The MAC x Harris Reed collection was released in February this year, but I wanted to wait until June to write about it in honor of Pride Month. For brevity's sake - I read through dozens upon dozens of interviews with Reed - and because I'm not a gender studies or fashion expert I will try to keep this as brief as possible.
The collection was manageable, consisting of an eyeshadow palette, a gold kohl pencil, Cream Color Base compact and a palette of three lip colors. I juts picked up the eyeshadow palette and the Cream Color Base as the packaging for that one was the same for that of the lip palette.
Who is Harris Reed? Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll recognize them as the 25-year old wonder who's been taking the fashion world by storm. Reed came to my attention when Harry Styles wore several of their fabulous flouncy frocks in the December 2020 issue of Vogue.
Committed to gender-fluid fashion, Reed creates clothing that makes a statement yet doesn't take itself too seriously. "I don’t just make clothes. If you want pretty clothes, you need to go to someone else. I fight for the beauty of fluidity. I fight for a more opulent and accepting world. That is really important to me...there always has to be a message. I wouldn’t pretend that doing some crazy avant-garde outfit is going to change the world, but I like to think that it could start a conversation."
Reed's aesthetic is heavily influenced by the free-spirited atmosphere of the '70s, particularly the androgyny of glam rock and Studio 54's dazzling evenings. The wide pants legs and lapels, bold patterns and extensive use of embellishments (feathers, sequins, etc). reference the era but are modernized so as not to veer into full-on costume territory. Reed explains their fascination with glam rock to Fashionista: "I've always loved glam rock. I’ve always said we need more people like David Bowie. At a time like right now, a lot of things can either look very the same, or brands are doing things—or musicians are doing things—that sometimes don't feel authentic. I love glam rock because there’s a level of grit and more importantly a level of authenticity that I think shines through all the glitter and the glam and the flares and the ruffles. I look at all those things, the flares, the ruffles, as points of reference of someone expressing themselves at the most heightened, most authentic, most outrageous part of themselves. So I think for me, glam rock, it's almost like fluidity. Obviously it’s different, but they go hand in hand because it's your most extreme version of yourself. You are expressing who you are in the most heightened, over the top, fabulous way...I really try to be modern in my designs, but I still try to keep that nuance and push it to the limit. Be the person who doesn't fit the mold. Be the person that doesn't fit the box. That’s where I see glam rock coming back into what we do and our daily lives and within fashion—being referenced more as a way of being than just a specific style."
I can't say Reed's designs are wearable for the average person (or at least, not an entire ensemble), and they acknowledge that their latest collection is more about artistic vision than whether it would sell. I'd also argue that their clothes were made with a certain body type in mind, i.e. skinny and tall - I see zero diversity in terms of size. But Reed's dedication to creating flamboyant yet expertly tailored clothing for all genders is definitely something we can all support. Their statement about breaking free of slogans and logomania represents a thoroughly Gen Z outlook and is a refreshing new direction in fashion. "I’m ambiguous about my gender and have never understood why something is made for a man or made for a woman. I think if a piece makes someone feel invincible or unstoppable, that’s all that matters. At the centre of my work is a drive to break down any preconceived idea of what gender is. I love that fashion has an obligation to trigger debate. But at the same time, it has to be in the most fun, playful way. It’s not about slogans, it’s about fantasy, and letting someone live that fantasy through clothes. Fashion is about self-expression – dressing in a way that makes you feel the happiest you’ve ever felt. Life’s too short to try and box yourself in to something normal, so why not have as much fun as possible with what you’re wearing? For me, that means flares and flouncy blouses – the more performative, the better. I’d describe my style as glam-rock Victoriana."
(images from harrisreed.com)
Anywhere is fair game for frills and ruffles; whether they adorn the front of a blouse, the end of a sleeve or a skirt hem, they add an exuberance and joy not regularly seen in high fashion. In looking at their work, I would posit that Reed is an aficionado of the late '60s as well. Take, for example, a blouse from the showy "peacock revolution" ushered in by Michael Fish next to one Reed designed for Harry Styles.
Reed also cites "old-world" classic European art as inspiration, especially the Rococo movement. Again, while there are some literal references to that period, the clothing exudes the overall vibe of the era: dramatic, over-the-top and ornate.
