Thanks to Lady Gaga, La Roux and Lily Allen playing with experimental warpaint is catching on

The great irony of make-up, as any woman will tell you, is the sheer amount of the stuff that goes into creating the so-called "natural" look. Not to mention the time, energy and skill. Those sweetly flushed, just-back-from-the-country cheeks? The result of pains-taking blending and contouring. That dewy skin, radiating health and vitality? A magic formula of expertly layered primer, illuminator and foundation.

So the direction in which beauty has been heading recently might come as something of a relief to many women. For the first time in a long time, artifice is no longer something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, the vibrant colours, hyperreal textures and abstract shapes of this bold new look, which is appearing everywhere from MTV to ' the changing rooms at Topshop and nightclubs around the world, are a defiant, joyful rebuff to Mother Nature.

Extreme make-up is, of course, a perennial feature of catwalk fashion. For every designer who sends their models out as fresh-faced ingénues, another will opt for futuristic contouring and graphic shades. John Galliano's shows are as famous for their signature Geisha-girl- meets-Marie-Antoinette hair and make-up as for his extravagant designs.

Yet, while all but the most impractical clothing on the runway filters down to street level in some form or another, avant-garde beauty trends tend to be diluted even further, or simply ignored. In recent years, if a bright lip colour found its way from high fashion to the high street, for example, you could usually bet that it would be de rigueur to wear it on an otherwise bare face. Other, bolder looks, such as the black lips which dominated models' faces at Yves Saint Laurent's autumn 2008 show, have failed to capture the mainstream imagination. The onyx Lancôme Phia lip gloss in question proved a cult hit, with a reportedly endless waiting list, but beyond the mouths of die-hard fashion-lovers, it was nowhere to be seen in the real world.

Only a year later, however, the mood in the beauty halls is markedly different and suddenly the idea of a black lipstick doesn't seem half so unlikely. No brand represents this new feeling better than Illamasqua, whose strong, edgy aesthetic based on a seemingly infinite palette of highly pigmented, high-impact products, has found an ever-more receptive public since its launch just under a year ago.

Founded by advertising guru Julian Kynaston under the creative direction of make-up artist Alex Box, Illamasqua was conceived as a celebration of sub-cultures, drawing inspiration from a rich mix of the 1920s Berlin club scene and contemporary film, theatre and music. This autumn's Dystopia collection, for example (see image, page 27), is inspired by the nightmarish futuristic vision of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Oddly enough, the brand – the only British contender in the luxury make-up marketplace – was never really conceived with mainstream commercial success in mind: "When Julian approached me two-and-a-half years ago, everything felt very tepid," explains Box. "We were prepared to do something that was beautiful but also quite shocking, so people would at least react strongly to our imagery and products, whether they loved us or hated us."

But, as looks which not long ago would have been considered outlandish have edged into the consciousness of ordinary women, Illamasqua has seen its appeal broaden to the extent that within just 10 months it has become the second-best performing brand in Selfridges' vast London beauty department, beaten only by long-established global favourite MAC.

A visit to its counter – where Illamasqua is dubbed "make-up for your alter ego" – is less about being told which colours suit you or how to disguise thin lips, than a probing consultation about how best to express yourself. It's a radically different approach that Kynaston says was designed to "champion individuality", and the products lend themselves to a correspondingly diverse range of functions and looks.

The brand currently keeps 110 shades of eye shadow on counter (whittled down from a planned 250) – far more than the average brand's 45, and Box has endeavoured to avoid labelling her products – as much as trading standards will allow – in order to challenge users' expectations and encourage them to be more playful with their application. Customers are clearly delighted to pick up the gauntlet – so great is the demand for its versatile Solstice gold paint pot – which can be used on everything from eyelids to lips to cheeks to hands – that the brand struggles to keep it in stock, and it has been known to go for several times its retail price on eBay.

