Dior’s Peter Philips brings creativity to the brand's commercial make-up lines. By Alyx Gorman.

Dior’s make-up director Peter Philips

Dior’s make-up artist Peter Philips readies a model for runway, in Paris.
Credit: Thomas Samson / AFP / Getty Images

A hillock of deep blue delphiniums, 17 metres high, has been erected in the eastern courtyard of the Louvre. It looks at once organic, as if it had sprung spontaneously from the beige paving beneath it, and totally alien. Outside, two hours before Dior’s Spring 2016 ready-to-wear show is set to begin, it is relatively calm. One or two women stop to pose for photographs in front of the monumental structure. Occasionally, someone dressed all in black, holding a clipboard, paces past.

Inside the set things are not quite so serene. The rising sense of panic and disarray that is often evident in the hours before a major fashion production is also missing. Instead, there are dozens of people working very hard, quickly and quietly. Details have to be bedded down: models’ nails need to shine with a healthy, natural pink; strands of hair need to sit straight over the ears, like a beautiful teenager dressing as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, just for a laugh. Wandering across this factory floor of high fantasy, trailing a gaggle of journalists behind him, is Peter Philips, the creative and image director of Christian Dior Beauty. “Try this,” he says, squeezing a viscous, velvety splodge from a little pink tube. “It’s Dior Lip Glow Pomade. I used it to bring out the natural flush in the models’ lips before the show.” He dispenses another dollop of the product and smiles. “I feel as if I’m working on a counter.”

It was in a backstage environment much like this, more than two decades ago, that Philips realised his calling. Born in Antwerp, he was a fashion student at the time. Seeing make-up artists at work backstage made him realise that dressing the face, not the body, was his ultimate fascination. “My background in fashion always feeds me,” he tells The Saturday Paper later. “It can be texture combinations or colour combinations that are inspired by what I learnt at fashion school, or what I still see when I talk with designers and they explain their collections to me before we create a look for a catwalk.”

The designer who inspired Philips that spring was Christian Dior’s creative director, and fellow Belgian, Raf Simons. Simons and Philips are close friends, and their careers have always intertwined. Philips’ first big moment as a make-up artist was a portrait of male model Robbie Snelders. In it, Snelders sports a line drawing of Mickey Mouse across his blasé face (Philips), and wears a black suit jacket over a hoodie (Simons). The image appeared in the launch issue of V Magazine, and has since become part of avant-garde fashion’s canon. After that, Simons enjoyed success with his own label, and at Jil Sander, while Philips worked as an editorial make-up artist, and later as the creative director of Chanel Make-up, where he was responsible for some of the most covetable limited edition products in the house’s history. Then when Philips was announced for Dior in 2014, after Simons’ appointment in 2012, the pair were reunited.

Though it wasn’t public knowledge at the time, the Spring collection was to be Philips’ last with Simons. Less than one month later, Simons left his position. For January’s Spring haute couture show, the house entrusted Serge Ruffieux and Lucie Meier, both veterans of the Dior design team, to steer the ship. But as yet, despite many rumours, no big-name creative director has been announced for the venerable fashion house.

This puts Philips in a curious position. Though make-up artist Pat McGrath never held Philips’ title, in the extravagant days of John Galliano she took Dior’s runway looks to even further extremes, often painting models’ faces rainbow, or creating enormous feather eyelashes for them to wear.

Philips’ vision of Dior Beauty complemented Simons’, in that it was a far more restrained take on the house’s codes. For that final Spring collection, he complemented the bold Victorian shapes Simons’ created – made soft, and lingerie-like through the use of silks so fine they were essentially translucent – with a beauty look that was ethereal and nubile. Philips echoed that translucency by layering several shades of pink on the eyes, adding the faintest touch of glow to the cheeks, and mimicking the flush of a just-bitten lip.

“When we talked about the look, there was this idea of a Victorian-inspired hairdo … The jewellery was kind of severe, and all the girls wore chokers. It was a bit twisted. It all framed the face, so we thought that the girl in that frame should look as if she has just walked out of a flower garden. And in fact she has. There is a mountain of flowers outside. So we kept that severeness, but then complemented it with a very fresh, beautiful look.”

The products used to create the look, Dior Beauty’s Glowing Gardens limited edition collection, have just arrived in stores. The centrepiece of the range is a series of lightly iridescent pinks “luminous, but not sparkly”, in Philips’ language. “For me, I have to think practically, and the most flattering shade was pink. We tried peach as well, but it doesn’t work with Asian skin tones.”

Though most of the colours in the Glowing Gardens palettes are accessible, there are a few wildcards, such as a naive pea-shoot green, and a zingy shade of yellow. It’s a balancing act that is more vital than ever for Philips.

“In the beginning years of my career, my make-up was purely fashion-driven, and not necessarily beauty [focused]. It was more about fashion statements, concepts … and extreme make-up. It is actually when I started to create products that a whole new make-up world and a whole new vision of beauty opened up to me. I was confronted with actual questions that I needed to answer. There were very basic ‘beauty problems’, if you can call them that, and that is where my passion for make-up became even greater.”

While in fashion, the way a woman wants to display her body may swing wildly, in beauty women will always want to hide blemishes, create smooth complexions, and emphasise their eyes, lips and cheeks.

“There are always products and creations in my collections that guarantee beauty. There are beautiful shading colours and nice textures. Next to that, I always try to put a few colours or even colour combinations that are more about the accessorisation of beauty … I first make sure that the Dior woman knows that in my collection she can find what she needs to guarantee her natural beauty, to enhance or to cover up whatever she needs to enhance or whatever she needs to cover up, and then I try to almost seduce her into experimenting a bit. If I only did crazy or experimental colours or fashion-oriented shades and textures, it would be too overpowering.”

Philips understands that, for some women, “pure beauty” is enough, and for them he works with his team to develop formulations that can deliver with ever-greater levels of precision and ease. He understands the urge to experiment, too: “I think fashion can guide beauty,” he muses. But he’s aware it does not have to. “I believe there is a tension between fashion and beauty, but it is a healthy tension. It is something that makes it more vibrant and almost electric.”

All major houses that have cosmetic branches must grapple with the union of mercurial fashion and immutable beauty. Fortunately, tending to a glowing garden is a position Philips is very comfortable in, even if the maison it surrounds is between occupants.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "Backstage Dior".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.