Any creative soul who has visited Antwerp may have been both intrigued and unsettled by the gothic mystery of its Renaissance architecture, its baroque art, the erudite presence of Rubens, the many Flemish religious episodes and especially the thin, pale-skinned and black-haired youths riding bicycles like ghostly poets, their scarfs trailing behind them like the wistful memories of some Belgian erotic fantasy. It is this sense of the romantic Middle Ages, combined with an edgy modernity, that has inspired and produced some of fashion and beauty’s brightest, and, indeed, darkest stars.
One of them is the make-up artist Peter Philips, who is currently creative and image director of Dior Makeup. An alumnus of Antwerp’s famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Philips is a polite and unassuming character who, it could be said, has navigated his own path towards becoming beauty’s gentleman innovator and disruptor. As Maxine Leonard discovers, he is a man with a uniquely focused style that, while avoiding obvious comparisons and superlatives, cuts through the modern language of sophistication with the precision of a heat-seeking missile – or a lipstick, especially in red.
Beauty Papers: Tell me why you became a make-up artist.
Peter Philips: Before I completed my last year at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts I knew I didn’t want to continue in fashion. I wanted to do make-up which I actually discovered by going to Paris as a dresser. As students we would travel in a bus to Paris to help backstage at the shows of the Belgium designer. That’s when I discovered a different world that involved casting directors, hairdressers and make-up artists, all backstage at the shows and being part of the process.
BP: Do you remember who was doing the make-up on these shows?
PP: Well, there was Rudi Cremers who did all the Ann Demeulemeester shows and Inge Grognard who did Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela.
BP: After graduating you started testing with Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo. How did this relationship begin?
PP: We knew each other as students as we all went to the academy and studied fashion design. Olivier and I first met when we sat our entrance exam as we were seated next to
each other over the course of two days. It was a natural progression. We started working together doing shoots. Antwerp is a small town and everybody knows each other,
the fashion students, the interns, we all hung out together
and got to know Veronique Branquinho and Raf Simons, everyone was there. We would shoot at the weekends and work as a team. At one point Willy’s camera broke and I lent him mine. They were fun times. We would street cast when shooting for underground magazines.
BP: There’s something about the naivety of beginnings that feels special, you all did what was needed to make it work.
PP: I loved it. We’d shoot friends to make the imagery. I miss that. We still try to work together if we can but we have all moved across the globe. We try to connect but Willy and Olivier are in NYC and I’m now based in Europe. But we see each other regularly.
BP: Has studying fashion and gaining a degree in graphic design had an effect on how you view beauty?
PP: Yes. I studied graphic design before going to the academy. My parents supported me but fashion was abstract for them so they advised me to get a degree where I could make a living. I went to Brussels in the ’80s. It was a broad degree, the course involved photography, printing in the darkroom and silkscreen prints. I loved it. We would have flash missions – a teacher would come into class and direct a brief that by 5pm we would have to design a product like an advertising campaign. We would work in teams and everything was done by hand, including the idea of designing magazine covers and classic drawings and etchings. It was before computers. It was a great start. By the time I went to the academy I had the thirst for fashion.
BP: Does studying another subject before going into fashion give you a broader perspective?
PP: Yes, and working with your hands, especially working with textures, colours and materials. Attending the course,
I learnt how to sew and embroider and I learnt about silhouette – it was a very good foundation for what came next.
BP: You have often challenged the norm by exploring the depths of individuality which, at times, has run contrary to the editorial ideal.
PP: The reason I went into make-up was not driven by an interest in beauty, it revolved around fashion. It was editorially driven, rather than by a fascination with make-up, and the surrounding idea of skin textures and beauty. My starting point with Olivier and Willy was experimental, we were playing, it was almost anti-fashion in deconstructing an idea. It was looking at the ways of reinventing. Our drive was the imagery and visual communication. In Antwerp, in those days, you were isolated. There wasThe Face and i-D but all the visual information we got was through research, pre the internet.
There is a very old-school approach to viewing glamour, but at the same time glamour in terms of make-up, for example, is something that can be used as a tool, which makes it relevant.
