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Make-up artist Jenny Coombs
Courtesy of Jenny Coombs

Luminous skin and pops of colour: get to know MUA Jenny Coombs


TextAlex Peters

We speak to the make-up artist about developing her craft, working on the Yohji Yamamoto runway shows, and how AR is changing the industry

For make-up artist Jenny Coombs, everything comes down to skin. “I am very passionate about skin looking like skin and all of the beautiful textures to play with,” she says. After honing what she calls her “skin craft” while assisting artists like Maki Ryoke and Lucia Pieroni, Coombs broke out on her own, bringing her signature style of luminous skin always with a pop of colour everywhere from Burberry to British Vogue and Buffalo Zine.

Born in Bletchley, the make-up artist grew up in Grasse, France around culture and landscapes that provided constant inspiration. “I was drawn to the café culture, Riviera fashions, and the amazing French pharmacies,” she says. “Growing up close to the sea and the mountains, I was always immersed in nature, colour, and beautiful scents.” A child of the 90s, she was obsessed by the pop culture of the time from the Spice Girls to David Bowie as well as Pop art which caught her eye with its vivid colours. They are influences that show up in her work today – from bleached eyebrows and bold, clashing colours to the warped and distorted faces at Liam Hodges SS20, Coombs is never afraid to experiment and her work is free from boundaries. “For me, there are no rules,” she says. “I love that beauty is multi-faceted.” 

Here we speak to the make-up artist about developing her craft, working on the Yohji Yamamoto runway shows, and how AR is changing the industry.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Jenny Coombs: It began shortly after we moved to France – being pale with big, ginger hair, there weren’t many others that looked like me on the Cote D’Azur! Everyone had gorgeous tans and sun-bleached hair, so I definitely stood out. But I was pretty outgoing growing up and actually enjoyed making myself stand out even more with the way I presented myself. Always dressed in some crazy clashing colours and prints, I loved visiting London and spending all of my money at Topshop (that was ‘exotic’ in France at the time). I loved wearing bright eyeshadows that matched what I was wearing, always paired with Lancome Juicy Tubes lip gloss.

Why are you a make-up artist? What made you want to become one?

Jenny Coombs: At the age of 14, I was told to start thinking about careers at school and to research some university options. This totally freaked me out because despite working super hard, I was never an academic student. Around the same time, I was beginning to experiment with beauty – on myself and doing student’s make-up and hair for school performances. It was actually my parents who planted the seed about becoming a make-up artist, and as cheesy as it sounds it was literally a lightbulb moment. I have never looked back since!

How did you actually get into it? Where did you hone your craft?

Jenny Coombs: I studied at The London College of Fashion for three years which was an amazing experience. On top of learning make-up skills, we were given projects where we art-directed entire shoots which helped me understand the different roles in creating fashion stories and working with other young creatives opened my mind. 

In my second year, I began work experience at a prominent fashion and beauty agency which then led to me working there part-time for a few years. This introduced me to the world of fashion and helped me to get my foot in the door assisting. I developed my make-up craft through assisting for five years, working for a broad variety of artists. I learnt so much more than I did at university and it helped me form my own taste and visual language. 

What is your creative process? From initial idea to final image.

Jenny Coombs: I’ve always been a visual person, so I love researching in books, online, in magazines and creating mood boards. It’s nice to have some ideas to bring to a team and bounce ideas off each other. Very often throughout a shoot I can suddenly be asked or decide myself to do something totally different and just follow my instincts. Sometimes I won’t even know until the model is dressed and on set what I want to do, so will quickly create something just before the photographer begins shooting. I also like to lay out from my kit a large variety of colours and textures to see what I respond to; this also helps with the spontaneity of creating.

What are the projects that you’re most proud of? 

