Ooh, our first guest post! I first met Mika Johnson seven years ago when he was a club kid in Soho’s clubland, known for rocking his own elaborate makeup looks on a nightly basis. Since then he’s gone on to a varied career as a makeup artist, taking in three seasons working backstage on the X Factor, as well as his current position as assistant to the inimitable makeup artist, Alex Box.
I know many of you lovely Mascara Wars readers are looking to get into assisting work as your careers progress, and to get stuck in backstage at Fashion Week, so I thought why not let you hear the behind the scenes experience straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (no offence Mika). Here he takes us through his week at the Spring/Summer 16 Paris shows, and gives us the insider experience of how it is working alongside one of the most creative minds in the makeup industry. Take it away Mika!
Monday 28th September
This is my third season now, assisting Alex and going out to Paris during Fashion Week. Nicola (Alex’s first assistant) and I got off the Eurostar from London and went straight to the first test at Guy Laroche. Alex was already there because she’d just done her soon to be released TED talk in Luxembourg on the Saturday.
The shows this season were all in conjunction with MAC, so there’s always a MAC backstage manager who brings a full MAC kit as well as all the new and up coming products. This season there were four new Strobe Cream shade extensions in shades like Peach, Red and Gold that were beautiful. Some makeup artists go out with massive arrays of kit, but we probably have the least kit of anyone! If we know it’s all going to be MAC, there’s no point bringing any other brand, so we really don’t bring much at all!
So the Guy LaRoche test was all very Paris, very fabulous, champagne for all. Alex tested six different looks which is the most we’ve ever done for a test I think, mostly just playing with the colour (the first look she did ended up being the colour that we used, as is always the way!) Each designer is completely different with how they’ll talk to Alex about the makeup concept, and Guy LaRoche’s was more about a mood than anything too specific. There was a punky element to the makeup definitely, in the clothes there’s chains and there’s leather, but what Alex created was a twist on that classic punk eye shape, applied almost like an inkblot.
There isn’t as much to do as assistants during the tests, but we make sure to take notes on everything, take pictures, and just keep everything clean as we go, and after two or three hours we were done.
That evening we all went back to our apartment near Gare du Nord. We have the weirdest, most atypical arrangement I think, it’s like a travelling makeup community! Alex’s partner is there, as was Nicola’s, and we all stay together. It’s nice to come home and have friends to chat to after the shows each day.
Tuesday 29th September
The next day we had two tests, the first was with Veronique Leroy at their studio, where there were castings going on at the same time. You’ve got all the girls doing walks, doing fittings, James Pecis there doing the hair and then Alex doing the makeup.
Veronique usually has a very a specific girl in mind at the makeup test. She described her as “a photography student, she works at a nightclub in the bar to make some money… She knows she has to be sexy but she doesn’t quite get it.” The final look was purple, almost lilac, on the lids, and purple on the lashes but sort of naively done, somewhat haphazard in the application. If you imagine the girl she described you can see what Alex got out of it.
It can be so hard to make messy look great like that. It’s sometimes hard to see the beauty in broken makeup, and to make it not only look not too thought out, but not actually bad! It’s such subtle things, for instance Alex won’t just scrawl a colour, she’ll apply it, and then take out tiny bits, and adds a little depth here and there so it becomes sort of pinpoints of “mess”.
The next test was for the Ilaria Nistri presentation, so after a quick Thai lunch we went straight over. Ilaria is a designer that’s normally showing in Milan, but has really sophisticated designs, so suits Paris really well. Originally, as both Guy LaRoche and Ilaria Nistri were scheduled for the same time, I was going to be demo-ing this look on the day of the show, but while we were watching her creating the look, I was starting to get a bit nervous! There are so many intricacies in it, I couldn’t even write it all down. It’s such a “Box Look”, that in the end she decided to do most of the looks on show the day herself, while I would stay at Guy LaRoche.
She only had to create the one look during the test. She started of with a soft version, then just really went for it. There were so many amazing elements, like using a stone coloured Cream Colour Base to entirely fill the top lip and shade underneath the lower. Afterwards the designers probably stood there for 20 minutes not saying anything and then one of them went “Oh, it’s beautiful by the way!”
Wednesday 30th September
The next day the call time for both shows was 8am. One of the reasons Alex needs two assistants with her, is that when a show time clashes she needs someone to stay behind and hold the fort, or go ahead to the next demo. After demo-ing the look for Guy LaRoche at the Grand Palais, Alex left me with the show, so I had the responsibility of making sure everything was perfect. I would send her pictures of every girl that I could, and she’d text back saying what needing changing!