(image from harrisreed.com)
Though born in Los Angeles, Reed traveled extensively growing up. "My mom is very much a free spirit and artist. She was a model in the '80s, she would go to Studio 54, she is just an incredibly creative and soulful woman and then she became a candle maker and a perfumer. With my father being in Entertainment, Los Angeles, he remained there and me, my mom and my sister went off gallivanting around America, moving to different cities and different places," they tell Purple. Reed came out as gay to their parents at the age of 9, and was grateful to have their full acceptance - they encouraged his creativity and stood up for their son when teachers called to say some parents didn't want their children in class with a gay kid. "I was bullied for being gay and for being different...my mother would often find me dancing in bedsheets and shower curtains – and she and my father nurtured and supported that side of me." (I'm relieved to hear that Reed's parents supported them, but still aghast at how recent this was. Reed is so young - when they were 9 it was 2005. I honestly did not think that kind of casual, blatant bigotry was still happening to children in the 21st century.)
Reed was a creative child, but fashion design didn't occur to them until later. It was clothing's transformative power and ability to express a different aspects of one's personality that captured their imagination as a teenager. "Fashion wasn’t part of my background. I think creativity and this yearning for creating was a part of my background – I think for me there was always this idea of creation but it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realised that clothing was more the artistic venture that I wanted to embark on. Clothing had this intense ability to transcend peoples’ emotions and for people to see each other in different perspectives and through a different lens. Once I took all this creation as a child and used and harnessed it, it was about applying it. I found it through dressing up and experiencing this playful carefree sense of trying on different identities until I found the right one. From there it was even more about building on the identity I already had and making it special to make it shine."
Reed's arrival in London to attend Central Saint Martins - the legendary design school that educated the likes of Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney - marked another turning point. "I never really sewed a proper piece together until I started at Central Saint Martins – a lot of people don’t know that. Before CSM I was mostly duct-taping, pinning, draping, literally using anything and everything I could get my hands on to create clothes without actually putting a machine to the fabric. As a child, as someone who was very much picked on and who was not someone who fit in whatsoever, I look to Central Saint Martins as the shining beacon of escape. When you looked at McQueen and Galliano and look at Ricardo Tisci, you could see what came out of there and I just remember watching old documentaries and you could see this sense of camaraderie with everyone communally coming together with shaved hair and crazy colours and crazy clothes and it just felt like my version of what outer-space would look like."
Reed was only in their 2nd year at Central Saint Martins when their "white show" outfit caught the attention of noted stylist Harry Lambert, who in turn introduced Reed's work to celebrities like Solange and Harry Styles. Reed explains: "It all took off with the first show of the BA fashion course, in which students have to make one piece in white. I’d always known who I was, but I didn’t quite know how to express that in terms of clothing and character. Then the White Show happened. There was so much I wanted to articulate in the piece I made – the experience of being bullied, my childhood fantasies, my commitment to making clothes that weren’t just pretty but also sparked conversation. And so I based my piece on those made-up characters from my childhood, this time a boy aristocrat who was kicked out by his parents for being gay and took refuge in an old opera house, putting on white powder every day until all his clothes become white. I made a giant, wide-brimmed, white felt Little-Bo-Peep hat, with a low-cut ruffled bustier jacket with huge puffed sleeves and dramatic white flares. It was neither menswear nor womenswear but genderless. And within about 30 seconds of my posting it on Instagram, Harry Lambert requested the piece for a shoot. Next thing I know, Solange is being photographed by Peter Lindbergh wearing it."
(images from @harris_reed)
"The outfit was, in a way, parallel to my own story. This character was like me coming to London and finding my salvation,” they say. “It was quite emotional because it was the first time that I put myself completely out there in London, my first kind of big full look."
Reed cites the support of their classmates as well as more seasoned designers such as Alessandro Michele, head of Gucci, for whom they interned. "I think first of all collaboration is everything, as someone who is still in school I value the collaboration of my classmates more than anything...If you just sit with something in your own mind, the outcome you have will not be nearly as good as the outcome you have when you have four friends there helping, pushing, challenging you and criticising you to come up with something better...the support of emerging designers is crucial. The world is run by huge companies and we have to support young talent. That’s why brands like Gucci are so extraordinary because I think that’s why Alessandro Michele truly can pick young talent, nurture and collaborate with them. The collaborations he does with young artists, with illustrators, designers, singers, musicians, I think more brands need to be doing things along those lines. Alessandro opened my eyes up to a world that was more colourful, vivacious and more surreal than anything I thought it could be. Those nine months in Rome were the most incredible nine months of my life. It truly gave me a whole new perception on the way that I looked at fashion. He opened my eyes up to the power of texture and colour and embroidery. His narrative lies so deeply within his veins, so deeply within his soul that I think it just pushed me to a deeper level of understanding of creation. It’s massively affecting my work now because I think everything I do has so many more layers to it within the narrative as well as the design. Now there’s a hand-painted print, with embroidery on top, finished with hand-diamanté. Everything becomes so much more multi-faceted and Alessandro instilled that within me. I think he’s a genius." Reed, in a very fitting collaboration with their mom, has since designed a collection of candles for the brand.
