More than just a pretty face: Backstage with MAC’s UK director of make-up artistry

As MAC’s UK director of make-up artistry, Terry Barber creates show-stopping catwalk looks. Rebecca Gonsalves goes backstage to meet him

It is the first day of London Fashion Week and surprisingly warm for the middle of February.

A shaft of sunlight streams through the window of Michael van der Ham’s east London studio illuminating huge rolls of fabric propped against walls papered with the images that inspired the designer’s autumn/winter collection. The majority of that collection, which will be shown on the catwalk in just three days, hangs in regimented order on rails around the room, while more samples are still being worked on in the adjoining room.

In the midst of this a model sits at a dressing table, having her blonde hair teased and tweaked by stylist Luke Hersheson. Her make-up has  already been done by Terry Barber, MAC’s UK director of make-up artistry, leaving her with a glossy complexion on which heavy glossy black lines, broken and slightly smudged, stand out. Van der Ham stands to one side, observing the process known as a “test”. He must be happy enough with the finished look to approve its  replication on the models that will walk in  his show.

For the make-up look that he describes as “a fairground take on eyeliner, something tough that walks the fine line between looking chic and trashy”, Barber was inspired by the head sculptures of Modigliani and photographer Deborah Turberville’s Bath House series from the Seventies. “A lot of people are going to be into eyes,” says Barber, sharing his predictions for the beauty looks that will be shown for the autumn/winter 13 season. “But it has to be different. The shape has to be beautiful – it’s not grunge, it’s important to retain that beauty. She can’t look ugly.”

The next time I meet Barber, there is just an hour before Van der Ham’s show is scheduled to start. The backstage area of the catwalk space at Somerset House is the very definition of organised chaos as a multitude of black-clad make-up artists work to recreate the look that Barber has devised. As the lead make-up artist for the show, Barber briefs his staff backstage not only on  the technical application, but shares his  inspiration and references, explaining the mood behind the look and how it relates to the  all-important clothes.

In one corner, Barber is putting the finishing touches to a model’s face using the colours in a prediction palette that contains the shades and textures that MAC thinks will be the focus of the next season. As we chat surrounded by stylists working on hair, make-up and nails, the collection is being steamed and straightened and hung on rails by the dressers who will later ensure that models can manage the quick changes necessary for a show that lasts mere minutes. Every so often an artist brings their models up for Barber’s approval.

As models begin to get into their outfits, I hastily rush to my seat and wait for the show to begin. Instantly the colour palette of black, midnight, green and blue reminds me of the shades in Barber’s prediction palette, while the couture details and shapes of  the clothes mirror the customised effect of the eyeliner.

As the official beauty sponsor of London Fashion Week, it is a busy five days for the MAC team, which will create more than 40 make-up looks in that time, as well as more for the New York, Milan and Paris fashion weeks.

Weeks later, the work of the MAC artists across the four cities have been analysed and boiled down into trends by Barber and his staff to be presented to the beauty press. Barber explains that this season, rather than focusing on a bold lip or a strong eye, the broad theme is customisation: “When I work as a make-up artist I spend a lot of time breaking it down, making it tailored. There’s a difference between perfect and perfection: perfection is the stage it reaches when it fits her, not just perfect application.”

“On a catwalk you’re telling a story of the  designer’s woman,” says Barber after the presentation. “I think it’s important to realise you bring a story to the table for them. What we ended up with isn’t what Michael asked for originally. He had an idea and I had to bring it to life but with the structure of his woman. A runway show is a piece of theatre. Models are very young: they’re often teenagers, not women, so I have to create the woman.”

Raised in Wales, Barber experimented with cosmetics from a young age: “My sister was a big influence because I used to steal most of her make-up to put on myself. She used to get these Estée Lauder sets for Christmas – most of those went on my face. I started doing make-up on myself in the early-80s. I guess it was post-punk, new romanticism.

“I’ve always liked that element of detachment; something which separates you from society. I was absolutely separate from society, and I  wanted to be. I was quite an escapist when I was younger, always watching old movies. I remember Marilyn [Monroe] in Niagara, looking at the screen and thinking ‘how can anything be that beautiful?’ A lot of my youth was sitting in a  living room, drawing the curtains and just  watching old films.”

Barber joined MAC in 1992 working on the brand’s counter in London department store Harvey Nichols, where he learnt “how to talk to a woman and find out who she was; I learnt to collaborate with women. I had been to make-up school but I didn’t really learn a lot other than how to hold a brush and how to put the colour on in certain places.”

He has come a long way since those early days of experimentation with his sister’s Christmas presents, having worked with designers such as Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Gucci and for magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, i-D and Dazed & Confused.

“I think the great designers are the ones that have no fear in challenging ugliness,” says Barber. “Miuccia Prada has had that philosophy for years; she’s never been afraid of the clumpy, the clumsy and she always goes to ugliness to create a new form of beauty. I think it’s where women are at the moment; they don’t want to have a  contrived prettiness.” 

As well as fashion clients, Barber has been the cosmetic-wielding confidant to a host of stars including Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. “I used to work with Liza Minnelli,” he tells me. “We’d have to paint on  Liza Minnelli – she’d be Liza underneath but you’d have to paint it on. I’d paint on Grace  Jones. Even though she is that person, it’s a heightened version.”

While trends may change, Barber remains  obsessed with technique, explaining: “You have to be able to do perfect before you can take it apart.” The overall look and the message it  conveys are important to him too. “Women are reclaiming a lot of their identity,” he says, getting angry about the shallow portrayal of women on reality TV shows.

“It’s very modern that there is a bit of gender play. Overt feminisation is considered very cheesy – it’s for girl bands and reality TV shows. It’s not for your average woman who is intelligent and wants to express that.”

While Barber has made a career out of creating beautiful cosmetic looks, to him the most important aspect is the person underneath: “When I first started, every face was a canvas and I was indulging myself. Now I think about how she wants to look emotionally, how she wants to express herself. Otherwise it’s just a drawing on someone’s face.”

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