand the medium as an art form. Often conceptualizing the makeup for over 80 fashion shows a year, McGrath is responsible for some of the most iconic beauty looks in past memory. From metallic gold lips at Prada to Swarovski face crystals at Givenchy to glistening silver eye jewelry at Maison Margiela Couture, McGrath’s visions have secured her a place as the world’s most visually rousing makeup artist—and, at the heart of it, the visionary we all need.
McGrath was an innovator even in the beginning of her career, mixing and matching the limited shades that were currently on the beauty market to satisfy her clients’ (and her own) demands. “When I could not find products to match my skin tone, which was often, it never held me back,” she tells me. “I would blend all sorts of pigments together until I achieved the perfect match.” She launched her namesake makeup line, Pat McGrath Labs, in 2015 so that others would never have to play mixologist out of necessity, but rather to indulge their own creativity. Her first limited-edition product—Gold Lust 001, a glistening gold pigment that came with a mixing medium to amplify the metallic effect—sold out in just six minutes. Since then, McGrath has launched sellout product after sellout product, her followers whipped into a frenzy with each new drop, from her gleaming Skin Fetish highlighter sticks to her Mothership eye shadow palettes filled with pigments so vivid you could cry looking at them.
“My creative process starts backstage and on set, where I do so much of my creating and experimenting,” she tells me. “My focus is to satisfy the needs of artists and the makeup-obsessed and create products that are otherwise unavailable.” Harnessing the power of social media as effortlessly as a member of Gen Z (and taking into account the fact that everyone from Kim Kardashian West to Naomi Campbell is a client and devotee), McGrath has built a makeup empire valued at $1 billion and growing.
But at the end of the day, Pat McGrath is an artist. Her creations—because they are indeed creations, not just pretty looks to be double-tapped and forgotten—reflect someone who sees the world and its people in Technicolor: swathed in mesh, dipped in feathers, or dripping in molten metal. So, what does it look like when you invite McGrath to creative-direct a fall beauty feature? To quote the legend herself, “divinely decadent and major.” “Not only is fall the prelude to the holidays, it also ushers in a distinct sense of drama,” she says. “It is the perfect time to be more experimental with your look. I feel that the darker and cooler days inspire people to go beyond their daily makeup routine, opting for deeper lip shades and statement-making eyes.”
In our first-ever beauty shoot with McGrath, she debuts three intergalactic makeup looks that transport us to another world—and inspire a strong urge to reach for the shadows and lipstick shades we’ve previously tucked out of sight, too afraid to use. “My philosophy, ‘use without caution,’ is about taking risks, experimenting, and having a fearless attitude toward makeup,” she explains. “And while there is nothing wrong with playing it safe with a classic look, constantly looking the same can start to feel a bit monotonous—and where is the fun in that?”
Mother, the enabler. Who would have thought?