May 19th, 2015
Last week we were invited along to a discussion of two careers, polarised by approach but united in vision – Alex Box and Spob O’Brien of Illamasqua, hosted by Selfridges as part of their seven-week long ‘Work It’ campaign. From starting out to how they approach the design of new looks, these two artists are polar opposites, yet their love and commitment to the single brand of Illamasqua, and all it stands for, was striking.
How did you start at Illamasqua?
AB: Julian, the founder, was working at an ad agency at the time, but he was looking to create something else. His wife saw my interview in the Guardian, where I was talking about the emotionless, cookie-cutter approach to make-up, where everyone wanted to look the same. He was looking for a visionary, for a brand ideal, and he was so struck by the article that he contacted me on Myspace – which shows how long ago it was! It was like being handed all of my dreams come true, but also being really terrifying too. We trialled everything we made, in all sorts of different contexts – fashion and theatre and film – with so many prototypes. We must have had more than 700 colours, but we always wanted to make more!
SO: Julian’s research team were the ones to find me, I was running all around the country working on films at the time. When we were talking about designing the range, I knew we needed to address the huge range of differences in consumers – in skin tone, in colour, in style. They told me to bring in my entire make-up collection, so I did – and then they seemed shocked by the amount I brought with me! They asked me where we should start, so I suggested concealers. When I pulled out all of the many concealers I had, they didn’t understand the need – until I pointed out that every person in the room was different, and would need a different one. I knew that was something we just had to address.
How do you plan or design looks?
SO: For me it starts with a script. Normally with the first read I’ll get excited by a character, or a location, or a time period – then I hit the library! I’m that person that stays cooped up in the library, researching, for hours. I love it! The director obviously has some input, and we’ll discuss ideas, but the design mainly comes from sitting down with the actor and talking things through with them. I see it very much as becoming a facilitator of the artist’s vision. Obviously you can suggest ideas, or point out if an actor’s vision is impractical, but it’s very much a case of becoming an instrument to help the actor realise the vision for that character.
AB: It’s so different to how I do it. [With fashion make-up] I’m often booked to help solve a visual conundrum they might have. There’s often a lot of weight on the hair and make-up team – the label rides on the look as a whole! Quite often I might only get to test for the show the night before or something, you don’t get the same sort of prep time [as in film]. I’m very lucky to work with people of a similar mind-set, people like Issey Miyake or Gareth Pugh, to myself. They’ve often searched you out by the time you reach that level, and they approach you because they think you have a similar sort of aesthetic.
The challenge is to come up with the look that they didn’t know they wanted, until you show it to them. I’m not big on planning and practising. I just try to absorb, all of the time, and then it’s like a button is pushed, or a trigger is pulled, and everything just clicks and I’ll know what the look is. It’s very instant. It’s like when I’m designing the imagery for the Illamasqua collections or shoots – I’ll spend so much time on envisioning the collection, what I want it to be or express, how I want it to feel – and then sometimes I invent the look right there on the shoot. I draw a lot, coming from a Fine Art background. Sometimes, especially if I’m doing something like a very graphic eye, I like to draw it. Over and over, almost like you’re training your hand. Whether it’s on model’s faces in magazines, or on real models, or face charts. Just make it so it becomes almost like muscle memory.
Illamasqua is one of the few brands which truly covers multiple make-up genres. What do you think sets Illamasqua, and those other brands, apart and able to do this?
AB: I think we just try to focus on making a product really good. We don’t want anyone to be let down or disappointed by our products, for it not to do what they wanted it to. Basically if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t get made, because every product is being made by people who use them! Who use them and try them and play with them until they’re just right. And also, because they’re always attached to an emotion, in some way. We’re outputting a connection, and making a product is a part of that.
SO: When we were first creating the range, I was constantly bringing little sample pots of everything to sets and getting other artists to try them. It was very open-ended. I’d just say “Try this, tell me what you think.” And they’d ask all these questions – what is it, how do I use it, is it a lipstick or a blush? And I’d say “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what it is – do you like it? Why? What don’t you like about it?” The endorsement and the feedback from other artists was really important when creating products which are designed for them.
How do you name all of the products? What is the process?
[Spob and Alex laugh]
AB: The names are very important to us.
SO: A lot of the original products were named in one day, a manic day in Leeds when they were setting up the store before the first day of selling, and I remember it was a group of just women in the company, no men. They were ringing us up and suggesting all sorts of crazy names for things – I wish I’d been there, it sounds like it was a hilarious day! But it was really nice, with all of that feminine energy, I feel like there was a lot of feeling and emotion that went into, that still goes into, our product names.
AB: They’re not just a throwaway thing. The name somehow needs to encompass the texture, the colour, the emotion of that product. Lipsticks, for example – they’re not just an abstract. They’re real and tangible, you’re thinking of something very tactile, something textural. It’s very subjective! I love that we have a white, like pure white, eyeshadow called ‘Sex’ – it’s just humorous, so against the norm and the expected connotations of the shade.
What are your thoughts on Social Media, and how it can help – or hinder – artists who are starting out and trying to make a name for themselves?
AB: It’s a lot of pressure! There was nothing like that when I started. I think there are so many perceived levels of pressure, so much emphasis on appearing so accomplished when really you’ve hardly started. At such an early point in your career, you’re supposed to mess up – it doesn’t mean it has to be broadcasted! By only posting up perfected and carefully filtered looks, we’re creating such a skewed perception. It should be your most creative time! A time to play and to experiment and mess up and for there not to be that pressure on putting up something that isn’t ‘perfect’. It’s creating a very narrow margin on what is already a very particular look – this contoured, Kardashian-ing effect. I do think Social Media is great for connecting with others, for creating communities, but these Instagrammed versions of self are very complex.
