‘The diversity that my generation has championed isn’t a fleeting trend’
From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.
Born and raised in sunny Southern California, Susie Sobol can trace her earliest beauty memories back to her mother, who she used to watch putting her hair in rollers as she got ready to go out. When the coast was clear Susie would then raid her mom’s make-up bag and sit in front of the mirror, replicating her look.
After training as a make-up artist with MAC, Sobol landed her dream role in 2010 assisting make-up artist Diane Kendal. “It was incredibly fulfilling and humbling,” she says. “Those formative years were integral in helping me become the artist I am today and in securing my place in the industry.” Since going out on her own, Susie has created looks for everyone from Chloe Moretz and Edie Campbell to Ashton Saunders and Jaden Smith for the cover of Dazed and bagged campaigns for the likes of Helmut Lang, Glossier, Bulgari, Proenza Schouler and Sacai. Showing no signs of slowing down, here we speak to Susie about the Met Gala, the role of technology in beauty, and her hopes for a sustainable future.
Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Susie Sobol: I’ve loved make-up since I can remember. My mom was pretty glamorous. In the early days I would watch my mom do her make-up. It was so 80s! She always wore forest green eyeshadow and had the best feathered hair. I’d spend time alone in front of my full-length mirror, sitting cross-legged with a pile of her make-up at my feet. I would apply each product with such care and announce what I was doing with each step. I would slowly see myself transform. I loved breaking down the “how-to” of my look, after watching my mom and my sisters do their make-up. I guess I was way ahead of my time...YouTube hadn’t been invented yet!
Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Susie Sobol: I always loved Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in high school. I grew up in a household full of women after all and we got tonnes of magazine subscriptions. I watched and copied my older sisters as they got perms and laid out on our roof wearing only baby oil and using lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide to lighten their hair. I would tear out pictures of Carolyn Murphy, Shalom Harlow and Linda Evangelista out of magazines and tape them up on my closet doors. I loved how they could change their hair and make-up and become these different characters.
How did you become a make-up artist? Where did you hone your craft?
Susie Sobol: When I dropped out of college in 1998 I moved to Hollywood and got a job at American Rag. The “coolest” store in town at the time. My next job was working in accessories at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills. That is where I first discovered designer clothes and luxury make-up. Even though I worked in accessories I was always sneaking down to the make-up area. That was when Francois Nars came out with his first book. And the iconic lipstick/nail polish combos like Schiap and Chanel Vamp were the new style. I loved Stila and Vincent Longo. I met a girl who worked for Stila and she made me grow out my over-plucked, tadpole looking 90s eyebrows. I couldn't believe how much it transformed my face and made me look so much more sophisticated somehow.
I honed my craft working for the MAC cosmetics pro store when I moved to San Francisco at 22. I think they were short staffed and needed somebody ASAP, so, miraculously, I got the job with basically no experience. Back then the training that we got as MAC pro employees was outstanding. Everything from airbrushing to good counter practice. Most important to me, colour theory was taught in training. I had wonderful, energetic and talented trainers, a few of whom I still see today backstage at MAC-sponsored shows almost 20 years later. All that, plus the hands-on experience of working on women and men with different skin tones and textures who came in every day was the best way to learn application techniques. From experience assisting and working in film and television I learned to trust my instincts and develop a sort of hyper-intuitive state on set.
What was it like working with Diane Kendal?
Susie Sobol: I basically went to the Ivy League school of assisting by working for Diane Kendal from 2010-2014. I was her full time employee and got a salary and health insurance for traveling all over the world with her to work on editorials, ad campaigns and fashion shows season after season. For a few years before I started assisting, I worked in film and television. I worked on Ezra Miller's very first feature which is called “Afterschool”. I loved that experience but it wasn't what I had moved to New York to do. I had a sliding doors moment when I was asked to be department head on “this cool new show about a group of young women in their 20’s navigating their way through New York” (GIRLS) or assisting one of the top make-up artists in the world. I decided to strip away everything I’d known, start over, and go for my initial goal of working in high fashion. Assisting was insanely hard work, where I literally didn't have any control over my own schedule for four years. It was incredibly fulfilling and humbling. Those formative years were integral in helping me become the artist I am today and in securing my place in the industry.