BP: I find it funny that you felt isolated given the history of Antwerp and all the artists who have broken out of the city and gone on to have such successful and influential careers.
PP: That’s the strength, I think, because you really had to look for the information and do your research and make your own fashion. Nowadays I’m more open to the idea of sourcing ideas from the internet, but for a long time I kept my distance. I didn’t want to pollute the process in my brain because it’s a different kind of thinking and a different kind of working. I see young artists and their first source is Google – it’s a different way to stimulate the creative process. My satisfaction comes from working differently, which I enjoy.
BP: This is one of the reasons I keep my distance from Instagram because I don’t want to be influenced by what I see going on on that forum, I find it distracting.
PP: I love Instagram. It’s a lot of information. I don’t use it as a source of inspiration, I use it because I’m interested in what’s going on, more like a voyeur. I love visual communication. There’s a lot of great things on there. There’s an account I follow which is about a tiara a day – every day there’s a post about tiaras and the history of them and who was wearing them and I love this, its nourishing. There’s another account which looks at portraiture and the history of art, it’s an interesting point of view which I think you wouldn’t see anywhere else. I don’t follow that many make-up accounts. I have a loyal following on Instagram and a lot of my followers are make-up artists, so they are interested in the craft. The followers that connect with me are really involved and I prefer the idea of it growing organically.
BP: A pivotal point in your career came when you drew a Mickey Mouse face on a model at a Raf Simons shoot. Do you think the editorial landscape has narrowed since then?
PP: Editorially we are now limited because everything is linked with advertising. A stylist has to show the advertisers so they are limited in choice and it has impacted on how you work as a team, it affects storytelling. Before the shift the stylist came up with the story, and make-up and hair would create something, and the clothes would support that. But having restrictions can change the process, it’s a censorship on storytelling which is a shame, but it’s a sign of the times and it is what it is.
BP: You know there is no advertising in Beauty Papers?
PP: Good for you, but how do you do it then?
BP: Well, that’s why I look like this – it’s an ageing experience. But the idea is to create a vehicle that allows for freedom and to work in an alternative way. I read that when you moved to New York your portfolio changed and you struck the balance between art and commerce. Was this transition hard for you as an artist coming from Europe?
PP: No, not at all. I saw it as a learning process. I moved to NYC because I had an opportunity. I never had an ambition to live there but I started working with Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and Craig McDean, who were based there and represented by Art & Commerce. I was travelling back and forth and they suggested I move to the city. To this day Nadine [Javier-Shah, co-president] is my agent. She originally took me on. My portfolio was underground, very dark, gothic Belgian imagery that I was very proud of and precious about.
The agency didn’t change my portfolio for a year and I was shooting good editorials. I did a few shows there, which differed from Europe, but the agency advised I should start making a living and they adapted my portfolio. I was open to the idea by this point. Within a week I had been booked for American Vogue with Grace Coddington and Craig McDean. The imagery was very beautiful and classic in a way. Not every shoot I work on needs to be a bang, otherwise it becomes a gimmick. I did the Mickey Mouse once and everyone brings it up. I have been asked to recreate it as an idea and I always say no! It’s a bit annoying to be asked. You have to offer something else. Mickey Mouse was the right day, the place and I don’t want to pollute that. Many years later I did do another Mickey Mouse but it was with Irving Penn and I made a lace mask. Happy birthday, Mickey Mouse! He’s 90 this year.
BP: In 2008 Chanel Makeup made you creative director. What was your approach to working with the brand?
PP: The way Chanel approached me was in a very traditional way. I was already working on their beauty campaigns with Dominique Moncourtois and Heidi Morawetz and we connected. I already worked with Karl Lagerfeld on Fendi but it was not connected with Chanel beauty. Dominique and Heidi asked me to come by the studio. It was great to be invited and I was excited about the prospect of free make-up [laughs]. I was intrigued because I had never been to a creative studio before at a premium house. Dominique said he wanted to retire and they invited me in, almost like family. It would be the first time in 40 years that a new creative director had been appointed. It was something special, it’s a beautiful story.