SO: Absolutely. My advice would be to find someone who you know will be completely subjective. It doesn’t even need to be another artist, just find that person who can be that role for you. The person you can moan to when you’ve had a rubbish day on set where everything went wrong, or if your design didn’t turn out as planned. My nickname is “Make-up Mum” [laughs] because I seem to fill that role a lot. The right person is often really close, you just might not know it. And don’t think it has to be someone of a higher skill level, or more advanced. Sometimes it helps when it’s someone doing the same things as you.
What are your thoughts on courses and training, versus experience gained on the job?
AB: [Laughs] I feel like a bit of an imposter talking about this, since I came into it through Fine Art. I just draw things, like I always have – just through make-up. Having an assistant is great, it’s nice to have that extra set of hands – but so is being an assistant. You can absorb so much without having to bear any of the responsibility. You can watch, and absorb, and learn so much without having to worry about the end result. I think, as with any course, having a course instructor who is inspiring is what you ultimately want. Someone who makes you excited about what you’re doing. Everyone can have their eyes opened, everyone can be inspired, it’s not something you grow out of. And – very importantly – don’t ever feel bad for being self-taught, if you are.
SO: I don’t think you should ever stop learning. I think if you can’t right now, then don’t, but when you do have the time and the money then go on some courses and immerse yourself. I recently went on a five day course, and I got some funny looks like ‘Why are you going on a course?’ But it was great, I could immerse myself in the make-up and the play, without any of the responsibility of a job. I really miss my workshop space – having that explorative, messy space where I could cloister myself away and just play. It’s nice to be the pupil again, to be like a kid.
What are your top five kit essentials?
AB: …Just five? God. Well Skinbase would certainly be one – it’s definitely my Holy Grail foundation. [Pure Pigment] Furore as well – I love it, I think I would eat it if I could! I have a huge brush collection, which I couldn’t possibly pick from. All sorts of utensils – and my hands! Oh and airbrushes, but I often don’t use them as you should. I’ll do things like punch holes in the tube, so that when it sprays you get an erratic spray through those.
I like collecting little stickers to use in cards – like birthday cards, little stickers that say ‘Happy Birthday’ or something. I like to get them in filigree shapes to use. I have an obsessive collection – you find them in the weirdest places, like seaside town shops and crappy craft places. And finally… probably all of the prototype eyeshadows we made. I kept them all, all the different shades. I just love to see colour everywhere. Sometimes it’s nice to try and almost undo what you know, to change things up and avoid the products which you always reach for.
SO: I’m glad you went first, I’ve been sat mentally rifling through my kit! I’d definitely agree with the Illamasqua archive, all of the prototypes. And Skinbase, it’s absolutely a Holy Grail product. And I didn’t know I needed the Smoothing Brush until I got it – I’m obsessed. David Horne invented it, it has this great Bauhaus-esque shape.
I know it’s a bit weird, but dental tools [laughs]. Anything pointy, and smooth, and metallic – I love them. I’m really big on hygiene, so I really love how sterilised and perfect they are. And I have a big romance with Gore-Tex! You might laugh, but when you’re in a cold, wet field in the early morning, touching up your leading lady, you’re so thankful for them! You’re in your thermals, your possum socks, and your Gore-Tex coat!
What has been the most fulfilling job of your career?
AB: Anything progressive, anything where you’re creating one of your visions is hugely fulfilling. Just doing that can be difficult, it’s not always easy to get a look how you want it. I find documenting my work to be very important – finding a photographer who understands, who can help you translate your work and your vision. Seeing something you’ve worked on, sometimes for years, to have it captured properly is such a thrill. And my book, that was very fulfilling – it was just this creative journey with Rankin, this play space in my workshop. I’d book a model for the day, and just see what I could create, then he would pop out and capture it. It was complete carte blanche; I did everything but take the pictures, and it was just so freeing because no-one knew I was doing it, no-one knew it was coming so there was no pressure. It was infinitely rewarding.
SO: I would have to go all the way back to when I was a second year student at East Kent College. Ron Freeman came in from the Royal Opera House, and he completely turned my life around. I was beyond excited, completely inspired – I hadn’t even know that this world existed. At the end of his talk I was the only person to go up and talk to him, and I just asked if I could come up to London and work with him. I remember exactly how it felt to go backstage and to see all the wigs, and to go into the make-up room. I still just feel so blessed, I can’t imagine doing anything else!
Being such incredible and established artists, what else do you still want to achieve?
AB: It’s funny, because I never feel that I am what people say I am, but thank you. It still feels very new and exciting – if anything I’m more excited, the more I see. I think people can become very complacent – look what you can do, where you can go! I love those reactions, when you take things further, where you see people thinking and reacting, even if they hate it! I just think that apathy is like death. I think I’m just an example of someone who is in love with what they do, who is still amazed by the power of make-up.
SO: I’m the same, I still feel like that girl at Kent College! When I get asked to do jobs I still get so excited – it’s almost like, “Who, me? You want me?” I think it’s all about building pathways. There tends to be a two year desert when you graduate – you should just fill it how you can, change things up. I’ve started going back into schools to teach, including 14 and 15 year olds who don’t even know that this is a career – I met these two boys recently, who were normally bored and doodling cartoons at the back of class, and they were stunned that there was a career out of making black eyes and injuries on films.
AB: I use a lot of technology in what I do, which is very exciting. I want to further the way artists can make marks – to help develop the next generation of tools for artists.
SO: That’s the beauty of what we do – we’re constantly inspired and finding new avenues.
AB: You have to be open to being alive and being around – to engaging with the epicentre, here in London. I’ve ended up working with brands like Made.com, simply because they’ve seen my work and they like how I do things! I’ve gone from playing with make-up to playing with rugs! I think there’s only really New York and London which are like this, where there’s this level of creativity.