“When Pat McGrath touches your face…” is invariably the default lead-in for anyone recounting their experience of being blessed by the makeup maestro’s talented hands, which have been the literal driving force behind the success of high street beauty brands, countless runway shows, brand-defining advertising campaigns, and indelibly iconic images for leading global publications for nearly 30 years. Affectionately known as “Mother” to friends and fans, McGrath’s embrace of bold and fantastical beauty has been her magic.
Each fashion week, McGrath is responsible for creating the beauty looks for up to 40 shows across New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Swarovski crystal-encrusted eyes, bejeweled lips, chunky face jewels, opaque gold lips, and fluttery feathered eyelashes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the memorable and statement-making looks she’s created. McGrath’s artistry of iconoclastic vibrant hues and avant-garde material experimentation is signature of the legendary looks, trendsetting techniques, and statement-making styles that she’s birthed into the beauty and fashion ether.
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The self-taught artist’s Jamaican-born mother, Jean, is largely credited for her childhood fascination with makeup and natural penchant for experimenting. As McGrath recounted in one interview, “She was obsessed with beauty, and collected makeup and experimented with it. When I was a child, the world of makeup was so different. There wasn't the wide range of shades available for darker skin tones like there is now. So my earliest memories of makeup are rooted in experimentation—concocting new formulations, playing with different pigments to mix and match and blend and create something that matched my personal skin tone.” To say that women of color were underrepresented and under-served by the beauty industry during the '70s and '80s when McGrath was growing up is a gross understatement. As she would say, there was nothing available that didn’t look ashy or cause a white-cast effect. The matte “nude” looks that dominated the late '80s had insufficient pigments for darker skins.
And while there has been a recent movement in the industry to promote diversity and be more shade inclusive, McGrath has been very open in her opinions that there is still much room for improvement. In a conversation with a fashion editor, McGrath said, “It cannot be about only this season. Look at the world! Even if you’re talking on a greed level only, why would you not want to appeal to the whole planet? The more diverse the runway, the more diversity in advertising, the more people are going to feel included and want to shop. It’s so basic. You have to be stupid to not get that.”
The desire to ensure every color and every skin tone would be properly served was paramount in the visionary’s creation of her now four-year old billion-dollar beauty brand Pat McGrath Labs, which shook the beauty industry at launch. Her experience of coming up in an industry with little representation to relate to or products that worked for her skin tone shaped her guiding principle to create makeup that not only connects with women and men of all shapes, sizes, and genders, but to create makeup that empowers the individual. McGrath’s focus is squarely set on making a difference by establishing a new standard of beauty. “From the beginning of my career, I have always championed extended shade ranges and inclusive casting. From day one of Labs, our McGrath Muses have been everyone from Charli XCX and Paloma Elsesser to Naomi Campbell and Duckie Thot and beyond,” McGrath said. “In addition, every single shade and product is universally flattering and tested—rigorously—on women [and men] of all complexions. I want everyone to feel and look as beautiful as they want to be.”
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and Mother started her industry-smashing cosmetic venture with the need to replace her favorite gold paint which was soon-to-be discontinued. “My intention in creating [Gold 001] was to thank my makeup-obsessed followers with the most divine gold pigment ever formulated," she said. Advertised only through McGrath’s social media accounts, the limited, numerically released production sold out in just six minutes. And this adoption and incorporation of social media into Pat McGrath Labs is also what also makes the brand truly revolutionary and innovative: By harnessing the power of social media into the very fabric of how her brand appeals to, connects, and communicates with makeup obsessives and online beauty geeks of all stripes, colors, and genders—especially the ones who esteem beauty as high art—allows Pat McGrath Labs to truly be the first inclusive cosmetics brand that’s all about giving women and men the freedom to be feel liberated in and with their beauty.
Iconic supermodel Beverly Johnson once said, “When I started modeling, there were no black makeup artists. It was a challenge to look our best with makeup artists who didn’t really understand our skin color, photographers who had never photographed black models and film that didn’t register darker colors. At the end of the day, we were just trying to get people to really see us. All you want to do is to be seen for who you are. Pat McGrath allows us to be seen.” McGrath’s success not only raises the profile of the black community, but all people of color in the fashion and beauty industry whose contributions have largely gone unnoticed or uncelebrated. As Johnson says, “It’s something we just haven’t seen before.”