Watching Alex Box apply make-up is like seeing a painting come to life. Here, at a studio in east London, clad in a royal blue jersey jumpsuit and black geisha-style elevated flip-flops, Box is hurriedly setting up her extensive make-up station. Five suitcases, each the size of a small child, are slowly emptied onto a make-up counter and two large trestle tables. Weighty tomes of modern and African art are left open in Box’s eye line and the small parts of an airbrush gun are assembled.
Stylist has tasked Box with creating five unique looks to represent her favourite artistic movements, in homage to the catwalk’s art-inspired approach to make-up for autumn/winter (Damien Hirst-style red and blue dots at Louise Gray, slashes of fuchsia paint at Vivienne Westwood Red Label). “There’s been a lull and people want that playfulness back. They want to fall in love again with make-up,” she states. Chatting to her days before the shoot, I ask for a clearer idea of what she has in mind. She tells me that she can’t make any guarantees, “The only way I know how to apply make-up is by feeling it and being open to the model, the moment, the emotion – I don’t try to force it, I let it flow.”
The artists within
There aren’t many make-up artists in the business today who can get away with being this vague before a shoot. But over the last decade, Box has steadily built up the kind of reputation which concludes that those who know her work, know that she delivers. “Over the years, it’s been hard to explain [what I’ll create] to people. You have to trust the magic moment will come for people to trust your success.”
And that I do. So much so, that – as she works on her canvas for the day, our cherubic model Georgie – I actively keep my distance, sensing that she is in that kind of magic moment.
Still, Box is aware of everything around her. After transforming Georgie into a Cubist effigy, Box stopped, looked across the room and asked if we could unzip the cushion cover on the studio sofa. Brilliantly, it became a mane of cubist, statuesque hair, lending the final image a stroke of spontaneous genius. “I’m absorbing what is possible all the time. It doesn’t stop at the face. It doesn’t stop at all, you can’t turn it off,” she reasons. “I always feel as though I’m looking at the world through a filter – seeing colours and possibilities. I often wonder what it’s like to be in someone else’s head.”
Growing up an only child in Grimsby, Box’s artistic streak showed itself early on: “The minute I could grab something to draw or paint with, I did.” During her teenage years, she submerged herself in the subcultures of fashion, art and music. Her artistic skill took her to the prestigious fine art degree at Chelsea College of Art where she discovered the body as a new canvas.
Her subsequent move into the fashion world was initially met with scepticism. “I remember turning up to a shoot with just a roll of Sellotape, Perspex eye pieces and no make-up at all. I was told by everybody, ‘You don’t belong here.’ That made me more defiant. I credit my upbringing – parents who believe in you or a belief in yourself.” That belief served her well. Box became creative director of Illamasqua prior to its launch in 2008 and is now one of a few make-up artists who command a top billing at Fashion Week.
It's a platform where Box’s vision can come alive; she’s sent models down the catwalk with blue faces and LEDs under their tongues. “I love the integrity of art, but I love the transience of fashion. People look at it with an open mind. It’s about people opening a magazine, looking at an image and not having to feel like they have to understand it. I like to cut through all that bulls***; it’s just experiences that are important to me.”
When looking through the photos at the end of the shoot, I feel slightly overcome with emotion. How does it feel to create an emotional response in people through art? “It feels like falling in love: for a moment, you’re innocent again. To be able to do that for anybody – that’s what I live for.”
Photography: Malcom Pate, Words: Joanna McGarry