Many would argue that the best seat in the house at New York Fashion Week is in the front row. Watching the season’s latest looks sashay down the catwalk amongst camera-ready celebrities, socialites, editors, influencers, and buyers has a certain appeal — and is a rather interesting social experiment to witness IRL. However, as someone who spent the better part of her career reporting behind the scenes, I would argue backstage offers an even better view of the (unfiltered) action. It’s also where the world’s biggest names in beauty come to play.
Rock star hairstylists, makeup artists, and manicurists all descend on the Big Apple for a few jam-packed days of high-pressure fun and are crucial when it comes to bringing a designer’s dream to life. These pros transform supermodels into everything from “human bouquets” (seen at SHAYNEOLIVER’s Fall 2022 show) to “aliens tripping on mushrooms” (on view at Rodarte’s Spring 2022 romp) using their paints, polishes, and often-times-secret potions. “To see something imagined in my head translated onto the models never gets old!” says makeup artist Pat McGrath, a fashion powerhouse with countless seasons under her belt.
While NYFW is known to produce slightly more wearable beauty statements (at least in comparison to London, Milan, and Paris), there are still plenty of artists pushing boundaries — and somehow still reimagining smoky eyes, ponytails, and nude nails in exciting, new ways. “New York is where it all begins,” adds McGrath. “Personally, I always look forward to fashion month because it’s a time where creativity is first and foremost in everyone’s minds.”
Ahead of the Spring/Summer 2023 shows, TZR shines the spotlight on a few of the backstage legends who have produced some of the most iconic looks to ever grace the runway.
Behind the scenes, McGrath is known by one name: “Mother.” (In other circles, she’s a Dame — the first makeup artist to ever be given the title by the Queen of England.) The legendary pro is undoubtedly the matriarch of the greater fashion family and has been a staple at some of the biggest shows on the NYFW calendar since she keyed Anna Sui’s Fall-Winter show in 1998. Always dressed in an all-black uniform complete with a matching headband, the unshakeable beauty force continually delivers jaw-dropping looks that are nothing short of makeup masterpieces. Expect to see feathers, flower petals, crystals, glitter, paillettes, and, of course, makeup from her eponymous line, Pat McGrath Labs, used in the most mesmerizing and mind-blowing ways.
McGrath also told TZR that she’s particularly excited to see her brand’s latest collaboration with Supreme — a trio of black, white, and red nail lacquers — “out in the wild” this season. The polishes will be added to the pro’s 60-plus suitcases brimming with beauty treasures that travel with her around the world. Mother comes prepared, because everything she creates is, as McGrath often says, “major.”
Palau, one of McGrath’s primary partners in crime, is a legend in his own right. During NYFW, the celebrated coiffeur is booked and busy, crafting looks for the biggest names in fashion. He’s also one of the most versatile and prolific hairstylists in the game — crafting gravity-defying updos at Tomo Koizumi, elevated ponytails at Tory Burch, slick braids at Proenza Schouler, and neon bowl cuts at Marc Jacobs. The man does it all with impeccable flair — giving the world grunge (an aesthetic he helped define in the ’90s with his work for Calvin Klein), glamour, and everything in between. He’s also the mane master responsible for the supermodel’s hairstyles in George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” video and the conceptual headpieces for “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met (he was one of the designer’s longtime collaborators). In short, Palau doesn’t just do hair — he shapes its history.
If you ever have the pleasure of interviewing Kendal at a fashion show, know that you’ve got to get in close to hear her explain the look at hand. Instead of shouting over the chaos that is backstage, the soft-spoken pro prefers to let her work do all the talking. Sometimes it’s a graphic, neon eye (seen at Proenza Schouler’s Spring 2022 show) or a Snuffleupagus-level lash (spotted at Marc Jacobs’ Fall 2021 extravaganza) that screams “Look. At. Me.” Other times, it’s a whisper of blush or a strategic swipe of clear balm that lends the perfect hint of polish. One thing that is a constant with Kendal’s looks is fresh, glowing skin (which is a major feat given that models’ faces are painted and scrubbed multiple times a day during NYFW). Her signature combo of rosewater spray, moisturizer, and concealer (strategically applied so that it’s practically indiscernible) leaves even the most sleep-deprived supermodel looking luminous.
For a long time, male hairstylists ruled behind the scenes at runway shows. Gilbert broke up the boys club and paved the way for the many women who followed in her footsteps. Born in France, she brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the scene and weaves designers’ dreams into the most unbelievable braids, updos, crimps, and curls. In seasons past, Gilbert’s awe-inducing looks at Rodarte made the show the hottest backstage ticket in town for beauty editors. She transforms scraps of fabric, orchids, roses, and even filler flowers (evidenced by the clouds of baby’s breath at the sisters’ Spring 2018 show) into the most exquisite hair accessories imaginable. It’s no wonder Sofia Coppola tasked the pro with crafting Kirsten Dunst’s fantastical bouffants for her 2006 film, Marie Antoinette. Similar to the French queen, Gilbert will go down in history — luckily, her decadent creations have nothing to do with cake.