The look itself was sketched on with pencil, then pressed into with remover and a cotton bud in different areas to make it bleed, as well as darkened in certain areas with powder shadow. Alex is known for doing bombastic, crazy, over the top looks, but a lot of Paris is really sensitive and really intuitive, miniscule details where she’ll add the tiniest fleck of something on the cupid’s bow, or that hint of shadow or that swathe of strobe somewhere that makes a big difference.
This time there was a navy and a khaki, and then some of the girls had nothing, just glowing skin. We didn’t touch the brows at all, and lips were just Lip Conditioner, with a touch of Global Glow Mineralize Powder on the cupids bow. The cheeks were two shades from MACs new trend palettes mixed together, and pressed in with the heels of your palm… What Alex calls your “Thumb Bra”!
We had four hours to prep 30 models, so it was intense. There were a team of about ten incredibly talented MAC artists, many of whom are really well established in their own right, and we had Romero Jennings (Left – MAC’s Director Of Makeup Artistry), who I absolutely adore and who understands how to do a show way better than I do! But we could all work really well together to make a great show.
I was sending Alex the pictures as and when I could, but you’ve got a camera in your face, it’s all go, and that’s when it’s calm as well! I learned a lot this season from just doing that one show on my own, the pressure on your shoulders of not only having to do makeup, but keeping an eye on the team to make sure they’re all producing the same consistency of looks… And then you also have press and you have the MAC team coming up and asking you questions, so you’re never really sat with a model just from start to finish, your head’s sort of all over the place. It went really smoothly, but my heart was in my throat the whole time because I was so aware of the gravity of how much it had to look good, but I was really happy with all the looks, as was Alex which was wonderful.
So once I was done there, there was time for one glass of champagne then I had to get straight to the other show for Ilaria Nistri. After a fashion show the feeling you get is so intense and then it’s gone just as suddenly. When you finish something normally you might chat to someone but they’re all gone, on to the next show! Outside the Grand Palais is like Oxford Street, just total carnage and one way systems, so I headed over the bridge on foot, and walked for half an hour to get there with Alex’s kit which split open on the way! Luckily it was all zipped in, so it was all secure.
Nicola had started at the other show by demo-ing skin whist Alex got a cab over, there was a small MAC team there but luckily only 12 models on the day, so with the look being so intricate Alex managed to get through a lot of the makeups herself. The look was in stone tones, and had something of an Old Masters feel to it; it looked painterly, sculptural even. The presentation was held in the magical Cour du Mûrier at the National School of Fine Arts, and I arrived almost at the end of the presentation, to see a cellist playing Massive Attack and then all the models dotted around in such elegant dresses, stood like statues, being painted or sketched by artists. It was idyllic. During the presentation Alex just touched the models up there and then, I think people liked the spectacle of that as well. They all looked so statuesque and with the fact that they were all being illustrated or painted, with the makeup already looking like a painting, it felt as though it was pure art on the face and then it was being reinterpreted by the artists.
Thursday 1st October
This morning, as every morning, someone went down to the boulangerie on the street below, and we had croissants for breakfast (see right for beautiful picture of said pastries) in the apartment. Then we headed to Place Des Vosges for the Issey Miyake makeup test.
I love Issey. It’s a massive show and they always have a different direction. I just love the way they treat Alex and the way they are with us, they’re all really respectful, they love what they do, they’re moved by what Alex does and it’s just wonderful, all of it.
As soon as I saw the clothes on this one I knew it was going to be amazing. The designs were all really colourful and made from paper using an old, traditional method. While Nicola and I set up the kit, Alex goes and looks at the clothes and has a discussion with the designers, they show her videos of how things are made and how the collection came to be, and it all helps Alex to get inspired.
She was starting to talk about rainforests, how light falls through the leaves and dapples on the face giving different effects of light and I just knew this was going somewhere really good. Then she started talking about dripping colour but felt that was too obvious, so started thinking about how we were going to make it move across the face, and that’s where the motion painting element came in.
Alex started experimenting with different colours, it was just makeup artists’ heaven. At first I was the test model, lay down while Alex blew the wet pigment mix into the shape she wanted with a straw. We were using MAC Pigments mixed with Water Base Mixing Medium, which gives it an elasticity so it doesn’t crack, or go chalky, but we found the mix tended to stain on the eyelids so made sure to use plenty of Dermashield. Then she moved the designs onto the test model. The intricacies of the design came from taking away certain parts of the middle of each shape, so it doesn’t just look like a splodge. Alex took colours from the collection but then added some errant colours as well.