(image from allard-fleischl.com)
Their designs for their 2020 graduate collection hit a new peak for creativity. With the pandemic making in-person shows all but impossible, Reed and their fellow classmates had to figure out how to exhibit their collections remotely. Reed, with typical flair, teamed up with illustrator and 2020 RISD graduate Lukas Palumbo to make elaborate theater sets for their designs. The finished product is absolutely astonishing - one would never know it was photographed against a green screen in Reed's living room. Reed, of course, modeled their own designs, having previously walked for Gucci. Standing at a very lean 6'4", modeling is certainly another career option for them.
And this is where we start to talk about the makeup! Terry Barber, Director of Makeup Artistry for MAC, was in charge of makeup direction for the show. Barber provided makeup tutorials so Reed could wear the look for the final photo shoot. The summation of the style, according to Barber: "angelic but sordid." Speaking with Dazed Beauty, Reed elaborates. "The looks were quite dramatic and over the top. Terry Barber being a complete and utter beauty genius he was really able to transport and positively move what I was doing in a better direction. I was originally like ‘more gold!’ or even getting a bit more costume-y and Terry just so seamlessly brought it to a place where it was opulent, it was fluid and it was quite majestic. The influence for the make-up really came from the starting points of people like Henry Paget and this idea of theatre make-up. This idea of rosy kissed lips that are slightly smeared because you're trying to hide a secret while you’re wiping your mouth and this gold on your eyes that’s gleaming and shimmering but in a way that’s a bit fucked up because you just woke up with it on from the night before. This idea of stage make-up but then you were just at an amazing party at Studio 54 and you woke up and you slapped it back on to go greet your day and this kind of alter ego fluid manifesto of yourself...We were really just trying to find a good balance between Henry Paget and the New York Dolls. They went heavy with the stage make-up and they went quite crazy but it was that love of theatricality and this idea of men wearing make-up for the performance of it. I love the idea of everyday is the performance. The face, the skin, the lips were very Henry Paget but then the eyes were so New York Dolls to me because even though I wasn’t doing the black intense eyes they were doing, I was using that technique of smudging with my finger, getting in the creases, getting in the cracks really going for this fucked up glam rock vision...It’s a fluid romantic opulent, stable kiss fantasy. it's quite in your face, it's quite loud but then it's almost smeared. This kind of kiss-behind-the-stables, hidden Renaissance."
Adds Barber, "I had worked with Harris a few times before and we’d already connected on things that we loved in beauty like a smacked-on cheek, a rubbed in lip and finger-painted eyeshadow. The idea just came from the story of a slightly surreal, aristocratic, faded glamour, rather than anything too technical. A suggestion rather than a major statement...Harris has collected so many references along the way which not only relate to designing a collection, but also to the story of being gender fluid and how that might manifest itself in terms of styling. Many of those references lent themselves really well to creating a beauty which is at the same time romantic and subversive. We discussed foppish boys in 16th century Flemish paintings, Victorian am-dram, Fellini caricatures, Tilda Swinton in Orlando, and Bowie in his Diamond Dogs period. It was essentially about creating a character rather than a specific design."
Given the success of the Barber and Reed partnership, a MAC collection wasn't unexpected. MAC was also a natural choice for Reed as the brand was part of the designer's early makeup memories - they remember going to a MAC store and seeing the artists applying makeup on boys. "My first experiences with make-up were with my friends at a MAC store getting ready for prom and it was the brand that I first saw putting make-up on ‘boys’...for [MAC] to even trust me, and take on my strong-ass message of fighting for fluidity, I have to say, has just felt like the most beautiful partnership...M.A.C has an amazing heritage of fighting for self-expression and inclusivity, so they were so on board and supportive of that vision."
All of the product and shade names are personal for Reed. The monikers in the collection are iterations of their mantras, with the name of the copper shade in the eyeshadow palette being a favorite. "I always just say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' when there's someone in the street saying something homophobic or mean to me," Reed tells Teen Vogue. "If someone doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say or doesn’t get who I am, [that phrase] lets me brush it off, peel it away, and step forward into the light."
"Every single name in the collection is based on daily affirmations I tell myself," Reed says. "Whether it's 'embrace your duality' or 'spark conversation,' I want men, women, non-binary people, and you to be able to pull it out and to put on the best version of themselves. They're putting on an affirmation; they're putting on something that it's really helping them enhance and showcase who they are."
