And She Be Fair: Peter Philips
Philips has worked with every major photographer, every major magazine, and he’s done makeup for countless designers’ shows and ad campaigns—his credits include biggies like Vogue and indies like i-D with photographers from Irving Penn to Inez and Vinoodh. His most famous shoot, with Penn in 2005, involved Mickey Mouse yet again—Philips hand-made a lace mask in the shape of the cartoon character’s bigeared silhouette for model Lisa Cant, and the resulting shot was so strikingly beautiful that it arguably made his entire career. So Peter Philips, though perhaps not a household name for the population at large, is an undisputed god in the beauty industry, a singular figure with a career unmatched by his contemporaries—and, as I learned during our lovely conversation, a true gentleman. He told me of his love for Singin’ in the Rain (so charming!), his thoughts on the magic of old movies, stories of working with Raf, his view that “products are a promise,” and yes, RuPaul’s Drag Race.
As a kid, were you drawn to makeup or beauty? Do you have any memories about the act of getting ready or watching your mother get ready?
PP Exactly that, watching my mom or my grandma getting ready—my grandma on the weekends doing her hair, doing her little coral lipstick, a little bit of blue on the eyes. My mom wears makeup, I would say not much, but she really had a little routine in the morning. She always looked stunning. She wouldn’t go out without her mascara and a bit of eyeshadow, her hair done, and I honestly think she totally intrigued me. And since I was a kid, actually, I loved, loved, loved watching old movies. I’m talking about the ‘70s, early ‘80s in Belgium.
We didn’t have cable, so there were the antennas. When the wind was good, we could receive something from Great Britain, and then we had Dutch TV, and one French-speaking Belgian channel, and one Flemish-speaking Belgian channel. On the Flemish-speaking one, every Saturday afternoon, there was an old movie, and I loved watching those. And if I was playing outside, I knew at 4 o’clock, I went inside to watch my movie. I remember as a kid being intrigued by how the women looked, not only just the makeup but also the dresses, or how they danced. Very cliché, but I loved watching it. It was like a fantasy world. Like Singin’ in the Rain—the opening scene is like a catwalk, all the actors walking to the premiere, and then you have somebody giving comments on how they were dressed. As a kid, I thought that was the most amazing thing I ever saw. I have vivid memories.
Your breakout moment was a shoot with Irving Penn in 2005, with the Mickey Mouse mask for Lisa Cant. It became an iconic image. Can you tell me about that day, and why you used Mickey Mouse?
It’s very pop art, in a way. It’s associated with everybody’s childhood. At the same time it looks cool on every age, when you get a shirt with a Mickey Mouse. It’s something that evokes good times, but at the same time it’s very graphic. We put it next to the Coca- Cola logo or Supreme, that kind of thing, and it’s eyecatching, visual communication. Visual language, almost. I only did two Mickey Mouse’s in my whole career. The first one I think was for a shoot we did with Olivier Rizzo where we were able to use Raf Simons’ clothes, and then it was actually used in issue zero of V Magazine. The issue that was printed out to send to potential advertisers, I think, before the first issue came out. I made a mask first on another shoot with Mr. Penn. I love making masks, and Olivier Theyskens had given me a beautiful piece of lace which I used for a few shoots for i-D. On the first shoot with Mr. Penn, I had in my case a beautiful antique lace object which I turned into an eye mask. Then I see a piece of lapel from my great-grandmother that my grandma gave me. So I make it into a little beautiful eye mask, with black check pearls, gold and diamond on the cheek.
It was a beautiful picture, actually. That picture got me my Chanel contract. I was playing around and I made myself a Mickey Mouse mask, and I carried it around for a while. And then, for the big September issue of American Vogue, they were missing one page of beauty. I got a phone call from my agent, like, Okay, they’re missing a beauty picture for American Vogue and they want the guy who did the lace masks. They asked if I had any more. And so, I sent Phyllis a few masks that I made, she showed them to Mr. Penn, and they picked the Mickey Mouse mask.
We shot it on a Saturday, which is kind of exceptional for Mr. Penn, to shoot on the weekend. The weather was bad and we were all hoping to be able to shoot in daylight, because for Mr. Penn, daylight makes the pictures look like paintings. But it was a really, really, droopy, rainy day. I put the mask on, Julien d’Ys did fantastic hair. And the moment Lisa Cant, the model, came out of the makeup area, the clouds broke open and it was the most amazing light. So, Mr. Penn started shooting. We shot, shot, shot, shot, and I got a print at home and I love it still. It was just so beautiful that day. Everything was perfect. It was a masterpiece.
You came up at a time when many creatives from Antwerp were achieving great success, and you obviously have a famed working relationship with Raf Simons. Can you talk about what your collaborative process is like? And what it was like to be in Belgium at this time, when they were achieving such insane success?
I still remember hanging out with fellow students in the evening, until late night hours. I remember Raf maybe wanted to go to the Academy, but Linda Loppa [then head of the Royal Academy’s fashion department] said, “No, you don’t have to, because you’re ready to start your collection.” And then he would talk about maybe wanting to start a collection—those conversations were amazing. Nobody would have thought to be where we all are now.
