Phyllis Cohen is a Face Fanatic. Addicted to features. Obsessed with the particular elegance of a certain line. She has been drawing and painting faces (and bodies) for over 35 years. Not just anybodies either – David Bowie, Diana Ross, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner. Although her archive typifies a sort of hyper concentrated notion of the eighties (more eighties than a Smash Hits Bananarama pin badge) she was never really accepted by the Fashion cognoscenti.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM
It doesn’t seem to bother Phyllis. While Fashion turned to deconstruction and minimalism she was performing her own anatomisation of Beauty – studying anthropometrics, forensics and perceptual psychology at Goldsmiths through the nineties. In 2012 she launched FaceLace, a way of offering the painstaking detail of her most elaborate makeup in an easy peel off, stick on. Her Instagram is an ever expanding archive of inspiration, chock-full not only of astonishing images but the fabulous stories behind them. Phyllis and I are sat on the floor in her house, surrounded by hundreds of tear sheets, 35mm colour transparencies and sketchbooks.
Phyllis Cohen: Oh, well that was the first thing I did when I got to Italy. Yeah, that was for Lei Magazine and Franca Sozzani was the Editor at that time. She got quite excited, cause there weren’t that many people like me that did illustration and makeup. She said “Oh, I want to give you a story and do whatever you want! You can do pictures, you can do makeup, you can do whatever you want!” I was like, Okay, and Lei Magazine was quite sort of young, I guess. What would be the equivalent now be? No idea.
Beauty Papers: There’s no equivalent or comparison, because it was Franca.
PC: Yeah, I bet.
BP: Did you meet her or was it correspondence over letters?
PC: She was one of the first people I met when I got to Milan, cause I had come from LA. I did a stopover in New York where I showed my work and people thought I was literally mad. But one editor gave me Franca’s name and told me to go see her. I didn’t realise the politics! [Laughs] “Listen if Condé Nast gives you a story you cant work for Mondadori.” I didn’t know that, I was like, “Oh come on, don’t be ridiculous!” But actually it is a really big deal. [Both laugh]
So I went to Mondadori and of course, they gave me a story too! And Franca got really angry at me. I had to call Mondadori and say that they couldn’t publish the story I did for them, and then they never paid me… You know the mafia scene is serious in Middle Italy! [Laughs]
When I first went to see Franca Sozzani she actually called Anna Piaggi and said, “You should meet this girl,” and I went to see Anna Piaggi and she looked at my fashion illustrations, and she said, “Where are these clothes from?” And I said, “Well I kinda make ‘em up,” and she said, “Ok.” Then she called the ladies at Krizia and said, “You know, you should get this girl to come and design for you,” so I actually did a day designing at Krizia! They put me in a room and just said, “Come up with stuff.”
BP: So how did you get started with the archive? What made you start going through the drawers?
PC: It was to prepare information about FaceLace. We wanted to put together like a little film about the history of FaceLace and me and blah blah. So I had all this stuff all over the floor, and you know my daughter’s a filmmaker, so we were kind of going through it all and it was worse than this [gestures to the archive we have spread over the floor] it was like everywhere right! And you know, I never bring it out, so I kinda thought either I put it all back now and I never bring it out again, or I actually do something with it. And even my daughter was going, “Mom! Mom! You should put this online!”
BP: So you originally started out as an illustrator?
PC: That was the first thing I did. That was my starting point: fashion illustration, and then I sort of got friendly with the photography students at ArtCenter [Los Angeles] where I was going to school, and yeah, they would let me work on their photoshoots. The photographers I was working with went on to assist Irving Penn and Helmut Newton, so they were that kind of calibre, amazing. There was a photographer who was my boyfriend at the time and we had a little group called Art Trouble with me and the photographer and a graphic designer from England, and we were doing mostly album covers, because there wasn’t really that much fashion in LA back in the early eighties. You know, it was all kind of sportswear and music, that was really what most photographers who were interested in fashion got. He was the photo editor of LA Weekly, so when there were any bits of fashion we did it together. LA Weekly’s kind of like Time Out, so you can imagine it wasn’t the greatest fashion [Laughs] but it was some fashion.
BP: What originally got you interested in fashion?
PC: Oh God, I don’t know. I think my Mom was really fashionable, and you know I did a year at an art school in Vancouver, and I think people would just looked at me and said “You should do Fashion Illustration” because I looked quite extreme.
BP: What was going on in fashion at this point?
PC: Well when I was in Vancouver I didn’t really have a good understanding of it all, but when I moved to LA I used to collect all the French and Italian Vogue’s which someone probably stole. Californians. [Laughs] What was happening? Well it was just before Claude Montana, I think the big influence for me was Serge Lutens who was just …
PC: Yeah. I think he was the Art Director for Christian Dior at that time, doing all Christian Dior beauty. It just blew my mind looking at his stuff. It was mostly the image makers who influenced me, not so much the clothes themselves. Although I was looking at clothes all the time. Always looking at pictures at the library and doing quick sketches of people. Always absorbing, absorbing, absorbing, and lots of writing.
