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Lucie Rox, WATER••COLOUR [2021]
Lucie Rox, WATER••COLOUR [2021]Photography by Lucie Rox, Make-up by Crystabel Riley

Crystabel Riley is forging her own green path through the beauty industry


TextAlex Peters

With a zero-waste, ethical approach to her work, the make-up artist is committed to environmentally conscious beauty

Despite some genuine progress, and a whole bunch of greenwashing, it is still very difficult to be environmentally conscious and sustainable in the beauty industry. Committed to doing her bit and making a change is make-up artist Crystabel Riley

Taking a principled and conscientious approach to her practice, Riley – who has collaborated with publications including Dazed and Beauty Papers, and industry big-wigs like Juergen Teller and Robbie Spencer – works almost exclusively with ethical and vegan brands, and is taking steps towards being zero waste. It’s an ethos she applies to both her personal life and work. 

“It’s a lifestyle thing, so if I am collecting and drying materials and have different beauty rituals at home anyway, it tends to appear in my creative practice,” she says. In 2017, Riley co-developed the first Eco Beauty course at the London College of Fashion. Backstage for designers including Di Petsa, Ahluwalia Studio and Phoebe English, she uses techniques like cleansing with hot flannels instead of disposable wipes and using hand-crafted durable wooden tools.

It’s not just the environment that has benefited from this approach, but the creativity of her work as well. It has pushed her to be more resourceful when it comes to what is thought of as make-up. From sea salt to sand, Riley has expanded the parameters of her beauty kit to include materials and natural ingredients. “By attempting to be conscious in my approach and what materials I’m willing to contribute to landfill, or down the drain, it has also led me to have a more expansive approach to what I want to work with,” she says. 

For a shoot for ATMOS with Ben Toms and Robbie Spencer last year, for example, Riley created a striking look with feathers. It had been an idea two years in the making but one that got shelved when finding ethical sources for the feathers proved impossible. But then, during lockdown, Riley’s mum got some ducks. “I slowly foraged fallen feathers and worked out traditional sterilisation techniques which was a long process,” says Riley. Ultimately, though, it was worth it and now it’s one of the projects she’s most proud of. “The abstract re-imagining of feather-use, with the work of the team, made an image that I love.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? 

Crystabel Riley: I grew up in a few places; but started in the Norfolk countryside, with a glamorous Nigerian mother who did gardening in double-breasted suits, big earrings and skinny brows, and an entomologist father who was very nerdy and into stamp collecting. We had a house full of boxes of insects from his work, and endless natural history books. My mum was pretty baffled by Englishness and missed home a lot, we were lucky to go to Nigeria often. For one of the trips we were there for a year, and I even joined a primary school there. The positivity of that experience was profound. It made me understand the world differently, and deconstruct the Oxfam-industrial-charity-complex views of Africa, which seemed to be the main point of reference for the people I encountered in Norfolk. 

Then we moved to Gloucester with my mum’s new husband, my amazing step-father. It was quite rough and violent in the new school and it was my first encounter with the intersection of misogyny and racism – I was bullied for having a Black mother as opposed to a Black father, and being African rather than Jamaican, so there were these unsettling hierarchies in that town. Being bi-racial also came with a type of privilege which I later began to understand and find disgusting.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Crystabel Riley: My sister had a big influence – quite sci-fi clothes. The hair was synthetic, blue braids, and the clothes all seemed synthetic, too. It all made you stink of BO. My friends from Gloucester, Sailor and Keira J Fox, with whom I still collaborate, both had a big influence. We didn’t particularly conform to anything and were quite comfortable being outsiders. We would go to Crackers, a Metal club in Gloucester. Sailor was important because they were half-Jamaican, quite gothy and would often draw on a moustache. – an important person to break down various cultural segregations at the same time.

