"It’s ‘luxury,’ but the actual ingredients are really cheap.” The London-based artist tells Document about changing an industry from the outside

Crystabel Riley’s kit looks very different from those of other makeup artists. She carries handmade tools and reusable cloths for washing, locally sourced beeswax, agar, raw ingredients like charcoal and clay from the Bulk Market in Hackney, and carefully researched products, like Kitaka of London lipsticks, which are crafted from organic ingredients and center colors that complement darker skin tones. Lately, this kit also includes bamboo washable gloves, plastic-free REELshield face coverings, and individual hand-organized pigment palettes for each model—in essence, green PPE. 

“Agar is seaweed powder, and it has a totally different way of working,” Riley told me earlier this year, at her local organic wine bar in London’s Dalston neighborhood. For Phoebe English’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection at London Fashion Week—about two weeks before COVID-19 was officially deemed a pandemic—Riley used the agar to create a delicate “apocalypse” of star-like patterns that disrupt what we typically think of as ‘natural beauty.’ “I use the word ‘apocalypse’, but I’m trying to use it optimistically,” she said. “That’s why they’re constellations as well.” A vision of an end of times—uncompromising but not without a sliver of hope. No one can deny how timely this concept is five months later. 

Riley is arguably the first to adopt a zero-waste approach to makeup. She has shaped her entire practice by these values, applying hot flannels and oils for cleansing, instead of disposable wipes and cotton buds, using ancient practices like Chinese lymphatic techniques for the skin, and hand-crafting durable wooden tools. The term ‘zero waste’ isn’t literal but rather aspirational, a statement of purpose. She bases collaborations around shared values and knowledge. (The beauty sponsor for Phoebe English was Weleda—one of the true old school organic skin lines, founded in 1921—so Riley visited the brand’s biodynamic farms.) Her approach is a reconsideration of what it means to be luxury, a concept the industry has been grappling with on multiple levels, as streetwear has merged with the traditional and questions of sustainability have entered the dialogue. 

Backstage at Di Pesta Fall/Winter 2020.

“Within our industry there is a tendency towards ‘bigger is better’ and ‘more is better.’ More and more and more,” Riley said, adding that this extends to most artists’ makeup kits. “It just doesn’t work with the makeup I’m doing. I have to keep a certain section of my makeup kit in the fridge. The materials need to be mixed, adjusted, thickened, thinned, colors changed and adjusted. It’s not necessarily about buying a thousand different products. [The makeup I use] is not a thing that I can hold onto in palettes for years,” she explained. “It does require some rethinking around what it is to provide a luxury service, and to [convince potential clients] they’re getting better, rather than making them think they’re getting less.”

Riley never intended to be a makeup artist. She studied history and politics and had a different perception of makeup when she was younger. “I didn’t really know what [makeup] was or what it was about,” she said. “But as I moved through the world and started using it—I used to play in a band, and makeup was really important to the projection we were giving off—I just realized how political makeup can be. It’s one of the first elements of a story about a person that you can tell without even saying anything.” 

Her journey to a greener practice was a gradual process. Riley struggles with eczema, and over time, realized she couldn’t put products she was using on others on herself. “I began to feel more and more like a hypocrite for not putting this stuff on me,” she related, explaining that she doesn’t consider the face a canvas, but a living thing. “I gradually began to feel my way through it. I became really interested in being able to read and understand ingredients, and [to know] what I was putting on people—just actually having a knowledge of that.”

As she delved into the ingredients in the products we all use, something became clear. “Luxury seemed to be more of an abstract term rather than a real term,” Riley explained. “So, you’re looking at these creams that are called ‘skincare,’ and it’s the most uncaring set of ingredients. It’s ‘luxury,’ but the actual ingredients are really cheap.”

“Ethical makeup is not about taking something away, it’s really about adding something interesting to replacing pure commerce.”

“I think the idea of luxury is really starting to merge with the idea of knowledge,” she continued. “Maybe we’re going back to the true ritualistic aspect of makeup—the birth of makeup.”

There’s an anthropological argument that body makeup was the first true art, the first sign of human cognition. When humans created a collective system of fictive identities, they created the first representation of the self. The first expression of human consciousness. “That was part of ritualistic ceremonies, normally to do with hunting and fertility,” explained Riley of makeup’s origins. “The basic elements.”

Today, luxury—which, for many, means packaging—is about recreating a sense of ritual and ceremony, said Riley. “But I’m more interested in creating that ourselves, through knowledge of the stuff, and also through the way we use it—so it is less about packets and throwing things away, and more about mixing things, creating our own,” she said. “Ethical makeup is not about taking something away, it’s really about adding something interesting to replacing pure commerce.” 

Changing an industry from the outside poses challenges. Often, it means getting creative when existing materials do not fulfill your purpose.

“I came across this vegan gelatin [when] I was doing a project at the Tate Modern, working with an artist there,” recalled Riley, referring to a cruelty-free version of the bonding solution commonly used for special effects makeup. “It was five days at the Tate Modern with this huge sound installation and 15 opera singers. I work with a lot of performance artists. That pushes me towards more extreme types of materials and thinking through problems on my own terms.”

Experimental work and processes become catalysts for formulas that can be used in more commercial settings. Performance art, music, feminist anthropology—Riley’s inspiration and information comes from many sources. “My knowledge is not totally complete, but it’s something I’m working on and gradually building upon,” she said. “I find there’s a lot of creativity within that process. There’s not a specific path that people can follow, but [they will find] their own path as time moves on.”