BP: And prolific in the amount of work. [Motions to the pile of sketchbooks from the 80s]
PC: Yeah. I mean it’s more like a sickness really. [Both laugh] I mean honestly, you know, when I look at these sketchbooks and illustrations I’m kinda terrified. They freak me out, cause I think Oh my God, all those hundreds of hours I spent with tiny brushes!
BP: How about London then?
PC: So I arrived in Milan in February of 1982 and stayed until the beginning of August, because you know, everything does close in August in Milan. So I thought Well I’ll go to London for a month and see what happens. I went to see a makeup agent… I think there was only two or three at the time. There was Sessions, who I went to see. And there was Lynne Franks.
BP: How was Lynne Franks with you?
PC: I never met her! But it was a really weird time, it was when … I don’t know if she’s still a Buddhist? It was a really big deal at that time, you’d always get pestered with phone calls, “Do you wanna come to a Buddhist meeting with me?” You’re like, “No…” But you know, honestly, I’d be doing makeup and you could hear them in the room next door. They’d all get together … [Phyllis chants] I’m serious, it was a really, really big deal!
BP: Oh wow, the fashion crowd, chanting …
PC: Chanting for… Gucci bags! [Both laugh]
"It was a really different time. Even advertising was so open-minded. They just wanted stuff that would be unique and different and get people to stop and pay attention. That was it, that was the brief. Create an arresting image."
BP: So did you get signed?
PC: I went to Sessions before I had any tear sheets. My work was really mostly illustrations and test shots, so she said, “Come back to me when you’ve been to Europe.” So I go to Milan, have really good success, getting some wonderful Editorials with my friend Mark Arbeit who was there from ArtCenter, and when I came back to England I went back to see my agent at Sessions and she said, “Okay, your book looks good now. It looks proper. I’m gonna send you out on appointments.” So one of the first people she sent me to was Robyn Beeche, and then that was it, you know. We got on so well. She was so lovely.
BP: Tell me about Robyn then, when you first started working together?
PC: The first thing we did together was this Paint by Numbers thing. And you can see I’m still combining illustration and makeup together.
BP: So with this did you do the set design and everything?
PC: Yeah. And it came out as a tiny picture in the Observer Magazine, and even just from that, people were like, What the hell’s that? What’s going on there?
BP: How would you guys plan an image?
PC: Oh I would kinda say, “Robyn, I have this idea,” and I’d show her a sketch, and she’d go, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it!” And she would arrange it and then we would just do it. It was really spontaneous and wonderful, and people were so open minded, you know? It was a really different time. Even advertising was so open-minded. They just wanted stuff that would be unique and different and get people to stop and pay attention. That was it, that was the brief. “Create an arresting image.”
BP: At this point did you feel like you belonged in that fashion world? Or did you always feel like an artist interloper?
PC: I think I was just lucky that at a certain point in time, what I was doing and what fashion was interested in, sort of met, and then they kinda split again. Because I’ve never really been accepted into the highest level of the fashion world, except for maybe when I went to Milan, but I think I was too young to really appreciate what that was. In hindsight I look back and I think, Well, it’s probably a good thing, because I think to really, really be very successful in the fashion world as a makeup artist you do have to conform a bit, and I’ve never been really good at conforming. [Laughs]
BP: So you’re riding the eighties fashion wave…
PC: Harpers & Queen gave me some nice editorials. I did this one thing for Vogue, which was based on exercise and so they let me paint the body, but I never really got Vogue Editorials. Tatler gave me work. But these magazines didn’t want me to go crazy.
BP: So how did this [gestures to a tear sheet of a Tatler magazine cover] Tina Turner cover come about?
PC: [Laughs] That’s a really shocking story! So I have always had pictures of black girls in my portfolio and on my PR card, right, and working with Tina was really just because of that. I guess she must have put a message to the photographer that she did not want to look at make up portfolios that were only white women. Which is really fair enough, right?! And the photographer that was chosen said I was the only makeup artist who had black women in her book. Isn’t that terrible?! It’s really shocking, isn’t it?
BP: Herb Ritts shot that. How was he to work with?
PC: He was okay. We actually did a job together when I went to Milan for i-D. It was just like a street thing. It was quite funny, but I don’t think he really liked me. [Laughs] Because you know what at that time I really studied Way Bandy, all the contouring and the highlighting, and so I taught myself that, and really my understanding of how to do that came from drawing. So it came quite naturally to me to do all that highlighting and shading and everything. So from Tina, she had an agent who was also the same agent as Janet Jackson, and so I started doing Janet Jackson’s makeup from about ’87 to ’91. Herb Ritts also photographed Janet Jackson and he didn’t like all this contouring and stuff, which by todays standards is actually quite mental. [Both laugh] You know, he hated it. Yeah, so he didn’t like me, he was like, “Ach!”
