Artistic licence: The most influential make-up artist in the world

Peter Philips, creative director of beauty for Chanel, is the most influential make-up artist in the world. It's the ultimate dream job, he tells Susannah Frankel
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The pivotal moment of the make-up artist Peter Philips' career came in 1999 when, for a fashion shoot commissioned by V Magazine, he painted a picture of Mickey Mouse on to the model Robbie Snelders' face.

The photographer and stylist were Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo respectively – the three collaborators and friends met while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The clothes – specifically a dinner jacket – came courtesy of Raf Simons, also based in that city and very much part of the same tribe. If the image was notable – and soon much fêted – for its iconoclastic approach and the group in question worked against the tide at least at that time, it seems remarkable that today Philips is very much part of the establishment. As the global creative director for Chanel beauty – creating looks for that company's runway shows, beauty advertising campaigns and the product itself, from nail polish to lipstick, worn by millions, if not billions, of women – he is the most influential of his profession by far.

Unsurprisingly, Philips says, speaking from his offices at the Chanel fragrance and beauty HQ in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, it wasn't his penchant for the aforementioned Disney superstar that attracted the powers that be at France's most famous status label in the first place. Instead, his predecessors, the veteran beauty specialists Dominique Moncourtois and Heidi Morawetz – the former was employed by Mademoiselle Chanel herself – told him that his work had come to their attention when they saw an Irving Penn photograph of the model Lisa Cant wearing a black lace, jewel-encrusted mask and with a full blue-purple lip of Philips' design for American Vogue's September 2004 issue.

"The image was very beautiful, very classic," Philips says. "I'd worked with Karl [Lagerfeld] and then they started booking me as a freelance make-up artist for Chanel beauty campaigns. I was like: 'They're enthusiastic.' Because whenever I was doing make-up they'd sit there watching, right next to me, asking questions the whole time."

The charmingly self-effacing Philips, who was born in Belgium in 1967, claims he had no clue that he was in fact being carefully vetted to step into the pair's shoes (or black and beige pumps, perhaps) when the time came. "Then, after a few shoots, they asked if I would like to come to the Chanel studio and I said, 'yes, fantastic', thinking there'll be some free products there..."

More seriously: "They really liked the way I worked, apparently, the way I could do classic beauty, a beautiful foundation, make-up that is respectable for a woman, that isn't too fashion, too much of a fashion parody. But they also knew my freelance work, my portfolio, and they said they loved the fact that I was also able to push it really far." Then began a two-year interim period where Philips was primed for the post in question but duly gagged. This is not uncommon. Chanel, which is privately owned by the Wertheimer family that first became part of the brand's beauty business back in the 1920s, works in mysterious and specific ways. "They approached me secretly," Philips says. "That was OK, it would have been too much pressure if everyone had known."

In January 2008, his position was officially announced. "Peter Philips is not only an excellent make-up artist, he also has the ability to create the perfect complexion," Lagerfeld told Women's Wear Daily, neatly nailing the two-pronged approach – appealing to a woman's desire to perfect herself and pushing at the boundaries of make-up artistry more experimentally – that lies at the heart of Philips' work and his success so far.

"I don't ever want to push people to buy anything weird, a green nail polish, for example," he says, now three-and-a-half years into his role there. "I always try to balance out my collection so that everyone can find something in it. The more special shades – I hate that word but let's go with it – are there as a tease. I mean there's a beautiful pink, or a beige, but if you want a yellow then that will be there too. There is nothing offered by Chanel that would ever make a woman look like a fool. It's designed to make women look beautiful and that, in essence, is what I'm here for." We are speaking today about Philips' autumn/winter make-up collection for Chanel. He designs four a year: spring, summer, autumn/winter and Christmas, although there are also smaller drops of product in between. Many of the new shades and textures are initially showcased on the runway. Philips says he's only aware of the mood of a show four to five months in advance and is briefed more fully just 10 days before. He tends to start work on a product about two years ahead of any launch and the fact that clothes and make-up inevitably work so well together is nothing if not testimony to the uncannily synchronised forward-thinking powers of the main protagonists on both sides.

I see some pieces from the show, rolls of fabrics, sketches that Karl has drawn," Philips says. "And there's always a hair and make-up hint, maybe a little splash of blue around the eye or a feather in the hair, brief indications. He also likes to be shown things though, to be surprised. Often I will use things from the new collections and sometimes we will also create things just for a show."

Central to the new Chanel beauty collection are six cream eye shadows – a first for Chanel. "It's an amazing formula," Philips says. "It's something I've wanted to do since I started working at Chanel. I think most women love them, you can apply them with your fingers and the result can be as subtle or extreme as you like. There's a satin-finish peach which blends into the skin tone. It makes your eyes look luminous and you can also use it in moderation on your cheeks. There's a black, which is the most intense black you can imagine, which means absorbing light, but it's mixed up with maximum sparkle. And in between the two there are metallics, super sparkly, a nice bronze, a beautiful plum..."

Then, of course, there are the new nail polishes, something of an event in beauty circles where devotees join waiting lists months in advance. Continuing the metallic theme are: Quartz, bronze softened with pink to a relatively discreet effect; Graphite, an ultra-chic mix of silver, gold and platinum; and Peridot, which, when struck by light, makes nails appear gilded and in the shade turns a brilliant peacock green. Philips says that he doesn't think the shade will go on to enjoy quite the spectacular success of 2010's grey/brown neutral, Particulière, but that's not the point. "I don't think this one's going to be a classic but it's something you want to have because it's almost like an accessory."

In September, meanwhile, Chanel-ophiles have Rouge Allure Velvet to look forward to. "I felt there was a need for a matt-finish lipstick," Philips says. "If you see velvet, when you look at it it's matt but when you twist it a little there's a shiny luminosity. That's the effect we are trying to achieve: a soft-focus matt. Also, a lot of matt lipstick dries out the lips. It's important that it stays comfortable."

It says something of Chanel's confidence in Philips – of indeed just its confidence as a whole – that as well as running the beauty arm of the business and taking an increasingly proactive role creating highly engaging short films for its website, he continues not only to shoot fashion editorials with the world's leading photographers, but also to create make-up for other designers' shows. Among many other beauty moments, it was Philips who created the extraordinary underwater alien look for Alexander McQueen's final show, Plato's Atlantis. He works with Sarah Burton now. The fluoro-pink Jil Sander lip that attracted more than its share of column inches this summer, meanwhile, was also his design. The aforementioned Raf Simons is designer at this label and the two remain great friends.

"Chanel understands that it doesn't pay off to lock me in an ivory tower," Philips says. "They know where I come from and what inspires me. I've been working full time shooting and on shows for 15 years and if I just did the same thing from one day to another I think I'd be a bit lost. It's good. It nourishes me. I'm still in contact with my photographers, I love to work with my friends who are stylists and models. I'm not isolated, which is a good thing."

He lives between New York and Paris and still travels extensively but not as much as he used to, he says, even enjoying the odd weekend off, which is a relative novelty.

Does Philips have the best job in the world, I wonder?

"I guess I do," he says, laughing.

Chanel's autumn collection, Illusions d'Ombres, is available from August 19; Rouge Allure Velvet available from September 30.