If you ask Pat McGrath to walk you through her makeup kit, be prepared to clear your week. You will need to travel to the east side of Manhattan, to a loft building a few blocks from Union Square. There you will step onto the designated floor and into what looks like baggage claim in the middle of a snowstorm and an airline strike…. during spring break. You'll see a veritable phalanx of black suitcases, each standing vertically to about hip-height in rows five deep. Every one of the 60+ cases has a single luggage tag: "eye shadow #1," "lips #2," "everyday kit" (there are several of these), plus "glitter," "sequins," "feathers," and my personal favorites: "basic glitter," "basic sequins," "basic feathers."
"[We used to travel] with 80-something bags," says McGrath, who made her mark on beauty crafting makeup looks for close to 100 runway shows every year since the 1990s. "You never knew what you needed. If you're bringing something new, something new is not gonna happen with a tiny, little makeup kit. We were building 3D moving parts on people's faces. But now we're traveling light." How light? "We might be down to 60 bags? 50?" One easy edit: the 20 suitcases labeled "book bag." McGrath used to travel with them all — books about Chinese opera and the cultural history of cabaret, about the drag community in 1970s Australia and the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in World War II, about Beaton and Lartigue, about Hitchcock and Buñuel. But now, well, there's the internet.
I'm not going to say Pat McGrath thinks outside of the box in her makeup artistry — and not just because my editor has a zero-tolerance policy for clichés. I'm just pretty sure she doesn't even see the box. In the fashion and beauty worlds, Pat is mononymous. And those three letters equal incredible, prolific, fantastic, mind-bending creativity. She has coaxed lashes from feathers and manipulated gold-dipped threads into eyeliner. She once covered models' faces in masks made of tulle and 1,500 Swarovski crystals (each one took days to complete).
When I ask Pat if she's ever going to run out of ideas, she pauses. She cocks her head for a second; she doesn't seem to understand the question. Then, "No." I persist, wondering out loud if she ever feels that creativity is finite. "I don't ever feel that way," she says. Okay, then, that's that. This is not to say that Pat doesn't feel pressure. "There was a time, years ago, I would be afraid that… Was I going to do something as beautiful as I'd done before? The couture shows were in February and I would start feeling butterflies in my stomach in November." Then in 2004 she framed eyes in snakeskin and chain mail, and in 2011 she created sequin-and-crystal galaxies from lids to temples, and in 2014 she figured out how to use powdered pigment and real latex paint to make eyelids look like glass.
Makeup had always been a bit player in a runway production — the supporting act to the real stars: the clothes. Then Pat arrived, and they had to share the spotlight. "Pat's idea of beauty was incredibly adventurous and, I know this sounds weird... it wasn't really rooted in nature," says Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post, who has covered the collections since 1995. "It wasn't this idea of heightening what was naturally there. It was about creating something wholly out of her imagination." And that was revolutionary when the rest of the world was taking a very friendly, "flaw"-minimizing approach to makeup. "I always got the impression that she wasn't aiming for quote-unquote 'beautiful,'" says Givhan. "She was often aiming for, maybe it was otherworldly, or maybe it was jarring, or maybe it was almost distressing. I felt like she was aiming to elicit a fuller, richer range of emotions than what had been the norm with beauty."
Before achieving one-name status in her career, there was a time when young Pat McGrath would arrive for a job (she started out working mostly in the music industry) to find that the team was expecting an Irish man. What they were getting was a Black woman from working-class Northampton, the daughter of Jean McGrath, a single mother and devout Jehovah's Witness, who emigrated from Jamaica to England. Jean was, in Pat's words, "consumed" by fashion and beauty. "Literally hundreds of Fridays spent dragging me to pattern stores to choose the Vogue patterns, followed by the fabric shop to choose the materials, and then finally the makeup store to choose the products to pull the whole story together, our story that week," recalled Pat when she accepted the CFDA's Founder's Award in 2017. It was Jean who told her daughter: "Choose a job in the arts, dear. That way no one can ever tell you you're wrong."