BP: It’s interesting how in the past few years how that contour has gone mainstream. I never would have expected that.
PC: Yeah, I know, it’s so weird, isn’t it? It’s a really weird phenomenon. And the whole thing of transformation has just gone crazy and you go to a shopping mall now, and it’s like one third cosmetics. I mean that’s incredible! So everyone’s obsessed with this idea of transformation.
BP: When you were starting, the products available must have been few and far between?
PC: Pfft! Yeah, there wasn’t even MAC, if you can imagine!
BP: So how were you actually getting the effects? What were you using?
PC: Pan stick. Yeah. Always creams, creams and then powders. A lot of really careful blending.
BP: So just being very smart with very simple ingredients?
PC: Yeah, and doing it really slowly and carefully. There was this horrible thing called Pan-Cake by Max Factor, and it was like you had to wet it with water and you had to do it so fast and get it all smooth because if you had to go over a bit it would lift off. It was terrible, and some people could work with it, I could never work it out. It did give you this beautiful matte finish, but it was so difficult to work with. You know, I can still work with really crappy stuff, which is actually a good skill. I’ve done beauty advertising for really terrible brands you know. [Both laugh]
BP: Looking at your sketchbooks it seems like you spent a long time practicing and refining?
PC: Well yeah. For instance when I used to practice makeup for black skin I would make myself black and work on top. To have to work without retouching for what, ten years? I will go back and make that line perfect.
BP: So when do you think that fashion sort of moved on?
PC: Well there was a time after the Observer thing came out, I’d been taking my book around to all these Beauty Editors, and saying, “Let’s do this!” And then they saw my work published in L’Officiel and were like “Oh! Can you do that for us now?” And then I think people started to get on a bandwagon, but they were asking for the same things over and over again. I was like, “You know, why don’t we do this?” Or “Can we try this?” “No, no, we want that!” But after a point, around 1986 those phone calls stopped, and then I knew, okay, things have moved on.
BP: So then what happened next for you?
PC: Well all through the eighties I had been doing celebrities for pop videos and stuff. So I did a lot with Annie Lennox and Bowie. I did so many people during that era I did Gary Newman and Bow Wow Wow and Diana Ross and Elton John. Towards the latter part of the eighties I was doing mostly beauty advertising and body painting was beginning to take over because there weren’t that many people that could really paint.
BP: Which musician was the most fun to collaborate with? Who was the most open?
PC: I started working with Dusty Springfield who was just a riot. She was such a riot, she was so funny. She had incredibly pale skin, and she was always wearing pinks and purples, so for the contour it was like a dusty purple that I would do for her cheeks, because you have to imagine the reflection that would be coming from her clothing. [Laughs] She was wonderful.
BP: I’m so fascinated with Dusty.
PC: Aw, she is so wonderful. She could be very difficult. She was never, ever difficult with me. We used to have a lot of laughs because she would say that some makeup artists tended towards curves a lot and some were quite angular, and she said, “You’re a curved one!” So when it came to her eyebrows she wanted them quite angular, and I would be doing her brows [Laughs] and she would be saying “I feel a curve! I feel a curve!” She was wonderful.
BP: She’s so iconic and she had a long career that was very visual as well as being about the music. When you inherit someone like that who has had such a visual impact on popular culture… I’m interested in how aware she is of DUSTY?
PC: Well I think that the first time I worked with her was when The Pet Shop Boys did that song, and I think that everyone was a bit nervous about who she should work with, because she had a reputation that she could be difficult with makeup artists. Even now when I work with a celebrity I do a lot of research. I look really carefully at everything that’s on the web about them and how they look in different makeups, and I’ll do like a mood board of all different options and then discuss with them which ones I think look good and get their feedback, and you may think that from the broad spectrum of what I do, that me working with celebrities I’d get bored, but I actually don’t. I think it’s really fascinating, because you have to get into their mind and see how they see themselves, and I think that’s really, really interesting. I love watching those famous faces look at themselves in the mirror. I think it’s just incredible.
With Dusty I think it was all about the identity that she’d built up, and also all through the sixties she would have done her own makeup, right? So what I think is going on with a celebrity, is that they’re always creating a balance between what they have been and what people expect, and perhaps what they want to be now. There’s always that sort of dichotomy going on. So maybe they can handle little changes but there’s always got to be a really strong essence of what they’ve been, and the representation of what they feel their audience needs to see. It is really important that you respect the legacy of how they have presented themselves to their audience.