The shades and concept for the MAC collection are more or less an extension of the ones used in Reed's 2020 graduate collection. "The colors tell this soft, poetic story but, at the same time, I wanted to include emerald and black to be able to quickly shift to something more rock ‘n’ roll and messed up...Reference points come from anywhere from Studio 54, the ‘70s—a time of complete androgyny and glam rock and decadence and fabulousness. And then also, looking still within that theme, a completely different world [of] Rococo, more of this idea of androgyny back then. In paintings, it's so effortless and just kind of had this beautiful blending. So very much pulling in this old world, Rococo, men in makeup, really kind of lounge-y fabulousness, and then juxtaposing but also sitting beautifully within Studio 54 and the ‘70s."
The entire collection, of course, is based on Reed's boundary-less approach to fashion and makeup. The goal was to create something that could be worn by anyone for any purpose. "I want anyone and everyone to be able to wear this. This was two years in the making, and when I was creating this, my family was in the room and everyone including my dad, mom and sister agreed they’d try and wear the products I was working on. We don’t just want to normalising the wearing of make-up, but to make it accessible and acceptable to everyone by breaking any preconceived boundaries that people may have with such beauty products." No products are in a tube, and the palettes lack brushes, encouraging users to adopt a more playful, carefree application rather than precision. "The collection for me really embodies this idea of not only fluidity, but complete and utter self-expression. Nothing is in a tube and nothing has a brush. It's really all very much like an artist palette; it's meant for your fingers, it's meant for men, women, non-binary, every individual to feel completely comfortable to be able to play with...What I love about make-up is it doesn't get more hands-on or personal then you putting something on yourself. That's why for me, I'm not really a make-up brush person. You should play, touch, smudge, feel and love with your fingers on your face."
Accessibility also came in the form of the products themselves. Much like Reed's fashion, they're multi-purpose and are intended to create a variety of looks to suit any mood. "Everything and anything goes," Reed tells Allure. "It's just like my approach to fashion. One thing isn't meant to be for a top. This fabric can be for boots, it can be for a hat. This eyeshadow is not for your eyes. This eyeshadow is for your collarbones; this eyeshadow is put up into your hairline and almost making a gold halo around your face." Reed demonstrated the gold halo look at the British Fashion Awards in 2019.
(image from popsugar.com)
Makeup is also a handier way of accessorizing for one's mood, with the ability to change any time. "What I love about makeup is the fact that I can't change my clothes throughout the day, but I can change my makeup look with the touch of a finger," Reed says. "It really allows me to almost have different looks, different personas within the day, all literally through something that fits in your pocket...I can start the day with one mood, but change and amplify it by lunchtime. Then, by the evening it’s a full-blown party."
We all wear makeup (or don't) for different reasons, most of which are fairly mundane. But for some, makeup can be a tool for transformation. Reed discusses how their first experience with lipstick made a lasting impression of the power of makeup. “I picked up a random red drugstore lipstick with my mom when I was eight or nine, put it on, and thought, "'Fuck, this is amazing,'” Reed recalls. "Actually, I was young, so I probably didn’t say the F-word, but I remember being so blown away by the transformative power of makeup...this small thing in your hand had [the power] to really show different sides of yourself, show different aspects of your personality, your individuality," Reed tells Allure. "That relationship with makeup is still my approach today with everything I do. It's this idea of putting something on that enhances and brings out a side of yourself. You're not becoming someone else, you're not trying to be someone else, you're literally pulling from within."
Along those lines, Reed is very much a proponent of makeup for self-expression and play rather than as a way to meet conventional beauty standards, and this belief was what they were trying to convey with the MAC collection. "My interpretation of gender fluid make-up is really being what makeup should be—a tool to help not only enhance but communicate a story. Makeup is so beautifully able to transport someone and the way people see that person simply by what you put on your face. It’s similar to how clothing almost serves as armour walking into a daily battle, fighting for what you believe in and being who you are. And makeup goes so beautifully hand in hand with that. Putting on a fabulous red lip on or adding pops of sparkle and glitter to your face is like claiming your identity, facing the world with authenticity and claiming your space...[The collection] is very much about a playfulness and the joy of make-up. As I have pushed this idea of a more fluid space in a more fluid world, I’ve really loved that make-up can always be that gorgeous icing on top. It doesn’t only complete the look but, it also completes the message, acting as that extra ounce of light to help radiate what I stand for. Try and not think of make-up as something that makes you look ‘pretty’ and try and not look at it as something that you use to make yourself better, but to explore and enhance something within you. Use make-up as a tool to be your most authentic self...I really hope this collection is something that can help me break down conventional ideas of what make-up looks like. I hope in 2021 and going forward that ‘glamour’ is going to be about something more than just copying a set-in-stone look from a tutorial. It's about asking 'how does that work for my face, my features and my personality?'"
