"I don't say I invented green or orange nail polish," Philips said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "But by putting those shades in Chanel packaging, you give it credibility. If Chanel makes a surf board, it's cool. Not every brand can do that."
"We're seeing a shift back to the well made-up face, and nails are taking on a whole new dimension," said Karen Grant, Vice President and senior global beauty industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group. "Industry leaders look to Chanel for direction…and trends driven by Chanel affect the mass market."
Prices for Chanel makeup are some of the highest in the market, from $25 for a nail color, to $250 for the limited edition Lumieres Byzantines compact. (Only 1,000 were sold worldwide.) But Chanel consistently ranks among the top five selling prestige cosmetics brands, and is number one in the nail color category, despite limiting distribution to roughly 800 doors in the U.S., according to NPD.
While most people can't afford a $4,000 Chanel jacket, they can afford a $27 Chanel lipstick. The brand's striking black-and-gold packaging is an accessible luxury and a big piece of the bottom line for Chanel, as any beauty business is for a fashion brand.
Like Chanel fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, Philips, 44, must walk the line between classic and trendy, making the beauty brand, which has an estimated value of $3 to $4 billion, appeal to young and old.
His first collection was a limited edition set of Barbie bright polishes with names such as L.A. Sunrise and Melrose, to celebrate the opening of the Robertson Boulevard Chanel boutique in 2008. He knew the time was right for shocking shades, he said, because he had noticed people dressing more adventurously. "They were getting more playful with styling, combining designer with high street and vintage with high tech sports gear," he added.
During his three year run, he's produced a number of hit products, including the nail colors Jade, Khaki Brun and Gold Fiction. At least one shade, Particuliere, the putty-colored nail polish from last spring, was created by accident. "They were mixing colors in the lab and I said, 'Stop!,' " Philips recalled. "I thought, 'This is kind of particular. It's not gray and it's not beige, it's kind of weird.' "
Once he had Particuliere in hand, he needed a runway collection in which to place it. Along came Lagerfeld's spring 2010 runway collection (shown in October 2009), set in a barn. "In French, the color is called taupe, which is a kind of animal, a mole," Philips said. "I said, 'Karl, I got a taupe for your barn.' "
(At the same show, Chanel debuted temporary tattoos in the shapes of pearls, flowers and the brand's double C logo. There was a waiting list before they even went on sale.)
This spring, Philips brought a new take to Chanel's lipstick offerings, with the minimal coverage, Rouge Coco Shine collection (including the ingeniously named neutral shade "Boy"). "The idea was to make it easy for young girls to discover lipstick. Because a lot of girls only wear lip gloss. They think lipstick makes them look old." A collection of matte lipsticks, named Rouge Allure Velvet, will follow in November.
The fall 2011 collection hitting stores now features smoky, metallic colors and introduces a new cream eye shadow with a mousse-like texture. The new nail polish shades are iridescent, including Philips' favorite--Peridot. "It changes colors," he said, "like a peacock feather or a beetle wing."
Phillips has always been intrigued by flamboyant creatures. As a kid growing up in Antwerp, Belgium, he spent a lot of time at his stepfather's sandwich shop, which served students at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, including some of the famous "Antwerp 6" fashion designers, namely Ann Demuelemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs.
"I called them the colorful birds of paradise," said Philips, who enrolled in the school's fashion program after studying graphic design for several years.
While he was a fashion student, volunteering backstage at Paris Fashion Week, he discovered the transformative power of makeup. "You would see the same [models] at every runway show, but the makeup made them look totally different. Makeup brought a designer's collection to life." After graduating from the academy in 1993, he pursued a career in makeup artistry, working for free for friends, and building a portfolio.
Soon, Philips was being booked for runway shows, magazine editorials and advertising campaigns for Gucci, Marni, Estee Lauder, Giorgio Armani and Givenchy. Then Chanel came calling.
"It was almost like they invited you," he said of his first job for Chanel, a shoot for the fall 2005 Coromandels collection, inspired by Coco Chanel's famous Coromandel screens. Immediately, he noticed a difference in how Chanel's longtime creative directors for makeup, Dominique Montcourtois and Heidi Morawetz, did their jobs. "Usually, shoots are very marketing driven, and you have someone saying shoot this because it's going to sell well. This was a totally different ballgame," said Philips. "It was very intimate and personal. Dominique and Heidi talked about the products they created like they were their babies."
That led to more bookings for Chanel, and eventually an offer: Montcourtois and Morawetz were retiring after 40 and 30 years, respectively, and they wanted Philips to take over. He joined Chanel in January, 2008.
Philips' studio is in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he works with a team of 10. He takes some, but not all, of his direction from Lagerfeld, and says the two meet informally about once a month. "We never really have a brief, it's more of I want to show you something—a photo, sketch, painting or piece of music."
When it comes to inspiration, Philips is just as likely as not to light on an everyday object."In New York, I got a shopping bag with a handle in this amazing coral color," he said. "It will be a nail polish."