We speak to the legendary make-up artist about his longstanding relationship with Dior, the future of beauty and how he constantly stays inspired
In our series Icons, we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy.
Every now and then, an artist comes along who is a true visionary of their field. These trailblazers challenge preconceived notions, defining and setting trends instead of following them and inspiring scores of people in their wake. When it comes to make-up, Peter Philips is one of these artists. Known for his boundary-pushing, fearless and playful approach to beauty (those iconic, oversized red lips at Alexander McQueen AW09? That was him), Philips’s remarkable vision and masterful technique turns painting faces into an art.
Even if you haven’t heard the name, chances are you have seen his work. In his role as creative and image director for Dior Makeup and before that creative director of Chanel Beauty, Philips has been working behind the scenes to create some of the most iconic images and shows for over two decades.
A native Belgian, growing up in a grey Antwerp, Peter Philips would watch the fashion students of the nearby Royal Academy of Fine Arts – Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten, Martin Margiela – “walking around like Birds of Paradise,” he says. Philips followed in their footsteps, studying fashion at the Academy before moving into make-up when he realised he was much more fascinated by faces than clothing. Starting out in the early 90s, Philips came up alongside a new guard of Belgian creatives: Raf Simons, stylist Olivier Rizzo, photographer Willy Vanderperre. It was working alongside them, that Philips had the first defining moment of his career: drawing a perfectly formed Mickey Mouse over a model’s face one Sunday on a shoot with Vanderpere and Rizzo. The cartoon mouse would become an unexpected ally and recurring character for Philips, providing the inspiration for a second pivotal moment in his career - a 2005 Vogue shoot with Irving Penn for which Philips hand-made a lace Mickey Mouse mask for model Lisa Cant.
Since then, Philips has worked with every major photographer and magazine, designing looks for countless runways and creating collections of make-up so in demand that a single product will sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Here we spoke to the undisputed genius and image-maker about growing up experimenting with beauty, the biggest moments in his career, and the democratising of the industry.
Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember the first time that you were aware of your appearance?
Peter Philips: I remember when I was six or seven, my hair was a bit longer and people would say “Oh my God, you have beautiful hair”. It’s a compliment so you feel a little special. Compliments can be very addictive.
I was a chubby child until I suddenly grew 11cm in the span of a year becoming a very skinny teenager. I remember walking around Antwerp and girls whistling after me. I just ran off, they scared the hell out of me. At the same time, I felt very flattered. But going through puberty also meant getting pimples, which makes you very much aware of your appearance.
Growing up in Antwerp was there a specific beauty identity that you saw there?
Peter Philips: Antwerp is not like London or Paris. It’s very Flemish, it’s a bit dark. There wasn’t really a beauty culture. Women and girls would make themselves up for special occasions mainly or do it as a statement if you were new wave for example. Culturally, we didn’t have a fashion scene when I was growing up, we didn’t even have a glossy magazine in Flemish.
What I know about beauty and make-up is what I saw from my mum. My mum would put make-up on every day, in a subtle way. My grandma would make sure her hair was good on the weekends and for special occasions would do a proper make-up look. The rest I got from TV, music, cinema and books. We have a lot of museums and we got a good art education at school, learning about paintings, painters and sculptors. That’s always a treat for the eye. The only beauty-related thing that we have in Antwerp are paintings of Rubens, where there are curvy girls with great skin and beautiful blush.
Did you experiment a lot with beauty or make-up when you were younger?
Peter Philips: I grew up in the 80s/90s, so I’d often experiment with my looks. I didn’t really wear make-up myself, but I did it for friends, and I experimented a lot with my hair. I dyed it almost every colour you can imagine. Maybe that’s why I don’t have much left... I got a perm. It wasn’t supposed to be a perm, but it ended up being one. I had my new wave period; I was too lazy to have my hair backcombed every morning so I thought it would be clever to go back to the root perm. What I didn’t realise was that when you take a shower it leaves you with little grandma curls. In the end, I decided to just shave off my hair.
I remember when L’Oreal came out with Studio Line. Oh my God, that was God's gift. In the early years, we would put our hair straight up with soap or helmet hairspray, and then once gel came it was a big game-changer. It was fun.
You initially studied fashion and then you moved into make-up. Do you think studying fashion has helped you in your career in the industry?
