Glass talks to Julian Kynaston about how the spirit of punk has been reincarnated through his make up range - Illamasqua
What I have always loved about make-up is its ability to transform the wearer into anyone they wish to be. The bolder the better, it can turn a shy pale wallflower into scarlet-lipped vamp; a freckled teenager into a alabaster-skinned creature of the night and an ordinary man into a beautiful woman. As we move away from the unspeakably bland “natural look” that has dominated beauty for the last two decades, Illamasqua conversely, is make-up “for your alter ego.” Its aim – to put creative, statement-making and truly transforming make up back in the spotlight where it belongs.
Their unique selling point is that their make-up is truly professional – designed to stay put under harsh stage lights – and the wide range of weird and wonderful colours means scope for unlimited creativity with the face as a canvas. A good example is their Cream Pigment – a wonderfully versatile pot of rich matte colour for eyes, lips and cheeks; a slick of the plum-shade Depravity on the lips can work wonders for a tired face, and the coral shade Emerge is also great at correcting dark circles.
Their Skin Base foundation is also one of the best in the business; although some may find it slightly heavier than other varieties, it aims to also work as a primer and concealer, and creates a matte flawless complexion that doesn’t smudge, smear or slide off. Their lipsticks, despite producing a stunning rich colour, have an unfortunate tendency to snap – something which I’m assured, they’re in the process of rectifying. This aside, I’ve been a devotee from day one.
Marketing guru Julian Kynaston founded Illamasqua (the name a combination of “Illusion” and “Masquerade”) in 2008 with maverick make-up artist Alex Box on board as Creative Director; he was later joined in 2010 by Agent Provocateur Founder Julian Corre (son of punk king and queen, Vivienne Westwood and the late Malcolm McLaren) as Joint Managing Director. They now have several flagship stores in the UK and concessions worldwide, as well as a training school for both professionals, and those just wanting to try something different – without having a look dictated to them. The brand recently branched out into fragrance with Freak – a spiky, vampish scent with opium flowers and Queen of the Night, with a smoky base of frankincense oud and myrrh.
Meeting Kynaston is quite a daunting prospect – I’m expected an intimidating figure, perhaps dressed all in black – nerves and anticipation rising as I wait in the meeting room of Illamasqua’s colourful offices. The person who finally emerges is a charming, down-to-earth Northerner, who despite being softly spoken, pulls no punches and is fiercely opinionated and passionate about his company. He’s the sort of chap you could imagine going down the pub and putting the world to rights with until 4 am.
Through Illamasqua, Kynaston explains, he didn’t just want to flog some pretty face paint, but rather challenge prejudices faced by those who dress differently. “Due to the diversity of our shop staff, we’ve probably exposed more people in Britain to being dealt with, or having met a transsexual, than any other brand there is. I’ve never met one such customer who’s not enjoyed the experience and re-evaluated their views. I’ve think we’ve done more for prejudice this year than any other brand. Brands should be the antagonists of sorting these issues out, seeing as the government have done a f**king crap job of it!”
I ask if he has always been involved in make-up. “Not at all – I’m a brand builder. I suppose I flirted with the gothic scene as a kid, and re-entered that scene later in life and found myself at gothic weekends. I was in a room full of people just absorbed in make-up which I suppose was the real initial spark of Illamasqua if ever there was one. I saw these girls walk in who – without sounding disrespectful – probably received some cruel attention to their looks in the past. But they way they had done their make-up provoked so much admiration and so many compliments, that for me it transcended the conventional definition of beauty. I then thought, if make-up is this empowering, why don’t we encourage people to wear it, not twice a year but twice a week, or even every night? I wanted a brand that had this kind of emotional connection, which led to the tag line ‘make-up for your alter ego’.”
As chairman of marketing agency Propaganda, the seeds of Kynaston’s idea were sown when he realised that there were several shortcomings with the majority of cosmetic brands already on the market. “I think a lot of the brands out there were designed to accept and readily meet the lucrative market of women without particularly challenging the difficult market of men. Also I think to a large degree the concepts they were selling to the customers went unchallenged and what stuck out for me was the mass use of ‘professional’ as a word.”
Kynaston himself visited beauty counters up and down the country, asking staff what the word on their uniforms and displayers actually meant.“The standard answer was: ‘the word 'professional' means we’re either owned by or we work with a make-up artist called X.’ That never satisfied me – it’s a bit like saying your car’s been designed by Michael Schumacher. I’d rather he drove it, I wouldn’t want him making it! So I was very adamant the substantiation of the word 'professional' in make-up should lie with the chemists.”
