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Who Is That Mask Man? : Joseph McLaughlin's Masks of Feathers, Quills and Skulls Have Been Worn by Rock Stars and Shakespearean Actors

November 16, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

No fewer than five psychics told Joseph McLaughlin that he was destined to be a mask maker. They must have been precision seers, because a maker of masks is exactly what Joseph McLaughlin became.

"They all told me that the thing in life that I was supposed to do was to enhance the face with great beauty. I asked: 'Well, am I going to be a plastic surgeon?' And they said, 'No, you're going to enhance the face. You're going to be a mask maker.' "

McLaughlin designs the most exotic masks you have ever seen outside a David Attenborough documentary about African tribes. Some of the masks are covered with feathers and plumes. "Basically, what I do is paint with feathers--glue them on and make sure that the combinations of colors are to my liking." He also uses goat skulls, armadillo shells, gold-plated corn husks, chromed porcupine quills and burnished leather with zippers. The masks retail from $100 up, and, as McLaughlin admits, "the 'up' can go very up." He has sold several jeweled helmets for $2,500 each.

McLaughlin's masks and headdresses are bought for costume balls, theatrical events--from the Jacksons' "Victory" tour to HBO productions of "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Tempest"--and, on one occasion, for a wedding.

McLaughlin was born in Amboy, N.J. He attended Kean College, Union, N.J.; the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City; the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the Gemological Institute of America, both in New York City. McLaughlin is a registered and certified gemologist. The first job he had was designing jewelry as an assistant to Jean Schlumberger, a designer at Tiffany & Co., New York City. "I got a color sense from that very brilliant man," says McLaughlin, who later opened two fashion accessories shops of his own in Greenwich Village.

In 1979 he left New York and came to live with a friend who had bought a house in Palm Springs. McLaughlin's work was exhibited at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and he won prizes at the Affair in the Garden in Beverly Hills, a juried show featuring the works of 300 artists.

In 1983 a designer friend asked McLaughlin: "What are you doing in Palm Springs? You must be in Hollywood in order to be able to work." McLaughlin found an apartment in Hollywood the next day. Today his masks are sold at By Design in the Beverly Center; Trashy Lingerie, 402 N. La Cienega Blvd.; the Pleasure Chest, 7733 Santa Monica Blvd., and at other shops and galleries. He has six assistants at his Hollywood studio.

I asked McLaughlin what originally had attracted him to masks. Was it the need to disguise himself? No, it was simply a commercial imperative. In 1977, when he had the fashion stores in Greenwich Village, a friend asked if he would take 12 masks for sale. "I put them in one of the stores and gave them prime space," McLaughlin says. "The first day I displayed them I sold 11 of 12."

McLaughlin insists that, aside from commercial considerations, he is interested in enhancing the face, not in disguising it. "If I were in the disguise business, I'd do things in latex, which changes the face's shape." But he does think that masks enable people to cast off inhibitions. "If you wear a mask when you're with best friends, you can reveal a lot about yourself that you would not normally do."

McLaughlin has even made a mask for his Lhasa apso, Ming Toi, shown here. "I make masks for little animals so they can have a change of identity," he says. "In one mask, she's a bird-dog. She also has cat masks so she can be a cat."

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