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

Crystabel Riley: I think looking back it makes sense now that I became a make-up artist. I painted portraits always at school and would stay back at lunchtime painting people’s faces, working on the nuances of colour and skin tones. At the time, it felt quite random. Keira J Fox wanted to start a band partly out of disgust for the 00’s misogyny of the indie movement, we wanted to dress up and look quite weird-glamorous-industrial-dystopic-on holiday, then make really terrifying noise music.  

So I appointed myself a drummer and make-up artist for the band, neither of which I knew how to do, but I loved beating these different sets of skins. Immediately I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a make-up artist’. From then I just literally put everything into trying to do that. It felt (and feels) like such an intense privilege to work on human skin.

Where did you hone your craft? Is it something you learnt or is it more instinctual?

Crystabel Riley: Understanding colour, balance, symmetry and patterns, and working in a free-hand way, under immense pressure, is something I am comfortable with and has been instinctual. But I have worked really hard on my craft, technically. The organisation that is required within the mind has been something I have had to work hard on.

I did fashion assisting where I learned so much about doing invisible skin make-up. But I also learned a lot in the make-over studios of the 00s which don’t exist anymore. They were places where you had to churn out 10 make-up looks a day. Some days, I would just work on beautiful Black skin all day, or another day it would be beautiful South Asian skin all day. At the time (around 2009) the fashion industry, and models, were mainly white. So I really valued this experience.  

At the same time, Keira, who I was in the band with, began doing performance art with another project, New Noveta, who I then collaborated with for their make-up direction. For years I was making compostable prosthetic noses, cheeks built out of local waxes, and all sorts of projects that really pushed me to my extremes as an artist. I was also trying to explore the ethics around the make-up and materials I was working with. I feel like I learned a lot through those unique projects.

Do you think you have a signature look or technique that people come to you for?

Crystabel Riley: I’d describe it as ‘Nuanced’. A nuanced eyebrow, whether flat and ghostly, grunge, skinny, feral, handsome, or norm-core. I feel like I never take anything for granted. The nuance of how these feed into the look or the story. People also come to me for detailed skin work, and really cared for skin. 

As a make-up artist you work towards being sustainable and waste-free and work with organic and ethical beauty brands – why is this so important to you?

Crystabel Riley: Personally for me, for something to be really luxurious or beautiful it needs to have a sustainable or conscious focus. So many brands are working really hard to look into their own chains of impact, and this type of total approach is what I am interested in as an artist. It’s hard because I’ve seen it go from being really un-cool and unacknowledged to being a massive PR movement. 

There is a deep conflict between sustainability and capital and product recommendations, so I do feel like a hypocrite when talking about these things in the same sentence. At the same time, there are amazing stories of the way beauty can connect to improving people’s lives worldwide. Anyone interested in the Black Lives Matter movement should be interested in who grows and produces raw materials and how these old colonial chains of subjugation still exist. We should be encouraged to ask questions and push for greater transparency.  

What would you say to people interested in being more ethical in their beauty routine?

Crystabel Riley: No brand or person is perfect, including myself, but it’s a journey that people should not be afraid to be on (out of fear that it’s not enough or not perfect). At the moment the odds are stacked against us and the cultural climate is still very much about land-fill. But if it were not for activism we would still have animal testing in the EU, we would still have solid microplastics. It was only in 2018 that we saw prominent make-up brands using prison labour in the USA.

All these things only changed because they were called out. There are some really ugly sides to the beauty industry and if there isn’t transparency then there is potential for problems. The vegan make-up movement saw a massive increase in use of Carnauba wax which was being harvested under ‘slave’ conditions. So we need to keep an eye on everything and keep making sure we are paying for the luxury of simple fairness and quality of ingredients, quality of soil, and quality of life. For me, it’s just really bad karma all over your face.

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

Crystabel Riley: Practically to do as much assisting as possible, and to create your own community [of practice]. Also approach the products you use, your materials, as only a starting point, and share with your community to reduce waste and build your materials in a responsible way.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?

Crystabel Riley: Ameenah Begum at Planet Friendly Paint – they up-cycle make-up compacts and pigments and turn them into watercolour pallets.

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