What Backstage Beauty Will Look Like at Fashion Week This Year and in the Future

Erin Parsons, Maybelline New York’s global makeup artist, has been hard at work designing makeup for the upcoming Fashion Week season. The season is looking a little bit different, however. The makeup for one show she’s working on will be done in computer-generated imagery (CGI) rather than pigments, creams, and powders. Parsons is creating looks that go far beyond what special-effects makeup could ever be for GCDS’, an Italian streetwear brand, which will have its virtual fashion take place in time with Milan Fashion Week. “It will be epic,” she says.

Digital makeup is no doubt cutting-edge, but with the COVID-19 crisis, many beauty industry professionals have been forced to get creative backstage at fashion shows. Fall is normally the peak season when top makeup artists, including Parsons, plus hairstylists, and nail artists are in the midst of preparing their concepts to accompany the extravagant creations for New York Fashion Week and the European fashion shows happening in September. But, since March 2020, most fashion weeks have gone digital. For example, Paris Couture Week, which typically takes place in July, staged only digital shows (along with other Fashion Weeks) due to the pandemic.

Peter Philips, Dior’s makeup creative and image director, would normally be conceptualizing and executing the makeup looks for Dior fashion shows in Paris. The brand, instead, presented its Resort 2021 and Couture Fall 2020 shows digitally. In July, Philips did the makeup for Dior’s virtual Cruise show. Although an audience didn’t attend it in person, preparations for the show went on as normal, albeit with safety measures — backstage included.

“In most cases, there will be the need for a backstage,” Philips tells Allure. “Makeup and hair are an important part of the way a designer presents a look. Whenever you shoot for a film, video, photoshoot… there is a backstage.” The makeup artist is still waiting to hear what he’ll be doing for Dior’s upcoming Spring 2021 show — specifically, whether it will be virtual again or an in-person experience with a live audience.

Typically, backstage at Fashion Week is one of the most cramped, busy, and fast-paced areas. Makeup artists, hairstylists, and nail artists work in tight spaces as models, assistants, and journalists all pack in and try to squish by. With Fashion Weeks around the world becoming less centralized, backstage areas are sometimes just a tiny room inside a school or a temporary tent with no air conditioning in the middle of summer.

“In most cases, there will be the need for a backstage.”

“I’m not sure how well social distancing can work backstage,” says Sam McKnight, the iconic hairstylist who usually spearheads the hair at Chanel’s shows. “Smaller teams would mean more time with the models needed or [fewer] models. If social distancing continues as currently advised, you wouldn’t be able to have a hairstylist working alongside a nail or makeup artist, which would mean models wouldn’t be able to come late from another show.” McKnight is hoping for more space and more time if Fashion Week continues in the usual way.

The current outlook

It’s not all that unusual for many of the makeup, hair, and nail teams to not know exactly what the upcoming season will look like, even when there isn’t a global pandemic. Many beauty teams receive show confirmations with just days’ notice. But the schedule is less set-in-stone than ever. “We have some shoots, videos, and shows scheduled this season,” McKnight says of the Spring 2021 shows set to take place in September 2020. “I’m not at liberty to say exactly what they are at the moment; the schedule is changing on a daily basis, which is to be expected in these times.”

Meanwhile, some examples prove that the show must go on, with seemingly little visible safety requirements. Jacquemus staged a live fashion show outside of Paris in July 2020 with a full audience (none of the models wore masks on the runway) though social distancing took place, as did Etro in Milan. Copenhagen Fashion Week took place in August 2020, with live shows and audiences barely social distancing and with almost no one wearing masks. Though most Fashion Weeks were canceled or digitally-only globally throughout the summer, Paris Fashion Week announced that it will resume in-person shows in September, which could mean that major brands like Dior and Chanel may have in-person shows.

New York Fashion Week, also happening in September, is effectively mostly digital, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and event organizer IMG Fashion Events Group vice president Leslie Russo have announced a shortened official schedule with few details but extremely strict requirements mandated by New York State: All presentations, runways, events or exhibitions that occur in-person must be outdoors and be limited to 50 people. That includes the designers, models, beauty teams, PR staff, and guests, which poses quite a challenge.

Many beauty teams are reporting that they have no work lined up in New York. “NYFW is completely canceled for me,” says hairstylist Kim Garduno, who often works on the hair team, alongside Guido Palau, at shows such as Dior and Sacai in Paris, as well as Marc Jacobs in New York. Allure reached out to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which controls the official NYFW schedule, for comment about whether or not there would be any safety requirements for backstage teams at in-person shows. A representative tells Allure that the organization will release a health memo before the shows “with brand recommendations that are in line with CDC guidelines.”

“You have to adapt yourself to this and create a new life around it. You can’t stay home forever.”

Per event organizer IMG, all IMG personnel, vendors, designers, models, staff, and guests will be required to answer pre-screening questions prior to entering the building for in-person fashion week events. Individuals will be required to undergo temperature checks, wear masks, and social distance. IMG will follow all CDC, New York State, and New York City guidelines regarding NYFW: The Shows. Temperature and symptom documentation will be kept confidential by those designated to receive the information to implement safety measures.