Peter Philips: Absolutely. It also showed me the way. We lived in the centre of Antwerp so we would see all the fashion students walking around like Birds of Paradise. They were all really extravagant and made up and very colourful. I was very intrigued by that so I told my dad, “I want to go to the Antwerp Academy, I want to do fashion design”. They were not against me doing a creative degree but they pushed me to go for graphic design – it was a bit more stable because there wasn’t a real fashion scene in Antwerp. So I studied graphic design, which included photography, set design, making campaigns, printing your pictures in the darkroom, the whole package. I also studied fashion design. I remember we would go with the German designers to Paris for our annual fashion show and that’s where I discovered all the other aspects of fashion. One of which was beauty and make-up. After graduating I decided to pursue make-up.
Before going to shows, what did you think of make-up as a profession?
Peter Philips: I didn’t realise it was a proper job. I didn’t realise for make-up artists that it could be a proper mission and calling. I was blown away when I did those fashion shows to see the transformation of the girls and how they would suddenly become a part of the designer’s vision. They would all come in with their own identity and then once they were in line, they were transformed into Ann Demeulemeester or Dries Van Noten girls. Make-up is a very powerful tool. I realised I was more interested and focused on the faces than the clothing.
What happened after you graduated?
Peter Philips: I graduated from the academy in 1993 and I started doing make-up in January 1995. I had an agency in Antwerp but like I said there were no interesting fashion magazines in Belgium so after a while, I went to work in Amsterdam.
There were loads of really good photographers based in Amsterdam. I worked a lot with Willy Vanderperre, Raf Simons, and Olivier Rizzo - Belgium’s underground scene - and put together a portfolio that was a little bit avant-garde, a little bit Flemish. From there I started working for British publications like i-D, Dazed and The Face, eventually moving to New York for 11 years.
Would you say there's been one person that's been very influential in your career in terms of aesthetic and your style of make-up?
Peter Philips: I am mainly inspired by the people I’ve worked with. I like to constantly adapt. For example, I would never do the same style of make-up for more than one photographer. Sometimes when you do something very experimental, if it’s not shot in the right way it can look ridiculous. At the beginning that was a bit of a handicap; sometimes I was afraid to do certain looks because I thought maybe it wouldn’t be properly captured. So my style is very moulded by the teams I work with. I know when to push it and I also know when to hold back.
While you’ve been at Dior, you’ve worked with different creative directors (Raf Simons, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Kim Jones). Does your style change under their influence? How much do they influence the work that you do with the make-up?
Peter Philips: When I work with them, I’m actually at their service. It’s like when I work with any designer, I bring my creativity, point of view and my expertise to complete their vision. If I do a show for McQueen, Dries van Noten or Karl Lagerfeld, Maria Grazia for Dior or Raf Simons, they all have their own story to tell. It’s my job to interpret their story.
When I do a catwalk show if I feel like I can push it, if it really helps the look, I'll push it. If it doesn’t need anything, I don’t do anything. It’s better for the girls to just look amazing. The make-up should complete the look, that's what we’re there for.
So do you have any stand-out moments from your time at Dior? Any shows, products or collections that you’ve done that really stand out to you?
Peter Philips: There are many. What I’m going to say now sounds like marketing but I’m very happy with the feedback we get from numbers. If the numbers are good, it means that people buy your products. People buy make-up because they like it. That’s a compliment. That means I’ve done a good job. Me and my team, so that’s always a highlight.
I love it when a catwalk look comes out as well and the designer is happy. For example, when I did the Maria Grazia Chiuri Dior SS18 haute couture show when Stephen Jones did the most amazing eye masks and I did eye make-up which was like a very spiky eyeliner and it just matched perfectly. The girls looked amazing. Then for Raf Simons show, for example, a few years ago [Dior SS15], where I had time to make mirror applique eyeliner that we glued on the eyelid. It was a very delicate make-up look but it looked so good on the catwalk, everyone was blown away by the elegance and subtly of it. It's something that totally reflected Raf’s vision so he was very happy with that.
I love doing my product launches. The other week in Cannes, I presented the new Rouge Dior Ultra Care which is two lipstick products. Watching all the journalists, bloggers and influencers all try on the lipsticks and love them, that’s a very satisfying feeling. Not just for me, but also the team behind it. They do a great job and that is appreciated.
Since you’ve been working in the industry, how do you think it has changed over the years?
Peter Philips: It’s become much more democratic, a lot more accessible. Once social media became available to everybody, there was a whole network of people communicating to each through blogs, tutorials and platforms through which they can their expertise, and experience about products, formulas, techniques and everything to do with make-up. Everything you want to know about make-up, the answer is out there.