As she got older, Pat's aesthetic sense was shaped, and electrified, by the London street-style scene: "That late-'70s punk thing that went into a New Wave moment that went into a goth moment," says hairstylist Guido Palau, who first met Pat back then and has worked with her hundreds of times since. But piercings and Mohawks were not Jean McGrath's brand of beauty. "We'd walk down the street and my mother would say, 'Don't look at them. This is wrong,'" Pat recalls with a laugh. "And then, of course, that makes you obsessed. That's all you want to look at." (Though, for the record, Jean's own look was not exactly quiet: "She shaved her hair and dyed it red, and watched Russ Meyer and Divine movies every night. But in her mind, she was very conservative.")
Then, as a teenager, Pat learned something that lit up her path. "I was waiting outside the national radio station, being a real groupie and screaming whatever, and this famous DJ came out. She says to me, 'I love your makeup. Could you do my makeup, love?' And I was like, Is that a job?" (I have never seen Pat McGrath with discernible makeup on her own face, so I had to ask for a breakdown of the look she was wearing that day. She went right into backstage-speak: "I used my lipstick as my blusher and my eye shadow, a three-in-one. It was a really beautiful magenta-purple — amazing, flawless, glowing. Very easy, very today.")
In the decades since, Pat has pushed that job she didn't know existed far beyond what anyone ever imagined it could be. There are the thousands of trend-driving runway looks, sure, but also hundreds of magazine covers and celebrity shoots and makeup lines for Giorgio Armani, Gucci, CoverGirl, and Max Factor. In 2014, Queen Elizabeth invited Pat to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE, Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to the fashion and beauty industry. And then, at the end of 2020, the Queen made Pat McGrath the first makeup artist ever to receive a damehood.
Dame Pat has created powerful, boundary-shattering imagery, but she's also the person behind so many merch-moving, money-making trends. Remember the 2012 resurgence of colored mascara? That was Pat. Ombré lips in 2013? Also Pat. Her signature bouncy, glowy, "baby skin" laid the groundwork for #strobing and the explosion of the highlighter category.
Then, in 2015, Pat turned the beauty world gold. She launched her own line, Pat McGrath Labs, with a kit (complete with tiny spatula) that let you create molten-gold pigment to put wherever you damn pleased. Why did she finally pull the trigger? She points to her DMs. "Everybody was on my case about it for a thousand years," she says. "'Where's your brand? Where's your brand?' Then [with Instagram], I couldn't avoid them. It was constant torment. Every morning I'd wake up and it was... 'Where’s your brand, Mother?'" Gold 001 sold out in 366 seconds.
Now's as good a time as any to talk about Pat's other name: Mother. She does not have biological children, but models, designers, social-media groupies — they all call her "Mother." During our interviews, Pat refers to herself in the third person, as Mother, more than once ("Mother was busy today"). "We've all called her Mother for so long, I can't even remember when that started," says designer Marc Jacobs. "To me, it's a ball thing [in drag culture, 'Mother' is a term of respect for a mentor]. It's also an endearing [thing]: In her chosen family, she's been anointed 'Mother.'" Pat thinks she earned the name in the '90s, working with hairstylist Eugene Souleiman and fashion stylist Edward Enninful, now editor in chief of British Vogue. "We were doing shoots for iD, The Face. I was the seasoned one in our gang, I'd already been in the industry for years," she says. "I'd look after them. There'd be no food and I'd be like, 'Well...' I'd take them to the supermarket, choose their food, then go on to the shoot."