Tell us a bit about your creative process. From initial idea to final image.
Susie Sobol: My process isn't really just mine alone. I believe so much in the dynamics of a great team. Usually, I communicate with the stylist first. What the clothes are like, what kind of character they inspire to create, much like character building work in film. What story is this woman or man wearing these clothes telling? References of film characters play a big part of my research before a shoot. I do not use Instagram or the internet to look for new ideas...Not unless it is someone or something very specific we are using as a starting point. I think being on Instagram looking at other peoples work can be dangerous. I believe these images and advertising sink into our unconscious minds and can dampen true creativity.
You recently did the make-up for Edie Campbell and Ashton Sanders at the Met Gala. What were the concepts and inspirations behind the looks?
Susie Sobol: I met Edie eight years ago while assisting. She's one of the most beautiful, intelligent and funny women I've had the pleasure to work with. For the MET, Edie and I agreed that because the dress she and Molly Goddard chose for her to wear already conveyed a “camp” aesthetic, we didn't need to add a crazy make-up. We decided to do clean beautiful skin with red carpet highlights, a smudged black liner on the top outside lash-line and tons of black mascara. A little Kate Mossy esque.
For Telfar, the direction for the hair was “a processed hair style which combines duke ellington era waves with a colonial tail-and-bow by way of Toussaint Louverture — revolutionary founder of the world’s first black nation,” says Babak Radboy, creative director for Telfar. For Telfar’s look, he and I looked at some references of gorgeous, tonal make-up on black supermodels from the early 2000’s, with full, elegant brows and cocoa brown shadows. Ashton’s look was a bit more “masculine.” I used Fenty Beauty foundation on both men to achieve a flawless complexion without too much shine. I added depth to Ashton’s eyebrows, mustache and chin hair with dark brown and black matte shadow to make his features fit the character of his “Willy Ninja” inspired look. I added a beauty mark as a nod to the yin and yang of the masculine feminine balance between the two of them.
What is your dream project to work on?
Susie Sobol: My dream project would be to apprentice the Emmy-award winning make-up artist Scott Wheeler. Scott and the equally talented and genius hairstylist Amanda Mofield, did the make-up and hair for all five seasons of the sketch comedy show “Key and Peele”. The characters they create for each skit are executed with such high quality and imagination, although I know sometimes they only get minutes to execute a full hair and make-up look. (Mostly using prosthetics, mak-eup, wigs and hair pieces) I would absolutely fetch him coffee over a summer off just to have the chance to watch his process.
How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Susie Sobol: Technology has had a polarizing effect on the fashion and beauty industry. It's definitely changed our industry for the foreseeable future. It allows for anyone and everyone to express themselves creatively on a large platform and “be seen”. Also, having access to YouTube videos and Instagram tutorials has given people everywhere the possibility to discover the power, the magic and the fun that make-up brings. Unfortunately, social media also has a way of bringing on fear, insecurity and depression in even the most confident people.
What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Susie Sobol: For young artists hoping to work in the industry: assist a make-up artist whose work you love. Learn set etiquette and how to work with clients. Don’t make Instagram your only point of inspiration. Be competitive with yourself and yourself only. Practice on yourself and your friends. Get inspired by every aspect of art and nature. Develop your own point of view and don’t forget where you came from!
Looking back what would you have done differently?
Susie Sobol: Looking back I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently.
What is the future of beauty?
Susie Sobol: The future of beauty is now… it’s the golden age of make-up! I am proud to be part of a generation and team who has brought models of all colours and backgrounds to the highest level of fashion. The diversity that my generation has championed isn’t a fleeting trend and will continue to be a huge part of the conversation.
What are you currently working on?
Susie Sobol: I am currently in the middle of a very busy season so I’m traveling a lot and shooting advertising campaigns and editorials. I like to make sculptures using make-up and hope to photograph them someday for a book or blog. I also take pictures of people I see on my travels or out and about in New York, London and Paris whose make-up I find especially well done or inspiring. Maybe I’ll call it “Beauty In The Wild” and turn it into an Instagram account!
Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
Susie Sobol: I would love to shine a spotlight on sustainability and using less harmful materials in the making of beauty and skin care products. Maybe inventing an earth friendly qtip and looking back over my own carbon footprint in this industry to try and reverse some of it.