Mat Maitland and Lucia Pieroni look to the past to envision beauty’s future

The collage artist meets Document's beauty director to discuss his extraordinary new series of digital images, which reimagine some of Pieroni's most iconic makeup looks

Has digital media expanded our conception of beauty? It’s certainly seen an overdue bowling down of the gatekeepers, but perhaps the question isn’t what’s hot so much as what’s possible. Mat Maitland creates otherworldly digital collages that suggest anything is. The London-based visual artist considers himself “outside the system of fashion”—his most iconic images include album artwork for Michael Jackson, Prince, Beck, and Basement Jaxx—but that’s probably what has earned him clients ranging from MAC to Louis Vuitton. Splicing glossy editorials and historical artifacts with pop absurdity and a metaphysical sense of anticipation, Maitland frees beauty imagery from the shackles of earthly (and market) constraints, referencing the whole history of humanity while imagining our next frontier. Aspirational depictions of female beauty have a tendency to feel provocative in an image-saturated contemporary culture where “real” beauty is increasingly fetishized—and, inevitably, co-opted for mainstream advertising in its most banal distillation. But in Maitland’s fantasmatic visual world, reality is overrated, and beauty is everywhere: dolphins, rock formations, abstract paintings, crumbling Ionic columns are invested with the libidinal magic of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk or Helmut Newton’s superhuman physiques.

Lucia Pieroni is undoubtedly a fashion system insider. She has created some of the most extraordinary campaigns and runway looks for brands including Prada, Versace, and Louis Vuitton—and recently brought her organic, intuitive beauty philosophy to Document Journal as the magazine’s beauty director. Incidentally, Pieroni’s work has also appeared in Maitland’s collages, though neither of them were aware of it until we brought them together for this new series of images, in which Maitland isolates and recontextualizes a selection of Pieroni’s most memorable editorial collaborations with photographers including Mert & Marcus and David Sims. Despite arriving at their respective positions via very different paths—Maitland got his start in the music business before running the design company Big Active, while Pieroni was initially tossing up between art and dancing—there is a symbiotic relationship between their work. Pieroni draws inspiration from surrealist art and even decades-old musicals, employing painting’s laws of light and shade while letting the distinctive elements of different faces influence her initial concept. Like Maitland, she works spontaneously, embracing accidents and being in the moment.

Maitland and Pieroni recently met over Zoom to discuss coming of age in London in the exuberant ’80s, the paradox of self-expression on social media, and creating dynamic new imagery by digging through the past.

Collage by Mat Maitland, original photography by David Sims.

Lucia Pieroni: In one of your [previous] collages, you had used a picture of the head of one of the models from a Rick Owens show that I did, with real gold leaf on her face. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s mine!’ I must say, I was very flattered.

What happens in your process, in your brain, when you look at something and think, ‘Hmm, okay…’?

Mat Maitland: In a way, my images are collaborative because they contain elements from other people, but they’re not collaborative in the same way you might work with a team on a shoot. I work in a bit of a bubble. I suppose my process is quite back-to-front in that I react to what [an image] suggests and how I can transform it; it’s really intuitive, and it’s about the accidents that happen. I don’t really think about it much. I don’t really do sketches; I don’t have any pre-existing notions. For our project, the one thing I did decide was to work in quite a soft, pastel color palette style using the white of the canvas, almost a little like David Bowie’s Scary Monsters album cover.

Lucia: It’s interesting you say that. In a funny way, it’s quite similar to how I work. I can get a collection of references—images of art, photography, whatever—and there’s something about an image that I love. I can’t put my finger on what that something is, and I can have that [picture as a] model, and then it just morphs into something else. Sometimes my assistant will say to me, ‘God, you got that from that?’ It’s all sort of swirling around in my head, It’s a feeling, and I just produce something—often just following through with the mistakes.

Mat: Yes, I think we all expect that everyone perceives things the way we perceive them. But of course, no one ever does. So when you think about a reference, it’s impossible to pin that down as it’s all about an individual perspective. I was intrigued to know—and I know this depends on the show or shoot, and who you’re working with, and all the variables—how that works [in your practice].