It was just a bunch of young kids sharing information and talking about what their plans were. It was just a great time. It became very natural and very normal, you know? I went to the Academy, I did my student job and then afterwards, we went for drinks. Some of us might have had plans and ambitions but it kind of grew. It was just a bunch of young kids who all had their own dreams and passions, hanging out together. And there were long discussions about the London designers, the American designers, fashion in general, the future of fashion, the Belgian designers. When I graduated, Raf started doing his collections, and he actually asked me to do the makeup for his shows. I didn’t even have two makeup brushes, so I said “No, Raf, I’m not ready for that, I need to get a bit more skilled.” But from the beginning I kind of helped out backstage with the makeup, and then after show three or four I thought, I’m gonna do all these shows in Europe. For my first fashion season, I knew these young designers who needed a makeup artist.
I had always done shoots with them. And so I did the makeup for Olivier Theyskens’ first show in Paris, and then I did Veronique Branquinho. So my debut in Paris was for two young designers, with me of course as the head makeup artist. But both of them kind of boomed straight away, and that was the same period that [Raf and I] did the first Mickey Mouse shoot. So, suddenly, all the stars came together. I don’t know, I must have done something right, working with the right people. The great thing is that all the relationships are really effortless, you know? There was no money, there was no budget, there was hardly any sponsoring, it was just a bunch of kids ready to show their skills and do a show in Paris.
You cut your teeth doing a ton of print work, but now magazines are closing left and right, and the best platform for a makeup artist seems to be Instagram. What do you think of the makeup trends that are coming up there?
It’s opened a lot of opportunities, Instagram and social media, good and bad. The gates are open now. And the great thing is it kind of got rid of the fear of makeup. A lot of people were afraid. They’re like, “Oh, it’s only for movie stars or actors or photographers.” There were all those ideas about makeup, but on social media and the internet you’ve got the most amazing tutorials or posts of lovely looking girls or even a guy. I’m totally convinced that RuPaul’s Drag Race has a big, big thing to do with it.
They look like goddesses, and you think if I just do one bit of what they’re doing, I can look divine, too. It made it all more acceptable. They started exchanging ideas and comments and experiences and it just broke down the barriers. You have to always take it with a pinch of salt, you know, when they start contouring with a fork and a knife or a shoe, then I don’t know… But it is funny. And that’s the most important thing—at the end of the day, it’s just makeup. It’s not like you can’t take it off and start over again, you know? There’s no pressure. There are a lot of possibilities. It’s about stretching yourself, and having fun with it. Makeup is not a necessity, and makeup is not something that you need to survive. Makeup is not oxygen or food or water. It’s a luxury, it’s something you should enjoy. I think social media kind of shows that there should not be necessarily a stress factor. You can just play and have fun with it.
Do you have a favorite Drag Race contestant?
I love Jinkx Monsoon most. Oh, I was a huge, huge, huge fan. She was not the prettiest one but she had a great sense of humor. And I loved Kennedy [Davenport], who played Little Richard in Snatch Game. And Violet Chachki! When she came up that catwalk with that black onesie and then she took off the belt and it became a tartan jumpsuit? I mean, I fell off my chair. I have a weak spot, also, for Jujubee. Poor girl, those lashes, they’re always all over the place. I also loved, the first-ever season, the one with no budget. I mean, they’re all so good
You’re the creative director at Dior Beauty, and in the past you’ve talked about how a girl who may not be able to afford or have access to Dior clothing can buy the makeup. It really broadens the customer base, and it’s such an enormous market. So how do you tackle the challenge of appealing to such a wide range of people? And then, at the end of the day, do you see beauty as democratic? Something that everybody can take part in?
Yes, absolutely. Well, first thing is that the Dior Beauty woman is not necessarily always like the Dior couture woman. Our Dior Beauty woman, it’s a much broader fan base, there’s a much broader range of women. I think that not every woman wants to be fashionable, but every woman wants to be beautiful. That’s the big thing, you know? If you don’t care about the latest trends in fashion or what’s happening on the Paris catwalks, you still want to have your glow, or your nail shade, your mascara. My main motivation when I create collections is not me, it’s women. I create collections that aren’t an ego trip. I don’t create formulas or concepts or colors just to stand out or to do something like, Wow, this is going to be spectacular. I do it with great respect for women. I’m a strong believer in the claim that the product is a promise, and we should keep that promise. I’m a very bad liar. I don’t lie with my products, and I don’t lie to my mom. I’m a very bad liar, so when my creations are honest, I think women will read that, they will understand that. I listen to what people want or what they need. Or I even pay attention to what they don’t know they want yet. That’s my strength, I think. I don’t believe in forcing women to do anything, to wear anything that they don’t want to. I never was a fan of dictating trends. I’m like a baby, like a very happy child, when I see somebody wearing my shades. It makes me so happy.