GRAZIA talks to Kabuki, the artist behind some of the most iconic beauty moments in recent history.
There’s not really any knowing what lies ahead. It’s a new decade and there’s a new mood. New thought patterns, new waves of expression, new guards and new norms. Beauty is one such industry that’s driven by this newness, be it behaviours, technology, consumer habits or trends.
Over the past ten years, beauty has been picked apart and stitched back together, emerging a more democratic, transparent and innovative version of itself. Some will say there’s still work to be done (and they would be right), but there’s no doubt the industry as it exists is in a constant state of flux. It ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs. But the one constant in all the chaos is a bold, unwavering, intrepid force of creativity. Society often codifies beauty as superfluous or vapid, but when you get to the crux of it, it’s a platform for art, for expression and for creation.
When it comes to dissecting this creativity, it’s only through the far-reaching lens of certain visionaries that we might get a glimpse into the other side, both behind the scenes and beyond the present moment. Here, GRAZIA explores future beauty through the eyes of on of the best: makeup artist and creative extraordinaire Kabuki.
products used: MAC Cosmetics Pro Longwear Nourishing Waterproof Foundation, Cream Colour Base in Luna, Studio Fix Sculpt and Shape Contour Palette, Hyper Real Glow Palette in Get It Glowin, Extra Dimension Skinfinish in Whisper of Gilt, Glitter in Gold, Lip Pencil in Chestnut and Oak, Frost Lipstick in Gel, Pro Lip Palette in Modern Browns and Bronzing Powder in Golden.
Kabuki has been redefining what it means to use makeup for upwards of 30 years. Well-versed in the game of glamour and glory, he started as a club kid in New York City, where his sartorial idiosyncrasies and gilded performance artist alter ego Kabuki Starshine (true story) caught the eyes of important fashion people. One thing led to another (including a rendezvous walking Mugler’s iconic Fall 1995 Couture runway), eventually seeing Patricia Field bring Kabuki on set to workshop looks on an early Sex and the City. Carrie’s slightly overdone, I-just-ran-seven-blocks-in-Manolos blush that became synonymous with late ‘90s style was his doing, and from there, the iconic moments continued to transpire.
“I get to express visual ideas on a human canvas,” Kabuki told GRAZIA in New York City. “I’m very lucky that I have a lot of creative freedom.” But Bradshaw’s beginnings were the prelude for a rolodex of beauty looks that both impress and excite: geometric shapes, bold colour and artistic flair that sits somewhere between Botticelli and Andy Warhol are all part of the Kabuki calling card. His work spans editorial shoots to magazine covers, beauty campaigns to viral celebrity moments. He transformed Katy Perry to a celestial space starlet using silk screens and airbrushed pigment for her “E.T.” music video; worked on Michael Jackson for the cover of L’Uomo Vogue (a set of portraits that would become one of his last; he asked Kabuki for candy on set); and gave Rihanna a dystopian blue forehead on the cover of W Magazine in 2014. Some of his early work – makeup on ‘90s gritty docudrama Party Monster – is still referenced as an incredibly creative, poignant way to add emotion to film through beauty. Kabuki painted leading actor Macualay Culkin in a rainbow of eye shadow hues and dejected tears constructed from glitter – an interesting way of communicating the downward-trajectory of a drugged-fuelled party king.
Of course, Kabuki is lauded for his makeup direction on various fashion week shows, known for his intricate brushwork, fantastical colour, textural details and story-led creation. Backstage at The Blonds Fall 2020 show in NYC, Kabuki waxed lyrical about not just product and technique but story and creative flair. “The inspiration is a rococo version of heaven. I wanted layers and layers of gold… a lot of makeup that still felt light,” he says. “Almost like a ballerina. I wanted beautiful theatre makeup.” The resulting look was a feather-light, angelic gold wing that arched from inner corner to temple. Skin was glistening and cherub-like; an amazing display of what beauty means in the context of fashion weeks.
For Kabuki, 30 years of artistic savoir-faire is not so much calculated as it is intrinsic. “I just get on with it. Each situation is different, but a lot of the time makeup has to support fashion,” he says. “So, I’ll try out ideas that I hope will bring a cohesive feeling.” But modesty aside, it’s no secret that Kabuki’s work often is the showpiece, be it on the face of a supermodel or the face of a mega pop star. “When it comes to beauty for beauty’s sake, I like to just go for it and have a lot of fun. When I’m sitting in my creativity, I dive in, test ideas and come up with new ones as I’m going.”
Time spent in the industry means Kabuki has seen and lived through various changes, including the rise and rise of social media. When asked how he feels it affects his work, Kabuki decided it doesn’t affect it directly, but rather the way it’s received. “I don’t think it’s had much of an impact on how I work at all,” he admits. “It’s certainly had an impact on how my work is seen. Instagram has definitely given a lot of young talented artists a forum.” It’s a different time now, where it’s not just magazines and editors who decide the hierarchy in fashion and beauty.
As far as future-gazing, Kabuki stands firm on the notion that creativity will remain a constant. “People will continue to want to look beautiful and to view beautiful creative images,” he says. “Today, as opposed to 10 years ago, it almost feels to me like the creative possibilities are endless.” This has something to do with the wider reach of the industry at large, finally working towards a more diverse, inclusive, expressive place. Speaking from experience, Kabuki explains that there “wasn’t the same amount of diversity and individuality ten years ago.” When asked what confuses even him about what’s to come, he ponders how makeup, beauty and images will be presented. “To me, that is literally a mystery.” It’s a fair musing from the person that started in an industry where mobile phones were for the rich and hardly fit into your back pocket. Now, they largely dictate the industry – even Kabuki snaps a photo of his work on The Blonds to share on his channel, @kabukinyc. But ever the purist, he just wants his brushes, his pigment, and free reign to run wild.