BP: When you left Chanel to go freelance you said, “The process of shooting has changed so much, everything is now guided by advertising interests and the mystery of film has totally been replaced by digital.” How did you overcome these changes?
PP: It was a bit of a shock. I had been under the radar working at Chanel for seven years, but at some point it evolved and I saw changes so I wanted to explore pastures new. My commercial client was Chanel and on returning I questioned what had happened to the industry. Suddenly the budgets had been cut, you had to shoot many more images in fewer days. At Chanel I saw the evolution from film to digital but experienced this as a client. On set as a freelancer, I witnessed seven marketing people standing by a screen judging every click. I didn’t think I could continue like that, I accepted the evolution but I didn’t like it as a style of working.
BP: I find it incredible when so many bodies are around the monitor and those responsible for the image can’t see a thing!
PP: You can’t see anything and I find it very disrespectful. I was working for a year like this but I started to miss designing products and every time I passed a make-up counter I would look at products and recognise my desire to return to this world. I then signed an amazing contract. What I am truly grateful for, being at Dior, is that I have the right balance between art and commerce. You need to have a commercial point of view if you want to drive a brand and translate the ideas that do not intimidate. I like to play a game of seduction, I like to seduce with my creations not impose them. It’s a successful way of commercially translating a collection. I can create an amazing palette of colours that are risqué, but if no one wears them what’s the point?
BP: I suppose, creatively, it’s a luxury to create an obscure colour palette, but in reality there’s a limit to the expectations that someone will actually wear those shades.
PP: You can always push a little. What women are prepared to experiment with now compared to the past is night and day. I remember when I created my first lipstick line, women were afraid of lipstick. The idea of lipstick was more nostalgic reminding them of their mother or grandmother and people were driven to nude lips. The idea regarding lipstick was either a conceptual approach or you wore nothing. In my experience red lipstick represented more the idea of the woman drawn to a brand like Comme des Garçons, wearing an all-black silhouette, or somebody from Spain with a strong identity to beauty and the colour red.
BP: My mum was Spanish and she used to swim in red lipstick!
PP: Voila! I wanted to re-seduce women to wear red lipstick and I saw it as a great challenge and I loved it.
BP: A red lip is such a powerful weapon.
PP: Yes. My approach to this was launching a range without red in the palette so they could rediscover the gesture. I didn’t know many women who wear red. The idea of when you are in a restaurant and you are reapplying a lip, it’s sensual, sexual and feminine and nothing to fear. Once they rediscovered the concept I launched different colours. First you need to gain trust.
You need to have a commercial point of view if you want to drive a brand and translate the ideas that do not intimidate. I like to play a game of seduction, I like to seduce with my creations not impose them. It’s a successful way of commercially translating a collection.
BP: I struggle with the word ‘trend’. How do you create collections so far in advance? Is it very instinctual?
PP: It is very instinctual. I follow my guts and as a guideline I prepare collections with the mindset that nothing will scare the wearer when it comes to colour. When my mother passes by a counter and loves something, that’s my guideline. But I always try to create something that pushes an idea further.
BP: Like when you created the red lipstick collection but also launched a black and white lipstick to go with the idea?
PP: The formula of Ultra Rouge is amazing and the lab did a fantastic job. I questioned what the next step would be. They confirmed my idea of the red packaging too. You have to understand that the packaging of Rouge Dior is precious. I didn’t dare to propose, but it was mentioned and the concept evolved to exploring red – and they did! From a painter’s point of view, if you want to adapt your shade you add white to make a shade lighter, or black to make darker tones – that’s the idea behind those shades being added. You don’t have to buy it or want to buy it, but it’s intriguing and seductive and gives a different point of view. It’s a point of interest that gives a twist! The previous Rouge Dior collection, when it was extreme, with shades of yellow and grey, was something I created in mind for when I shot editorials, so I had something to play with. It was a limited edition collection. The lab were working at formulas and I said, ‘What can you do colour wise?’ They came up with all these formulas, we explored yellows and greys and they looked beautiful in the packaging, so we said let’s launch the collection. Part of make-up is the idea of fun.