Lucia: A lot of my work is quite spontaneous. but it does depend on who I’m working with. I can have a ton of references, but can be looking at an image on the screen knowing it needs something, maybe a super-matte red lip or a crazy blue eye, and I do it on set. Also, with my stuff, it’s quite messy. I don’t really spend hours doing things. It’s very immediate. I’m not into endlessly blending makeup. I get bored, it just takes too long. [Laughs] It makes me start doubting myself as well. If I do it quickly, I feel it, I love it, it looks great, that’s it.

Collage by Mat Maitland, original photography by Mert + Marcus.

Mat: I remember doing a shoot for a music job, and I had this David Lynch reference from Wild at Heart—you know, where Diane Ladd paints her face red. She looks insane, she has lipstick all over her face. I convinced the singer to do this shot. She was really into doing it. But trying to recreate that was hard. It’s such a loose thing and, you’re right, once you start thinking about it too much it looks contrived. I’m looking at the image that I used of yours where she’s got her arms over her head and she’s got the necktie of the eyes. The makeup on that is amazing.

Lucia: The reference I used for that was a Jenny Saville self-portrait, from quite a long time ago. She’s on the floor and I think she’s supposed to have been punched. But it’s just such a beautiful painting. It’s an incredible painting.

Mat: Editorial is still obviously an amazing space to be creative and to do really progressive ideas, and that’s where the most interesting work, I think, gets made. Or even on Instagram. Whereas I think advertising—with beauty, anyway—a lot of the time seems to lack that sort of bravery, especially when you compare it to the Dior or Shiseido campaigns from the ’70s and ’80s.

Lucia: I totally agree with you. What is that? Is it just money? I mean, I had a makeup contract for a long time, and there are so many stipulations about what you can and can’t do. You’d think you’d want to inspire, wouldn’t you? But I guess it depends on who you’re inspiring. There seems to be that huge trend of overly retouched, overly made-up faces that have inspired people to make themselves up to look like retouched faces.

Mat: It’s quite a paradox, in a way, that social media has allowed this freedom to express yourself. But it’s often within the confines of emulating something else. I did this series about two years ago, one night it just popped into my head and I was like, ‘I wonder what it would be like if Marilyn Monroe had all of these facial adjustments that everyone’s having now.’ I know she did have plastic surgery, but it was done in a kind of softer way. So I did an image of Marilyn with that same face. It got a really strong reaction, it went viral. I did a series of these: Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Princess Diana—imagining those icons fitting this cookie-cutter beauty, and losing all the amazing individuality those women had. Social media seems liberating, but at the same time, it’s also the opposite.

Lucia: Yeah, it is. It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s amazing in the sense that you get all these kids in their bedrooms, and some of them are very talented, creating things for themselves. It’s very inclusive, and you don’t have to be the most gorgeous person in the world—you’re still beautiful. But then there is the weird side of all these young people changing themselves so dramatically via plastic surgery. It’s very strange to me. Even the receptionist at my dentist, she must be 20, and she wears foundation that’s been put on with a trowel. I mean, it’s perfect, the shading is amazing. But, my god, you’re like, ‘Why have you got all that chemical on your skin, all those toxins seeping into your face at that age?’ I don’t know, maybe I’m too old [laughs].

Mat: I suppose beauty ideals have always been defined by external forces for centuries—from Greek gods and statues, to the golden age of Hollywood, to the fashion magazines that became the gatekeepers of this kind of out-of-reach, aspirational beauty that just seemed so out of this world. It was a fantasy.

I think the gossip magazines of the ’90s were almost like the quiet before the storm of where we’ve got to with everything now. Even in music, the ‘90s was a backlash, wasn’t it, against the ’80s? The whole idea of fantasy, glamour, everything kind of heightened—suddenly all of that came tumbling down, it was, like, Nirvana rather than Michael Jackson. All these gossip mags were surfacing and they were making stars seem much more real, more like us, and the cloak of mystery felt like it was lifted.

