The Make-Up Artist Changing Backstage Beauty: Crystabel Riley Interview

by Hetty Mahlich on 7 January 2020

Crystabel Riley tells Hetty Mahlich about the AHLUWALIA STUDIO A/W 20 make-up looks, and how she's changing the backstage beauty game.

Crystabel Riley tells Hetty Mahlich about the AHLUWALIA STUDIO A/W 20 make-up looks, and how she's changing the backstage beauty game.

Crystabel Riley is the make-up artist changing the backstage beauty game. Frustrated by the shortcomings of her own make-up kit, Riley turned to natural products in a beeline for a 'zero-waste' approach. On Sunday, Riley and her team were on hand to create the futuristic, blink-and-you'll-miss-it light reflective looks for the AHLUWALIA STUDIO A/W 20 menswear presentation. Having co-developed the first Eco Beauty course at London College of Fashion, Riley is a self-taught whizz when it comes to the science and ethics behind cosmetics, mixing up her own concoctions using materials from clay to plant-based cellulose, also making her own sustainable make-up tools. I spoke with Riley about her DIY approach to beauty, the importance of everyday ritual and why you should be wary of digging out that old lipstick.

Hetty Mahlich: How did you come to work with Priya Ahluwalia on the AHLUWALIA STUDIO A/W 20 menswear presentation?

Crystabel Riley: We noticed that one another were doing similar things in different industries. She was working with a zero-waste approach in terms of making beautiful things out of deadstock materials. I've been gradually trying to make my approach within makeup and cosmetics as conscious and as low-waste as possible. For the past couple of seasons, I’ve translated the way that I've been working to a fashion show situation. I reached out to Priya on Instagram, and we got to emailing. Then quite last minute, she asked me to do the show! It was really nice that we ended up working together so quickly.

H.M: What was the inspiration behind the looks you created for the show?

C.R: We were looking to futuristic skin, but still masculine. The presentation felt like a futuristic nostalgia, sixties interiors and old photos in the way people would pose together, but future-thinking. We created beautiful faces with really polished skin, but with this extra-ness to it using a plant-based cellulose. You can only see it sometimes, depending on the light, which really works for a presentation. People take much more time looking. It's not just marching down the runway, it’s more of an in-situ experience.

H.M: What other products did you use?

C.R: I was looking at these pictures of Star Trek, and I wanted to do a really subtle version of that look by lifting the eyebrows just on the outer corners, and we used organic glycerin soap to do that. We collaborated with TWELVE Beauty, who make amazing products using 100% natural ingredients. I incorporated their glosses, which we just buffed off at the last minute, so the models’s lips were super hydrated but not too shiny, leaving behind the plant-based cellulose in this pool of lip gloss. This worked well for the AHULWALIA show concept because they had this low-high tech thing going on. We translated that concept not just through the make-up and the looks, but also through the very nature of our approach.

AHLUWALIA STUDIO A/W 20 menswear

H.M: Can you tell me a little more about the materials you work with?

C.R: I'm really intrigued by where stuff comes from, wax in particular. There's a guy that sells honey at the local market in Stoke Newington and he sold me some wax, so it was nice to talk to him about where he’d sourced it and to have a connection and understanding to the materials I’m using. You can’t research and know everything, but it's about working towards something. I like clay because it’s a raw material you can mix up, I like that idea of creating something with ingredients.

H.M: Why did you turn to different materials?

C.R: I have super sensitive skin, and for a while I couldn't use any of the products I was using in my kit on myself. I decided to make my kit into something that I was much more connected to. It takes time to gradually get there, but then it just becomes a part of you - you gradually become more prepared. Now whenever I go anywhere, I take a stick of charcoal with me to create fresh water. For me, it's about this weird futuristic, ancient connection.

H.M: Tell me a little more about your approach to cosmetics.

C.R: Hygiene is of the utmost importance to me. I'm using basically all organic make-up brands, and I make sure that my whole team are using these products too, because I don't want the skin to look like it's got silicone on it. I don’t want that as part of my look. Make-up with cheap preservatives in don’t smell when they go past their 'sell by' date - usually that date's not determined by what's good for the skin, but for a longer shelf-life for the company. Make-up can be just like that experiment of taking a McDonalds burger, leaving it for two years and it doesn't go off.

H.M: What's in your make-up kit?

C.R: I like the idea of DIY, my approach is not necessarily about buying new stuff. For the AHLUWALIA show kit, I took flannels and these re-usable pads which I made from recycled materials for the whole team. On one side is a flannel-like, exfoliating texture, the other is cotton. A lot of re-usable pads are white, which immediately stain, but these are just the right colour. To think more thoughtfully about the rubbish that you're creating, you should be trying to make more beautiful things around you. Saying that, a lot of the tools for a greener approach to beauty are already in the make-up kit. It's more about changing people’s mindsets.

H.M: How do you prepare your team for a show?

C.R: I use the tagline ‘zero-waste’, and although that’s an aspirational term, I think it’s necessary to make sure that the team is mentally prepared to do things a little bit differently. I use hot flannels and older, ancient techniques like hot cleansing massage and Chinese techniques for the lymphatic system to make the skin look ultra-fresh. To translate that to a show, I brought flannels and made re-usable pads for my team. Some of my team are really experienced in green beauty, and others are new to it, so I want to make sure everyone has the equipment to work in the way that I do. It’s just a different way of doing things, but it’s really easy if you think ahead and are organised.

Crystabel Riley's re-usable make-up pads

H.M: How have people responded backstage?

C.R: Lots of models say when we bring out the hot flannels: ‘This is how my granny taught me to do my face! This is amazing!' Having heat on the face is something you don’t always get in the make-up chair. I've always had such good feedback from the team. They're like, ‘This is so cool! I'm going to do this from now on.’

H.M: How has the response been backstage outside of your team?

C.R: If it's a quick interaction, like someone from another show coming in and asking for a normal make-up wipe – which we don't use , people don’t quite understand. However I’ve found that people who have taken the time to listen have been more intrigued and interested.

H.M: Have you seen other teams taking a similar approach?

C.R: No-one’s really doing this. I know this, because people on my team work on other teams. Things aren’t changing, because there’s still this idea that luxury and hygiene are linked to things in packets, to chucking stuff away. Luxury, for me, is much more linked to efficiency, and I think there's much more beauty in creating and using tools that will be there forever. Tools that are constructed perfectly for you to do your job. We need to gradually change what people’s idea of luxury is.

HM: Does your approach ever hinder the creative side of the make-up process?

C.R: The results do always come out differently, but not in a way that's compromising to the look. Looking to different natural materials, like clay, has made me feel more expanded than limited.

H.M: Where do we go moving forwards with our approach to beauty?

C.R: We need to be having more conversations like this one to get people out of their little bubbles. I feel like I’m in my own bubble, trying to enjoy and refine my approach, but also trying to expand and bring people in. I’ve been quite hard-line about it for a while. Make-up is also about the daily ritual, which ties to self-care. I massage my skin every night, then I get a hot flannel, lay it over my face, and then I think about good things for a second! I like the idea of creating different and more holistic rituals that connect you more deeply to what it is you're putting on your skin, and how you're doing it. People have been trained to enrich themselves in a way that suits consumerism, rather than yourself and your lifestyle in a way that suits you as a human being. You can massage your face, mix up your own clay. It's whatever makes you feel joyful.

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