PARIS, France — Irving Penn, the legendary lensman whose camera captured world presidents, movie stars and culture’s greatest luminaries, rarely ever shot on a Saturday. But in 2005, faced with a tight deadline, he made a notable exception for a subject he had personally requested to photograph: Mickey Mouse.
Asked to contribute to that year's December issue of American Vogue, Penn conceived an image around a special mask he had glimpsed on set during a previous shoot: a black screen, cut in the unmistakable shape of the famous cartoon character's circular head and ears. And so one of the magazine's most enduring images was born, featuring model Lisa Cant in a diaphanous Yves Saint Laurent blouse, her hair sprayed white, and, most memorably, her face covered by the silhouette of the iconic mouse, rendered in delicate black lace.
The whimsical embellishment had sprung from the imagination of Peter Philips, at the time an up-and-coming but still little-known makeup artist from Belgium, who made the mask by hand. With humour and grace, the much-reprinted photograph represents the confluence of a publication’s distinct idea of style, a great photographer's vision and a precise moment in fashion. But take the mask away and the image falls apart, becoming just another generic glamour shot. Such is the subtle power of Philips' craft, a talent that has redefined the art of makeup in the last decade and a half, propelling the humble Belgian to the top of his field along the way.
Indeed, since picking up a makeup brush for the first time at the relatively late age of 26, Philips has worked with some of fashion’s greatest names, from Penn and Richard Avedon to Grace Coddington, Raf Simons, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen. Last year, Philips was named creative and image director of Christian Dior Makeup, a similar role to the one he held at Chanel from 2008 to 2013.
If there is a common factor across his vast creative output, it's his sheer versatility and willingness to adapt his work to enhance the vision of his collaborators. "I never want to turn a designer's show into a Peter Philips show,” he says. “I have too much respect for their process and hard work." If some of his best-known looks are strikingly dramatic, Philips can do subdued with just as much verve. Knowing when to step back, in fact, is as important as having an unrestrained creative vision, he asserts. "I don't mind at all doing a nude face if I think that’s what will enhance the designer’s vision. Sometimes something bold is needed, but sometimes it's stronger and smarter to do nothing."
A gift for adaptability may, in fact, be a requirement in a profession as multi-faceted as Philips'. To wit, doing editorial jobs for magazines is quite different to creating makeup for the runway, which has to take into account movement, the designer's vision and the venue among other factors. "When I was doing Chanel's shows [held at the Grand Palais, one of Paris’ more gargantuan venues], I had to keep in mind that the back-row was 50 metres away from the models, so my work had to look great from a distance but also in close-up, because it was going to be photographed. And sometimes there were shows with 80 models ranging in age from 15 to 45. You have to come up with something that satisfies all these variables, and at the same time is new and in line with the designer's vision," he notes.
On editorial assignments Philips collaborates closely with the photographer. “If I do a shoot with Bruce Weber, I know I have to do something really pure which looks great from any angle as well in black and white or colour — and it has to be able to live because they might roll in the sand or dive in the water. So I have to be practical on top of creative. It would be totally different if I were shooting with someone else. In each case I have to understand what the shoot is about, the photographer's vision, how he or she uses light. It’s about communication and about building a relationship.”
A combination of pragmatism and unbounded artistry have always characterised Philip’s career and he has never been above working highly commercial jobs. ”Starting out, I accepted everything, all kinds of jobs. That taught me a lot, because I travelled the world and was confronted with challenges I had to overcome with no assistance or safety net, just by counting on my skills." Philips even speaks fondly of his beginnings doing before-and-after makeover pictures of regular women for what he calls Belgian “girly” magazines. “Ultimately my job is to make someone pretty. And, as corny as it may sound, there’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone who doesn’t need my artistic input, but really depends on the basic skills of what I do to make her feel attractive.”
As a teenager growing up in Antwerp, where he was also born, Philips witnessed first-hand a small but potent creative explosion that was putting the industrious second-tier city on the map. "All the fashion students were running around in the centre of the city and they stood out like birds of paradise in this otherwise grey little city,” he says of people like Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela and Dries van Noten, all of whom were studying in Philips’ hometown when he was coming of age.
Philips had already earned a degree in illustration for advertising from an art school in Brussels, but decided to apply to Antwerp’s Royal Academy, from which he graduated in 1993 with a degree in fashion design. By then, Philips had realised he didn't want to be a fashion designer. Yet, these years proved essential to his later success, as it was through the network of friends he developed at the academy that he discovered his real vocation. When some of his soon-to-be famous peers from the Academy went to Paris by bus to show their early collections, Philips, along with several other students, went along to help out backstage, exposing him to the hands-on, behind-the scenes mechanics of the industry.
“That is when I discovered the heart of fashion,” he recalls. "I realised there were so many facets to fashion. It wasn’t just about [the clothes], it was also the shoes and accessories and the hair and the set, that you could be a fabric designer or be in charge of dressing the models or the person who does the music and be an essential part of this amazing world. By participating backstage at those shows in Paris I discovered the styling, hair and makeup teams, and all the types of work that went into a show, helping transform these girls who had come in looking normal into reflections of the designer’s vision. It was like alchemy.”
