We’re sitting in private members’ club Soho House with Val Garland who’s talking to us about, well, everything – from her arm-long list of clients which includes everyone from Bjork to Burberry, Lady Gaga and Lee McQueen, to the new course she’s heading up in collaboration with Mastered, an online fashion school, oh, and one particularly juicy story about wearing a dress made of meat to a party in Australia. This course, is an online one and consists of videos, Q&As and projects. It runs from May to August and, in Val’s own words, “is about getting into this business. Doing an eyeliner or doing a lip – that’s easy. Getting into this world is harder.” By starting the Val Garland school of make-up, she is passing on the proverbial baton to the next generation of make-up artists. “I want to see them do well because that’s my legacy. Like I helped them and that’s a really nice feeling and why not tell a secret? What’s wrong with telling a secret? Spread the love, that’s what I think, spread the love.”
TED STANSFIELD: So, let’s start from the beginning. You started off in hair.
VAL GARLAND: Yes, I started off in hair. I used to wear tons of make-up, tons and tons of make-up and people used to keep saying, “You should do make-up.” And I was like, “No, I’m quite happy doing hair, I love doing hair, hair’s my life.” And yeah, people kept saying that I should do it and then, one day, the make-up artist didn’t turn up and they said, “Okay Val, you’ve got to do it.” In my make-up bag I had a red pencil and something black, always something black. I did it and that made it into a magazine. They asked me again and it started like that.
TS: So in a way, you learnt on yourself.
VG: I did learn on myself, yeah. I did learn on myself, yeah. I was very influenced by Blitz magazine. And it was the time of taboo. The Blitz Club and all that. I mean I used to go to work in colostomy underwear because I thought it was kind of cool.
TS: So what style tribe did you belong to back then?
VG: Well I started off as a skinhead, then I was punk, then I moved into suedehead and then I moved into new romantic. But new romantic and disco and funk was all kind of at the same time. For 14 years I spent my life in gay clubs and it was fantastic. And because I was away from my family it was all about daring to be different – I could be a different person every day. You know, one day I would come in wearing a sari and I was that person that day. We were notorious for taking these rolls of dishcloth, I think Vivienne [Westwood] did it as well, rolls of dishcloth and making dresses out of that, bleaching them or dropping them in tea – whatever. It was all about being creative.
TS: Do you think that gay environment fuelled your evolution?
VG: Absolutely, absolutely. It started with, “You’re going out.” It was always about, “I need to be noticed.” You want everyone to go [gasps and claps hands to mouth]. It didn’t matter whether it was attractive or not – the important thing was that you got noticed. The most outrageous thing that I ever wore was meat. I was going to this party and I was like, “What can I do that’s different?”. So I went to the butchers (I was living in Sydney at the time), I made myself hair out of sausages, I had steaks here [points to her chest] and I had them here and put leather through them to make a bra, and I had Viking bacon leggings. My husband said, “You can’t be serious. I mean really? You look like an accident that’s happened.” Because literally, I’m dripping blood. Little did I know that there was a theme to the party and the North Shore in Sydney is very posh. The theme was ‘White’. I got the reaction I wanted which was, you know, like [gasps]. Well I thought the only thing to do is to head to the dance floor and start dancing and spraying everyone with blood. Then, many years later, I’m in Milan. Me, Sam McKnight, Nicola Formichetti and Lady Gaga. And we’re sat there – we’re doing some show. And, you know, we’re just chatting and laughing and telling stories and yeah, I told the meat story. And Lady Gaga was like, “Do you mind if I use that?” And I was like, “Yes.” No-one will ever know it was little Val Garland over in Australia apart from the people who were in Australia at that time.”
TS: Then you came back to London.
VG: I came to London. I lived in Australia and my husband really liked it out there. But I always missed London. I’d come to London, I think it was in 1991, and as soon as we landed I got a cab and was going over Westminster Bridge and called the husband and told him that we had to move back here, this is where it’s at.
TS: The 90s was an amazing time in fashion, particularly in London.
VG: It was amazing, you had all the clubs – I think my very first photo shoot in London was for the Evening Standard and that was with Katy England. And yeah, that was pretty wild. And, you know, we’d go clubbing together, we’d go to Fred’s or what have you, the Gardening Club, Subterranea – all those kind of clubs.
TS: What were the key relationships that emerged from that time for you?
