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.
Be it a proper memoir, a greatest hits compilation or a portfolio-turned-coffee-table-book, chronicling someone's most notable achievements, neatly bound in physical form, is generally reserved for those who have left a resounding impact on not just their field, but on the world. And in the case of experimental, rebellious, rule-breaking make-up artist Val Garland, nothing could be more true.
Though her first foray into the beauty world came during her teens as a hairdresser in her hometown of Bristol, England, Garland found her way to makeup later on — or, rather, makeup found its way to Garland. She has spent the last 30 years of her career dreaming up looks that are truly hypnotizing, occasionally confusing and almost always just a little bit out of our comfort zone. (Think alien-like prosthetics for Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" album cover, or that one time at a Vivienne Westwood show when Garland covered models faces in clear gloss and had them shove their faces into a box of glitter.)
This week marks the release of "Validated by Val Garland," a weighty (and display-worthy) book, spanning more than three decades' worth of campaigns, catwalks, magazine covers and glossy backstage snaps, accompanied by witty and intimate anecdotes from Garland and her fellow collaborators.
It should be made clear, though, that Garland — who recently took on the role of makeup director of L'Oréal and contributing beauty editor of British Vogue — isn't even close to slowing down. Despite her busy schedule, Garland jumped on the phone with Fashionista just two hours after landing in Milan for fashion week. "I'd been straight from a shoot to a motorbike to the airport, and I think we worked 16 days straight," she says. "I'm still excited."
Below, Garland opens up about wanting to be different, showing up to a then-unknown Alexander McQueen's doorstep with Katy England, and why sometimes it's good to just get makeup all over your face.
When did beauty really start to become something personal to you? What got you interested?
My mother was fashionable, she always had the clothes and the latest looks while I was growing up. It would have been in the '60s; she'd gotten into the eyeliner and lipstick, and then my oldest sister started wearing makeup when she was about nine because she had really bad skin. I would watch her doing her makeup and then I actually talked her into doing the same looks on me, but I didn't like it because her makeup was very '70s and that cut crease — although I thought it as beautiful, I quite liked the other way. I just wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be different, so I just sort of threw color at my face. My mother would say, 'You look so ugly,' and I would say, 'Yeah, but it's different.'
You started your beauty career in hair and worked in a salon. How did you transition into makeup full-time?
I didn't plan to be a hairdresser, I just fell into it. I also felt like, I'll be a hairdresser while I work at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture was always going to be travel. Doing hair I actually found that I wasn't bad at it, I was actually quite good at it. We'd do photographs for the salon, and because I always did my own makeup anyway — I always wore lots and lots of makeup — I thought, I'll do the makeup.
What made you leave hair behind all together?
It was my salon in Sydney that lots of photographers would come to. The fashion editors, the modeling agencies, they would send all the models to my salon, so I kind of knew all those people in that world and they all used to get me to come along and do test shoots and do the hair, and they would talk to me like, 'You wear so much makeup, you should really do the makeup.' I thought, I'm not interested in makeup, I like doing hair. Then I basically got bullied into it, really. One day the makeup artist didn't turn up. So off I went. That series of photographs made it into a magazine called Dolly in Australia at the time, and it just all kind of fell into place. Before I knew it I wasn't doing hair anymore, I'm suddenly doing makeup.
How did the time and place — London in the '90s — shape your early career in makeup?
I think it was pivotal in shaping my career, because it was just one of those things where you don't realize. I mean, this is going to sound heavy, but you don't realize you're sort of the part of history in the making, you're just going on with your mates doing the thing that you love doing. It was the early '90s. I'd started working with some young photographers and I'd often get jobs with Eugene [Souleiman] doing hair and me doing makeup, we'd be working for The Face. We'd be working with Karl Plewka, he was a young sort of stylist there at the time. I remember there was one job where we worked with this young editor/stylist, Katy England. At the end of the shoot I did her makeup because she was going to a party, and we became friends and we're still working together.
What's one of your favorite memories of that time, with those people?
I remember Katy saying to me, 'There's this young designer that's asking to do his show, will you do it with me?' And I said yes, of course. So off we go to Hoxton Square [London] and knock on the door, the door opens, and there's this young guy called Lee — Alexander McQueen. So, it just all sort of happened. It was one of those magical moments when there appeared to be this bubbling, sort of like cauldron of British talent that was just exploding on the scene.
Early on in "Validated", you mention that when working with Nick Knight, he said 'I want to see the idea, but I don't want to see the makeup.' How did that change, or impact, your work moving forward into the rest of your career?
I think part of what is and was great, what is great about Nick Knight and what was great about Alexander McQueen, was that they make you question why you're doing something. It's quite nice to think about what we're creating, who's the character, who's the model, how is it going to be photographed, what's the lighting, what do we want to feel. Sort of like it's not textbook, moving out of your comfort zone, and that's why going to work every day with the likes of people like the late, great Lee and Nick Knight and John Galliano and a whole host of incredible people make you excited, which makes you more enthusiastic, makes you want to go somewhere perhaps you hadn't been before, turn it upside down. It makes it exciting. I like change, I like excitement.