(images from @harris_reed)
Now let's take a peek at the gorgeous packaging. As soon as I saw it I knew it was Museum-worthy. We'll get to the illustrations in a hot second, but first I want to highlight the use of pink, which Reed is reclaiming from its overtly feminine connotations by combining it with a regal gold to give it an "old-world" feel. "I love the color pink. I like to be a bit tongue in cheek with it, I think that's the English side of me. I like to take something that is so specific and gender-specific and just take it and make it my own. I was like, we're gonna choose the color pink and really just make it this color that is universal and mix that with the old world charm. I've always been so deeply fascinated by history. I think if I didn’t do fashion, besides being a queer activist I'd really maybe be a historian. I think we've learned from the past, we learn from history, and when I was developing the packaging, I wanted to really represent this old world nuance."
The artwork for the packaging was created by Lukas Palumbo, an illustrator and collaborator of Reed's. A 2020 graduate of RISD, Palumbo began working with Reed in 2020, when he designed the sets for their graduate collection.
(image from publications.risdmuseum.org)
How jaw-dropping are these at full-size as a backdrop for Reed's designs?
I wasn't able to find much information on the individual designs, but this one (with mermaids!) had a tiny bit. "This garden was inspired by a collection of 17th century engravings of a garden that once existed in Belgium. You can also probably tell that on paper, this piece exists only as half of a landscape, as the right half is a digital mirror of the left half. This trick was a necessity in making so much work in so little time, and I found it worked especially well for theatre backdrops," explains Palumbo. And perhaps the double-tailed mermaids were influenced by those in the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna.
(images from wwd.com)
According to his website, Palumbo is inspired by etchings from the 16th-18th centuries. (I tried to get an interview with him but received no reply to my request, alas.) To my eye, his style also brings to mind both medieval manuscripts and Neoclassical landscapes.
Some of his illustrations remind me a little of the ones Pamela Colman Smith created for the famous Rider-Waite tarot deck.
(images from lukastheillustrator.com)
Indeed, Palumbo reimagined tarot cards for The Ingenue magazine.
For the MAC collection Palumbo created more of his signature otherworldly dreamscapes. The illustration on the eyeshadow palette shows a pearl with a human face resting in an open seashell, which is held up by two red-headed figures standing at a rocky riverside (seaside?) as if an offering. Rays of sunlight radiate from the shell, while the sharp stakes emanating from the pearl are wrapped by serpents or pierce through crowns and hearts.
The artwork on the Cream Color Base and lipstick palette depict king and queen figures wielding scepters atop a seashell overflowing with water, their heads silhouetted against a bright sun. Says Reed, "It shows a woman and a man combining into one fluid being." The long, flowing robes are one of Reed's creations.
Overall, I think Reed did a great job and accomplished what they set out to do: create a makeup line that could be used by everyone for any purpose, complete with visually appealing packaging. While the designer doesn't see themselves as being the first to release a gender-fluid makeup line, they acknowledge the MAC collection is helping lead the way to normalizing makeup's use for all genders. "It’s amazing that so many brands are jumping on the idea that people don’t have to be so gender-specific but we have a long way to go. I don’t look at myself as the first pioneer, but I’m hopefully one of many to be coming, wanting to stir things up... a lot. This collection is not for men. It’s not for women. It’s for every single person." Hear hear! I really hope we see more makeup from Reed. Perhaps a collab with Gucci Beauty is in order. ;) As for the designer as a person, I can honestly say they seem very nice and genuine. Despite growing up in an artistic household, attending one of the most prestigious design schools in the world, meeting great success at a young age, AND being good-looking, factors that seem like a recipe for pretension and self-aggrandizement, Reed comes across as humble and kind. I think you can get a sense of that in all the interview snippets I've included here. And after following them for a little while on social media, I can safely say this is someone I would love to have a makeup playdate with.
What do you think of this line and gender-fluid makeup in general? I think everyone should approach all makeup as gender-free and not feel as though they can't use it because they're not the "right" gender, but it seems society at large still has a problem with that. Fortunately it seems that more companies, in addition to MAC, are shifting towards collections and products that speak to everyone, regardless of gender, by using gender-neutral language and including gender-fluid models in their advertising (or at the very least, starting to include people who present as men instead of only women models). Now if we could just get more fat models and people over the age of 30 to be represented, we'd really be moving in the right direction.