Val Garland on Staying Relevant (and Spraying Gisele with Axel Grease)

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Courtesy of Val Garland

After publishing her first book, the make-up maverick speaks to AnOther about her life and career

The introduction of make-up artist Val Garland’s recently published first book, titled Validated, describes her better than we ever could. “Val Garland could not be invented. She is not the classic version of the creative eccentric, for she is multi-layered and complex, spontaneous and unpredictable,” writes Karl Plewka. “Her life’s work – ranging from beautiful masks, indolent and kittenish, to subversive, visceral daubings – proves this time and time again.” 

Whether it was closely collaborating with Alexander McQueen to create some of his most enduring images, climbing a ladder with photographer Nick Knight and Sam McKnight to transform a model into John Galliano’s subversive vision for Dior in the early-00s (more of that to come), or telling stories with Vivienne Westwood, without a doubt Garland is a legendary creative force in fashion and beyond. Here, alongside backstage imagery from McQueen’s A/W01 show, she shares some of her stories and imparts sage advice on how to stay relevant in the fluctuating age of social media. 

On falling into make-up artistry...
“I started doing make-up when I was working in Australia in the 1980s because I was already a hairdresser and I had already started working on shoots. I always wore loads of make-up – loads. And photographer friends would say ‘you should do it professionally!’ So it happened that I just kind of fell into it and discovered that I really liked painting faces. Then, when I came back to London in 1994, that’s when it really started to kick off and I was able to say ‘oh, I’m a make-up artist now’. I was completely self-taught. I would just make it up as I went along really. And I guess I was quite lucky because in 1994 it was right in the in the middle of the grunge movement and Corinne Day, so it was sort of a good time to start. Because, if you weren’t very good it didn’t matter, because the looks were so natural. But I also loved painting and colour so I would just experiment too.”

On shooting the iconic Dior campaigns with Nick Knight, John Galliano and Gisele...
“I think the Dior campaigns I did with Nick Knight in the early 2000s were seminal. It was incredible. This was advertising and it was with John Galliano and here we were taking couture clothing – or high-end clothing, at least – and covering it with axel grease and oil and soaking poor Gisele with water and wind machines. John certainly wasn’t worried about formalities, such as ‘oh we need to see the bag or the shoe in this shot’ as it usually is with advertising, so it was great because it felt like we were being quite, to use the word loosely, ‘punk’. It was just like ‘let’s make a great picture’. I remember one particular shoot where the model was in a car and the car was sort of suspended from the ceiling, and there was Sam [McKnight], Nick Knight and myself up ladders, doing what we needed to do.”

On selecting the images from her archive for Validated...
“I had lots and lots of images that I loved. But at the end of the day, you have to edit, and you have to make things flow. So there were lots of things that ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. But I knew from the start I wanted it to be comprised of not every single thing that I’ve ever done because I thought that would be really yawny. And I wanted to come at it from a make-up artist’s perspective. I wanted it to be more about the make-up and the colour. Saying that I knew I would include the images of Karen Elson wearing the Shaun Leane jewellery in the McQueen Voss show for S/S01, because I remember it so vividly. When she was walking off stage, she tripped, and we were all just stood there and grabbed for her because that jewellery was so sharp and it could have killed her!”

On spontaneity...
“I like the idea of just being spontaneous and just sort of making it up as it happens when I’m on set. It can all change in an instant: what you’ve done in the make-up room might look great in the make-up room, but by the time you’ve got hair, you’ve got clothes and you’ve got lighting, you’re looking at the full image on the monitor and something’s not right. So you have to work out what that thing is. And it might be the case that I have done some incredible make-up, but it just doesn’t work as a whole, so I have to take it all off and start again. I’ve been in that situation loads of times and I think it’s about not having an ego, but working collaboratively to get the best picture. It’s never just about the make-up, it’s about the whole thing: does it work? Do you believe it? And if you believe it, then it’s worked.”

On her advice for getting into the industry today...
“First and foremost, you have to have an utter belief that you can do it, because there are always people who are going to say ‘no, no, no’. You have to have a thick skin and you’ve just got to keep knocking on doors. Now more than ever your presence on social media is vital, because that’s where lots of people look for work; nobody’s looking at a whole load of books in an agency anymore, it’s all completely social media-based. This is going to sound really wanky now, but you’ve got to find your unique selling point – your USP – what have you got that someone else hasn’t got? And if you want to stay relevant, you have to keep changing, because that’s the nature of the beast. Fashion imagery doesn’t stand still, so you have to change with it.”

Validated: The Make-Up of Val Garland is out now, published by Laurence King.