The Antwerp graphic designer turned experimental make-up artist has been head of Chanel’s cosmetics division for three years now and already he’s had a string of hits on the make-up counter. His Trompe l’Oeil temporary tattoos were the perfect fusion of his propensity for dark, youth culture references in his early days and Chanel’s status at the summit of maquillage de luxe. And then of course there are those nail varnishes…

Written by Murray Healy

Portrait by Willy Vanderperre

‘Sometimes it seems like all I do is nail polish,’ says Peter Philips. ‘I hope people don’t forget we actually do a lot of things. We’ve got amazing lipsticks, great eye shadows…’ And here they are, lined up across the Chanel cosmetics studio, in racks and drawers and boxes: hundreds of bottles, powder palettes and pencils of various colours, hits of the past and the present, and the future too (most of the products Philips is working on at the moment won’t reach the counter for another two years). But it’s his nail varnishes that are the big story at the moment, their success an index of the creative lead Philips has taken on the industry since he became the global creative director of Chanel make-up three years ago. His biggest hits so far have been the minty pistachio of Jade in autumn 2009, the peculiar putty of Particulière in spring 2010, and the breezy turquoise of Nouvelle Vague last summer. All three have resonated with the make-up-buying public in unexpected and mania-inducing ways, becoming endlessly blogged, shifting on eBay for silly money and sending other cosmetics brands rushing to catch up with copycat colours. Philips has managed to elevated nail polish to an echelon of desirability usually occupied by bags and shoes: a pop-culture phenomenon.

Particulière was a colour whose popularity no one could have predicted. Its light frequency seemed to buzz on the border between boldness and beigeness; a bizarrely aggressive magnolia, it was not an obvious contender for colour of the season. As Philips says, ‘No marketing team could have come up with that shade.’ Luckily, he explains, at Chanel he has the freedom to follow his own instincts rather than marketing directives, so he is allowed to take risks with products like Particulière, whose creation he describes, almost apologetically, as ‘a bit of an accident’. ‘I’d wanted a taupe,’ says Philips, who always speaks with such enthusiasm that he rattles through his sentences like the clappers. ‘I’d given the team some shades as examples, and what they produced was something in between. I said, “It’s very particular, this shade” — that’s where the name comes from. I didn’t know whether I liked it or hated it. I could totally see it in a Steven Klein shoot for Italian Vogue, but I couldn’t see it working on the counter. But then my girls here saw it and were like “Oh!!” (pulls an expression of delight). I thought, OK, I’ll put it in the collection with a pink and a beige, something a bit more commercial. But this one was the commercial success. It’s really weird. I just follow my heart. And then this monster.’

Yesterday, Peter caught an article in Marie-Claire that made him laugh, showcasing eight glittery purplish nail colours. ‘It said, “The new It shade of the season is Chanel’s Paradoxelle. Of course, you won’t be able to get it because it’ll already be sold out, so here are the alternatives.” I’m like, “OK, I suppose this is a compliment…”’ But just to reiterate, it’s not just nail polish. In fact, the scope of Philips’ work for Chanel isn’t limited to just make-up either. Take Trompe l’Oeil, his collection of temporary tattoos based on vintage Chanel jewellery. It was the perfect fusion of the two distinct aesthetic universes that Chanel and Philips represent: the classic Parisian house crossed with the street-inspired Belgian make-up artist, who forged his reputation over a decade ago alongside Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo, painting tattoos and skulls (and a Mickey Mouse that will haunt Philips forever) onto boys’ faces. Trompe l’Oeil was first mooted several years ago, Philips explains. ‘Karl said to me, “I might want to do something with tattoos for my show.” I said, “Perfect, right up my alley.”’ Philips set about preparing a production line ready for when the right collection might come along — spring/summer 2010, as it turned out. ‘Marie Antoinette was an inspiration, yet it was kind of rebellious: short skirts and presented in a barn like they’d been shagging in the hay. I thought, perfect, classic jewellery as tattoos — it’s the same kind of contradiction.’ The models walked out with the tattoos traced onto wrists, necks, and thighs. By the time the tattoo kits hit the stores at the end of February 2010, there were already over 3,500 names on the waiting list.

Although most of the time he’s busy with his 24-month schedule for his main Chanel make-up lines — the products that will sit long-term on the counter — Philips will always factor in time for smaller projects and last-minute ideas too. For the re-opening of Chanel’s SoHo store this autumn, he fancied rustling up a small, limited-edition range inspired by New York, all soft pinks and steely shades: ‘kinda aggressive but feminine at the same time,’ he explains. ‘Because if you want to survive in that city you have to be tough, but as a girl you have to use your charms too.’ And Lagerfeld will often want new colours for collections. Indeed, when I meet him three weeks before the spring/summer 2011 RTW show, Philips is brandishing a sketch from the designer, to which he has spent the weekend stapling swatches of various colours and finishes that his team are now endeavouring to match in make-up form. ‘I see Karl a lot — we do six shows a year, and I do lots of shoots with him. We’ll just chat about ideas. It’s never a formal meeting; there’s never a big marketing committee. This is a creative process.’