BP: ‘FUN’ is a really important word at the moment given what’s happening politically and socially.
PP: That grey lipstick became one of the bestsellers! Employees on the counter started to experiment with the product on themselves creating ombre lips and highlights, which customers loved. This wasn’t a marketing strategy and you could not have predicted this.
BP: Isn’t it true that in depressing times lipstick sales go up?
PP: Lipsticks and nail art.
BP: As a creative director do you spend a lot of time on the science of what’s possible in the creation of a product?
PP: It’s not my job, I’m not a chemist.
BP: Do you get frustrated with the process?
PP: No, because once I know too much it may limit the idea. I propose ideas and see what’s possible.
BP: I wondered if the scientific process may sometimes be limiting in terms of your creativity?
PP: I approach it with an open mind and by viewing the idea that if it’s not possible now, maybe we can try another time. Or maybe don’t stop trying – it may be possible at some point if we continue. There are lots of instances where we have looked at ideas for concealers, as an example, and it’s evolved into a lipstick because they have discovered an interesting texture that can be adapted.
I follow my guts and as a guideline I prepare collections with the mindset that nothing will scare the wearer when it comes to colour. When my mother passes by a counter and loves something, that’s my guideline.
BP: When discussing the science of make-up you are very animated. Have you found your home here?
PP: No, I feel I have the right balance now, that’s all. I don’t need to be on set every day, but I love being on set. I’m very lucky as I have the best of both worlds. It’s important to be fed. If I was at the Dior headquarters every day it would be like being in an ivory tower and I would loose touch. I travel a lot and I see a lot, which is important for the brand and helps us develop. Next week I travel to London and I will be working with Mert and Marcus in the studio, that will be another dimension, and the week after I travel to Tokyo and China.
BP: Do you get nervous walking into those kinds of environments?
PP: No. It’s teamwork and everybody is there to make a great image, when everybody’s ego is balanced out…
BP: In 2014, you were appointed creative and image director of Dior Makeup. Dior published Dior, The Art Of Color where your work was presented alongside previous creative directors. Can you tell me about the idea behind the book?
PP: That was actually a challenge and a surprise for me. Can you imagine, I had been in the position for around a year and suddenly I was up against Serge Lutens, who had been at the brand for 12 years, and Tyen, who had been at Dior for 35 years – two amazing creatives and photographers. Together with Marc Ascoli we created a concept driven through storytelling, from a visual point of view, that merged make-up imagery and art. Marc’s point of view was to discover the right image that would suit the make-up commercially advertising products. It was a unique point of view, especially linking Mr Christian Dior, who was an art dealer and had a gallery. All the designers at the brand have been given an opportunity to create their own ‘New Look’. It’s an incredible platform from which to create and the book was to pay tribute to two amazing creators. Jerry Stafford interviewed all three of us. It’s a tribute to show how Dior, although a commercial brand, places importance on creativity and, to quote Mr Dior, ‘To dare with Dior’.
BP: I read Mr. Dior said, “We need to dream. I’m here to help you make this dream a reality.” When I read that I thought it was incredibly progressive and thought how relevant that still is today.
PP: When he created his first collection he was very rebellious, nobody created elegance like that. After the war everything was dark and depressing, there was rationing, it was misery. To create a collection that was luxurious, that inhabited a world of fantasy where he realised that women wanted to dream was brave. It resonated beauty, with an excessive use of fabrics, colours and a beautiful waistline. In that time, and in that situation, it was as rebellious as being a punk in the ’70s. It was shocking and controversial. It was why it was called the ‘New Look’. It was a great platform that paved the way for others. He had incredible vision.
BP: Serge Lutens and Tyen shot their own campaigns. Have you ever been tempted to pick up a camera?
PP: I love photography but I have worked with great artists and they work to an incredibly high standard which I know I would not to be able to offer. If you think back, Tyen would shoot one shot a day, Serge also. It’s not possible now to work like that. What a luxury it must have been. Can you imagine?
