There’s definitely something in the water in the United Kingdom. How else can you explain its beauty dominance?
The British beauty invasion.
amid the din of blow-dryers backstage at any Fashion Week, you’re likely to hear a recurring British lilt in the chatter. That’s because most of the big-ticket shows have a flatiron- or kabuki-brush-wielding Brit dictating the beauty direction. Londoner Charlotte Tilbury (never without her signature smudged smoky eye and teased-to-perfection fiery- red mane) runs the makeup show at Donna Karan, Matthew Williamson and Tom Ford. Dorset-born Guido Palau—a man who has never met a plaid shirt he didn’t like—is in charge of hair at Marc Jacobs, Lanvin, Prada, Versace and Céline. And the grande dame of them all, Northampton-born Pat McGrath, who leads more beauty looks than there are lipsticks, creates makeup magic for designers such as Gucci, Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana. You can also count Paul Hanlon ( Birmingham), Dick Page (Gosport), Eugene Souleiman (London), Sam McKnight (Ayrshire), Anthony Turner (the Midlands), Diane Kendal (Wokingham) and Val Garland (Bristol) in the talent pool responsible for the beauty trends making their way to the masses.
England has long been a hotbed of creativity and innovation on both the popculture and fashion fronts. Trailblazers like Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant made beauty and grooming part of the British vernacular in the 1960s—arguably the most revolutionary and game-changing era in fashion. The Beatles’ mop tops and Twiggy’s falsies were as influential on the global fashion stage as Queen Elizabeth I’s power shoulders.
Unlike Italy and France, who have a rich platform of art, music, dance and, yes, the added bonus of mood-boosting sunshine to draw from, post-Industrial Revolution England has largely been poor and depressingly Dickensian. What, then, birthed such a prolific hub?
“I think it’s interesting because England is an island nation and has lost the colonies, so it’s basically [barren],” says Dick Page, artistic director for Shiseido, who leads makeup at shows like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez. If necessity is the mother of invention, does this mean that boredom is the father of art? “When your h
native land is generally pretty prosperous, nothing happens, but when things turn to shit—that’s when great literature, art and music come out,” he opines.
The prevalence of Brits in beauty gained momentum in the 1980s, when legendary makeup artist Mary Greenwell first gave us the no-makeup-makeup look. Bolstering this proliferation was the new breed of photogenic royals (like Princess Diana), who made dazzling best-dressed subjects as well as savoury tabloid fodder. “In the early ’80s, there was an interesting intersection of fashion and society in London,” says author Bronwyn Cosgrave, who is also co-curator of the recent exhibit Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style. “Barbara Daly did Princess Diana’s weddingday makeup, which may seem uncool, but it’s really where it all began. Princess Diana was a glamour icon that the British royalty had never seen before; she was the most frequently photographed mannequin-like princess since Grace Kelly.” Cosgrave adds that there was a flourishing of aristocrats and royals at this time that coincided with a flourishing of fashion designers like John Galliano and influential magazine editors like Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and Lucinda Chambers. “They were all seeking out and collaborating with specific makeup artists and hairstylists.”
Soon, artists and photographers started to gather into teams, like a high-concept fashion Survivor series. “There is a very nurturing support system that inspires creativity in Britain,” says Tim Blanks, fashion journalist and former host of the CBC’s Fashion File. “There have always been opportunities for adventurous editorial, and loyalty has played a unique role. You will notice that people work in teams.” See: Guido Palau, creative consultant for Redken, who frequently pairs up with Pat McGrath or Diane Kendal, or British photographer Nick Knight, whose preferred duo is Sam McKnight (hair) and Val Garland (makeup).
As for why the fashion-and-beauty community has embraced the Brits globally, perhaps it comes down to that too-cool-tocare attitude so often seen on the streets of London. Parisian style is effortless, Milan is directional and New York is quite polished, but London likes to push the envelope.
Consider the beauty habits of a London woman: Compared to her continental counterparts, she seemingly couldn’t give a toss about her beauty routine. The Sienna Millers, Keira Knightleys and Cara Delevingnes of the world do not get a blowout to walk the dog; for these women, going down to the pub is not akin to walking the red carpet. There’s an art to not looking artful at all. “The key point here is the understated look,” says Fiona Minors, director of the Fashion Image program at London College of Fashion. “It takes some time and experience to know how undone hair should look and where to add the product. The artists understand this fluidity and keep up their visual knowledge by looking around them on a daily basis.” In other words, the British woman owes her blasé mien not to a global subculture but to her h
innate culture—that is, her very Britishness, which stresses detachment above all else.
“British women enjoy rebelling against aesthetic,” says Palau, the creator of the choppy matte-black wigs worn by models at Marc Jacobs’ spring/summer 2015 show. “In the ’40s and ’50s, they were rebelling against the island mentality [which was prim, proper and superior] and looked slightly nonchalant. That feeling of being unkempt was not typical for women, but British girls always rebelled against that.”
There’s definitely something to this nosethumbing attitude, whether it’s directed at the monarchy or simply a desolate landscape. It’s what defines—and inspires—the British beauty approach and aesthetic. “We break fashion rules,” says Tilbury. “New York is classic and Milan is glamorous, but London is unpredictable and a real melting pot that translates into beauty.”
England certainly is known for its rebellious streak, from the English Reformation to the Spice Girls, so it’s not hard to conceive that today’s British beauty talents derive their strength from deliberately subverting one of the most commonly held tenets of style: the trend. “Brits are not afraid to experiment,” says Sophie Beresiner, beauty director at ELLE U.K. “I’m almost tempted to say that we don’t believe in beauty trends per se, more in a mood or creating the feel of a woman to aspire to. It’s not prescriptive.”
It is, in fact, the opposite—although the aesthetic has narrowed somewhat from the clown faces that paraded down the Alexander McQueen fall/winter 2001 catwalk. “The overly dramatic, scary ‘What is that?’ feeling is gone from the runway in London,” says Cosgrave. “They’re out of their rebellious phase, and they’ve grown up. But there’s still that stroke of something electrifying.”