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Role Call | Kathy Phillips, International Beauty Director

Kathy Phillips, international beauty director of Condé Nast Asia Pacific and founder of This Works, says "I’m more interested in inner beauty than face paint."
Kathy Phillips | Source: Courtesy
  • Kati Chitrakorn

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. Role Call highlights some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them. For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Kathy Phillips is the international beauty director of Condé Nast Asia Pacific and the founder and creative director of This Works. After graduating from Central Saint Martins with a degree in Fashion and History of Art, Phillips began her career as a copywriter in Selfridges' advertising department, working on the Miss Selfridge account. Shortly after, she joined Liberty as PR and advertising manager.

Aged 23, she became fashion editor with her own weekly page at The Daily Mail, where she commissioned photographers such as Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber and David Bailey to shoot for the paper. She also became fashion editor of the Mail on Sunday when it launched. Phillips has also written columns for the Evening Standard and the Observer magazine.

Her relationship with Condé Nast began in 1992 when she was appointed associate editor and later beauty director of Tatler. She spent seven years at British Vogue as health and beauty director, before becoming international beauty director for Condé Nast Asia, supervising beauty shoots and content for all Condé Nast titles in Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan.

In 2004, Phillips founded This Works, a range of high quality, natural products that are available in department stores and boutiques including Harvey Nichols and Space NK. She is currently the brand's creative director.

BoF: Please describe your current role.

As international beauty director of Condé Nast Asia Pacific, I work with all the Condé Nast titles — Vogue, W, Self and Allure, among others — in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, on the visuals as well as the content and the direction of beauty pages. In some countries, my role is to act as a consultant, putting forward advice and suggestions. In others, I am responsible for commissioning writers.

At Vogue Japan and Vogue China, I conceive and direct beauty shoots for every issue (there are 3 shoots a month). My team produces a long and detailed beauty report from the international collections, including interviews with stylists and hair and make-up artists and thousands of photographs taken backstage at the shows, all of which are used by Condé Nast titles globally.

At This Works, my role has shifted to be more geared towards the look and feel of the brand; the voice and message. I am involved in the brand's visuals, such as the website, packaging and product marketing.

BoF: What attracted you to the beauty industry? Did you always want to be a beauty editor?

The 1980s were a time of huge innovation and development in the beauty industry. During this time, I was lucky enough to meet inspiring creatives, who I interviewed and wrote about: Bobbi Brown with her six lipsticks in Bendels; Francois Nars and his Fabien Baron-designed cosmetics range; Sylvie de Chantecaille who cut her teeth at Estee Lauder and then went on to produce her eponymous range; Terry de Gunzburg at Yves Saint Laurent before launching By Terry; Serge Luteyns on going from make-up artist to perfumer; and not to mention some lesser-known heroes of mine. They paved the way for where we are today in terms of beauty brand development.

I am a journalist, first and foremost. I have always been interested in the scientific side, the formulation of a product, rather than just a new mascara or lipstick. I’m more interested in ‘inner beauty’ than ‘face paint.’ By that I mean nutrition, complementary medicine, ancient remedies, health, therapies and products that perform in a special way. I was writing about mindfulness and John Kabat Zinn more than twenty years ago in Tatler.

There are so many more fashion stylists than those who focus on beauty, despite that it's a billion dollar industry.

BoF: You began as fashion editor with your own weekly page for The Daily Mail. How did that evolve into you becoming international beauty director of Condé Nast Asia Pacific?

My generation — the baby boomers — tended to evolve their careers without much of a plan. I was lucky enough to have people ring me up and offer me great jobs. I said “yes” to opportunities. When I started at the Daily Mail, we had to do everything: write the page, organise shoots and write captions — once a week, every week. Nowadays, in many companies, there’s someone to write, another to do the pictures and assistants to help as well.

The remit of a beauty editor is huge as the business covers not only thousands of make-up and skincare brands, but also the spa industry, which has grown exponentially in the last two decades; the cosmetic surgery arena now worth many millions; trends in sport and exercise; and developments in the perfume industry, which produced more than 4,000 new scents last year alone.

BoF: Where does your extensive knowledge of beauty and skincare come from?

I’ve been doing this for a long time and by the time you’ve been to any number of beauty launches, tested thousands of products, tried therapies, had treatments, asked questions, visited laboratories, talked to scientists, doctors and dermatologists, make-up artists, hairdressers and product developers, it becomes easy to spot innovation and excellence.

I read the INCI [International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients] listing on the side of the box so I know what’s in the product. I don’t go to beauty launches or get sent a product, then turn around and write about it in magazines or put it on Instagram. Editing is not blogging.

When you work for Condé Nast, you meet the most interesting and creative people in their field. This gives you a benchmark for everything. When I worked at Miss Selfridge, I was responsible for hiring photographers and putting a team together to create fashion advertising. Working for Vogue today, I do the same thing in a much larger pool. Together, a great team can produce astonishing and inspirational visuals. I am privileged to see how much passion and talent goes into the making of it.

Dermatologists would never speak to beauty editors as they considered us airheads who were only concerned with the latest lip colour.

BoF: How has beauty content changed since you first started?

When I first started on the Daily Mail, we were not allowed to write about beauty products. That was considered to be advertising. Advertising and editorial never met. Dermatologists would never speak to beauty editors as they considered us airheads who were only concerned with the latest lip colour. It was rare to have a picture of a product anywhere in the paper unless it was an ad.

Today, beauty content is one of the most popular elements of all media: online, in print, tabloid, glossy, broadsheet, and even on TV. At Vogue online and in China, with their new Vogue Mini app, beauty content is needed fast and furiously. Videos of models backstage, make-up artists at shows, real life makeovers, new products, ideas for present giving — these feed the appetite for more and more beauty content, which is not going to go away.

BoF: In 2004, you launched skincare brand This Works. What motivated you to launch your own brand? How do you decide what beauty products to create?

My personal choice has always leaned towards the simple and the practical. I like things that deliver what they promise. I distrust marketing that pushes products. I often find that a simple herbal remedy is so much better than a medical one. I don’t like taking medicines of any kind. For more than thirty years, I've chosen fresh food, regular exercise and a simple way of life. I wanted products that reflect that. I merely started with products I valued myself, that were as natural as possible and which smelt amazing. The first one came about as something to stop skin peeling after holidays; I called it 'Dry Leg Oil'.

I also wanted products that looked modern. I didn’t see why “natural” or “aromatherapy” on a bottle should signal that they be housed in apothecary jars or in brown or green bottles. My initial brief for the product and store design of This Works was "Sexy Hospital” — no over-packaging with cellophane and no big boxes housing tiny products. I wanted clean and clinical, but with sensuality. I didn’t look at what other brands were doing. I merely thought hard about busy, practical women, who work, travel, bring up children and still want to look good and what they really need in their lives.

BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?

It’s a completely different time today, but I think the first thing anyone should do is be more targeted and think both globally and digitally. Many people who approach me have done very little real thinking about the beauty arena and all it’s possibilities. Spa, retail, formulation, make-up, hair-dressing, therapy, journalism, PR — these are all avenues to consider.

If I was starting out now, the first thing I would do is make myself an all-singing, all-dancing website, blog or vlog showing how creative I could be. This would act as a CV and a show space that could constantly be updated. I would even do a short course in chemistry, because it’s really useful in the cosmetics field to understand the science.

I would also suggest a period working abroad. Someone who has experience working in Japan or the US is more interesting than someone who has always stayed at home.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.

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