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Finding Moments of Joy in a Largely Underwhelming Season for Beauty

Much of the Spring 2021 hair and makeup seemed to have been an afterthought — but a handful of defiantly optimistic looks shone through.

Like absolutely everything in the pandemic-stricken 2020 world, the Spring 2021 fashion shows — the small number of them that went on amid a global health crisis, anyway — were, in just about every way, unprecedented. While fashion grappled with how to soldier on, get the job done and possibly even create a bit of much-needed optimism and joy through art, so, too did the hair and makeup looks that accompanied it. 

Naturally, backstage beauty was different this season. In fact, as someone who has covered runway beauty in the field for the better part of the past 15 seasons, I can’t even really offer much perspective on that fact — I wasn’t there. No press was. 

In extreme contrast with the last several fashion months, in particular, which in many ways felt more bloated, overcrowded, over-sponsored and chaotic than ever, the complete and total lack of backstage access this season seemed to offer a reset. It was a sort of blank slate, a chance to reassess the priorities of what the backstage experience can and should be. That’s not to suggest that this complete 180 was a positive shift: In many ways, it was a heartbreaking one. But it was also an opportunity.

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A look from Christopher John Rogers Spring 2021.

For some, it was a chance to pare things back, bring restraint and practicality to the runway. No one’s wearing much makeup while quarantining at home — why show heaps of it on the runways? In many cases, the hair and makeup we saw on the Spring 2021 runways, presentations and lookbooks seemed to have been an afterthought. But a handful of defiantly optimistic looks shone through, reminding us of the escapism, fantasy and joy beauty can evoke, despite all odds.

Of course, it was the designers themselves who led the charge when it came to showing upbeat, inventive and creative hair and makeup during this, the strangest of seasons. In a recent interview, Christopher John Rogers told Fashionista that he wanted to be sure his Spring 2021 collection “still provided our customer and the people who love looking at our work with the same sense of fantasy, but maybe an even more strengthened sense of pragmatism.” That same perspective fed into the beauty looks that accompanied his colorful garments, which were anything but subdued.

A look from Christopher John Rogers Spring 2021.

“This is the first fashion month that I worked with Christopher where he hasn’t put on a show. However, the drama of seasons past was not lost,” says hairstylist Naeemah LaFond, who serves as the Global Artist Director for Amika and oversaw the hair for Christopher John Rogers’ Spring 2021 lookbook. “Creating a collection of images over the span of a few days actually allowed us to really push the envelope further than we have before… With the heavy year that we’re having, this was the creative sigh of relief that I needed.”

Beauty creatives, whose art and livelihoods depend on their ability to practice their crafts in close quarters with others, were among those most impacted by coronavirus-related shutdowns. So for LaFond, the Spring 2021 season — in its unusual, stunted iteration — was a welcome opportunity, not just to go back to work, but also to communicate hope, optimism and gratitude. 

“If the pandemic contributed to my approach in the hairstyling in any way, it did so by removing any inhibitions. I think that if this crazy year taught me anything as an artist, it’s to truly live fully and to create without boundaries,” she explains.

A look from Christopher John Rogers Spring 2021.

Among the array of unique looks LaFond created for the models were braids adorned in custom Swarovski beads, voluminous updos of cascading ringlets, triangular blunt bobs, geometrically-cut Afros and towering styles which can best be described as hair sculptures. 

“One of the things that I love about working with Christopher is that he isn’t afraid to take any risks and to layer references,” says LaFond. “He came to me with an amazing range of ideas that referenced everything from 1960s cover models and towering African tribal looks to my little daughter Milah and her pigtail twists. In developing the ideas and execution, I wanted the hair to all feel very playful and whimsical, yet still have an air of chic and powerful; that for me totally embodies the CJR woman.”

Awe-inducing as the artful, labor-intensive looks LaFond and her team dreamt up may have been, they were markedly different than the ones we’ve seen on the Christopher John Rogers runway in the past, emphasizes the hairstylist: “Though we love a high-drama hair moment with CJR, it’s important to recognize that dialing it down while still keeping it striking is also a moment.” Hence the handful of more minimalist looks, like the tidy bobs and slicked-back styles several models wore as well.

A look from Chromat Spring 2021.

Another brand that let its vivid color palette and joyful energy bleed over from the clothing and into the beauty look, as it routinely does each season, was Chromat, which actually presented a continuation of its Fall 2020 collection during this year’s September New York Fashion Week. Designer Becca McCharen-Tran revisited the pieces she’d designed last season in a short film, titled “Joy Run.” To accompany McCharen-Tran’s bright, sporty rejection of the gender binary, Fatima Thomas — who is MAC‘s senior national artist and keyed the look for Chromat — dove in head first with neon tones, graphic shapes and crisp edges. 

“This season, it was all about the ombré colors on the eyes,” Thomas explains. “The shades and liners were inspired by color spectrums and the beauty and possibility of abolishing the two-system gender binary and really embracing spectrums.” 

For Thomas, like for McCharen-Tran, the beauty was a continuation of what she’s created in past seasons for Chromat, just slightly reimagined. It was a triumphant declaration that just because the world around us has changed so drastically doesn’t mean we can’t still get imaginative and explore deeper meaning through makeup. The makeup was living proof that artists can and do flourish, even during some of the most oppressive and trying times.

A look from Chromat Spring 2021.

Yet beauty pros aren’t usually head-in-the-clouds types of creatives. Their work requires precision, real-world functionality and — in times dictated by a deadly virus — careful safety precautions. 

LaFond, her team and others present on set for Christopher John Rogers were, of course, required to adhere to safety procedures. But once she was in her creative element, she says, she was able to let the constraints of wearing PPE and her own safety concerns  subside. “Social distancing, masks and shields didn’t stop us from being able to connect and create the usual positive vibes that are present whenever we come together,” she notes. 

While it’s easy for many of us to look around at a world that seems forever changed by the pandemic, LaFond isn’t worried about what that might mean for the future of runway shows: “I’m not sure much has changed in terms of backstage beauty. It’s still exciting, still hectic and most importantly, it’s still happening. I’m just happy to be back to doing what I love. Having to wear PPE and take extra precautions is a small price to pay for still being able to live the dream.”

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