When I was invited to go backstage for Hong Kong Fashion Week by MAC Cosmetics, I expected every minute leading up to the runway show to be full of chaos. Blame The Devil Wears Prada.
Instead, as I’m led away from the bustling crowds inside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to the tucked-away hair and makeup room for the Hong Kong Fashion Extravaganza fashion show, I enter a bubble of calm.
Along one side of the hall sat models with their hair and make-up done in their evening’s looks, but dressed in casual clothes. They were eating from lunch boxes (no carrot or celery in sight) or reading from their smartphones.
Opposite the models were two small hair and make-up rooms for the girls appearing in two of the four designers’ shows tonight. But the room I wanted was at the very end of the hallway.
I walked into the biggest room and introduced myself to Ryuko Lau, MAC’s first senior artist in Hong Kong, who is leading a team of 26 make-up artists to create four looks for 64 models.
“It’s a huge show this year, so we’ve flown in make-up artists from around Asia Pacific to help the Hong Kong MAC team,” Lau tells me during a lull. “As soon as they arrived on Sunday (January 18) I gave them a workshop in which I demonstrated the four looks we’re creating.
“All of our make-up artists usually work at one of our stores on a normal day, but we’ve pulled the absolute best to be a part of HKFW. And even though they’re all highly skilled, I still needed to brief them on the looks we’ve created to suit each designer, their collection, and the story they want to tell.”
Dressed all in black but in contrasting textures, with gunmetal accessories to accent her outfit, and dark caramel hair pulled into a low side ponytail to show off her perfectly eyelinered eyes, Lau was as chic as the looks she was creating on the models. Lau reveals that preparations for HKFW started in September, when she returned to Hong Kong from Milan and London Fashion Weeks.
“My biggest challenge is that I need to understand more than just make-up. I need to collaborate with the designers, whose focus is on the clothes. So I need to bring what I learned at international fashion week and translate it for a Hong Kong audience. And make sure it still works for the designer’s collection.”
Soon, Lau is whisked away for last minute tweaks on one of the looks because the designer saw what it looked like under the runway’s spotlights during the test run, and he wasn’t entirely happy with it.
With two hours left to go, people come and go from the room like a wave. Sometimes it was almost empty. But 30 seconds later it felt like every make-up artist, hairstylist, and model in Hong Kong was in the room with me. And actually, that may not have been far from the truth.
“In Europe there are a lot of girls so the competition is much higher, but here there aren’t as many models,” says model Lena Shynkaruk, who will later be walking in the show.
Shynkaruk is from Ukraine and has modelled for ten years. She was sent by her agency to Hong Kong six years ago, and “then I found my boyfriend, and now we’re married and have a baby, which was one reason why I stayed.”
While we were talking, Shynkaruk actually looked quite odd if we were anywhere else. Because the two sides of her face had very different make-up looks on!
Before she leaves to have her make-up adjusted so both sides matched, Shynkaruk shares with me she’s considered quitting modelling to start her own wedding planning or event organising company.
About 30 minutes before show time, the frenzy I had imagined began. Hair and make-up people worked on a steady rotation of models. When they were ready, Lau had to check them to make sure that everything looked perfect.
“Her left eyebrow is less full, fix that, but other wise she’s good to go … I started the lip, but can you clean it up? I have another girl waiting … Her eyeshadow isn’t balanced, can you fix that please?”
Soon, we all hurried to the area behind the runway where there were changing rooms set up on what looked like a stage. In front of the stage was a wide path created by a tall partition. On the other side of that partition was the runway and audience ready for the show. Make-up artists waited while the models changed. The atmosphere was tense and excited.
One door opened and a model walked through in a metallic gown. Immediately four make-up artists started putting last minute touches on her face, hair, and body. This continued as more girls – and a few guys – came out from the rooms dressed in their looks.
Soon, the backstage area was packed with people and the show coordinator started shouting instructions. “If you’re not walking in the first show, please stay up on the stage!”
Make-up artists walked through the crowd to check every model’s face was perfect. A petite girl who seemed to be an assistant coordinator moved like quicksilver through everyone, making sure all was on track. Seriously, I saw her weave through the crowd on the stage, ignored the stairs and jumped off of the stage onto the walkway, sprinted through the girls about to exit onto the runway, and shot back onto the stage and into the dressing room in less time it took me to choose a filter for an Instagram post I was making!
Once Fashion Extravaganza started, everything moved quite quickly. One show followed another, and while the models waited for their turn, they chatted, they took selfies, or they found a spot to sit. I soon found out why: many of the girls were wearing shoes far too small for them. But as soon as they hit the runway, not a trace of pain can be found on those flawless faces. These girls were pros.
After all four designers had shown their collection and models had starting changing back into their normal clothes, I ducked out to see what the venue looked like. The runway wasn’t a raised one, but a white aisle down the center of the room, and now it was full of press and audience members who wanted to talk to the designers. I waded through the silk and perfume air, and thought how ironic it was that the ones watching the show were dressed more lavishly that any of those working backstage.
Soon I got bored of the milling crowds, and went searching for Lau in the hair and make-up rooms to say “goodbye.” Along the hallway where I saw models having lunch earlier now sat make-up artists and hairstylists discussing where to go for dinner. Others were busy packing up the rest of their gear.
When I reached Lau, it looked like she and her team were going through what they had to prepare for the next day, and I realised something that was very hard to ignore. Regardless of how meaningless some might think the fashion and beauty industry to be, and it is tiny in the grand scheme of things, it is full of some of the most hardworking people I’d ever met.
I got Lau's attention, and after a quick goodbye, I left the first day of HKFW, while Lau started planning for the other three days.
But not before we switched on our smartphones to follow each others’ cats’ Instagram accounts!