With that Kynaston started researching whether truly “professional” cosmetics actually existed, which led him to discover several companies that emerged in 1920s Berlin such as Leichner and Kryolan. These companies produced cosmetics for the city’s many theatres, which stayed on for longer and were available in more vivid colours, and which were mainstays backstage in television and theatre worldwide. Despite their success, the companies themselves stayed underground. “Kryolan for example were the first to do hi-definition make-up but they didn’t celebrate it with a 100 million pound TV campaign,” Kynaston notes.
After enlisting Kyrolan-founder and cosmetics veteran Arnold Langer to develop the products, the wheels were set in motion. “We found chemistry meets make-up, together with the group of us true creative... mentalists!” laughs Kynaston. “Box, me and others, we all said this will be the first time ever in the history of make-up that truly professional make-up – that has been the exclusive preserve of backstage – will be made available on the high street. Forget what you’ve heard before – that was make-up that has been compromised to meet the affordability of the mass market. Ours is a real first, and that’s what I think worked very well.”
As one of the few independent British make-up brands, are any aspects of the range quintessentially British? “Its attitude is British; this isle has born all the major youth cultures up until the emergence of MTV in the US. You’ve got the mods, the Teddy Boys, the club kids … we are the absolute nation for saying what’s cool and what isn’t cool and we’ve been that for decades and we’ll continue to be that even though America has taken over in the last decade or two. But with Illamasqua, we’re a ‘youth culture’ that can exist as much in an 80- year-old woman’s head as it can in a 22-year-old guy’s.”
Would they accept the term that’s often applied to them as a ‘transgender brand?’ “First of all, I don’t think we are. The fact that there are many androgynous and transgender people among our team was not a conscious, manipulative decision. It’s about the fact that men do wear make-up and the fact that we’re a semi-professional make-up brand. For someone who’s either a man in the day and a woman at night, or someone who’s on a journey from man to woman – that’s where your make-up’s got to perform, and perform incredibly well. It’s more about us having an inclusive nature than anything else.”
Illamasqua’s commitment to celebrating diversity was employed most acutely though their work with the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Lancaster, a young teenager, was kicked to death by a gang of boys because of her goth-style clothes, hair and make-up. The charity now campaigns to raise awareness of hate crime, and also runs educational programmes in schools and in prisons to change people’s perceptions of alternative subcultures, and is spearheaded by Sophie’s mother Sylvia.
Hearing about Sophie’s death in 2007 struck a chord with Kynaston. “One day, the news came that Sophie had entered a coma after being attacked for the way she looked. There I was, in the process of launching a brand that’s empowering men and women to wear make-up more loudly and boldly than ever before, and then someone had just been killed for doing just that. It did worry me that the message we were trying to get across might result in similar tragedies. Then I thought f**k no! That’s not a reason to stop what we’re doing! That’s a reason to keep going. But I decided in order to do so, we should also help charities that work against this particular hate crime.”
As well as offering financial support, Illamasqua also work alongside the charity, with projects such as S.O.P.H.I.E wristbands sold in store (which have been worn by Courtney Love) and a short animation retelling Sophie’s story entitled Dark Angel, created by award-winning director Fursy Teyssier. The film was produced by Kynaston’s agency. “It’s also a powerful way of tackling the broader hate crimes, like racism, but presenting it to people in a different, new way,” he explains.
Aside from their charitable endeavours, the brand have also attracted controversy with their Final Act of Self-Expression service – a professional make-up service for the deceased, by artists specially trained in this area. Many commentators called it a gross publicity stunt. Was Kynaston prepared for the attention it received? He sighs at my question. “Half the world thought it was a stunt. But it’s basically touches again on the fact that we are semi-professional, and the fact that a dead body is a very technical playground for make-up. Why shouldn’t corpses look stunning? You get people remortgaging their house to pay for the walnut coffin, the silk and the satin and all of sudden you get to the make-up and it’s just boring. Of course the service wouldn’t be for everyone – we just thought it was a lovely idea, and actually when you go back to the Ancient Egyptians and the way they treated death with a real sense of ceremony, it’s probably one that’s been overlooked.”
Do they have any new projects in the pipeline? “A derivative of Freak will be appearing very soon – a stronger version this time. We’re also looking at a number of possible avenues, and types of products that celebrate night. We recently had a meeting where everyone said, “Incense is naff.” And I said “You’re all a bunch of b*stards! I f**king love incense, and it isn’t naff, we’ll make it anything but naff!” So we’re kind of on to that thing.” Kynaston is certainly a man on a mission – woe betide anyone who tries to stop him.
by Viola Levy
Illamasqua’s flagship London store is located at 20 Beak Street, London W1F 9RE For more information on the Sophie Lancaster Foundation visit sophielancasterfoundation.com View the Dark Angel video by Fursy Teyssier here. Illamasqua.com