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?
The look: “Graphic winged liner that evokes the rebellious spirit of punk, juxtaposed with the precision of ’60s mod makeup, offset with a neutral lip.”
McGrath created this mesmerizing, galactic-looking wing using shades from her brand-new Mothership V: Bronze Seduction palette. “The palette is a curation of incendiary shades that I have used in countless shows and covers,” she explains. “It presents molten crimson, decadent rose gold, and mesmerizing bronzes designed to evoke sleek sensuality. It was important to me that the shades performed well across all skin tones and provided endless combinations for unlimited looks.”
1. Define the outer corner and socket with Xtreme Aubergine, a matte, inky purple from the Mothership V: Bronze Seduction, using an angled brush dampened with Mehron Mixing Liquid.
2. Extend the pigment outward into a dramatic wing, and connect it with the crease.
3. Pat the pigment Rose Gold 005 from Mothership V: Bronze Seduction onto the lid with a finger.
4. Define the lash line with an inky-black eyeliner.
5. Create two graphic lines on the lower lash line using the Xtreme Aubergine pigment on a dampened angled brush.
6. Highlight the inner corner of the eyes with the pigment VR Fire Opal.
7. Finish with mascara and false lashes.
Pat’s pro tip: “Use cotton buds and makeup remover to ensure precision.”
The look: “Sultry crimson lids, smoked out with aubergine and gilded with golden bronze, paired with a high-shine, neutral peach lip inspired by the debauchery of Studio 54.”
On set, McGrath pressed the pigments for this molten eye look directly onto the model’s lids—her preferred method of applying makeup and the technique for which she is most famous. “Applying products with my hands and fingertips is a mainstay in my work, and these pigments are no exception,” she says on set. “There is a time and place for brushes and the definition they provide, but the fingers offer exquisite control as I can literally work the product into the skin.”
She used her line’s Skin Fetish Highlighter in Nude to add the slightest hint of dew to the high points of the face. Her tip for looking ethereal without veering into lightbulb territory? “Apply the highlighter gradually, building the cream in sheer layers, followed by the balm to impart a wet, glistening effect,” she says. “Product placement is crucial. Make sure you are applying the product only to the top of the cheekbones, the bridge of the nose, and the Cupid’s bow. Then lightly sweep translucent powder to the forehead, chin, and the sides of the nose as needed.”
1. Swipe the ruby-red metallic Blitz Flame pigment from Mothership V: Bronze Seduction all over the lid using a flat shader brush lightly dampened with Mehron Mixing Liquid.
2. Lightly blend a matte cocoa-brown pigment through the upper crease and brow bone.
3. Define the outer corner with Xtreme Aubergine pigment, and apply it along the lower lash line.
4. Highlight the inner corner with a gilded bronze pigment on a small detail brush.
5. Apply mascara and false lashes.
6. Lightly pat Pat McGrath Labs MatteTrance Lipstick in Christy, a pale rosy nude, to the top and bottom lips with a finger.
7. Swipe Pat McGrath Labs Lust Gloss in Flesh Astral all over the lips.
8. Apply Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish Highlighter + Balm Duo in Nude to the high points of the face.
Pat’s pro tip: “Use a mixing medium to heighten the color and finish of the pigment.”
The look: “A matte red lip paired with a generous sweep of metallic crimson across the cheekbones that explores the impact of monochrome textures nuancing the New Romantics.”
In Pat McGrath’s world, a red lip is never boring, and rules are meant to be broken. Case in point: this crimson-injected look, where McGrath used the ruby shade Blitz Flame from her Mothership V: Bronze Seduction palette as a makeshift blush. “Explore different colors and textures,” she says to anyone hoping to get outside their makeup comfort zone. “Whether you choose a new lip color or a different eye shape, there is no limit to what you can do. Try focusing on one feature, and really perfect it. Sometimes the smallest change can do wonders.”
1. Apply the chocolate-brown pigment Disobedient from Mothership V: Bronze Seduction all over the lid, and diffuse the edges using a fluffy brush.
2. Define the upper and lower lash lines with Pat McGrath Labs PermaGel Ultra Glide Eye Pencil in Xtreme Black.
3. Highlight the inner corners using a gilded bronze pigment.
4. Curl the lashes and apply mascara.
5. Sweep the metallic ruby pigment Blitz Flame from Mothership V: Bronze Seduction across the tops of your cheekbones to the outer corners of your eyes.
6. Using a small lip brush, apply MatteTrance Lipstick in Elson 2 to the top and bottom lips.
Pat’s pro tip: “Use monochrome tones to balance the face, experimenting with varying finishes.”