Fashion: French kissing

Topolino is the make-up artist Alexander McQueen and co turn to when they want the face to be as extravagant and pace-setting as the clothes. Tamsin Blanchard watches Marseilles' finest craft his creations backstage for hat-maker Philip Treacy. Photographs by Derek Santini
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here are four hours before Philip Treacy's hat show is due to begin (and six hours before it actually does) and there is tension backstage in the tent built for London Fashion Week outside the Natural History Museum. The hats have not arrived; Philip is still adding a few finishing touches in his Victoria studio. The empty hat stands are lined up on the table waiting. The models are already here - Jade, Jodie Kidd and Susy Bick - slouched in front of a row of mirrors, cigarettes in hand, chatting to each other like sixth-formers on afternoon break. The hairdressers are getting on with their work, constructing giant horns at the back of the girls' heads. But the make-up team are getting agitated. It is not Philip Treacy they are waiting for but one of the fashion world's most legendary and creative make-up artists, Topolino.

There are two shows happening at this venue tonight: one front of house, when the latest Treacy confections will be unveiled to an audience that includes Princess Michael of Kent, Alexander McQueen and the couturier Antony Price. The other will be backstage before the show. The camera crew is all ready. Topolino is about to be filmed at work for a new advertising campaign for Max Factor.

Finally, the boyish, Puck-like figure from Marseilles arrives. The make- up artist is a similar build to Prince but doesn't feel the need to sport Cuban heels. He wears a midriff-exposing child's-size T-shirt printed with a spine up the back and Hysteric Glamour's Sex hipsters. The bridge of his nose is pierced, almost between his eyes. You can sense straightaway that this man has limitless energy as he sets to work.

Topolino is known for his extravagant work on Alexander McQueen's own label shows and his first Givenchy haute couture collection, as well as for creating some of the most extreme beauty looks for glossy magazines. Extreme he may be, but Topolino's work influences the make-up we actually wear, however diluted his visions may become by the time they reach us.

For the filming, his two models are Susy Bick and Honor Fraser. He and Susy go way back. She worked with him on his first job over 10 years ago. "I thought he was like a Nureyev when I first met him," she says. It was an advertising campaign and the photographer was Stephan Sednaoui. "I've worked with him quite a few times over the years and he's always done incredible things." In particular, Bick remembers a time when they were doing a job with the photographers Pierre et Gilles. Topolino made her face completely white. It took seven hours.

Today, Susy's mascara alone takes about 40 minutes. If anything is going to sell mascara, this will. Topolino takes a mascara wand and bends it as Uri Geller might a spoon. With the modified instrument, he begins work on the eyes, building up layer upon layer of black. He is famous for his spider eyelashes, long and straggly like tarantula legs. I am amazed there is any mascara left in the tube by the time he has finished squashing the lashes upwards, pressing them hard up against her eyelids. It looks painful.

As he works, Topolino briefs his team. "Pas de blush," he says, wiping off the excess mascara with cotton buds. He looks closely to examine his work and then pulls out the mascara brush again, bending the lashes so they stand up on end. He lights a cigarette for Susy who looks totally unperturbed and not the least bit worried about the future of her eyelashes, which are now as stiff as cardboard. Then he applies pancake foundation, starting with her ears.

Meanwhile, the hats are beginning to arrive, but there is still no sign of Philip. And in the middle of the backstage area, Isabella Blow, Philip's most ardent fan and collector, is busy being tied into a kimono and shown how to walk in it. It is only later that I realise she is not in the show; she is merely preparing for her front row seat. She has her own make-up done Topolino-style. Now Topolino is finally convinced that the lashes are exaggerated enough and turns his attention to the lips. Instead of lipstick, he is going to dust the lips with rectangles of glitter. He covers the area in Vaseline - the make-up artist's best friend - and marks a perfect rectangle around the lip area with masking tape. The model Jade Parfitt watches fascinated in the mirror as iridescent glitter is applied to the area. Topolino uses tweezers to peel off the tape and, voila, she is ready. Susy looks like she has just drunk a big pint of glittery milk. "Yes you can eat, Susy," he says. As long as it is liquid sucked through a straw.

Next, it is Honor Fraser's turn in the hot seat. "He is extremely artistic. He doesn't use make-up as something that has to be practical," she says. The completed look has a strange luminous beauty about it. Honor and Susy positively glow. Now, all Max Factor has to do is get its head around redesigning a new mascara wand - one that bends at right angles on itself. Alternatively, you could always try it yourself, but be careful not to poke your eye out

Caption: `The boyish, Puck-like figure from Marseilles' (far left) waves his magic wand at Philip Treacy's autumn winter '98 show; the square lips are drawn out with the aid of every make-up artist's favourite tool, masking tape. Left: the tenth coat of mascara is applied. Above: Topolino goes back to his drawings for an accurate translation

Above: the finished results on the catwalk for Philip Treacy's autumn winter '98 collection.

Above left: time for a quick fag break. Left: a last minute consultation for Topolino with Philip