how conceptual make-up artist phyllis cohen infiltrated the 80s beauty scene
From Bowie to Blitz, Phyllis Cohen’s work came to define a generation.
When art school graduate Phyllis Cohen hit the make-up artist circuit in the glamour-obsessed 80s, her boundary-pushing looks certainly turned heads. But, bar a few visionary editors and photographers, they weren’t most people's cup of tea. Despite her radical approach to make-up -- the faces she made up better resembled works of colourful, conceptual modern art than the preened and powdered work of her contemporaries -- a few timely meetings with some of the era’s seminal creatives saw Cohen eventually rack up the kind of credits you can only dream of, from iconic Bowie covers to Blitz editorials. And now, through her newly-launched Instagram account @phylliscohen_archives, the Canadian-born make-up artist is delving into her back catalogue to shine a light on the inner workings of the fashion and beauty industry of the 80s.
But an Instagram portfolio this is not. Cohen doesn’t simply document her greatest hits or simply share the key trends of the era. Instead, her captions explain the social and industry shifts that contextualise her make-up artistry within wider culture.
Here, i-D asks Cohen about her contribution to make-up culture, and her reflections on just how far the beauty industry has come…
What do you think was the most pivotal moment in your career?
Probably when I worked with Bowie, on the Observer cover. Before then, people thought I was mad because I wanted to turn make-up into art. This cover showed people that I could do something that was pretty and not just crazy so they started to take me more seriously.
Was it hard to find your people?
I had photographer friends that I’d met at ArtCenter [College of Design in California] who were always willing to do these crazy things with me. There were a few magazines that got me, like Linea Italia who I worked with to create the series of minimal images of just eyes on the white page, inspired by Erwin Blumenfeld’s 50s Vogue cover. Harriet Jagger, a fashion editor from the Observer magazine also gave me a break. She would always organise shoots that would allow me to go crazy with the make-up. The photographer Robyn Beeche was also pivotal. She was photographing all the Blitz Kids, all the Zandra Rhodes stuff. I love working with women and we had a strong partnership, which was unusual in the 80s –– it was still very much a male-dominated world.
You wrote on Instagram that by the late 80s, the fashion world had moved to a more refined beauty aesthetic. How did that affect your career?
Before that time, I would get so many requests to do editorial work and editors would allow me to do what I want, but by 87 or 88, people didn’t really want that anymore. I guess I was kind of a make-up pariah. Fashion changes, and that’s just how it is.
So what did you do next?
I went back to study fine art properly at Goldsmiths, and I got really into conceptual art. I wanted to really understand what beauty is, how it affects us, how we look at it and what it means. I did loads of research into something called perceptual science, which didn’t necessarily directly translate as make-up based artwork, but it definitely reinvigorated my make-up career. I became really interested in the semiotics of beauty, and would call up beauty editors to pitch them stories on things like charting the significance of red lips, although they didn’t really get it. I was a little bit too early on those sort of macro-concepts.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I have always looked to the art world. I love Jean Cocteau, all of his films, all of his drawings. Robyn Beeche also showed me The Recreation of the Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer from the Bauhaus era and that just blew my mind. At home I have tons of books, from African make-up reference books to decorative arts books, which I love looking at. And I always keep on top of what’s happening at the shows. I do look at Instagram a bit, but if you only look at social media, you end up with such a narrow focus.
How does the creative process work for you?
I really love doing research. It’s one of my favourite things. And when I’m trying to come up with something new, my technique is to cram my brain with as much visual inspiration as possible. I cover every surface of my house with print outs and tears and photographs and really gorge myself on it. I fill my mind with so much that it has nowhere to go but back out again.
Why have you set up this Instagram archive?
I feel like there’s lots of conversation on Instagram where people are getting irate over copycats, or who did things first and it’s getting a bit ridiculous. There were things like this lip look someone posted on Instagram, and I thought well I did the same thing back in the 80s, but rather than saying ‘Well, I did that’ I thought I could just post it and let people make their own minds up. People are so concerned with technique these days that no one is thinking about creativity. Make-up has become a technical exercise of replication, but I think people like that I offer a different viewpoint. They like to hear the stories and the creative processes behind the different looks I’ve created.
Are there any parallels between the beauty world of the 80s and today?
If I was 23 again, it would be great, I would have a platform to do all my crazy ideas. I could just film myself doing make-up in my bedroom. With social media, you can always find your audience. But then again, I would miss out on the great experiences you have working with other people. That’s where the truly exciting ideas come from.
Which make-up artists do you find truly inspiring right now?
My contemporaries like Alex Box, Val Garland, Pat McGrath. I feel like with the Instagram generation, everyone has to claim a particular genre, you have to think more like a fine artist. Like my friend Vanessa Davis, @the_wigs_and_makeup_manager and her thing is the skulls and that’s made up her identity. With these new Instagram phenomena, people are looking for youthful beauty, but you can’t compare them to someone like Kabuki. He’s incredible, yet only has like 50,000 Instagram followers. That’s criminal, he’s a genius.
You’ve watched the modern beauty industry evolve –– is there anything you can’t stand about it right now?
The whole topic of animal cruelty is crazy. I did some research on the kind of adhesives I use for my brand Face Lace. I rang a bunch of manufacturers and asked them about their animal testing practices, and they all told me that they tested their products [on animals] years and years ago, and so didn’t need to do it anymore as they didn’t plan on changing the formulas. I rang the certification bodies, and they told me to certify a product the criteria just requires that I say I’m not going to do any animal testing from this point. I don’t think people realise that the testing has already been done. Even if you buy something that is cruelty-free now, I guarantee that if you researched into all of its ingredients, you’ll find that an ingredient will have been tested on animals at some point. It’s a really grey area and I feel like the industry is making it up and playing along, just hoping that nobody does their research or takes time to ask questions.