Back to Beauty School

Susie Rushton was a lazy and ignorant apology for a woman, more inclined to have an extra hour in bed than get up and practice her eye-liner technique. Then she spent a day at Chanel's academy...
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The Independent Online

I also didn't know that, if your mascara clogs, you should wait until it's totally dry before removing the offending blobs. Or, to avoid ageing oneself, it's better to use an eyebrow pencil one shade lighter, not darker, than your natural brows. I was a lazy and ignorant woman who would rather spend an extra hour in bed than practice my eyeliner. And then I spent a day at the Chanel Beauty Academy.

It is with apparently vacuous "helpful hints" such as these that Chanel, one of the biggest beauty brands in the world, hopes to woo new customers to their cosmetics counters. Today, at the luxury end of the make-up market, it is the "experience" rather than the product which has become king. The orange-faced sales consultant on a mission to flog her weekly quota of red lipsticks is long gone.

Recently, traditional product and luxury-focused brands like Chanel have discovered that customers are spurning sales spiel in favour of technical advice. A decade of the fashion for barely-there make-up has left many women with barely-any skills when it comes to applying "serious" make-up, which is, incidentally, making a return this autumn. Lessons and make-overs therefore offer customers "added value" at the counter - and boost profits.

And being Chanel - one of the most chi-chibeauty brands - its beauty school is perhaps the most élite. Chanel isn't simply issuing training manuals to its 600 UK sales consultants. It is selecting the 12 most talented staff for a year-long make-up artistry education at its very own Beauty Academy, on Old Bond Street in London.

The first class of "make-up specialists" graduates next month, so I was invited by Chanel to brush up my very basic maquillage skills. The Academy is led by the company's hyperactive creative director of beauty, Dominique Moncourtois (who joined the company in 1969 at the invitation of Coco Chanel) and Sharon Dowsett, an award-winning international make-up artist with several Vogue covers on her CV.

Supermodels, not sales targets, are Dowsett's speciality, as the make-up artist responsible for Kate Moss's Rimmel and Coco Mademoiselle campaigns. In fact it is Moss who provides the benchmark by which Dowsett judges the Chanel Academy students.

"Obviously, it would be ridiculous if Kate Moss did want to have a make-over on an 'on-counter'," she says. "But that's what I have to keep asking myself: would I be happy sending Kate Moss to have her make-up done with our students?"

These words are ringing in my ears as I don my standard-issue and very chic black Chanel Academy T-shirt and join a "masterclass" for bit of fast-track make-up training. The class, which is held under a blaze of studio lights, with pro-style high chairs facing vast banks of mirrors, begins with an "inspirational" lecture by Moncourtois about the new products his team are working on back in Paris. Moncourtois is Chanel's Willy Wonka.

"This is so in-cred-ible! It is mag-ic-al!" he yelps, passing around a vial containing a red pigment. "This is thermo-pigment-technology! It changes colour with 'eat! We are working on a product that will stop you blushing! Zat's abs-sol-utley incredible!" We all agree.

The next class is the "practical" and I've been worrying about it all morning. In my head I've already started humming Frenchy's number from Grease: "Beauty School Dropout". It begins smoothly enough, with a demonstration by Dowsett. The other students, who have attended Dowsett's classes since January, have already learned everything from the construction of the human skull to the peach/rose test and the Alexander Technique to improve their postures while working. I've also missed the class that debated staff protocol on a customer who talks constantly on a mobile phone during her make-over, or who has eaten a particularly garlicky lunch.

Fortunately, pearls of cosmetic wisdom fall from Dowsett's lips every few seconds. "When you're doing the eyebrows, brush them downwards to find the true shape, then use pencil, and brush them upwards afterwards." Or: "Blend is your friend! Always blend!" Even I'm beginning to feel rallied by her infectious enthusiasm.

"Don't worry about accidents," she says. "I think we've all got to a point where we're doing a make-up and it feels like it's going wrong. I just always try and think, 'It's just getting good now'. Don't let on that you're having a crisis of confidence, remember your Alexander Technique, breathe slowly, be calm. Although, having said that, we've already discussed how there can't be any accidents when you're doing eyeliner, haven't we?"

It's then my turn to wield the brushes: 25 assorted shapes and sizes are laid in front of me as my classmate Sarah settles into her chair in front of the mirror. Luckily she doesn't flinch when I accidentally poke her in the eye with the mascara brush.

I have to start by selecting my products. This is the most difficult part - and I'm not alone. Almost half of the customers who visit a Chanel counter, I'm told, have no idea what they're looking for. Dowsett has given us several tips about how to choose products that will suit your customer.

"Look at their accessories, their handbags and their jewellery," says Dowsett."They'll tell you far more about a person than her clothes. If somebody walks in wearing amethysts, you'll direct them towards the purple quad, Les Vanités." At this point, I rather lost the thread.

This, too, is a common customer experience: an unfamiliarity with product names. To improve the counter staff's communication with customers, Dowsett has trained her class to widen their vocabulary of colours and textures.

"We've played lots of word games so that when a customer comes in, the delegates don't just describe a product as 'Les Influences number blah blah blah' - they can say, 'It's a satiny grey' and describe it in a way that the customer can understand."

Ignoring my "customer's" tastes, I go wild and pick out a forest green eyeshadow, purple mascara and another dark brown eye colour, with which I'm willing myself to try out the dreaded eyeliner. Hey, it can't be that difficult, can it? I've got an Art GCSE, after all.

I start with blusher, following the advice that since customers may feel vulnerable sitting in a department store stripped of all make-up, an initial pink on the cheeks puts them at ease. Then it's the eyes, with the palest shade first, and a darker green in the socket; next, "blending", with a medium-sized brush. I blend like mad for about five minutes.

It's time for the eyeliner. Dowsett gives me a tip for my shaky hands - to support my elbow by cupping it with my left hand. It works - my eyeliner is straight, the eyeshadow is blended, the purple mascara blob-free. The final result is not a particularly subtle piece of make-up artistry, but it's not a Cubist mess, either. "Well done!" beams Dowsett, calling the rest of the class over. I am teacher's pet.

Dowsett's utmost wish, she says, is not for women to rely on counter staff to do their make-up, but to learn to do it themselves. Chanel, no doubt, hope this will encourage them to buy more eyeshadow.

"Women are sold so much make-up and yet they're intimidated by it," says Dowsett. "I always come out with the adage, 'Give a man a fish and he eats for a day - teach a man to fish and he eats for life'.

"I just like the idea that we're these ambassadors that are going out there and helping women to feel good about themselves and to feel confident and not to be wasting their money by buying these beautiful objects that are just going to sit on their dressing table, gathering dust."

Chanel's tricks of the trade

* Use moisturiser or vaseline to dilute strong shades of purple or green to make them more "wearable"

* If you want a stronger colour on the eyes, just dip your eyeshadow brush in some water

* Use blue to accent black skins that have a lot of red in them

* Totally black make-up is great if somebody is wearing very colourful clothes

* Smoky black eyes always work but don't team it with a heavy lip. Go for one or the other

* Sometimes all you need to do is stand back and realise that you need to take part of the make-up you've done off. Coco Chanel said: "Always remove, never add"