"I started working with Dusty Springfield who was just a riot. She had incredibly pale skin, and she was always wearing pinks and purples, so for the contour it was like a dusty purple that I would do for her cheeks, because you have to imagine the reflection that would be coming from her clothing."
BP: So after all this glamour you went back to school. Tell me about that.
PC: I don’t wanna sound like really ungrateful but I think I was getting a bit bored of the fashion world. So I thought Well I really want to learn what beauty is. I wanna understand that, how that works, and at that time – so this is like early nineties – I had been doing lots of evening classes in Philosophy of Art and Art Criticism, and Life Drawing. The writing at that point was very much based on the idea that beauty was determined culturally, you know, that we were bombarded culturally with images and ideas of contemporary Western beauty ideals. I got into Goldsmiths and was taught by Michael Craig-Martin, who was the sort of Master at Goldsmiths, who taught Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. At Goldsmiths I had all the tutors say the same thing to me, for like five years, cause I did a BA and then went straight into an MA, and they all said, “You need to simplify. You have too many ideas.” And it’s a really important lesson. They said “Pick one idea. Pick your strongest idea, and every decision you make regarding how you present that idea should only strengthen that idea. Don’t add any ideas because that will detract from the strength of the initial idea. Always, every decision you make has to strengthen that one idea.” That’s the only thing Craig-Martin would say to me over and over and over again. You know, too many ideas, you’ve got to strip it back. What’s the one really important idea here? Over and over, he said to me.
BP: In your quest exploring beauty …
PC: I had this thing about Naomi Wolf, who I think is an amazing writer, but then I began to do research about something called Perceptual Science, and I discovered that there were all these teams of researchers studying reactions to the face, and they could use computers to do really tiny adjustments to faces, and then present the faces to like three hundred people and get their reactions, testing things like the dilation of pupils.
They began to realise that there were certain types of faces that people responded to and then they did research on that, and one of the most fascinating things that I read was about how we physically react to faces that are very symmetrical. Even as a newborn baby. And so that meant that this thing of us responding to perfect symmetrical faces is actually hardwired into us. It’s not culturally determined, cause how can you load all that cultural determination onto a three week old baby?
BP: So through exploring all those different ways of looking at beauty, do you think that when you came out of Goldsmiths you were changed? Had your practice changed?
PC: Well, yeah. It was interesting that Goldsmiths really taught artists how to have a strategy. So you find what you’re really interested in. This was sort of the Goldsmiths method as I understood it at that point in time… So you find an area that is interesting to you, that you have a personal relationship with, that you can draw lots from and create artwork based on it, and then you build your critical theory around it to support it, and then you look very carefully at what’s happening in the contemporary art world, you really know all of the people who came before you that were working in the same vein, and then you go out in the art world.
BP: And then you launched your company FaceLace
PC: While I was at art school I did the Pink Floyd back catalogue image. The photographer Storm Thorgerson who was the Creative Director of Hypnosis, that was the company that did all of Pink Floyd’s artwork, he said to me, “These are the album covers I want painted on the backs of these women, but I can only give you six hours,” and so I thought, What am I gonna do? So I developed this system of using stencils. I worked out how to break the images down into separate colours, so when we were painting, it was like, okay, colour one. Stencil rollers. Lifted up. Stencil two. And all the colours were pre-mixed so we could achieve it in six hours.
So, through the nineties, because digital was advancing there was this constant competition between doing something elaborately – body painting – and doing something just in postproduction, and time was becoming more and more a big issue. I mean, back in the eighties we would usually take the first polaroid at 5.30pm after starting at 9 o’clock. I began to get obsessed with what can I do to save time? And so that’s when I started doing the stencils, and then that machine over there [points] is basically an industrial version of a small machine I had which helped me cut stencils, and that was how FaceLace came about. This need for being able to do really elaborate things quickly, cause I knew that there was a market for it. So it was that thing of wanting to be able to give people the opportunity to use something that they could get a dramatic effect really quickly.
BP: I’m interested in what do you think is beautiful?
PC: I think something that surprises me. Something that makes me look at things in a new way.
BP: Is there anyone from history, through all of your research, who you think epitomises a type of beauty?
PC: I think each face – and this is something I really got from all the research – each face has something beautiful in it. I find all the elements of any face kind of fascinating. There’s aspects of beauty in all faces, really. You just have to find it.
BP: And how about an idea of style or glamour?
PC: So when you say that I think of certain lines. Like Erté, he has this sort of elegance. The way he does hands, poses, costumes. I’d almost have to break it down to different elements. Certain lines. And you know, when you draw aren’t there some lines, they’re such a pleasure. Doing those long swoops. It’s something to do with swoops. Elegant lines, whether they’re in the face, or in the clothes, or on a page or on an eyeliner, or in an eyebrow. Breaking it down into those tiny elements that are beautiful and elegant and glamorous, and then you put it together again.