The public also won’t let themselves be dictated to anymore like they used to. As with fashion, previously each season would have its trends in shades and product as seen on the catwalks and in magazines. Now, it’s totally different. Everything is available, people experiment and they see and follow influencers, bloggers and people in the beauty industry that are not just brands anymore. Normal people doing make-up will actually become brands. Sometimes it might be a bit of an overdose of information, but at the end of the day, you can just switch it off. You just have to stop Googling.
The democratisation of beauty made it much more interesting for everybody. You can’t just launch anything anymore. That’s why I will keep saying these products keep their promise because consumers have become like experts. If they don’t like something, they will put it out there and if it’s out there, it can do a lot of damage. That’s why I keep insisting that whatever we do, we make sure the claims – the promises – are justified and true.
Beauty and make-up are so popular right now. Do you think it is sustainable and this can continue or do you think it will go back to how it was before? Not as popular as it is now.
Peter Philips: I think it will stay popular. It might not be as extreme as it is now. You see some really fun and extreme things like extreme contouring or highlighting. I’ve seen people glowing from a mile away. So much glow. On the other hand, they have fun and I think every generation will have to pass through that stage of making mistakes, exaggerating and experimenting. Make-up is there to be a feel-good thing. It’s a tool you can use to look good and when you look good, you feel good. That’s what it’s all about.
What do you think is coming up next? We’ve had the strong contour, big brows and all the highlighter.
Peter Philips: I think now, people appreciate real beauty, they know how to use their tools, they know how to put the right amount of glow in combination with shading. They know that if the next day they want to go extreme, nobody cares and everyone just has fun with it. It’s not a big deal.
I hope that people will experiment to create their own looks because what I see is a lot of people are starting to look alike. They all use the same tricks, eyebrows, lashes, contouring and hair. I like make-up when it’s used to make you stand out, to enforce your uniqueness. Instead of trying to make yourself look like someone else. If you feel good like that, it’s no problem but there’s more than that.
Do you think social media makes people more likely to all look the same? Having the same Instagram look rather than be individuals.
Peter Philips: I come from an era where make-up and fashion were all about expressing yourself. Even if you’re not perfect according to the classic picture, you could enhance that so-called imperfection and stand out and be unique. Embrace that as another kind of beauty. Now, the danger is people try too much to look like an ideal picture and lose themselves in it. I’m not here to judge it, it’s just an observation but I hope people will appreciate their true beauty – their own beauty. Which might not be your neighbour’s beauty but it’s another beauty. I’m also very curious to see how it evolves because everybody is now so spoiled with filters and make-up that in 10-20 years time, how will they cope with a more mature beauty? Which might not be up to their expectations. You get used to those filters really quickly and to all the make-up tricks, don’t forget that you can also embrace ageing. There is beauty in every age but it doesn’t necessarily meet the same make-up mould.
What do you think have been some of your career highlights?
Peter Philips: Designing my own make-up collections has been a highlight. In terms of shoots, one, in particular, has stood out. The Mickey Mouse look I did a Willy Vanderpere and Olivier Rizzo on one of the Raf Simon’s models. We did it on a Sunday and we were just playing around. They got published and Raf saw the pictures and loved them.
How do you stay inspired for 25 years? Do you ever get sick of make-up?
Peter Philips: No, the advantage for me is when I come home or go on holiday I can really leave my beauty case at the door and not even think about make-up. That’s also one of my strengths that I can really, totally disconnect. My professional life is really exceptional; I get to travel the world and meet the most amazing people. It all sounds and looks very glamorous – being on a plane every two days, shooting backstage, models, the whole thing – but it is at the end of the day hard work. I’m a hard worker and I love what I do, but the thing is in my private life, I’m very lowkey. When I get a moment off I go to Antwerp and I see my parents and family. I don't have a private yacht or a very high maintenance lifestyle. I’m very grounded and I appreciate the little things. Lots of people tell me that I haven’t really changed and I think that’s also the secret of why I’m still standing and why I still love what I do because I stay true to myself and I don’t act up. At the same time, I know that it is a long time and it can also be over tomorrow and I don’t mind because that’s the business we’re in. We’re in beauty and fashion and it is a very youthful world. Not necessary in age or years but state of mind. As long as you keep that child in yourself alive and the youthfulness in yourself alive, there’s always a place for you in fashion.