A normally quiet stretch of the Upper East Side was gridlocked with black SUVs and paparazzi on Monday afternoon, thanks to the influx of celebrities, models and world-famous designers setting up camp in the area's hotels to primp for the nearby Met Gala. While we generally watch most of the pre-red carpet prep play out from a safe distance — aka on Instagram and Snapchat — we were invited to witness the magic firsthand this time around. After braving the crowds and more than a few layers of security, we wound up inside the Estée Lauder suite at the Surrey Hotel, where three of the brand's faces — Kendall Jenner, Joan Smalls and Liu Wen — were in the midst of hair and makeup.
Despite the mayhem outside, the vibe in the suite was surprisingly laid-back, with the models noshing on plates of grilled cheese, burgers and French fries (yes, really) and a soundtrack of throwback jams, like "Nice and Slow" by Usher, playing through the multiple rooms. Perhaps this was due to the fact that they were given the chance to collaborate with the artists on their beauty looks — something that can't be said of their usual runway or editorial gigs. "When you come to this kind of event, it's more about your personality — how you feel in front of the cameras and people," said Wen, who opted for sleek, long extensions and a subtle hint of color on her lips to go along with her laser-cut leather Iris Van Herpen dress.
"You think about technology and it's always changing and evolving, so I wanted my dress to be multidimensional and change color," explained Smalls, who collaborated with Balmain's Olivier Rousteing on a custom, crystal-studded gown. "It's iridescent... something new and very visual." For her beauty look, she wanted the hair to be slicked back and edgy, while the makeup played off the dress. "Since it doesn't have a specific color, I did silver-grey on the lid and a hint of green on the bottom." Smalls has attended plenty of Met Galas over the years, but her most notable red carpet risk falls into the beauty realm — specifically, the purple lip she chose for the 2014 event. "I just felt the dress needed something — we came up with a concoction at Estée for it, and then it started getting picked up in so many different places," she recalled. "It was one of those things where you either love it or you hate it, but it turned out perfect."
Jenner, who worked with Donatella Versace on a laser-cut velvet gown accented with blue Swarovski crystals, seemed the most keen on making a dramatic beauty statement at the Met Gala, as she arrived at the hotel wearing a bleach-blonde wig cut into a pixie. "When Linda Evangelista dyed her hair and cut it all off, that was my inspiration — I've always died for that," she said. At the last minute, she and her team decided that a sleek ponytail was the best way to complement the overall look, keeping the makeup relatively natural as well.
This year marked Jenner's third Met Gala, and she appreciates the opportunity to "play around" with her looks each time, as well as the chance it provides her to get in some quality time with her industry pals. "It's super fun — being able to get ready and then go meet up with all of your friends and run around in gowns is great," she said. Smalls echoed her sentiment, adding, "[I'm] never in the same room at the same time with everyone. I love when we're not working, and at the Met we get to enjoy the evening and celebrate. It's a lot of energy."
Speaking of energy, the ladies had very different plans for how they would close out the evening: While Jenner was jetting to Cuba on Tuesday morning for the Chanel resort show, Smalls had a rare day off, meaning she could hit the after parties without counting the minutes (or drinks) until she needed to head home. So, it's fitting that her post-Met Gala ritual is short and sweet: "Take Advil!"
See all of the Estée Lauder beauty looks from the Met Gala below.