Sometimes when I’m watching Alex work I think “would I come to this conclusion?” and sometimes I think I might’ve got somewhere near that but… I would never have thought of blowing neon paints on models lying down, and then daubing it so it looks faded. That’s what’s so wonderful about working with Alex. We have a funny saying where we say, “That’s the Box Magic!” and that was it in action! They’d put material all over the desk and all over the floor and when we left I could tell why, because there was pigment everywhere!
The next day was the show, so went out for dinner and then went back to the apartment. We definitely weren’t out every night, a couple of times we went around here and there but I was pretty tired at that point, I hadn’t been home for a month!
Friday 2nd October
We started at 8am at the Tuileries Gardens. Nicola started by doing the skin demo as Alex mixed up the colours. We had to section off an area so people didn’t step on the models and then my job was pretty intense! I was trying to keep the paints on the table, keep them out of her way, but that wasn’t possible in the end so we had paint all over the floor. Alex was jumping from side to side because that paint moves quickly, so you have to catch it quick! So my job was basically to make sure Alex doesn’t sit in paint or spill paint, for three hours. And because she was using so many different colours I was cleaning every brush as soon as she’s used it and handing it back to her clean, because then she’d go in with the mixing medium to blend. It was actually really good fun, you just have to watch it, that stuff is the devil!
There were about twenty models, wearing seven different colours in the end, some straight from the pigments, and some beautiful peach and mint shades that were mixed live on the day. When we were doing it, the motion painting, one of the models said “I used to do this in kindergarten” and Alex laughed. It really did just bring back that fun element of makeup, the models, loved it! Plus they got to lie down for about 15 minutes while it was painted on, so they got a bit of a rest!
Nykhor Paul opens every Issey show, and towards the end of the prep time I found her listening to music and doing yoga. We talked about how much we love doing the show. She told me she just gets overwhelmed and you could see tears in her eyes she was so excited. It’s such an emotional show because the hair, the makeup, the styling and everyone involved and even the models think the whole concept is beautiful, or they just really want to be there, and it’s so positive and that’s what makes it so nice. Fashion can be really hard and abrasive, and people are tired, especially in Paris because it’s the end of the month, people are exhausted, and there are a lot of egos and Alex and the whole Issey show bring a real human real element to that.
Some of the girls ran straight off to other shows, and we took the makeup off for a few others, but after that show I had a free afternoon so I went and met my friend Alicia who was in town from LA! We went shopping for an avocado but ended up… at a wine tasting. I had an early night though, for another early start tomorrow.
Saturday 3rd October
Another 8am start at the Fondation Mona Bismarck, a beautiful 19th Century townhouse opposite the Eiffel Tower on the banks of the Seine. As beautiful as it was, the backstage was a kind of old library, and we only had natural daylight from three windows, we even resorted to lighting Alex with our phones for touch ups… It can be a struggle in situations like that but we make it work!
On this show the assistants were back to doing full makeup looks again which was nice. Working with MAC again, we mixed Stormy Pink and Clearwater Pro Longwear Paint Pots to make a dusky purple, and lashes were firstly mascara to thicken them up, then Pure White and Rich Purple Chromacake layered on top. I’d never coloured lashes like that using Chromacake, but we painted it on with a fan brush and it came out beautifully vivid. As with every show, Alex always checks over the looks before we let the models go. If there’s elements which aren’t to her taste or her standard she’ll always really respectfully correct and direct you and let you go off to tweak things. It tends to be that she’ll go in and finesse every single look with a cotton bud or a small brush just to get the fine details right but a lot of the time I’ve found I’ve done a few looks where she’s said “perfect,” which is always a great feeling.
The backstage during the actual show was insane, because the girls had to run up a flight of stone stairs in their heels after their quick change so it was pretty terrifying! When they’ve got to run up flights of stairs with the risk of breaking their neck there was certainly no time for touch ups!
And then we were free! We went back to the apartment, bought some Cava, had a few drinks and that night we just chilled out, had lovely relaxing baths and went home the next day. I took Nicola back to her house and helped her up the stairs with her kit and went back home to have my post Fashion Week comedown for a couple of days. But as always I can’t wait for next season!