Your work has such incredible range. There's the dark and romantic images, there's a lot of really raw work, and then there's graphic and sharp looks as well. How did you develop all those different aesthetics while still remaining true to who you are as an artist?
I don't really know, actually. I think I put it down to the fact that, why can't we do everything? Why do we have to be pigeon holed? I'd like to think you can have it all. I think that's what's great about the millennials today; you've got to believe that you can do it and, you know, I don't think anybody should be pigeon holed into one type of artist. I think we've all got many moments and songs within our range, so why not let it out, you know?
What inspires you creatively when you feel drained? Aside from collaborators, is there something that you do or read or look to when you're feeling that way?
If I've got a job coming up and I need to have an idea, then I do do a lot of research. And sometimes if I find myself in a situation where let's say I'm doing a very creative story or photo shoot and we're six shots in and I'm like, 'Need an idea. Need an idea, but it's got to be a good one.' Sometimes I'll just open up a bag, and we have a table of stuff. It means nothing, but might mean everything. It's just a table to draw inspiration from. You know, that could be vegetation, flowers, jewelry. It could be bits of fabrics, it could be plastic, it could be a mood board. I think you've got to have an open mind. You know, if it doesn't work we just wash it off. And sometimes you just throw the kitchen sink at it. It's an ever changing world for makeup artists, but I think that's what makes it exciting and that's what keeps me energized and going after, you know, almost 30 years being in the business.
Thirty years is a long time, but you've managed to keep growing in different roles. Can you speak a bit about being named the L'Oréal makeup director?
It was a great moment to get the L'Oréal contract, that's come at the right time for me because I'm an older woman and L'Oréal are all about empowering women of all ages and sizes. Having had almost 30 years' experience in the beauty industry, I've got something to offer them, and I liked working with them because we get to work on what I think women want and need, in general public, not just on the catwalk.
I can sort of say to the guys at the lab at L'Oréal, 'Look, this is what we're feeling. This is what's trending now on the catwalk, how can we introduce this into the world of every woman?' That's been exciting. I've enjoyed that. Getting to work with the lovely Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore and a whole host of others to boot, it's been amazing.
And as for Vogue?
It's wonderful to be made a contributing editor at British Vogue. They're my family, these are people I work with and have worked with for many years. I have a long relationship with Edward Enninful from when he was at W. He and I have worked together a lot with various photographers from Nick [Knight] to Tim Walker to Steven Klein and a whole host beyond.
People say a lot that, especially with Instagram and YouTube and influencers, a lot of beauty kind of looks the same now. Are there any young makeup artists coming up now that you see rebelling that type of conformity?
Isamaya [Ffrench] has kind of changed it upside down, inside out, and I admire that. I think that's great. I think any makeup artist or any person who shakes and rocks the boat and takes us outside of our comfort zone of normality is exceptional. When I see all this Insta-makeup, it's very nice but it's very normal. They all look the same. The cut brow, the cut crease, the winged eyeliner. After a while it actually just becomes ordinary. So I like it when I see all these young hair and makeup people going mad for it because that's what we did. It's good to perhaps get makeup all over the face. Because why not?
Speaking of beauty right now, what's one trend that you love and one that you can't stand?
I love bold color, I love makeup on purpose. I love makeup that's got a punch of blue, I like to see some strong, bold color on the eye or the lip. I don't like it when it's too done, I don't like that whole sort of let's do makeup by numbers with a sponge and then reapply it and then reapply it and then bake it. And then perhaps reapply it again, and then kind of get powdered highlight on high beam. That doesn't really appeal to me.
What is one beauty product that you think that everyone should go out and buy right now?
I think you need a long-wear foundation. I think what women want today is products that go on fast and stay put, hence why you have products like the Infallible Foundation from L'Oréal, it's a very long-wear product. Anything that's long-wear gives you more time to do the things that you want, that's the makeup that I want to buy.
What do you think will be your legacy?
I don't know, I mean, maybe it would be that, she listened, she's approachable. You know, because I'd like to think that I don't come across as a diva. I'm a makeup artist, I do hope to advise and help the next generation of artists to believe that they can do it because that's how I did it, hard work and sheer determination. Maybe that's Val's legacy: 'She listened to me. I don't know, what do you think?
I think that you pushed the boundaries and told people to not settle for what they're used to, I think you've done such an amazing job of telling people that you don't have to do what you've seen before, which I think is great.
Yeah, you know, don't close face. Don't close face, go out there and slay. Sounds like a cliché, but you're worth it. It's true, you know? It doesn't matter if somebody doesn't like it, they may change. Put your stamp on it.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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