In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
A scroll through celebrity makeup artist Vincent Oquendo's Instagram feed is pretty much a collage of who we think of as the top Instagirls, a.k.a., his clients, you know, Bella Hadid, Kaia Gerber, Lily Collins, Paris Jackson, Aja Naomi King, Ashley Graham, Karlie Kloss and Victoria's Secret models Sara Sampaio, Stella Maxwell, Jasmine Tookes and Elsa Hosk.
And when you take a closer look, yes, the models and actresses look stunning primped in Oquendo's signature Old Hollywood-inspired beauty aesthetic, but they're really just chilling and having fun with him during event prep. Perhaps that's why his client list is growing almost exponentially and he jet sets all over the world on a regular basis for red carpet gigs, as well as prestigious editorials in magazines like Elle, Harper's Bazaar and W and collaborations with brands like Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney.
Oquendo's diligent work and genuine connection with his clients goes deeper than his ability to find the right lipstick for them. "For me it was never just makeup," he says. "Because when a woman takes off her makeup, I want her to feel confident in her skin as well." He prides himself on making sure his clients start from the foundation up, helping them with their skin-care routines, from vitamin regimens to hi-tech tools, like facial exfoliator Dermaflash, for which he serves as a brand ambassador.
The New York-based artist trained from the ground up, too — I love the story, which he'll tell you below — first teaching himself, moving on to "America's Next Top Model" and then scoring the holy grail of assistantships with the legendary Pat McGrath, whom he worked with for five years.
But the incredibly friendly (and funny) makeup artist tells his own story best. Thankfully he had some time to spare before jetting off to the Couture shows (to ready clients Collins, Kloss and Emily Ratajkowski for their front row and assorted glamorous photo opps) to chat about essentially faking it 'til he made it in his early days, the secret to becoming an in-demand artist to the Instagirls and putting Paris Jackson to work while in his makeup chair. Read on for the highlights.
How did you train to become a makeup artist?
I actually started at a makeup counter probably about 15 years ago. It's funny because I was at Hunter College, and I heard this rumor that if you worked at Saks Fifth Avenue — and you sprayed the perfume — you made $18 an hour. And to me, this little queen from Queens, that was beyond. 'What? I could do what and for how much?' That was like a dream come true for a broke college student.
Actually, I did not get the job. As I was leaving, sort of defeated, I was walking by the sunglasses department, and they gave me a job. It was right next to cosmetics, so I became mesmerized by it. I worked in sunglasses for about six months and resigned. I wanted to work in cosmetics, and then it became more than the money. It was just so glamorous. It was hypnotizing. But I didn't know how to do makeup.
I charmed myself into that position at that makeup counter. I remember my first couple clients; I would sort of charm my way through half of it and I would say, 'oh, show me how you like your blush' or 'show me how you like your eye shadow.' They would show me on one side, and I would replicate it on the other. So essentially, they were teaching me how to do makeup.
I would go home and I would read my Kevyn Aucoin [books], Making Faces and Face Forward and then eventually I bought the Bobbi Brown book. I would teach myself every day. I would do makeup on myself. I was living in the college dorm, so I would do makeup on anybody who would sit down to let me practice on them. I started building my kit. There was no excuse. There was no stopping me.
How did you become Pat McGrath's assistant?
I worked so hard to make myself ready to work with Pat. I tested. I got to know the people on her team. I built my portfolio up. You work towards it — to get noticed to then get on the team. Reflecting back, the artist I was, as opposed to the artist I am [now], I often question myself and I thought, 'what the heck did she see in me?' And now I know because I look for it in other people. It's the drive. It's the desire. The hunger. You have the passion. You have to really love what you do because it's really hard to break through. When you finally do, then it's gratifying but, like, I went through some hard times.
My career is like a circle. I've had my ups; I've had my downs. I've gone back up. I've come back down and if I didn't love it, I don't know if I would have stayed with it. She saw that drive in me, and then she trained my hand, and that took about five years. Well, a little less than five years, but you sort of pay the respect. As soon as you've got it, you don't just peace out. You gotta pay it forward. 'Okay, well, you gave this to me, I'm gonna stay a few extra years and let you enjoy having me as an assistant.' That's the respect and it's important to do that. It's hard to train an assistant.
