Terry Barber is a legend in the make-up world. His career is inextricably twined with that of make-up giant MAC as his first job in 1992 was on the very first MAC counter in Harvey Nichols. However, his passion, drive and exceptional talent meant that he didn’t stay there for very long and instead found himself working every season on behalf of MAC at international shows. Now as their Director of Make-up Artistry, he’s renowned not just for his beautiful editorial work but also for his irreverent and unique style of make-up, often showcased on his wonderful Instagram.
This is an interview extract. Find out the full version in the Spring Summer 2020 Issue 4
What originally inspired you to become a make-up artist?
I was a part of the post-punk style explosion of the early eighties, when everything felt new and experimental because it was so DIY. I went to art school but was far more focused on studying those tribes of kids whose fashion was defined by their musical tastes. When I moved to London, I lived in cheap bedsits with little money but managed to spend a lot of my time in underground clubs, which in hindsight was more beneficial to my future career than a university degree. The influence of all those subversive, hedonistic years remains in my work to this day and in the current climate, where people seem to be tiring of celebrity clone culture and brand dictated fashion, it feels more relevant than ever.
It’s 2020 and it feels like everything old is new again. What are your favourite beauty eras and why?
I guess I’m more interested in subcultures than I am in decades, which can get very generalized. It’s specific moments and movements that are the most interesting, and I’m usually drawn to the ones that challenged the status quo. So, the Youthquake in the sixties, Bowie in the seventies, Blitz Kids in the eighties and grunge in the nineties. Although revolutionary at the time, these are the references that are still in constant use in fashion and beauty today. I’ve never believed that referencing the past makes you dated or nostalgic because I think that style is an ongoing story and past ideas are there to be reformed and recycled. To me, that tells a richer story than simply contriving to be always new, which can just become gimmicky.
Tell us about your long-established relationship with MAC.
I joined MAC in 1992 when I worked on a counter in Harvey Nichols. This was when it was a complete phenomenon and we were probably twenty customers deep from morning to night. This experience taught me an incredible number of skills as a make-up artist; skills like how to work quickly (very underestimated), how to understand people’s emotional connection with make-up and how to enhance all faces regardless of their features.
When you’re a make-up artist who has worked with real people it tends to give you a wider perspective on the artistry involved. You can talk it as well as walk it. I now work as a Director of Make-up Artistry for the brand and have been able to achieve many of my original ambitions whilst still working within a corporation: therefore, MAC is and always will be very special to me.
What’s different about being a make-up artist now to when you first started out, and is there anything you would you like to change if you could?
I don’t like to focus too much on the past. I’ve achieved things which I never thought were possible when I was younger. It’s easy to be over ambitious when you’re starting out and I think the new generation, who are brought up with social media, are constantly comparing themselves to others. This inevitably leads to feelings of inadequacy and competitiveness which are complete pitfalls when it comes to following any path. It should be okay to make mistakes and you should be surprised and delighted when you achieve. Perhaps if I were young now, I wouldn’t choose make-up artistry as a career. I think it’s become too technical. I’ve always preferred moods and nuances to the ‘look what I can do’ transformations that are everywhere and leave me slightly cold. It’s like the Beauty Olympics out there.
What are your thoughts on social media and fashion? The great thing about it is that it’s taken a lot of the elitism out of working in fashion or beauty. Anyone, regardless of their background, can present their ideas to a global audience. However, I think the future lies in success based on quality content rather than likes and followers. If numbers are all that matter then all we can expect is mediocrity.
I think the future lies in success based on quality content rather than likes and followers. If numbers are all that matter then all we can expect is mediocrity.
What is beauty to you?
To me beauty is something that is connected with your emotions and goes far beyond being simply pretty or attractive. Beauty that really affects us is often flawed or challenging: it divides opinions but stays in our minds and changes the way we look at other things. Beauty is not always obvious, it can be incredibly subtle. It defies category, genre and is beyond explanation. What it is not is forgettable.
What’s coming up next for Terry Barber?
Being in my fifties I’m happy to still be working and retaining some kind of relevance. I’m particularly enjoying collaborating with a new school of designers, photographers and stylists. There is a strong community of creatives coming through whom I feel have the same irreverence and disruptiveness that we had in the eighties but are using all the tools of the modern world to push it forward. I’m finding that regardless of age difference, the desire to work against the establishment creates a common ground with generations. More of that in 2020 please.
Read Terry Barber's interview in the Spring Summer 2020 Issue 4. Get your copy here.
Terry Barber using M.A.C. Cosmetics.
Photo assistant, Alec Duff. Style assistant, Tamsin Beeby.