“No Rules, Absolute Freedom, No Fear”: Pat McGrath on Her Most Memorable Met Gala Makeup Moments

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I was obsessed with punk growing up in Northampton, England. All of a sudden, kids were turning up in the streets with huge peacock mohawks, in the full regalia. My mother would say, “Don’t look at them!” But as a child, all I wanted to do was look. It was all I could see. It was everywhere. I wouldn’t have been able to get a facial piercing past my mother, but I did play with eyeliner in my bedroom. Punk was really all about “do-it-yourself beauty,” and “anti-beauty,” which really inspired everything about my career—that freedom of expression guided what I started doing in editorials and on the runway.

So when I got the creative brief for the 2013 Met gala—” Punk: Chaos to Couture”—it was a dream come true to mix those two things together. No rules, absolute freedom, no fear. And that first Monday in May really was chaos to couture! We did everything across the street from the Met. I think we were in an embassy on the corner of 79th and 5th, in a huge beautiful ballroom. We had done a lot of tests—30 or 40 different looks—and then we narrowed it down for over 50 models, which was so much fun, but so much work. Some were the same-ish concept—black eyeliner, a dark lip— but we really tried to make everyone individual, whether it was a lip color change or an eyeliner change. We played with glitter and crystals, we had fake safety pins and studs. I’ve got such an archive on punk and I have a lot of vintage books—Punk, by Julie Davis; Punk’s Dead, by Simon Barker—so I was looking at a lot of the women that inspired me from that era (Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Catwoman), mixed with some of my couture inspirations: precise eye shapes and decadent embellishments, matched with sublime, perfect skin. What was really great about that day, though, was that we were literally just using black eyeliner and black pencils, and some cotton buds. It was, in a way, really basic, but I liked that. The lip colors were a mix of shades that would become the go-to reds from my line—Elson, Deep Void, Antidote—those real punk colors.

In a way, working on the Met gala served as a precursor to what Pat McGrath Labs would become, the idea of finally being able to share all of my secrets. The crystal lips we did for that exhibition I’d been doing with John Galliano at Dior since the ’90s; and the lip mixes; and showcasing what you can do with a simple tool—a pencil that we’d get a little smudgy and seal with a liquid liner; or using those little pointed cotton buds that I used to buy when I was a kid in Japan, 30 years ago, to shape the line. I previewed my Metalmorphosis 005—a high-shine chrome eye shadow—at the 2016 Met gala, but the concept was based on one of my first ever covers for French Glamour with Amber Valletta. I did nude skin with liquid silver eyelids. And that was 1992!

Fast-forward almost 25 years and I found myself working on the “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” gala. The makeup had to be really out of this world. So we looked at Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, and Metropolis—all of those incredible sci-fi robot films. My team worked for six weeks straight on 18 different customized looks for our android army. The sleek lacquered masks were taken from the spring 2015 McQueen show I had done the season before. We made them chrome over weeks and weeks, spray-painting them silver to create the look’s pièce de résistance. We had to heat the material to make it bendable and then we put an adhesive on the inside. At the final casting at my office, we fitted the masks based on face shape. The custom lashes we added day-of were a mix of tinsel and custom-painted feathers. I have about 100 rolling suitcases of lashes alone! But these we ordered from London. They were hand-cut and then hand-placed for a romantic and futuristic effect.

Today, I’m missing all of it—the organized, fantastic chaos. My team would be in thick of it right now, and in a few hours, I’d be getting ready in my evening look for a reunion with everyone I’ve worked with over the last 30 years. But instead, tonight I’ll probably be scrolling Vogue.com and trying to put together my own look for the #MetGalaChallenge. If only I could find one of those silver masks!

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