Upstairs at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild in Paris, I watch a group of black-clad makeup artists listen intently while Alex Box goes through a model demo for Gareth Pugh’s fall/winter 2013 show. Box looks like a typical M.A.C artist, which is completely atypical. She is wearing bright-red lipstick, oversized black glasses and has a thick stripe of snowy blond weaving through her dark hair. Putting down the dish scrubber she is using to smudge the model’s “sooty” makeup, Box explains her inspiration. “She’s a regal woman, gathering up her underskirts and fleeing,” she says. “There is a fire in the chateau. She’s smouldering from the inside, consumed by smoke.” Before the models hit the runway, they’ll be given candy that makes their mouths turn black.
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There’s always a sense of occasion and theatricality behind M.A.C’s makeup messages. This Paris season showcased ethereal “see-through” skin at Rick Owens, a “futuristic maharaja” at Kenzo and a “girl shooting down to earth” with a silvery-white stripe on her cheek at Issey Miyake. There are no limits to creativity.
A day later, while I hastily scribble notes on the punk perfection backstage at Haider Ackermann, I’m struck by the scale of runway domination that M.A.C has achieved. The Toronto-born brand is responsible for making up models at more than half of the Paris Fashion Week shows—57 out of 102. Throw New York, London and Milan into the mix and it’s setting trends for 217 designers. Globally, M.A.C works a staggering 850 shows at fashion weeks from Copenhagen to Tokyo.
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These days, it’s hard to imagine not being able to get a luxe matte lipstick, a richly pigmented eyeshadow or a high-performance foundation in a shade darker than alabaster. But when Frank Toskan and Frank Angelo launched the forward-thinking cosmetics brand back in 1984, they ushered in an entirely new era of makeup with outrageously cool packaging, groundbreaking products and, above all, inclusiveness. “All ages, all races, all sexes” was their modus operandi. Whatever colour of the rainbow your skin came in, they had products that worked. Their first celebrity spokesperson was the six-foot-seven African-American drag queen RuPaul. Gay Canadian icon k.d. lang soon followed. M.A.C changed the industry.
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“It was the right thing to do,” says Gordon Espinet, senior vice president of makeup artistry at M.A.C. “It’s not something to think of as good business; it’s just good etiquette.” En route to the Vivienne Westwood show, I’ve met with Espinet for a quick lunch in a smoky Parisian café. He’s been with the brand over two decades and worked on their first backstage show, with fashion house Matsuda, in New York back in 1995. “Not everyone thought like Canada, a land of immigrants,” says Espinet with his trademark Trinidadian lilt. “We represent people who are individuals. M.A.C thinks the way the world should think. As Canadians, we brought the message to the world: ‘Make sure you represent all skin tones.’”
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M.A.C’s obsessive following is universal. Espinet says that even high-ranking celebs aren’t exempt from the madness. “I often have products clearly marked ‘lab sample.’ They dig through my bag and those are the things they pull out and want to keep. I tell them ‘It’s a lab sample. And it’s used!’ But they say they want the one no one else has.”
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The M.A.C AIDS Fund has raised $270 million, largely through the sales of Viva Glam Lipstick and Lipglass. Celebrity spokespeople include Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Elton John, k.d. lang and Shirley Manson. “We pull music into our brand,” says James Gager, senior vice president and group creative director for M.A.C. “We stand for ‘Makeup Art Cosmetics,’ so we are always interested in supporting the arts in whatever way that is, whether it’s a painter, a fashion designer, an interior designer or a makeup artist.” 100 percent of the sales of Viva Glam products goes to the M.A.C AIDS Fund.
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