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The Interview: Makeup artist Mary Greenwell on the early years of London Fashion Week

Sophie Smith
19 February 2024

Whether it's on the catwalk or behind the scenes, the UK fashion and beauty industries have changed a lot since London Fashion Week first launched 40 years ago. 

Legendary makeup artist Mary Greenwell tells about her early memories of London Fashion Week, her favourite shows, how trends have changed, and whether she'd do it all again.

Mary Greenwell is one of the highest regarded makeup artists in the global fashion and beauty industries. She began her career assisting Ilana Harkavi, a fellow makeup artist and the owner of Il Makiage, before moving to Paris in the mid-80s to work with a number of high-profile photographers. Following this, she regularly travelled between New York, London and Paris for editorial shoots, working with famous faces from Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Alongside her editorial work, Greenwell was also involved in the early years of London Fashion Week. Often working alongside long-time friend and hairstylist Sam McKnight, she enjoyed the backstage buzz, collaborating with designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Matthew Williamson to create a variety of runway-ready makeup looks.

"Sam and I were involved with some of the first shows in London. We did Matthew Williamson's first catwalk, which was amazing - Kate Moss looked extraordinary," says Greenwell. Strutting down the catwalk donning a pink and blue dress and cardigan with an orange hat, Moss' makeup boasted smokey eyes, thin brows, and most notably, exaggerated rosy cheeks, tying in the pink and orange accents of her outfit perfectly.

"I also did all the original Vivienne Westwood shows, with those amazing painted faces like Marie Antoinette," she adds. "I think those London Fashion Week shows were probably the most exciting to do because of the freedom. Westwood was so creative and incredible - we produced the most incredible looks."

The backstage beauty experience was something Greenwell enjoyed in those earlier years, a collaborative but smaller-scale affair compared to the behind-the-scenes environment of shows today. "It was very free at the time. The shows weren't sponsored by, for example, the big makeup brands in those days," she explains.

"The experience felt very personal, and you just had people around you who you loved - it was great. It wasn't like the machine that London Fashion Week is now, which I'm not saying is a bad thing, but it's just changed a lot."

Despite this, preparation, of course, was still incredibly important. "There was always a makeup trial beforehand, so the designers and I would work together to decide on a look," shares Greenwell.

"On the day, I would work alongside trusted assistants. However, I would never let someone go out on the runway without checking them first. This whole process, depending on how complicated the makeup is, took anything from maybe half an hour to an hour."

Following a whirlwind of organised chaos, it's showtime and, like today, the talent behind the scenes (including Greenwell) would eagerly anticipate the reaction from those in the audience. "It was a very exciting time when the models got out on the runway and you could see the response of the audience," she says.

"You want everyone to be thrilled to see these amazing clothes on the runway and the great all-round look, including makeup and hair, that's been put together. It was the most exciting time."


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However, as London Fashion Week became a bigger affair, Greenwell pulled herself away from the experience and has since continued her career in beauty as the 'must-have' makeup artist for celebrities such as Cate Blanchett and Jessica Chastain. She was also appointed as an ambassador for the British Beauty Council in 2023, and has almost 150,000 followers on Instagram.

As a result of all this, Greenwell is very aware of the trends that have shaped the beauty industry over the duration of her career. "I think makeup has changed a lot," she says. "In terms of London Fashion Week, designers now want either something more extraordinary or a really simple face with nothing on it."

As London Fashion Week continues today, the makeup artists behind the scenes are doing just that. From bold lips and rose-embellished eyebrows to natural faces with glowy skin, this season's makeup comes in two extremes - with some juxtaposing subtle and loud looks all in the same show!

So, would Greenwell ever be part of all this again? "If someone asked me, I would do it. Although, I think that I've got the point now where people wouldn't ask because I think I've gone too far away from it and do celebrity mostly now."

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