I'll pause to note here that, despite what these quotes might lead you to believe, Pat does not want to talk about her past, her motivations, herself. She's avoided me for years. It's nothing personal. But I'm a journalist and it's my job to ask her questions and she'd really rather not, thank you. Backstage at fashion shows and on photo shoots she has patted my hand with "Soon, darling," and skittered away with "In a minute, darling" until there was simply no time left. In 2004, in the early days of my first tour of duty at Allure (this is #2), the big boss, Linda Wells, sent me to a set to interview Pat McGrath for a story we were doing about Pat McGrath. She was part of our annual "influencers" package. (This was long before that word had anything to do with "likes" or "engagement.") Pat soon-darlinged me all day and then finally there was a quiet moment. I asked her a question, then another. It was going well! And then, "My car's here, darling. Must go!" She literally ran away from me. "I'm just a behind-the-scenes person," she tells me at one point in our interview scheduling/hounding/pleading process for this story. It is during a creative call about the shoot on Zoom — so she can't run. "I love gossiping," she says, but not, apparently, interviews. I manage to turn that call into a 90-minute "conversation" and that conversation into an afternoon at her office and my perception of Pat into a very warm, very funny woman with a deep, true laugh.
Within three years of its launch, Mother's baby, Pat McGrath Labs, became a "unicorn" — valued at $1 billion. (But like flying, one-horned horses, a valuation is not reality; reality is when it becomes a cash transaction. This one came from Eurazeo Brands in 2018 when they invested $60 million in Pat McGrath Labs; at the time the brand's annual sales were reportedly expected to reach more than $60 million.) Pat McGrath Labs arrived two years before Fenty Beauty, and while it had inclusivity at its core — with imagery featuring models like Paloma Elsesser, Duckie Thot, and Jasmine Sanders —there was no overt discussion of race. Pat chose those models "not out of a diversity push but because their beauty is impeccable," she says. "I am an entrepreneur, but I am a Black woman first and that undoubtedly influences everything I create. I know what it is not to see yourself represented and not to have a seat at the table."
"In my career, I have chosen to embrace freedom over fear."
Pat has rarely leaned into conversations about race, though. She is arguably part of a duo of the most powerful Black women in fashion (her partner: Naomi Campbell, a very dear friend and recently named first-ever face of Pat McGrath Labs), but her success has never been qualified as "the world's most successful Black makeup artist."
"So often when women or people from marginalized groups achieve a level of fame or expertise in their chosen profession, they're the Black Martin Scorsese, or they're the female [Christian] Dior," says Givhan. "There's always this tendency to use the white, straight male as the standard against which everything else is measured. To [Pat's] credit, she is the standard."
And why should she have to talk about her race? "I don't think that she dodged the label or ran towards the label. She has just worked, just existed," says Givhan. "As a Black woman, she brings that part of herself to the role. I don't know that there are Black designers or makeup artists or hairstylists who set out and say, 'Oh, I'm going to be a Black makeup artist.' They set out to be a great makeup artist, and then along the way, things happen. There are absences or hurdles or other things that present themselves that cause them to draw upon their background, and their background becomes something of note. I think most people just want to do their jobs and do their jobs well, and have their skills celebrated."
Pat shares how her mother, on their weekly shopping expeditions, collected different shades of makeup to create the deep tones they needed. I ask Pat if that ever made her mother, a Black woman with such a deep passion for beauty, feel alienated from a world she loved so much. "I think my mother focused more on the beauty of her color and also on all of the amazing Black people who were beautiful representations in culture," she tells me. "She acknowledged the existence of racism but she didn't let that deprive her from having experiences she felt she deserved."
And her daughter has carried that into her own experience of beauty and life. "I think in my career I have chosen to embrace freedom over fear," Pat says. "I have felt free to make the creative decisions I wanted to make, to take risks." And, since the reckoning on race that began last summer, she's been thrilled by the warm spotlight that's fallen on Black-owned beauty brands, a spotlight that has given more Black entrepreneurs that sense of freedom. "It's amazing to see all the support that we've given to one another. I've been introduced to so many more amazing Black beauty brands in these last few months. This has been an incredible time."
Pat McGrath is a phenomenally skilled artist. Her medium happens to be makeup, but if there was no such thing as makeup, she would still have to create. So... what kind of artist would she be? She thinks, but not for long. "An opera singer." "So you can sing?" Silence. "She can sing," chimes in her chief of staff. (Yes, of course, Pat McGrath has a chief of staff.) "Only sometimes," Pat clarifies.
