When Bimpe Onakoya began her career in Nigeria, she was just doing makeup for her friends. She never imagined that she’d one day work for Maybelline, let alone be flown out to work at New York Fashion Week. But after 15 years in the industry, Onakoya wasn’t just invited to work backstage, which she had been doing the last four years, but she was asked to lead a show as key makeup artist this season. "I woke up in the middle of the night to see an email from the Maybelline team, saying that they're inviting me to New York to headline a show," she tells Refinery29. "For a second, I didn't understand. Then, I fell to my knees. It was a dream come true."
It's not out of the ordinary to see a French or British artist leading the team backstage at NYFW (Pat McGrath from Britain and Tom Pecheux from France are both regulars), but Onakoya is the first Nigerian makeup artist to key a show in the U.S. And she was excited to break barriers as the lead artist at LaQuan Smith this season. But standing out in her field is nothing new for the makeup pro. In Nigeria, finding success as a makeup artist is seen as a pipe dream, and there are very few people who consider makeup artist as a viable career path. "People used to ask me, 'Apart from makeup, what else do you do?' And I would respond, 'Makeup.' Then, they'd ask me if it pays the bills," she says.
But, pushing the skepticism aside, Onakoya made an award-winning career as a makeup professional in her home country and signed on as an artistic director with Maybelline after L’Oréal expanded into Africa in 2013. Then, in 2014, she found herself in New York to work backstage at Fashion Week for the first time. In her time behind the scenes, the makeup artist worked with well-known models, like Jourdan Dunn and Alek Wek, and numerous brands, like Jason Wu and DKNY.
But this Spring/Summer 2019 season was her time to shine. At LaQuan Smith, Onakoya created a subtle eye look that was all about the details. It featured a sharp black liner that broke into two lines outside of the lash line, while the rest of the face remained super natural, almost bare. This eye-catching look was planned with the designer, which Onakoya tells us is a much different approach than how it's done during Fashion Week in Nigeria. "Here [in the U.S.] everybody knows what they want. When I was working with LaQuan Smith, he wanted a specific look," she says. "But in Nigeria, I create the looks, and everybody just runs with it. Instead of having different venues and shows [like in New York], in Nigeria shows are in the same venue, so it's difficult to change looks."
And as she returns to Nigeria after New York Fashion Week, Onakoya feels humbled by the experience of being able to work with Smith and have models like Duckie Thot and Winnie Harlow in her makeup chair. She hopes to continue growing in the industry and expand her portfolio by working with designers like Vivienne Westwood and celebrities like Beyoncé one day. "I never felt like this kind of opportunity would ever open up for me in the U.S.," she says. "It shows that all the years and hard work that I've put into my craft has finally been noticed, and that's just gratifying."