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What It's Really Like to Be a Makeup Artist at Fashion Week

A closer look at what goes on backstage.
A model backstage at Reem Acra's spring 2017 show. Photo: Imaxtree

A model backstage at Reem Acra's spring 2017 show. Photo: Imaxtree

As the stainless steel elevator doors slide open onto the Reem Acra office Sunday night, I imagine this must be what it's like to land on a new planet. Models rove by in towering, black-jeaned clusters (they can only be six or seven inches tall than me, I tell myself, but I feel like a sandpiper lost among a flock of egrets) and fold their spindly limbs into the seemingly toddler-sized chairs that line the packed hallway. I slip through the glass door, past a man shouting questions about sizing down the hall (in case you were wondering, all models apparently wear size nine shoes) and wander my way back to a room packed with clothing racks and rolling suitcases, one large table and mirror tucked against the wall where every imaginable makeup product is packed neatly into clear cosmetic bags.

In front of the mirror sits another svelte, young ingenue (she's 18, I find out, and feel my ancient body begin to wither on the spot) with her hair pinned into dozens of miniature buns, dainty hand held out as a manicurist tests a slew of slipper-pink polishes against her skin tone, occasionally stopping to compare a shade to the soft berry tone blended onto her lips. Carole Colombani, Maybelline's lead makeup artist for the show, and her assistant Andrew Sotomayor, hover around, darting in to add a touch of concealer here or brush-blend there. Tonight is the makeup test, the first major step in creating the beauty look for the Reem Acra runway show.

Colombani backstage at the Reem Acra makeup test. Photo: Lauren Hubbard 

Colombani backstage at the Reem Acra makeup test. Photo: Lauren Hubbard 

The process starts when Colombani meets with the designer to talk about inspirations, the overall feel of the collection and what that will mean for the makeup, in this case a sort of exaggerated natural flush that harkens back to Renaissance art. "It depends on the designer," says Colombani. "Sometimes they want you to feel the emotions they were feeling in the collection, and sometimes they want you to start with a blank page without any preconceived ideas." She spends the next couple of hours trading off with the hair styling team — "Are you done? You didn't do a lash?" a stylist asks at one point as a quietly heated debate breaks out — and waiting for the designer to check over the proposed look and give her notes.

For some shows, it takes two or three tries to hit the right vibe, but tonight things are running smoothly, leaving Colombani time to get her materials in order. "I like to re-do my kit on every job," she explains. "A day or two before each job, I check my kit to see if I need more products — it's always a bit more. Even when people are telling you 'oh I want nothing, nothing on the skin,' then you go to the fitting and the stylist says, 'well what about a black lip?' and then you forget your favorite black lipstick at home… So I like to have some of everything, just in case." It's a lesson she's learned from experience. "My second show ever was in New York. I was a baby. They were like, 'no worries we've got a sponsor,' and I was like 'what's a sponsor?' I only brought my brushes because I was thinking the sponsor was going to give me a kit, and at the makeup test I arrived and I was like 'where is everything?' There was a guy there and he was so nice. He was like, 'here's my kit; take what you need. For next time, it's nice if you bring your kit and we'll just provide you with the extra products you need.' It was funny."

The backstage setup. Photo: Lauren Hubbard

The backstage setup. Photo: Lauren Hubbard

The start of show day is more relaxed for Colombani — at least this time around. She's in New York for two shows this season, of which Reem Acra is the second, before flying back home to Paris for five more runways. She's staying in a hotel this time around, though Colombani confesses that she prefers Airbnb ("I can shop for my stuff and make my coffee like that and be very American, not like a tourist," she says). She spends some free time shopping before she has to head to the venue three hours ahead of show time.

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A model backstage at Reem Acra's spring 2017 show. Photo: Imaxtree

A model backstage at Reem Acra's spring 2017 show. Photo: Imaxtree

The backstage area for the show, a cavernous studio space on 10th avenue, is bustling; hairstylists and makeup artists in all black move with the frenetic precision of army ants against the stark, alpine-white room, models are ferried back and forth from one station to the next as photographers jockey for space. I trip over a box light like the chic, graceful creature I am, but Colombani has this on lock, artists and models parting like the Red Sea before her. "My team is a minimum of 10 people. It's not just makeup skills; it's also the human part. You cannot have a whole team of divas, but you can't have a whole team of super-shy people either."

The final look. Photo: Imaxtree

The final look. Photo: Imaxtree

Colombani kicks things off by taking one of the models aside and performing a demonstration for her team from start to finish, explaining the steps and the products as well as the story behind the look to help them wrap their heads around the show's aesthetic. Each artist then takes on a model to start replicating the look, trading off with the hair team as needed. Once the makeup is done, each model gets a final check by Colombani to make sure everything is right. "If I need a touchup, maybe I can do it myself, or we can do it together. I like to show [my team members] why I don't like something, because he's going to do another girl later, and it's better to show him instead of just saying 'okay, well, I'm going to finish it myself.'"

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With anywhere from 18 to 40 models to get through for a given show (Acra's has a fairly conservative 22) it's a time-consuming process, but Colombani seems satisfied once the models begin flouncing toward the runway. With one more fashion week almost under her belt (and another right around the corner) she's keeping her priorities simple. "I'm leaving tomorrow night, but I want to do a big dinner tonight in Brooklyn. It's going to be relaxing," she tells me wistfully, checking the shades on a set of lipsticks. "I can finally have a drink!"

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