Fashion month, at least the spring 2016 version, is officially over. The reviews have been written, the runway fashion trends have been identified, the models have been accounted for. But what about runway beauty?
I've been covering runway beauty from the vantage point of backstage for four years now — not an eternity, granted, but long enough for me to have some deep thoughts. Each season, I spend over a week during New York Fashion Week running from venue to venue, only to stand around waiting with a pack of other editors for makeup artists and hair stylists to come over and give us a rundown on the beauty. It gives a girl some time to look around and form opinions.
Over the past few seasons, there have been more and more discontented rumblings among the online editors who are my peers. The common gripe: "None of our readers care about runway beauty." By and large, this is also true in my experience, at least if the sheer numbers of people who read runway beauty stories compared to fashion stories during New York Fashion Week are any indication. (The exception: beauty stories that reference Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid.) If I sound cynical, it's because I am.
Fashion Week, at least in New York, has become overrun with beauty companies who sponsor shows and even control access to covering them backstage, making the whole experience feel like a series of commercials. As each professional — lead hairstylist, lead makeup artist, manicurist — gives his or her presentation about the look and the inspiration, representatives from the various beauty companies that sponsor shows are there to make sure the artists mention the exact product names used. Lately skin care companies and hot tool companies have been getting in on the action as well. (From what I understand, this isn't the case internationally, where far fewer shows are sponsored. I used to cover a few shows backstage in London, and there definitely wasn't the frenzy that there is in NYC.)
Frequently, lead artists don't remember exactly what products they used and have to look to the rep to fill them in. (Hairstylist Guido, who has been working with Redken for a long time and always knows the products right away, is an exception.) As a beauty editor, this tells me that the artist is using the brand because that's what's been put in front of him, not because he has any passion for a particular, say, eyeliner.
I can't even tell you how many times I've talked to makeup artists one-on-one and they've showed me a favorite product that they used on all the models, but asked me not to mention it because it was from a brand not sponsoring the show. It just seems so disingenuous. Don't you want to know what was really used to "get the look" — if you're into such things — on the runway? I want to know what products makeup artists and hairstylists, whom I respect immensely, actually use. One of the most popular backstage beauty stories I've ever written was about the Y.S. Park diffuser, which I saw hairstylists everywhere using backstage in February, but which was never once mentioned in a single plug the whole week.
Another problem is that brands often showcase products that — much like the clothes on the runway — won't be available for six months. While this is fine for long-lead publications, voracious online beauty hounds want to know how to get that buzzy lipstick now. Trust me, they're going to forget that amazing lip by the time the actual product hits the market.
The thing is, though, I'm not sure many women do care about getting the look on the runway, at least when it comes to beauty. First and foremost, fashion shows are about the clothes. The beauty look exists to help tell the story and project the mood and inspiration of the designer. From that perspective, the beauty absolutely needs to be on-point. When it isn't, it either distracts from the clothes (hey, look at all that glitter covering the girls!) or the overall vibe.
Alexander Wang's perennially not-made-up cool girls give you an immediate sense of whom he designs for. Ditto Zac Posen's always elegant ladies. The beauty should help sell the clothes, not necessarily be separate from them. And sometimes the beauty look is just so fantastical that, while it looks great on the runway, it wouldn't really work in the office. Or anywhere, for that matter. More and more frequently, editors who ask a makeup artist or hairstylist how a woman at home can translate a specific beauty look for real life will get a mildly exasperated, "They can't." Sometimes a runway beauty look exists for that moment only.
There can also be a disconnect. Runway beauty has historically not been that attainable or aspirational for so-called "regular" women, and not only because of things like bleached brows and bouffant wigs. Think about it: The vast majority of runway models are 19 to 24, very thin and overwhelmingly white. Many models haven't achieved household name recognition status either, so readers just don't care about them as much. Celebrities like Emma Stone, whose consistently kick-ass and relatable beauty looks on the red carpet get people to click on "get the look" stories religiously, or Rihanna, who can sell out an unknown brand's lipstick just by wearing it on Instagram, are far more influential. There's a reason that celebs replaced models in beauty advertising: they can sell products. Even beauty vloggers are more influential than the runway these days. That contoured, mega-lashed, full lip look that's everywhere on YouTube sure didn't originate on the runway. You can thank the Kardashians for that.
I do think runway beauty is heading into more attainable territory, though. Two seasons ago I reported that "normal, real hair" was a trend on several runways, and this season that concept has really exploded. Indeed, hairstylist Paul Hanlon told The Cut, "I think designers are over the clone-y thing of making everyone look the same. Commercially, it's more appealing to a wider audience, looking at a variety of women. They can see themselves somewhere on the runway." The rise of no makeup-makeup over the past few years is likely also directly inspired by how real woman actually want to look most of the time. In both of these cases, it's real women inspiring the runway — not the opposite.
This isn't to say that runway beauty isn't sometimes influential to the greater beauty culture outside of capital-F Fashion. The messy side braid that Guido created for Alexander Wang for the spring 2010 collection is one such example of a beauty trend resonating with the masses. Valentino's consistently romantic runway hairstyles also get a lot of love on Pinterest. Nail art, like the negative space and geometric trend we're seeing now, is one area where the runway also inspires the masses, since nail brands have started partnering with edgy manicurists like Miss Pop and Madeline Poole. Then there are those moments of true artistry, like Pat McGrath's elaborate bedazzled faces, the actual no-makeup moment at Marc Jacobs a few seasons ago and Hood by Air's extreme contouring statement this season. When the beauty look is extreme or a reflection of what's happening in society, it's powerful and has pull.
I also want to make it clear that it is a privilege to get to watch the pros work backstage, to talk to models and to be behind the scenes at fashion week. I love to see the looks, especially the ones that are so over the top that they will never make it to the streets. I respect the originality and vision of all the beauty professionals. There are also many looks along the way that do indeed inspire me and make me want to know exactly how they were accomplished (like this one). But we're all a product of the same system that exists to sell stuff, and I think women have advertising fatigue and recognize when they're being BSed. They are looking for genuine moments. We need to celebrate more of those and stop itemizing the products.