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Philips landed his role at Dior two and a half years ago when Raf Simons, a friend and fellow Belgian, was still there. Prior to that, he’d been freelancing and had a seven-year stint at Chanel designing both runway makeup for Karl Lagerfeld’s shows and commercial makeup collections for the house, the same way he does now at Dior.
The makeup artist, who trained at the Antwerp Royal Academy in the ‘90s to become a fashion designer, found that he liked the chaos of hair and makeup backstage at shows better than actually making clothes. After he graduated, he worked at a restaurant to pay his rent and traveled by train to Amsterdam to take a makeup course. After a few weeks of that, the self-proclaimed autodidact said to himself "You know what? I can do that myself," and promptly quit. He quickly landed himself an agent, and the rest is history.
Philips was in NYC this week to promote a new Rizzoli book called Dior, the Art of Color ($115). The beautiful coffee table book is divided by colors and features imagery from each of the three makeup artists who have worked with Dior through the years: Serge Lutens, Tyen, and Philips. Runway and editorial images are placed next to various art works in a book that is a lay-up gift idea for your friend who likes art, makeup, fashion, pretty things, or all of the above. "We’re now in an industry where numbers are really important and it’s easy to fall back on 'Let’s go safe,'" Philips says of the purpose for releasing the book. "At Dior, we dare. It’s our DNA, and we have to make sure we don’t forget that. The book is almost like a bible."
But Philips still very much has to operate within (unholy) commercial expectations. "I have to keep more of the balance between art and commerce. In the good old days you kind of didn’t have to, it was more flexible," he notes.
In the beauty retail landscape we’re in now, women are mixing high-low products the same way they do in fashion. So how does a luxury beauty company that just launched a $1,500 anti-aging system also hook the Sephora shopper? (LVMH owns both Sephora and Dior. Sephora carries a range of makeup and skin care by the brand, but the most expensive caps out at $175.)
Philips feels that women are savvier about makeup now. "If you want to know about something, you don’t have to wait for a magazine to come out. I feel the difference even in the questions journalists ask me. Until four or five years ago, almost 50 percent of the questions I got were all about solving problems, makeup problems, quick fixes," Philips says. "Now, the questions are more like, ‘Where can I get a product?’ That’s a big shift. The women can find answers on the internet."
Women across the world also like different types of products, and Philips and the Dior team have to take this into account while designing collections. "In one collection, I need to make sure that a woman in Asia, on the east and west coasts of the US, Spain, Norway, wherever, can find at least two to three products to create her look," he says.
Philips says that women in Europe favor natural makeup, meaning an almost translucent layer. "It’s real natural," he laughs. "Because what’s natural in Europe is not natural in New York City. Here, it’s full foundation, which covers up but gives the illusion of natural. That’s full makeup in Europe. When you go to the west coast, it’s much more about color and bronzer and it’s more frivolous." He says that women in Italy, Holland, and Germany love orange-y lipstick shades. Women in Tokyo, because they’re dealing with a lot of green-tinged neon light everywhere, favor pink tones in their makeup. He says women in Latin America love bright-colored nail polish.
With these global differences in preference and the pace that shoppers expect new product options, Philips has to be a bit of an augur. When he designs a makeup collection, he does it between 18 months and two years before it actually launches, so he has to count on his gut, and he also can’t be too specific with colors or motifs. "Until now, I’ve always been kind of right, but it’s also because my main motivation when I make collections is not to try to be trendy but [to be] very respectful to what women expect from products." That means offering more than just whatever bright teal eyeliner might be trending on runways that season.
He also has to work within the confines of available technology and how much bandwidth the factory has. "We make almost everything in-house. I get some mapping. Let’s say for fall there’s space for four nail polishes, four Rouge Dior [lipsticks], a new formula where we can do a liquid eyeshadow, two eyeshadow palettes. It’s almost like the plan of a house, the set-up of a collection. Sometimes I can twist it, but in rough lines that’s what the collection looks like."
This fall’s color collection, Skyline, is based on Paris. Sparkly eyeshadows call to mind the Eiffel Tower at night. The shapes that emerged when Philips took pictures from underneath the Eiffel Tower became designs that were then embossed on eyeshadow palettes. So while the Dior fall runway featured purplish-black lip gloss that probably only a handful of people would try to replicate, who doesn’t want to carry the Eiffel Tower around in their makeup bag?
Before the interview ended, Philips checked his Instagram. How many followers? "Oh, I’m up to 124,000!" he said, to the approval of some team members in the room. Real world validation.