VG: I mean I always say, surround yourself with like-minded people. When I got to London, I didn’t really know anyone and I’d met these people that I thought were as crazy as me and were willing to give it a go and we would be doing things on a budget. We would be doing things on a budget – the budget was no budget, you know, “Will you work for free?” “Yes, of course! Can I do what I like? Yeah? Great!” You know, so I’d do things with Katie, I’d do things with Eugene and I can remember being with Katie and she sort of said, “Oh there’s this guy Lee McQueen and he’s asked me to do the show will you do the make-up?” And I was like, “Yeah, great!” So there was always those kind of things and that was also at the time of Dazed and Confused, so Katie was the fashion director there at Dazed with Phil Poynter who then became her boyfriend, he was the picture editor, and then there was Rankin and then there was Jefferson and then there was Katie Grand and so I was working with all those people and Camille Bidault-Waddington and Steven Klein was there and we were just all doing things. But even before that I was working at the face with Albert Watson and Norman Watson and Karl Templer. I was working with Karl Templer right in the beginning with Eugene and we’d do The Face together.
TS: It was like a golden age.
VG: I say to people, I was lucky and I think I was very lucky – right place, right time, right people.”
TS: Obviously Savage Beauty has just opened, have you been to it yet?
VG: Yes, I was there on Thursday, I went to the Gala.”
TS: And what did you make of it?
VG: Oh my God! Have you been?
TS: Not yet.
VG: It is a visual feast of everything! There’s a jacket in there that I think I wore to Katie England’s wedding and it’s sitting there as a museum piece. I can remember borrowing that and wearing it!
TS: What was it like to work with Lee back then?
VG: It was amazing. The first time I met him was his studio in Hoxton square which he was sharing with his then-boyfriend. I remember arriving with Katie and Lee was sewing a garment and it was just incredible – you just knew that you were in the presence of something completely different, something that you hadn’t seen before and something that was exciting. And that’s what was so great about Lee. When you were a punk or a skinhead or whatever – we were experiencing things for the first time. Now everything is a sort of reference. People are like, “Ooh it’s punk”, and it’s like – that was over 40 years ago. But with Lee everything was a something different, something you hadn’t seen it before, something that hadn’t been done. It was incredible! One of the most amazing moments was the show where Shalom Harlow was painted. That was a very iconic moment. And also, even before that, when the girls had contact lenses in their eyes, the Joan show with the girl in the ring of fire because bald caps – you’ve got to be crazy to do a bald cap! It was such an iconic moment.
TS: And what about as a person what was he like to work with?
VG: He was great! He was sweet, venerable, wonderful, great sense of humour, incredible laugh, filthy. Yeah, he was just great.
TS: You’ve also worked with Bjork haven’t you, tell me about that.
VG: Yes. I worked with Björk quite a lot with Lee and Nick Knight, there were various projects that we did together and I remember going to see her in concert at The Green – it’s an old church in Islington, right at the top there, and she was incredible. She has an incredible, crazy voice and she was just singing, acoustically, there was no back up or anything like that. Yeah she was a “can’t stop looking at you” kind of person.
TS: Did Lady Gaga have that vibe?
VG: Oh yes, she, again was just kooky. But all these people are open, they have the same sort of thing that they’re open to what if, why not, let’s try it. I remember the Lady Gaga thing was around the same time as – I’m talking about the meat dress thing, and we were there just talking about what we could do for her next look. I’d just recently started working with her, with Nick and she used to wear about four sets of eyelashes and a lot of makeup and eyebrows, what could we do that was different. So I was like, “Let’s take it all off. Let’s bleach her eyebrows, let’s take it all off – no mascara, no liner and I’m going to give you prosthetics. She was like, “What are prosthetics?” So I just got a piece of paper folded it into a triangle and said I’m going to stretch your cheeks here, I’m gonna do it with prosthetics, we’ll have them made and they’ll get stuck on. And that’s how that came about for the Born This Way album cover. Then we were with Steven Klein – he was doing the Alejandro video. Gaga said to me, “So what are you gonna do with my make-up?” And I said, “I’m going to take everything off, I’m still going to bleach your eyebrows.” She was like “Right – but eyeliner?” and I said, “No. Nothing”. And she was like, “Yeah but what about contouring and all of that?” “Nope, nothing, you are going to be raw and I’m gonna give you this stonking red lip and that was it”
TS: This process is very artistic. Do you approach make-up artistry as a form of art?
VG: Yes, yes. And also, each painting is different, each face is different – no two eyes are the same, you know, so people talk about mapping things out, well, you need to feel the fear and do it anyway. Just create.
By Ted Stansfield