Across the pond, backstage plans are still on — kind of. “I’m doing London, Milan, and Paris,” adds Garduno. Her plan is to go to London early in September to quarantine for two weeks before possibly going on to Milan and Paris, pending which cities and brands are in need of beauty professionals. “I feel lots of artists feel we’re still in quarantine when, in reality, this is the new normality. You have to adapt yourself to this and create a new life around it,” she says. “You can’t stay home forever.”

Adds Cutler creative director, Mike Martinez, who normally does hair at the Thom Browne and Rick Owens shows, European travel isn’t in the cards for some. “As far as Fashion Week, I’ve gotten a handful of options for shows here and in Europe. Sadly, I won’t make it to Europe this season,” he says. “However, I will be working on a few shows here. It’s hard to say how it’s going to go as a lot of them are going to be virtual, and the ones that are in-person will have to be very scaled back.”

Just as many beauty professionals are reconsidering working backstage, some beauty brands — even those with some of the biggest sponsors in the past — have decided to rethink the Spring 2021 fashion season as well. “While MAC will not be providing physical backstage artistry support this season to protect the health and well-being of our artists and community, we’re finding new and innovative ways to help designers bring their collections to life, such as virtual consultations to create specific looks and apply makeup,” a MAC representative tells Allure.

The need for a new kind of backstage

Many of the makeup, hair, and nail teams typically involved in Fashion Week are wondering how the future of backstage beauty will change after the pandemic since traditional runway shows usually have large teams for hair, makeup, and nails, and some are finding new ways to explore their creativity.

“The actual backstage has been evolving ever since fashion shows started, and it will continue doing so. From small corners in the couture houses’ ateliers, where models used to do their own hair and makeup, it evolved over the years into what it is today,” Philips says. “So for the near future, there will be [fewer] people allowed backstage, more space between makeup tables; the sanitary regulations will be even more strict as they already were.”

“I hope this has brought some realization that backstage spaces have not always been appropriate for the number of people or for the work required.”

Many makeup artists, hairstylists, and nail pros who participate in Fashion Week are hoping COVID-19 spurs positive changes backstage. “Backstage, we are always in tight spaces,” says nail artist Mei Kawajiri. “Especially nail artists — we have to work on the floor sometimes. We need a table, chairs to set up our nail tools, a safe position, bright lights to see fingernails, and enough space to put nail kits instead of on the floor. People always kick our kit when they walk through. This is good timing to think about what we need and what we don’t need.” Kawajiri has no work confirmed for NYFW. She normally flies to Paris to do the nails for the Balenciaga show but is not sure she will be able to this time with travel bans in place.

Although the catalyst is unfortunate, the changes that may come about as a result of COVID-19 are considered long overdue by many who spend time backstage. “Moving forward, I hope this has brought some realization that backstage spaces have not always been appropriate for the number of people or for the work required,” McKnight says.

He would like to see well-ventilated spaces as well as basic necessities like air conditioning, heating, and ample space for everyone to work comfortably. “People should be able to walk freely without bumping or needing to push through the beauty teams who are working,” he tells Allure. “It’s too often we arrive at a space that’s three floors up with no step-free access, and the teams are carrying many suitcases up and down flights of stairs. It shouldn’t go back to how it has been previously in some cases.”

Sanititation and protection

Many of the beauty teams at future backstage areas will likely be wearing face coverings, shields, and gloves, and taking their sanitary precautions to the next level to protect models as well as themselves.

That said, makeup artist Chiao Li Hsu has been focusing on work unrelated Fashion Week work for the upcoming months, instead concentrating her attention on alternatives. She is flying to London and quarantining for a few weeks to work on some new collaborations. “I didn’t even think about Fashion Week this season,” she says. “I just want to do some creative shoots again.”

Amber Noon, an infectious disease consultant for Colorado’s largest health care system, Centura Health, believes backstage beauty is still a major risk for everyone involved at Fashion Week right now. “Short of gowning up with hospital-grade [personal protective equipment (PPE)], which isn’t practical, there is no risk-free way to engage with others in public, particularly in close proximity, like personal services,” Noon explains.

Certain strategies can dramatically cut down on risk, though. Backstage makeup artists, specifically, are at greater risk than the models as they are, at times, touching multiple peoples’ faces, posing a great risk with contact, Noon says. Therefore, the artists should wear a mask the entire time, and the model should wear a mask whenever possible. “It may be worth asking the client or model to apply things like foundation before they come in to increase the amount of time a mask can be worn,” she suggests. “Focus time on the eyes and brows. Any strategy that allows for the maximum amount of mask-wearing should be explored.”

Noon also stresses the importance of having makeup or hair stations at least six feet away from each other, as well as using new brushes for each client (or asking them to bring their own). “The added expense and trouble is worth the enhanced protection, particularly when it comes to mascara,” she says. “We know coronavirus can enter the body through the eyes. Spritzing with alcohol isn’t enough to protect clients. Brushes need a deep-clean, probably a full soak, to sanitize and ensure every bristle is clean.”

