When Phyllis Cohen, a graduate of an art school, embarked on her career as a makeup artist during the glamour-centric 1980s, her avant-garde makeup styles unquestionably drew attention. However, with the exception of a few forward-thinking editors and photographers, her creations didn’t resonate with the majority. Despite her groundbreaking approach to makeup, which transformed faces into vivid, conceptual works of modern art rather than the meticulously powdered looks of her peers, fortuitous encounters with key creative figures of that era eventually led to an impressive list of credits. These included iconic Bowie album covers and fashion editorials for publications like Blitz. Now, through her newly established Instagram account, @phylliscohen_archives, this Canadian-born makeup artist is delving into her extensive portfolio to shed light on the inner workings of the 1980s fashion and beauty industry.
‘I’ve consistently drawn inspiration from the art world. I adore the work of Jean Cocteau, including his films and drawings. Robyn Beeche introduced me to “The Recreation of the Triadic Ballet” by Oskar Schlemmer from the Bauhaus era, which truly fascinated me.´ – Phyllis Cohen
However, it’s important to note that her Instagram account is not a mere showcase of her greatest achievements or a platform for highlighting the predominant trends of the era. Instead, Cohen’s captions offer valuable insights into the social and industry changes that place her makeup artistry within the broader cultural context. Here, Cohen discusses her significant contribution to makeup culture and reflects on the profound transformations the beauty industry has undergone.
What do you consider the turning point in your career?
One pivotal moment was when I collaborated with David Bowie on an Observer magazine cover. Prior to that, people often considered me eccentric because of my desire to turn makeup into an art form. This cover demonstrated that I could produce makeup that was both aesthetically pleasing and imaginative, which garnered me more respect in the industry.
Was it challenging to find like-minded individuals?
I had photographer friends from ArtCenter College of Design in California who were always willing to embark on unconventional projects with me. There were also a few magazines that understood my vision, such as Linea Italia, with whom I worked on a series of minimalistic images featuring only eyes against a white backdrop, inspired by Erwin Blumenfeld‘s 1950s Vogue cover. Harriet Jagger, a fashion editor from the Observer magazine, provided me with opportunities to experiment with makeup. My partnership with photographer Robyn Beeche was also pivotal; she was capturing the Blitz Kids and Zandra Rhodes‘ work. Working closely with women was unusual in the 1980s, as it was still largely a male-dominated field.
You mentioned on Instagram that by the late 1980s, the fashion world had shifted towards a more refined beauty aesthetic. How did this impact your career?
Before this period, I received numerous requests for editorial work, and editors allowed me the creative freedom to express myself. However, by 1987 or 1988, the demand for my unconventional approach dwindled. I became somewhat of a makeup outcast. Fashion evolves, and that’s the nature of the industry.
So, what was your next step?
I decided to return to Goldsmiths to study fine art in depth and became deeply engrossed in conceptual art. I aimed to gain a profound understanding of beauty, its impact, our perception of it, and its significance. My research led me into the realm of perceptual science, which didn’t directly translate into makeup-based artwork, but it revitalised my makeup career. I developed a keen interest in the semiotics of beauty and attempted to pitch stories to beauty editors about topics like the symbolism of red lips, although they didn’t fully grasp the concept. I might have been ahead of my time with these broader ideas.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve consistently drawn inspiration from the art world. I adore the work of Jean Cocteau, including his films and drawings. Robyn Beeche introduced me to “The Recreation of the Triadic Ballet” by Oskar Schlemmer from the Bauhaus era, which truly fascinated me. I have an extensive collection of books at home, ranging from references on African makeup to decorative arts, which I find particularly inspiring. I also stay updated on the latest trends from fashion shows. While I do peruse Instagram occasionally, relying solely on social media can limit one’s perspective.
What is your creative process like?
Research is a crucial aspect of my creative process and one of my favorite activities. When I’m seeking new ideas, I inundate my surroundings with visual inspirations. I cover every surface in my home with printouts, photographs, and other images, allowing me to immerse myself in them. By overloading my mind with visual stimuli, I create a reservoir of creativity that eventually finds its way into my work.
What motivated you to establish this Instagram archive?
I’ve noticed a significant amount of discussion on Instagram related to claims of plagiarism and disputes over who did something first. It’s becoming somewhat excessive. For example, someone posted a lip look on Instagram that I had done back in the 1980s. Instead of asserting, “I did that first,” I thought it would be more productive to post it and let people draw their own conclusions. Presently, there’s an excessive focus on technique in makeup, often overshadowing creativity. Makeup has transformed into a technical exercise in replication. However, I believe that people appreciate the alternative perspective I offer. They enjoy hearing the stories behind my different looks and the creative processes involved.
Are there any parallels between the beauty world of the 1980s and today?
If I were 23 again, it would be wonderful to have a platform for all my creative ideas. I could easily film myself doing makeup in my bedroom, and with social media, you can always find your audience. However, I would miss the invaluable experiences gained from working with others. The most exciting ideas often emerge from collaborative efforts.
Who are some makeup artists that currently inspire you?
My contemporaries, such as Alex Box, Val Garland, and Pat McGrath, continue to inspire me. With the rise of the Instagram generation, everyone is compelled to carve out their niche, thinking more like fine artists. For instance, my friend Vanessa Davis (@the_wigs_and_makeup_manager) has made skulls her distinctive identity. With these new Instagram phenomena, people are fixated on youthful beauty. However, comparing them to someone like Kabuki, who has only around 50,000 Instagram followers, is unjust. He is a true genius.
Is there anything about the modern beauty industry that you find particularly problematic?
The issue of animal cruelty is alarming. I conducted research on the adhesives used in my brand, Face Lace, and when I contacted various manufacturers about their animal testing practices, they all indicated that they had conducted tests on their products years ago and had no intention of changing their formulas. When I reached out to certification bodies, they informed me that to obtain certification, I merely needed to state that I would not conduct animal testing from that point forward. People often overlook the fact that testing has already taken place. Even if you purchase a cruelty-free product today, further examination of its ingredients would likely reveal that at some point, one of those ingredients was tested on animals. It’s a complex issue, and it seems like the industry is playing along, hoping that consumers won’t take the time to investigate or ask questions.
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald / Phyllis Cohen
Photography: Phyllis Cohen