Gordon Espinet believes makeup artists are born, not made - and that we could all do with a touch of their artistry in our lives. The 13th and final child born to a vibrant family in Trinidad started putting his theory into practice from an early age.
"I have a lot of sisters, nieces - and my mother, poor lady, God bless her - and I would always want to do their makeup."
Young Gordon became the family's arbiter of appearance in a poor household where his seamstress mother never scrimped on encouraging her brood to express themselves. They emigrated to Canada when he was 14 and in due course he found a second family at the then fledgling beauty brand M.A.C.
The company, which was set up in Toronto in 1984 and primarily designed products for professional use, has grown to be the dominant backstage beauty brand and a powerhouse of cosmetic colour, all the while retaining its edgy appeal. Its staff wear only black, diversity is encouraged and collaborations with fashion's powerbrokers are par for the course.
Espinet - now the senior vice-president of global artist training, development and makeup artistry - is one of a handful of people who remember the early days before global expansion and the buy-out in 1996 by Estee Lauder Companies.
Twenty-odd years ago it was he who organised M.A.C's first big breakthrough fashion event in New York.
When we catch up in the Soho loft that is now the company's headquarters, he chortles when recollecting the "luck of the Irish" effect that show had on the company's fortunes. In what is now common practice, a goodie bag was placed on the seats. This sampling exercise turned into a sensation, with the gift inside becoming a cult favourite. "It was a weird-looking kind of sea foam green colour that when you put it on went pink - brighter on some people, it was like a mood lipstick."
Fresh from Canada, the small team of makeup artists was already on a high over having heavy-hitter models including Carmen Dell'Orefice and Debbie Harry to work on. "It was just one of those uber-cool moments," remembers Espinet. "I admit to having a selfish moment and thinking we should do more of this 'cause I really like it."
Now he oversees teams responsible for the makeup at more than 800 international fashion week shows a year. Keeping it fun and fresh is the aim, but Espinet says there's another outcome, with beauty media these days a regular presence backstage. For a brand that doesn't advertise in the traditional sense, the fashion connection is a vital publicity generator. Hook-ups with the entertainment industry have a similar spin-off; these include M.A.C sponsoring the makeup for live shows and movies ranging from The Hobbit to The Great Gatsby.
These prized relationships took time to build, but by working with its own and external makeup artists, M.A.C has built a roster of the biggest names in the industry. The likes of Charlotte Tilbury, Terry Barber, Diane Kendall and Tom Pecheux "key" the makeup at major designer shows, backed by Espinet's crack troops and supplied product in an enduring "win-win" exchange.
Espinet, who is wont to refer to his 50-something self as a "dinosaur", still lends a hand backstage, but his primary focus is ensuring the next generation keeps the brand "ahead of the curve". He travels worldwide, ensuring the money M.A.C devotes to artist development, which he reckons is four times the industry norm, is well spent.
With its ability to offer senior artists regular work in the upper echelons of the fashion industry, there are no issues with recruitment and staff retention is high. "You could come from Rotorua and you could be working at Paris Fashion Week," he says. The now Sydney-based Amber D, who is a senior artist for the company's Oceania region, is an example of this - a young New Zealander who has graduated from working on counters in Auckland to joining the elite show circuit.
When asked what makes a good makeup artist, Espinet expounds the outsider theory; the dreamy child who drew faces and dared to dream of far-off places. "We were probably not so popular in high school - you know, we were a little out there, we weren't cheerleaders and football stars. We were the kids who probably hid in a corner and drew pictures."
It's part autobiographical, but with his engaging manner it's hard to imagine the tall and talkative Espinet ever being a true misfit. Rather he's a cultural sponge, eager to absorb whatever he can, whether sampling L&P and a meat pie in New Zealand because that's what his team members told him they did on their childhood holidays, or compulsively studying faces wherever he goes. "Sometimes I stare at people like a crazy person - and you know there are certain cultures where staring is frowned on."
He recounts a work dinner in Beijing, where his Chinese team told him he was like a kid in a candy store. "I stare because it's just uniquely your own . When I hear people say certain groups of people just all look the same, I just don't see it. I don't even see twins looking the same.