Box believes the experimental vibe that is transforming our attitudes to make-up can be wholly attributed to one person: "There was a tipping point and it was Amy Winehouse," she says emphatically. "A while ago she was absolutely the zeitgeist with her east London rockabilly look and I noticed the influence immediately. Chanel did a take on it at one of its shows, Italian Vogue did a take on it. Everybody took something from her look.

"Suddenly girls everywhere were going bigger with their eyes, their hair, their lips. But not in a Jordan way – it wasn't just sexy glamour, it had an edge and people were putting their own personality into it. In a short space of time, that has become so normal. For me, it was a massive turning point in people's personal make-up."

Box cites electro starlets La Roux, Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Beth Ditto as current figures influencing beauty: "They might use a little bit of gold on their hands or around the hairline, or just draw a green stripe across their face. It's about using make-up emotively rather than following traditional beauty rules, or even fashion, and that's been a big encouragement for other women to do their own thing."

Annalise Quest, head of beauty at Harrods, which ordinarily attracts women seeking a more traditional look, has seen a similar trend emerge among the store's customers: "We've definitely seen a demand for edgier looks and colours in particular," she says. "Very wild, vibrant shades at brands like MAC and Rock & Republic – fuchsia pinks, on cheeks as well as eyes, and chrome yellow – which our customers are using for daytime looks as well as evening. It's about one very bold colour across the lid and dramatic, dark eyeliner flicks."

Like Box, Quest thinks that music stars such as Winehouse and more recently Lady Gaga have been the most significant disseminators of this approach: "I think this is something that came originally from the catwalk, then into popular culture and then down to our clients."

Nor does Quest see it as a blink-and-you've-missed-it fad: "In the same way we have seen fragrance 'wardrobing', the same will happen now with colour. It's no longer just about having one look all the time, it is about changing your make-up not only from day to day, but from morning to afternoon to night. When you have several big, bold elements, that's when you see people build their look throughout the day."

While for some women a fluorescent nail varnish or a pair of false eyelashes might be as crazy as it gets, Box sees something particularly interesting happening, where women are prepared to push the boundaries a little further and use make-up in ways that diverge from its traditional function of enhancing areas of the face that define sexual attractiveness: "Experimentation with make-up is actually a very difficult area for women because they grow up thinking it is all about looking prettier. Where does doing something interesting and different tip over into ugliness?

"Because of that, in the past it has actually been men who have been more creative with their looks – someone like REM's Michael Stipe, for example – because it is easier for them to do it. That's why it is so great to see women breaking the old beauty rules. I hope it is a sign of greater diversity in our images of beauty in general."

For an industry often criticised for its narrow prescriptions of beauty, the future sounds almost as bright as the shades some of us are sporting on our faces this autumn. At last, no more pretending that we were born with our Bobbi Brown bronzer on, or worrying that a mascara smudge will let slip that our endless lashes come from a YSL bottle. Although, if you reckon you can convince people that you inherited a glittery blue stripe across your forehead from your mother's side of the family, we'd certainly like to see you try.

How to get the look

1 Silver Screen Liner and Mascara by Jemma Kidd, £11, www.asos.com

2 Primal blush in "Rhythm" by Shu Uemura, £18, www.shuuemura.com

3 Pigment in "Bright Fuchsia", MAC, £15, www.maccosmetics.co.uk

4 False eyelashes by Shu Uemura, £30, website as above

5 Nail enamel in "Jade" by Chanel, £19, www.chanel.co. uk. Exclusive to Selfridges and Chanel from 8 October

6 Nail enamel in "25 carat gold", £5, Models Own, www.asos.com

7 Longwear Metallic Cream Shadows, Bobbi Brown, £16, www.bobbibrown.co.uk. On counter from October

8 Technakohl pencil in "Vivid Green", MAC, £12.50, website as above

9 Lipstick in "Avenge", Illamasqua, £14, www.illamasqua.com

10 Pure pigment powder in "Static", Illamasqua, £15, website as above

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