Jenny Coombs: I remember having a pinch-me moment when I started doing Yohji Yamamoto’s men’s shows. Working alongside such a creative genius is an unforgettable, eye-opening experience. I will always have fond memories of working on the Holland & Holland campaigns with Jamie Hawkesworth and featuring the late (and much missed) Stella Tennant. We travelled to some incredible locations (Argentina, Mongolia, Norway), which brought the team together like a family unit. 

Working on Xander Zhou’s AW20 show was such a fun, high-adrenaline time. We had about 45-50 models with varied looks: coloured contact lenses, half-face makeup, colourful false eyelashes, duo chrome eyeliner, and one boy had a fully pixelated face! It was a hell of a lot to get through, but the outcome was brilliant thanks to the help of my wonderful team. I also worked on a stunning editorial for American Vogue just before the first lockdown which was so dreamy. Autumn De Wilde photographed a variety of actors and models (Gwendoline Christie, Tanya Reynolds, Jeremy O. Harris, Audrey Marnay, Kesewa Aboah, Lucan Gillespie). It was shot at West Wycombe Estate and had such a magical feel to it.

What should make-up bring to a shoot or runway show?

Jenny Coombs: It’s all about the make-up and fashion being in sync with each other. I see each shoot and runway as presenting a character and a story, so for me it’s all about how I contribute towards forming that.

How do you think our year of lockdown is going to affect beauty trends? 

Jenny Coombs: I have definitely become lazier with my make-up routine in the last year (not for skincare though!), although as soon as we are allowed to start socialising and going out again, I cannot wait to get tarted up and really go for it with my make-up! In terms of beauty in fashion, after being restricted with several lockdowns, it feels like we’re all keen to push the beauty boundaries again. 

What is your dream project to work on?

Jenny Coombs: Guinevere Van Seenus with Paolo Roversi – that has been my dream for a long time. Guinevere has such a unique beauty; I love how creative she is herself. I’ve loved Paolo’s work since I first discovered him and was so lucky to have been on many of his shoots as an assistant. On the flip side, although it’s not my personal style I would love to do JLO or Erika Jayne’s make-up (I’m obsessed with The Real Housewives franchise).

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?

Jenny Coombs: With fashion being so fast and throwaway these days, I do feel a similarity in the beauty industry. Being on set these days, you seem to have a lot less time to indulge in prepping the model. It was definitely a slower, more considered process in the past. 

There is a lot more fluidity now, the old-school ways are less prominent. The opportunities to explore being a make-up artist without having to assist are abundant, and through social media everyone is more connected. I feel that the beauty industry is definitely becoming more supportive and is uniting different fields.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?

Jenny Coombs: I think people might become inspired to get more creative now that AR technology is being used by more beauty brands (such as Chanel’s Lipscanner app), where you can try before you buy and the forever-evolving choice of beauty tools. But it does worry me how face-altering filters have become the norm – some of them are just for fun like Bimini Bon Boulash and Alex Box’s make-up looks on Instagram. But a lot of people and brands only post selfies or photos of their work on models/talent looking unrealistically flawless. It’s such a dangerous mentality to develop which then leads people to thinking that they need excessive amounts of cosmetic procedures. 

However, I am glad that there are now some influencers beginning to show their natural features and addressing the need for healthier, authentic representations of beauty. Since getting in front of the camera for my own social media, my perception of beauty got a bit twisted for a while. It’s easy to get warped into wanting to look perfect but there’s no such thing as perfection. I’ve learnt to be more accepting of my natural features which essentially is what makes us all unique.  

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Jenny Coombs: Don’t stop practising your techniques (not just on yourself), research is so key to building up your own aesthetic. I think assisting is still a super useful way to learn new skills (because you never stop learning) and immerse yourself in the industry for building future relationships. Also, just work hard, be on time and show commitment to your craft.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on?

Jenny Coombs: Conscious Beauty Union for supporting artists in the UK to develop more sustainable and inclusive practices. And Terracycle for collaborating with beauty brands (such as Maybelline) to provide free beauty recycling.

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