“It may be worth asking the client or model to apply things like foundation before they come in to increase the amount of time a mask can be worn.”

Another recommendation from Noon for backstage beauty: Everyone needs to be screened for symptoms, as well as wash their hands and sanitize hands as often as possible. If possible, each model should have their own set of makeup, too. “Although there’s been no study to say how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus may live on or in certain cosmetics, we do know that it lives on and can be picked up off of surfaces in general,” Noon explains. “In this particular environment, it’s most likely the virus would be picked up off of cases or the counter.”

Aside from the general safety practices, here are a few alternative ways beauty professionals are making the backstage situation work:


McKnight has been directing models on how to do their hair through Zoom for various editorial photo shoots. “But it’s nothing like replacing a show,” he adds. “We are essentially ‘missing’ three-show periods. Cruise, which would have been in May, Men’s in June, and Couture in July. I adore doing shows, so it’s a real shame for the team and me to not be backstage, but it’s unavoidable with the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.”

Parsons has also been doing makeup virtually by going live on Instagram with Maybelline and teaching spokesmodels how to do their makeup. “I actually think it made me a better-skilled makeup artist,” she says. However, she’ll also be doing makeup at Jason Wu’s live show at NYFW and Dion Lee, who has yet to determine whether they’re doing a live or virtual show.

Others have figured out completely new, contactless working processes that allow for the usual backstage work to be done remotely. Kawajiri, in particular, recently put together a nail look that the models could do by themselves from their homes for the CR Runway x Amfar virtual fashion show. All they needed was a clear coat and liquid eyeliner. “I had them write their own name on one of their nails with liquid eyeliner,” Kawajiri says. “I thought everyone has liquid eyeliner, and it’s easier than using a tiny brush with nail polish.”

For nail artists like Kawajiri, playing the role of creative director and being less hands-on could be a great solution to future backstage scenarios, as it falls within the safety guidelines of social distancing.

Virtual reality

“I’ll be creating some amazing characters that definitely could not exist,” says Parsons of the virtual fashion show she’s working on before its September debut, “even with special effects makeup.”

Augmented reality could play a huge role in backstage beauty, depending on how creative brands want to get. Although we haven’t really seen anything on the runway yet, we do know that virtual makeup is having a moment elsewhere. MAC recently partnered with the computer game Sims, in which the brand’s director of makeup artistry, Romero Jennings, designed a dozen makeup looks. Animal Crossing fans have also been experimenting with makeup and even skin care, with Givenchy and Tatcha is partnering with Nook Street Market, the fan account that recreates designer clothing, and now makeup, for the game.


Makeup artist Li Hsu, on the other hand, has been working without her usual team and a photographer, instead teaming up only with people she’s been isolating with. “The first thing I did while in lockdown was a shoot for a beauty brand,” she says. “I asked the brand if I was allowed to do makeup on a guy, and they were totally open to it. So I did makeup on the person I was quarantining with, and we were also the ones taking the pictures. I definitely see myself doing projects like this in the future.”

Producing an entire shoot on one’s own also allows for makeup artists, hairstylists, and nail artists to have more control of their creative visions as they’re the ones producing the entire product from start to finish.

Digital content

Like Parsons, Kawajiri has been focusing on content during this time, making nail-art video tutorials for her fans and press-on tips for herself as well as various magazines. When a celebrity client needs nails, she’s been mailing them custom press-on sets and documenting it for her followers on Instagram. “They still look amazing. We are still keeping creative even in this situation,” Kawajiri says. “In the future, I don’t know how it will change, but we all learned so many things through this time and definitely got smarter.”

Parsons has also been pumping up the number of tutorials and digital content she’s been posting on Instagram. “I personally started doing things on myself for Instagram because I felt the need to be creative,” she says. “Now that I’m back to work, I’m actually missing it. Because it’s on myself, I can try things out that normally I wouldn’t have time for on set.”

Dominic Skinner, MAC’s global senior artist, compares the state of backstage beauty to that of the fashion world. Much like the way the fashion industry has been talking about how Fashion Week feels outdated, not sustainable, and overdone, some makeup artists feel the same about the usual backstage set-up.

“In the future, I don’t know how it will change, but we all learned so many things through this time and definitely got smarter.”

“The idea of a fashion season has already been something that a lot of brands are looking at and questioning if it is really relevant to today’s consumer,” says Skinner. “What we do know is that our aesthetic and our idea of what beauty is is constantly evolving. We’re questioning a lot about old-school ideas of fashion and Fashion Week and trends. This is almost giving us an ability to have a bit of a restart off of those ideas and what we could potentially do in the future.”

“The role of the makeup artist supporting the designer is going to be almost more important than ever to allow the designer to really make a statement about who they are, what they’re about, and where they are sort of sitting in this new future,” adds Skinner, who says that as a makeup artist, you have to be constantly learning and evolving. “You have to be doing new things and trying new things. It’s really exciting to see makeup in a digital format. Within the realms of the digital landscape, there is always going to be a need for the experienced artist to be able to really push the boundaries of what beauty is.”

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Originally Appeared on Allure