Sam Visser Is Filtering Fashion Nostalgia and Aughts Excess into a Fresh Slant on Makeup

The actor Hari Nef flashed across the Instagram feed on a weekend night in June, at the close of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. In the photo, her lipstick gleams like a newly minted penny. Eye shadow in a shade of papaya turns up in deft, unexpected touches: tracing the inner rim of the socket and dotting the lower lash beneath the iris. There’s a feeling of archetypal elegance, but in a way that elides rule. Arresting is the word: pulling the brakes on the habitual scroll. You can tap for the credits, but the authorship is already clear to those who’ve seen Kaia Gerber, Bella Hadid, and Euphoria’s Barbie Ferreira undergo similar transformations. This new-guard makeup is the work of Sam Visser.

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The California native, named Dior’s U.S. makeup artist ambassador earlier this year, is a precocious force. In some ways he’s in step with his peers. “I feel tuned in to the fact that social media is a very present thing, that it’s a tool that we can use to our advantage,” says Visser. “I wear JNCO jeans, so I am Gen Z,” he smiles. But even that nod to the wide-leg ’90s-favorite denim brand—enjoying a second life thanks to a boost from 20-somethings—mirrors Visser’s affection for the outsize aesthetics of the past. The word that comes up repeatedly as we speak is glamour. As in: “glamour, glamour, glamour, glamour, glamour,” he stresses. “I come from a generation where the attitude is so whatever, so over it, very careless. But I want to care too much. I love everything considered.”

Born in November 1999, as the world braced for a would-be Y2K meltdown, Visser is an apt intermediary between analog exuberance and the digital age. In grade school, Visser absorbed the lo-fi makeup tutorials of early YouTube. On weekends, he escaped to the MAC counter, designing looks on paper face charts. At 12, during a visit to L.A.’s Make Up For Ever store, he excitedly spotted the makeup artist David Hernandez, who invited Visser to shadow a shoot with David LaChapelle. “That was kind of my first taste of beauty,” Visser says. “Before, it was all just on the screen of the internet and never really in real life.”

But even a kid rooted in the online world found some of his most lasting influences in books: Makeup Your Mind (2002) by François Nars and Kevyn Aucoin’s iconic Making Faces (1997). Dubbed the first celebrity makeup artist for his camaraderie with the supers (immortalized in behind-the-scenes Polaroids and candid videos), Aucoin had a way of quilting together references and techniques, from silent-film brows to drag-influenced sculpting. By the time Visser was 16, he had taken Aucoin’s lessons in hand, with clients like Tish Cyrus; that year, Kris Jenner hired Visser to do her daily makeup (he finished high school by independent study). The Kardashians steeped him in another sort of dialed-up aesthetic—the Gesamtkunstwerk of the always-on reality TV persona. “They are the modern version of what the Hollywood stars were,” Visser says, “because they get ready every single day for hours.”

Time has a way of folding in on itself, with unlikely rhymes across decades. As Visser has shifted his track—to editorial makeup, art projects, and experimental looks that he often shoots himself—the Aucoin allusions have followed. (It helps that Visser’s circle includes a new cast of supers, Cindy Crawford’s daughter included.) What feels fresh with Visser’s crowd is the interplay of artist and muse, with collaborators appearing on both sides of the lens: photographer Nadia Lee Cohen wearing a molten gold lip in a portrait series from lockdown, or Bryce Anderson (above) in shades of metallic seafoam and peach.

Anderson, a 20-year-old photographer and model, met Visser on set a couple of years ago. Now dating, the two share a worldview along with a “crazy archive at our house of special things that we’ve purchased,” says Anderson. He cites a Francesco Scavullo book that inspired an upcoming zine of portraits for Behind the Blinds, with Visser lending makeup in the spirit of ’70s legend Way Bandy. Neither sees their work as nostalgic. Instead they want to create worlds that transcend time and TikTok attention spans and even fashionable notions of gender fluidity. “For Sam, he always says, ‘Makeup is just makeup,’ ” Anderson tells me. “It’s not like, ‘Ooh, you’re making me a woman.’ It’s, ‘You’re just making me beautiful,’ and that’s always been our philosophy.”

The current thirst for circa-2000 style feeds into that pool of references. Visser looks back on the time of his birth as having a reflection of the ’60s—“but instead of going to the moon, we were going into the internet,” he says. “All the makeup ads became very metallic, and everything was shiny and sparkly.” In this look on Anderson, there’s a hint of cyber-pop: a Paris Hilton frosted lip, pastel shadow on Britney Spears. But it’s more a present-tense proposition: out of the internet and into a stylized dream reality. Visser sees his work as “almost punk,” in a way—a rogue departure from the barefaced beauty aesthetic that we’ve lately come to expect. In another 20 years, that’s what he hopes people look back on: “that glamour is an act of rebellion.”

Made to Last

In Visser’s world, vintage photography and beauty books might inspire the makeup for a zine, Y2K-era aesthetics get a softer spin, and smart formulas enable full-face transformations.

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