Opera singers must have flawless technique. They must have a deep understanding of history. They traffic in exaggeration, in passion, in emotion. Pat McGrath does all these things, with makeup.
But let's be clear: Pat also runs a vast operation with military-like precision. You don't get 80-something suitcases from New York to London to Milan to Paris, pulling out every piece of lace and pot of glitter you need along the way, without running a tight ship. And your brand doesn't get prime placement in Sephora and attract significant outside investment without some serious business savvy. I ask Pat and many people in her orbit where they think that acumen came from; none of them have a clue. But I do come away with a solid sense of how this powerhouse operates, so here is the Pat McGrath edition of How to Succeed in Business:
Keep things entertaining. Some of Pat's closest friends — Guido, Marc Jacobs, Naomi Campbell — agree: Pat is hysterical. "She's got a big personality. It's just joy working with her." (Campbell) "You can always count on Pat to bring laughter into any situation." (Jacobs) "She's so quick, she takes hold of the room." (Guido) Jacobs's Louis Vuitton fittings often devolved into karaoke — and Pat always joined in. One of their most memorable numbers: "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." "I knew all the lyrics and Pat was forgetting some of them," Jacobs recalls. "She had the mic and I was stage-whispering to her. We were in stitches by the end of it." All through my wild days, my mad existence... Campbell also remembers a time when Pat got hold of a mic, at a magazine shoot last year: "She started being a voguing emcee. Like she'd been doing it for a thousand years. It was incredible. Pat can sing, Pat can dance, Pat can emcee voguing balls."
Stay awake. "Once I get past midnight, I can stay up till 7 a.m.," Pat says. She swears that she forces herself to close her eyes sometimes, but not everyone is sure. "That woman does not sleep," says Alison Hahn, senior vice president of merchandising, color, at Sephora, who helped launch Pat McGrath Labs. "I've had meetings that started at midnight." And went until? "She stays up all night long on Zooms," says Campbell. "Pat is a worker bee, and I get it because I’m a Gemini too. She is driven."
Push yourself. "Even on the last job we did, she was not satisfied until, until... I don't know if she's ever satisfied," says Guido. "She always feels it could be more, better, different. Her tenacity for work is immense and she's her own worst critic. She's super-creative, but she doesn't sit back and just go, 'Well, I'm Pat McGrath.' She questions herself."
Push everyone else too. Hahn recalls Pat's vision for her Sephora debut: eight-foot towers in the stores, smothered in gold sequins, with little fans inside each pillar to make the sequins undulate into an almost liquid gold. "I was like, 'Pat, we can never do anything this tall, and it's so expensive, and it could take nine months,'" she says. But Pat would not bend and, well, if you visited a Sephora in fall 2017... the towers were, in Pat parlance, major.
Ignore deadlines. Look, these are Pat's rules, I'm just the messenger. (Allure's visuals director is still breathing into a paper bag after coordinating this shoot.) "Everything's done at the last minute. That's how she works," says Hahn. "[Sephora's] a big machine and sometimes we have to break the machine to get her product in. I don't want to tell you it's worth it because then she's not going to stop but... it's worth it."
Sweat every last detail. "She is such an active force in every component of what she's selling," says Jacobs. "There are people who have a name on a cosmetic line who probably have never experienced the formulas. They've never sat down and made a red bluer or more yellow, and hey, more power to them. But Pat is a makeup artist and this is her collection and her heart and soul is in every aspect of it." So is her idealism: Says Hahn, "I'm like, 'Pat, does everything really need to be perfect?''And she says, 'Yes, Alison, it does.'"