Philips was mesmerised by the impact hair and makeup could have on how fashion is perceived. While he could never really see himself designing clothes and lacked the patience to see a collection through the lengthy process required to get it produced, the independent, fast nature of freelance runway work appealed to him, as did the prospect of working on editorial assignments given his love for magazines. "Once I knew I what I wanted to do, to work on fashion shows and shootings, I had a goal." Philips went about his new career objective methodically, retraining himself to be a makeup artist, at first by taking evening lessons at a hair and makeup school in Amsterdam. But soon, he decided to save the money and use it to buy makeup products instead. Friends started booking him, allowing him to experiment, develop a technique and start building a portfolio.
Philips’s first big break came as a byproduct of what could be called the second Belgian wave in fashion. At the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, a group of Belgian designers and models seemed to dominate fashion, following in the footsteps of the famous Antwerp Six a decade or so earlier. Two of these fellow Belgian talents, the designers Olivier Theyskens and Veronique Branquinho, asked Philips to work on their Paris debut shows and he obliged with spectacular makeup looks. For Theyskens' Gothic show featuring veined catsuits, Philips created eyelashes out of fabric. "I just took some threads out of a black mohair coat in the collection. The result, on a very pale face, looked liked the models were wearing thick mascara, but it also was very fluffy. That was totally new in those days." For Branquinho, he painted the models’ teeth black, creating the effect of an overly retouched image. "They were like very fragile elves, except you could see this intense black shadow between their lips, which gave them a very hard edge. This was a more emotional approach to makeup, rather than a factual graphic thing. It was magical in a dark way and something no one had ever thought of."
It didn’t take long for key players in the industry to take notice of Philips’ bold runway work, as well as of the deliberately artistic portfolio he had quietly been building with his fellow academy alum, the photographer Willy Vanderperre. "Our only ambition was to make great fashion. We were obsessed and really in sync. And I knew I had to create some mystery around my name by keeping my artistic work very pure," Philips says of the collaboration and the resulting photo series, which were picked up and published by leading independent magazines.
Among those who saw these images and were intrigued by the newcomer's fresh aesthetic and innovative approach to makeup was the photographer Inez van Lamsweerde, who invited him to come on a French Vogue shoot in India. Featuring iconic 90s supermodel Christy Turlington, whom Philips revered, and overseen by Carine Roitfeld, the title’s editor-in-chief at the time, it was a dream assignment for the up-and-coming makeup artist and led to further bookings by van Lamsweerde.
Another key milestone in Philips career was his decision, in the early naughts, to move to New York, where he signed with a new agency to represent him and where he says his very avant-garde, broodingly earnest portfolio was itself given a makeover, bringing some necessary American salability to the European sophistication of his work. Within a week, he had his first shoot with American Vogue and soon became a frequent contributor to the magazine.
It wasn’t long before Chanel, having seen the Mouse shoot with Penn, approached Philips. At Chanel, he learned how to create beauty products, a whole new ballgame for the lifelong freelancer, who specialised in editorial and runway. But two years later, he became head of the brand’s beauty division.
While he continued to freelance during his tenure at Chanel, after seven years at the hallowed house, Philips missed the excitement of being in the trenches, specifically doing more editorial jobs. In 2013, he quit Chanel to devote himself to his longstanding collaborations with the likes of Dries van Noten, Raf Simons and Fendi, as well as a slew of magazines. But going back to freelancing full-time wasn’t what he expected. “The process of shooting had changed so much, everything is now guided by advertising interests and the mystery of film has totally been replaced by digital.”
Somewhat disillusioned, not least with the backseat makeup seemed to have taken in favour of photo-retouching, Philips didn’t hesitate much when Simons, who took the creative reins at Dior in 2012, asked him to come on board at the house. “I just could not say no. I mean, how amazing is it to one day be able to say that you have worked for the two biggest fashion houses in the world. And I can continue to do both things I love, shoot and create.”
At Dior, Philips is entrusted with creating four make up collections per year, taking into account his category’s broad gamut of customers in all regions of the world. “A woman on the American West Coast uses make up in a completely different way than her counterpart in New York, and our customer in Thailand has very different needs than a girl in Tokyo, not to mention a more mature Japanese woman.”
If, at other times in his career, his main collaborators have been designers and photographers, now Philips works closely with press and marketing teams, packaging designers and the chemists and lab staffers at Parfums Christian Dior’s facilities in Saint-Jean-de-Braye, a small town less than two hours south of Paris. Interestingly, beauty collections cannot be created in tandem with what Simons is doing in ready-to-wear and couture, as the lead times differ vastly: Philips starts working on his collections 18 months in advance.
If what is, in essence, another desk job seems at odds with the maverick artist he remains at heart, Philips gets visibly excited talking about what sounds like the lipstick of the future, a tube containing two different formulas — one pigment, one gel — that do not mix until they touch human skin, all the while retaining, incredibly, the signature embossed CD until the very last application. Indeed, it’s a tech nerd’s dream — beauty tech, that is.
As Philips tells it, to this date he is guided by the same philosophy that motivated him when he was working on the before-and-after pictures of regular women at the beginning of his career. "As creative director, I always hope to make products that aren't just guided by trends or creativity. Instead a big part of what drives me is to create palettes, formulas, textures that help enhance someone’s beauty.”
Philips likes to state that he never craved to be successful per se and instead has gotten to where he is purely on the strength of his craft. "It was never ambition that drove me, I was always judged purely on my work. My only ambition was always to create good work, work I could still be proud of ten or twenty years later."
“Take your time,” he advises. “And always make sure your ambition isn’t bigger than your talent.”