"I used to work with these two girls, Janice and Joan, and no one could tell them apart, and I used to go on about the fact I didn't even think they looked like twins. I got the fact that they looked like sisters, but they were so different."
Espinet says this fascination with faces is common to good makeup artists. They notice how light falls on the face, its contours and shape, the colour and shape of eyes, the type of eyelashes, even the shape of ears. Playing up this individuality is one of the benefits of makeup, he believes. "It's really first and foremost getting you to look in the mirror a whole lot more often and believe in yourself."
It's part artistry, part product and part psychology, and he reckons its transformative powers can work wonders on those who are unsure of themselves - not, mind, that he believes there are ugly ducklings. "I believe that it's truly possible that makeup can help people blossom into someone much more proud of what they see."
The dark side is when people hide behind makeup. He considers it sad that some people feel they should never leave the house without a full face of makeup or that they use it to disguise their true selves. "I'm not fond of people trying to change their skin colour - aka their DNA - with makeup, you know, the pumpkin tan or the white face."
He recounts helping Sudanese model Alex Wek find a foundation that for the first time didn't turn her dark skin a greyish shade, and seeing the tears of joy well up in her eyes. "To me the ultimate, ultimate confident person can one day walk out with zero on their face and then the next day walk out with more makeup than RuPaul would wear and be comfortable in both skins."
Espinet speaks often of the inclusive M.A.C family and clearly has favourite-uncle status among the staff, but behind the twinkle in his eye and the lilting West Indian accent, his is a commanding presence that has shaped a creative vision for decades. He has been asked by the powers that be to come up with a formula for how the brand can stay fashion forward, but says that other than keeping artists front of centre in the company's thinking and ensuring the products it develops are as user-friendly and advanced as they can be, he doesn't have a magic recipe.
"Hard work gets you everywhere, believing in what you do, doing it for the right reasons, having the right people around you."
Staying nimble is also essential and has become harder as the company has grown. "I always think of us as newbies, I don't think of us being a dominant anything. It's fashion - you could be here today and gone tomorrow."
Espinet says the company has been blessed in attracting staff who are crazy about their jobs - "the sort of people who would work seven days a week and do it for free". On hearing an Australian was managing a backstage New York Fashion Week zone, he thought "My, we've got big, flying someone all that way" before he was told the young staffer was actually a volunteer helping out on her holiday.
"You can't buy that, it just has to happen."
This sort of passion is what he believes will keep M.A.C at the forefront, despite the "many brands out there that are starting to look like us". Imitators would struggle to recreate the same inclusive team, he says, or an in-store atmosphere where men are just as welcome as women.
"From the day we were born we've leant strongly to our creed of all ages, all races, all sexes... People don't feel they're the wrong colour or too old or too young. Everybody gets treated equally."
Introducing a staff "uniform" of black was easy and inspired by the Roy Orbison-like look of one of M.A.C's original co-founders Frank Angelo.
"What we really wanted to do was give people the freedom to be themselves, but to create a uniformity at counter. If there's one shade that everyone can wear - I won't call it a colour, 'cause it's not - then it's black. All of the attention gets put on the face."
Espinet, like so many in the fashion world, has always happily worn black, but says on holiday he breaks out the brights or slips into his favourite jeans and T-shirts. He also likes to hop into a rental car and take to the road as he did after a work trip to Auckland a few years back.
He enthusiastically recounts sampling New Zealand's "outstanding" lamb, venison and wine. I fleetingly wonder if a well-drilled PR team has put him up to talking Kiwiana - from Manhattan to meat pies, really? - but the thought is quickly dispelled.
Espinet recounts taking some time out in Queenstown, where he followed his usual trick of asking locals where they liked to hang out. He ended up being welcomed late at night to a bar favoured by hospitality staff for after-work drinks.
That's where he first sampled 42Below feijoa vodka. This traveller with insatiable curiosity has never forgotten what came next... A very, very long flight home.
- VIVABy Janetta Mackay Email Janetta