BP: I interviewed Serge Luten and those models would sit for seven hours or more having their make-up done. It didn’t sound very comfortable.
PP: No, I’ve heard it was not easy!
BP: What are your goals at Dior?
PP: I always try to do my best. One of my missions here is to ensure the brand continues to be progressive and dynamic.
BP: Do you draw from the heritage of the brand?
PP: Dior is celebrating its 70th birthday, the heritage is always there. The idea is to create a new New Look. Staying vibrant is a challenge and not always easy but with launches and backstage we have a lot to keep us energised and moving forward.
BP: Dior is a global brand but women worldwide approach their identity and beauty in different ways. How do you create a collection that globally communicates to all?
PP: Colour collections are constructed by approaching the palette to suit globally. The puzzle in creating collections that offer variety and balance is almost mathematical. I imagine the make-up being worn and how it could be translated. I want the collection to come to life. Lipsticks for example are about balance and foundations are about balance too. I consider the environments women wear their make-up in. An example of this would be questioning the humidity and climates globally. Light is another consideration and we have a great team that helps us research all these ideas that are aimed at helping to service women. Service is an important word for a premium brand as service is a luxury. Making someone feel that they have a product that keeps its promise.
BP: For the last issue of Beauty Papers you collaborated with photographer Elaine Constantine. What was that experience like?
PP: I had never met Elaine and I loved the idea of shooting for Beauty Papers with a British photographer and with somebody that I admired. It was a great day. She was very enthusiastic. We worked with Samuel François, the stylist, who I didn’t really know, and the hairdresser was also new to me, so I was a little out of my comfort zone but we had fun. The models were fantastic and it was a relaxed day.
BP: Who are your heroes?
PP: Individuals who have both strength of character and respect for each other.
Colour collections are constructed by approaching the palette to suit globally. The puzzle in creating collections that offer variety and balance is almost mathematical. I imagine the make-up being worn and how it could be translated. I want the collection to come to life.
BP: Are there any people who have stuck with you as muses or continued inspiration?
PP: Many years ago I shot with Shirley MacLaine. When you hear her talk she was like an old-school broad, which I loved. As a woman you got the impression she had to fight, the little anecdotes, being a woman in man’s world, being linked with the rat pack crew… you sensed nobody would mess with her – like a Joan Crawford.
BP: Talking of Joan Crawford, is that idea of ‘glamour’ still of any relevance today?
PP: There is a very old-school approach to viewing glamour, but at the same time glamour in terms of make-up, for example, is something that can be used as tool which makes it relevant. If you look at strong women like Michelle Obama, she looks strong in a modern feminist way, she uses elements of glamour to project her message and for me that’s modern glamour and modern feminism. Rebellious feminism in the ’60s differs from that of today and women use their identity now as more of a weapon. It shouldn’t be a dirty word, it’s empowering. A red lip when worn draws attention and people listen to what you have to say.
BP: I wear a red lip sometimes but I thought it was ambitious this morning travelling to Paris. I thought you might judge my application [laughs].
PP: Oh no, I never do that [laughs].
BP: What evokes your earliest memories of glamour?
PP: Old movies.
BP: Is your mum glamorous?
PP: She’s now almost 71 and always wears make-up. She has gorgeous brown hair that doesn’t come naturally and she has a lot of products! In her own discreet way she is glamorous. It actually took her quite a while before she would let me do her make-up for her.
BP: My mum used to judge me when I did her make-up.
PP: She would torture me. I added little lashes, nothing over the top, my step-dad came in and he was like ‘Wow!’ It lasted all night. Next day she said, ‘I wanted to keep my make-up on!’
BP: That’s adorable. When you do someone’s make-up outside of the business it’s very rewarding when they love it.
PP: A beautiful moment with my mum was at my brother’s wedding. I provided a team to do everyone’s make-up but I did my mum’s. We took our time, I was very relaxed with my mum, but the rest of the experience for my assistants was like being backstage. It was great.
BP: I’ve never attended a wedding and not done the make-up, it’s infuriating.
PP: People don’t dare to ask me!
Beauty Papers Issue Seven available here