Lucia: I agree. And it’s nice to have some glamour and fantasy—things that are almost unobtainable, and possibly inspirational, I think. Going back to the ’80s or ’90s, when I started, you would get excited if an issue of Italian Vogue that you’d worked on was coming out. You had to wait months for it to come out, especially if it was a foreign magazine, it could be even longer.

But you’ve done so many really amazing albums, as well—do you call them albums now? They’re not called something else are they [laughs].

Mat: [Laughs] I guess they are still called albums. But music is the same thing, isn’t it? I was a massive Michael Jackson fan, and I loved Prince as well. They both cleverly crafted this air of mystery and enigma, and you only saw what was being presented through a much smaller media landscape.

Lucia: You did a Michael Jackson cover, didn’t you? That’s amazing!

Mat: I did the Xscape album cover, yeah. I still can’t believe I did it. It was like a dream, doing that…I suppose my creative life really started with music—doing record covers, art directing. I wasn’t really an image-maker at that point, but I always loved creating them, especially when I was at college. But for some reason, I fell into being a designer. I worked for a record label, then I left and joined the design company Big Active, where I am now creative director. The project that reignited my love for making images was Goldfrapp’s album Black Cherry, where I created all the collages, and from there I gradually evolved a body of work as a visual artist which leans more towards fashion than music.

Have you always done makeup?

Lucia: I think I have, which is a little bit weird! I did art when I was younger, I used to paint and draw a lot. And I still sketch and stuff, but I don’t really paint properly any more—and I think my approach to makeup is very much from painting. I was toying between art and being a dancer. I don’t think I was a very good dancer, unfortunately, which was a bit of a shame. I remember when I was about 13 or 14, I was obsessed with fashion magazines and beauty. I used to cut out Honey Magazine, 19, and Vogue—on the rare occasions I got Vogue—and I made this massive collage on my bedroom wall. It was huge. It took me about three years, and I was totally obsessed by it. I think I took one picture of it on an Instamatic camera once, which was really shit, because the flash kind of bounced off the wall and you couldn’t see any of it. When I realized I couldn’t be a dancer, I started thinking, ‘Well maybe I could do this-ish…’ When you’re 18 or 21, when you come out of college, you don’t know what you want to do. I went to Australia for no good reason [laughs]. You just do mad things, being young, you’re more interested in clubbing than being serious about life.

Mat: I feel like I completely wasted half the ’90s just going clubbing [laughs]. It was insane. Because it dovetailed with the whole E thing.

Lucia: Yeah, early ’90s. I moved to New York in the mid-’90s. It was lots of fun and quite mad, I was not really working [laughs]. Just sort of hanging out, living, and having a laugh, basically. Then it all sort of kicked in. I started working with Glen Luchford and it took off from there.

Mat: I don’t know about you, but I always look to the past, more than I do to what’s going on now. I almost don’t follow other contemporary image-makers, because I don’t want to be too influenced by looking at everyone else’s work in the present day. I kind of feel weird about posting new creative references on Instagram. I tend to post images from the past because I find it more interesting and it feeds into my work as an image-maker.

Lucia: Yes, I understand what you’re saying. I think a lot of my creative images come from drawing or painting, or something a bit more abstract…I really love surrealism. I really love that kind of Man Ray feeling of being in Paris, with all those amazing people. Or Lee Miller—I love that kind of era, where you delve in and you find really odd pictures of people with strange things [happening] in a makeup sense. A splodge of paint or something, I find that really inspiring—the odd things, not the obvious.

Mat: I just bought this book that I saw you’d recommended somewhere, I can’t remember where I saw it, the geisha book [by Jodi Cobb].

Lucia: Oh god, yeah, that’s an amazing book!

Mat: I can’t wait to get it. I always seem to gravitate towards Japanese culture and art, it really affects me. Whether it is Japanese airbrush art from the ’80s, or Eiko Ishioka…Japan has that allure that’s almost like when you said in the ’90s, waiting for your Vogue magazine to turn up, all these things that feel like you can’t really get to them. Japan’s still got that for me.