Never forget. Pat's mind is a camera roll. "f she sees a picture, she will remember everything about that picture," says Guido. "She can talk about not just that time in London but the '30s, the '20s, the 1800s, neoclassical Italian paintings, German Expressionist paintings, the Surrealist movement. She has a great library in her head." I ask Pat if she dreams about makeup, or ever wakes up to her next idea. “I see makeup and color and just incredible imagery all the time," she says. "Mostly when I'm awake. To me, imagery is as important as the air we breathe." There is one brilliant design that came to her in her sleep, though: "I'll never forget as a kid I dreamt about a bomber jacket that had a huge rucksack attached to it and ran downstairs to my mother and said, 'Where's my jacket? The new jacket?' She said, 'What jacket? Draw it out.'"And then she made it for you?" "No, she made me a lovely dress to go to church in."
Embrace the new. Social media stormed the beauty world over the past 10 years. Was it difficult to embrace this new way of working, I ask — maybe it was even a little threatening? Suddenly "influence" wasn't limited to a rarefied world of runways. Not in the least. "I loved it," Pat says, remembering when model Coco Rocha first got her started on Twitter. "She kept going on about it at work, and she set me up. But I said, 'Don't say anything, I'm just going to look.' She swore on everything, and then goes, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Pat McGrath on Twitter.'" But it was Instagram, born four years later, that was the real revelation for her. "Everybody said to me, 'They don't want to know about all of your work. They want to know about what coffee you drink, what your cat looks like.' I was like, 'Well, I'm not going to be doing that, am I?' If I'm going to play with Instagram, let me play with the imagery that I love, that you could never get printed. Everybody still kept saying, 'No, no, you must be personal. They want to know what your coffee looks like.' I'd be like, 'Nah, girl, I'm going to put Grace Jones up.'" So far, a few million followers are just fine with that.
Keep them guessing. From that first gilded offering, Pat has mastered the art of "the drop," a retail strategy long embraced by streetwear brands. A new product is available at a specific time, in limited quantities, with little notice, so you'd better pay attention—and set your alarm. Scarcity and exclusivity spiked with a healthy dash of FOMO have generated a frenzy for Pat McGrath Labs launches that was previously unheard of in the beauty space. Last year she collaborated on a crimson lipstick with Supreme and it sold out in eight seconds. The $38 tube is now selling on eBay for close to $200.
Find your people. Pat's gang, her chosen family, still includes Enninful, Palau, and Souleiman. In the early '90s, she met photographer Steven Meisel, with whom she's worked intimately ever since. She never apprenticed under another makeup artist, but considers these colleagues — and her mother — among her mentors. "I've learned so much from everyone I've worked with every day," she says. "People like Steven, who knows everything, who can do the makeup and can do the hair." In turn, she's taught, and of course learned from, her own team — currently at about 25; more than 15 members have been with her for more than 20 years. On my visit to the office/makeup bag hangar, I meet Mimi. "Mims" has been the master of Pat’s bags — with two people working under her — for 17 years. They regularly inventory and catalog everything, making sure to restock those particular Q-tips from Japan or the blue crystals that can glint both turquoise and navy. Acrylic cases have compartments for a dozen different glitters, each labeled by Mims's trusty Brother P-Touch. Those Home Edit makeovers are child's play compared to what Mims has masterminded.
Be grateful. "I feel blessed, and I find that inspiring," says Pat, one of the multiple times in our interviews that she expresses deep gratitude for her life. "How lucky I am, that my work is something that I'm obsessed with. And that I love."
And how lucky the world of beauty is to have Pat McGrath. Over the years, she may have slammed the door behind her when she saw me coming with my notepad, but she threw so many others wide-open — doors to joy and playfulness and invention and inclusion. You can talk about Pat’s art and her process until your lips turn blue (or gold or ruby-studded), but in the end, words cannot capture the mysteries of inspiration (at least the limits of my own cannot). Metaphors crumble. Adjectives fail. One aspect can be defined, though, because it comes down to numbers, sales, and dollars: Pat's art is big business.
Sittings editor: Rajni Jacques. Makeup: Pat McGrath. Hair: Jimmy Paul. Manicure: Jin Soon Choi. Production: PRODn.
This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.
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Originally Appeared on Allure