In this business, as a freelancer, you're as good as your last client, so you have to put your A-game forward, always. Even me, I put so many years of work into it, but if I start showing up to work and the work isn't there, if I'm not loving it anymore or my work dips, then I'm going to suffer a flux in my clients. You're never off the chopping block, if that makes sense. As a young artist, I had always had this idea of what it would be like to be where I am now. My idea was, 'Oh my God, all my doors would fly open and I would have an agent and they would get me a lot of work and I wouldn't have to …' No. You're never not working. You're always representative of your brand — especially now with social media. You have to always be mindful of your brand and what you're putting out there.
Speaking of social media, you also work with some of the biggest Instagirls, like Bella Hadid — how did those client relationships come about?
There's no real fast answer to that. It all goes hand-in-hand with building your brand, and if you are a young artist — and you're trying to build your brand — there's something to be said for just showing up every day and being nice to everyone on set. If there's a new model on set, be nice to her. I have long, longstanding relationships with so many of these girls that are so big now. I've known them since their first couple of shoots. I remember doing — she's not one of my regulars — but I remember doing Kate Upton when she first signed with Elite. I did a test with her, and I was just really nice with her. She always is like, ‘oh hey, Vincent.' She remembers.
Same thing with Bella. I did the Jeremy Scott Jalouse cover with Bella, and then she was was just Gigi's little sister. Her hair wasn't as dark, and she was the much younger Bella. I was just really nice, and we connected, and we stayed in touch. Then a couple months later, we reconnected, and then she had more going on. She just liked having me around. She liked my makeup, as well, but she liked having me around.
That's really part of your brand as well: being nice, showing up, being prepared, being a good energy for these girls to be around. Because celebrities in general now — especially with social media — they need to always have good energy around them because they're always on. Before social media, girls would have time and they didn't always have a camera on them. Now they always have a camera on them, so you want to always have good vibes around you.
You also cross-post with your clients: for instance, that shot of Bella with her pants at the ankles went viral. Followers can see and feel the fun that you're both having. How do those moments come about?
That's the thing, it's so organic. We were at an event that night for Dior, and she's like 'oh Vincey, I want you to post it.' And so then I was like, 'Okay, if you're sure... ' and then I did. It's all those really super organic moments, and it's not really planned and stiff.
And, with any of my clients, now I've taken on Lily Collins, and it's very exciting, and they feel my excitement for creating looks because for me, it's not just black and white. It's not just makeup. It's not like, 'Oh, this dress, so do a red lip.' It's like, 'Who is this woman?' I think of it as this character: Is she a young Sophia Loren? Is she like a young Audrey Hepburn? Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' or is Audrey Hepburn from 'How to Steal a Millionaire?' Who is she? What would she do? How would she put on the eyeliner? Is she giving me a young Joan Jett? If she was tough, she would take the greasy eyeliner and stripe it on and just smudge it with her finger. So I do that. I stripe it on and I smudge it with my finger. You have to have an imagination. And then you have to make sure it fits the girl and fits the face.
You have this distinct Old Hollywood-influenced aesthetic. How did you develop that technique, and how do translate it onto your different clients, while still maintaining their unique looks?
One hundred percent inspiration, all around me. I'm going to be taking a flight to [the Couture shows in Paris] tomorrow, so I'm going to download a lot of Old Hollywood films, like Ginger Rogers, Veronica Lake, just these amazing, iconic Hollywood stars. And one thing about the golden era of film is that these women, a lot of the times they would do their own makeup and they would create signature styles, for instance, eyebrows. Eyebrows were their signature, and so you see a Bette Davis and how she would draw her brows, versus like a Lana Turner. There are just very distinct signatures to it.
That still goes on today. Like when I first started working with Paris Jackson. She would do her [own] brows, and she has a very unique way. It brought me all the way back to watching those films, because the way she likes her arch, and the brows really set the tone for the whole face.
So when I create a look for a client and I take the client on, I try to be available as much as possible because I really try to streamline the look, and there are certain signatures I try to do per face. And that is a wink and nod to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Instagram/makeupvincent