Choi pedaled her way into the hearts of fashion’s heavy hitters (including photographer Steven Meisel and designer Marc Jacobs) with her warm personality, her incredible work ethic, and, of course, her impeccable manicures. Before the pro became the industry’s go-to for all things nails, she got her start biking to clients’ homes in New York City after emigrating from Korea with $400 in her pocket. Since then, she’s launched an eponymous line of polishes, opened four namesake nail spas, and created looks for countless runway shows. Models like Gigi Hadid, Kaia Gerber, and Gisele Bündchen happily pose for #JINstagrams not just because Choi is a backstage legend, but because she’s quite possibly the kindest, most-down-to-earth person in the biz. This season, keep an eye out for the manicurist’s minimalist nail art and incredible colors at Michael Kors, Brandon Maxwell, Peter Do, and Fendi.
Redway works with some of the biggest names on the red carpet — including Lupita Nyong’o, Tessa Thompson, and Lucy Boynton — but her early career is rooted in runway. Before she was keying shows like Christian Siriano and Fe Noel (both on her roster this season), the Jamaican-born hairstylist assisted mainstays like Palau, Gilbert, Didier Malige, and Eugene Soulemain. It was actually backstage at one of Palau’s shows that she realized her lightning-fast braiding skills (which she perfected at age 11 by doing her classmates’ hair) set her apart from the rest of his team. At the time, Redway was also one of the few pros who could execute looks on any hair type and texture — an aspect of the industry she has dutifully worked to change by advocating for more diversity behind the scenes and at every level of the fashion business. Redway told TZR: “I’m trying to make sure that before I leave the industry that I’ve created a safe space for other women of color to be able to perform at the same level, if not higher, than me and be able to have the respect and just have an easier time.”
It’s not unusual to see a supermodel make a beeline for Pecheux’s coveted seat backstage. The French makeup artist doesn’t just slap makeup on a mannequin and move on to the next — he treats every catwalker to a face massage that boosts their glow and simultaneously relieves any NYFW-induced stress. His calming presence (and sense of humor) is also appreciated by weary journalists taking copious notes on his signature technique. For over three decades, Pecheux has created some of the most memorable beauty moments, ranging from Crayola-colored lids at Oscar de la Renta to ruby lips gilded with gold at Brandon Maxwell. Regardless of what the pro dreams up behind the scenes, positive vibes are always an essential part of the look. Pecheux told The Cut: “When someone leaves my chair, I want her to leave with good energy.”
Linda. Christy. Naomi. Amber. Iman. Cindy. Gisele. Karlie. Kendall. The list of one-name fashion wonders that Garren (another singular sensation) has transformed over the years is endless. The mane master is also responsible for some of Hollywood’s most impactful hair moments, working with the likes of Farrah Fawcett, Audrey Hepburn, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Victoria Beckham. In addition to creating iconic looks for runway shows, designer campaigns, and magazine covers, Garren also served as a mentor for other legendary coiffeurs, like the late Oribe. When he makes an appearance backstage at Anna Sui (one of his longtime collaborators) during NYFW, it’s a rare opportunity to watch one of the OGs make magic yet again.
Growing up in an ashram, Westman wasn’t allowed to wear makeup at home — making it all the more enticing. Once she experienced the forbidden fruit, which involved painting her classmates’ faces instead of her own, the makeup artist was hooked. Eventually, her skills — refined at makeup schools in Paris and Los Angeles — caught the attention of famed Vogue editor Grace Coddington, whose seal of approval went a long way in the fashion world. Westman quickly became one of the most in-demand pros, creating naturally radiant complexions (one of her signatures) at shows like Oscar de la Renta, Brock Collection, Khaite, and Rag & Bone. She parlayed all of these behind-the-scenes experiences into a namesake makeup line, Westman Atelier, giving everyone the opportunity to glow like a supermodel under the bright lights of NYFW. The pro is proof that breaking the rules has its benefits.
If Pecis isn’t fielding calls from Chanel, Thom Browne, Altuzarra, Brock Collection, or Gabriela Hearst, he’s probably surfing. The pro, who hails from Northern California, even produced a book (Noodled) that merges his passion for hair with his love of the ocean, the proceeds of which go to Mission Blue to support marine conservation. In addition to crafting intricate braids, impressive updos, and sea-swept waves for the biggest names on the fashion circuit, Pecis advocates for the environment in an industry notorious for creating waste, calling on beauty brands and designers to do better front of house and behind the scenes. While many still consider him a member of the “New Guard,” at least when compared to many of the backstage fixtures on this list, he’s already made big waves with his head-turning work.