In the Summer of 2014 , I travelled to New York to officiate an interview between the artist Cindy Sherman and the director of Dior Cosmetics Peter Phillips  in which the two visionary creatives talked about their childhood inspiration , their cultural influences and their continued fascination in their work with the role of mask and identity.

There was something ineffable about Cindy Sherman’s face as she sat in the pale light of her studio , its contours almost blurred, unfinished,  evasive, a ghostlike luminescence, albumen soft and cleansed, like the midsummer streets of New York washed over and revealed anew by the torrential rainstorm that battered the windows and roof of her building on Green Street.

The writer Simon Schama has described Sherman as ‘an anatomist of self- consciousness, a collector, of living masks’ and on this occasion the artist had invited  Phillips to visit the studio where she creates her work to discuss the construction of these ‘living masks’ and to compare and explore their own particular methologies and approaches to identity and beauty, to appearance and transformation.


Jerry Stafford : Cindy, where did your enthusiasm for disguise and transformation come from?

CS: From when I was a kid – maybe ten years old – because I had a suitcase of old clothes, old prom dresses and things like that, and I would play dress-ups. Plus, I discovered some of my grandmother’s clothes somewhere in the basement – she had died years before, or maybe it was even my great-grandmother because they were really old clothes, from the turn of the century. I put them on and I turned into this old woman. I have a photo somewhere. Me and my girlfriend would turn into little old ladies and we’d walk around our neighbourhood dressed like this. But then I discovered that while all my girlfriends were turning themselves into ballerinas and princesses, I was more interested in turning into monsters or witches – ugly things.

PP: I used to play in the cellar at my grandmother’s place, but I would always dress up my brother and my cousins – never myself. I kind of choreographed and styled them. I think that basements and cellars kind of form people.

CS: Yes, because that’s where all the castaway clothes that nobody has worn in years are stored. I didn’t know I was going to do anything with this. I knew I was good at art school, but then I got so bored with just painting. I soon realised that once I’d learnt how to use a camera that it was so much more interesting and quicker to come up with an idea and use the camera to capture it, rather than taking ages to paint.

PP: I was surprised to learn that you do everything yourself, on your own. All the props… everything. Do you have to try everything out a few times?

CS: Yes, but now that everything is digital it is so much easier. In the early days it was several days’ process. I’d shoot using contact sheet Polaroids, so you couldn’t really tell the focus or colour. I’d shoot something and take it to the lab and have to wait for three hours, you know, and I had to take off all the make-up, come back and then realise I had to re-shoot because it was out of focus or something. Sometimes it would be wrong, and after six or seven times and I would just give up and move on to something else. Now that it’s all digital I can see right away on the computer if something’s working or not, and make tweaks and changes.

PP: Could you talk me through the process of where an idea comes from and how that gets physically transformed into a picture?

CS: To give you an idea of the process: for one of my last series – which was called ‘Society Ladies’, they look like portraits of matronly women – I would think about the character based on maybe a dress or a wig or the combination of the two. I’d put the dress on and then maybe go through my wigs and see what works. Once I felt that a character was starting to take shape in my head, I’d shoot the portraits in front of a green screen and then think about the backgrounds.

JS: Your own work, Peter, seems not such a solo process. You work in a very collaborative way, but is there anything that you work on completely by yourself? Do you research on your own?

PP: In August, when everyone else in Paris is on holiday, I do all the prep for the collections on my own – I am doing 2016 already. I am really in my own capsule and my office is full of all these pieces of fabric. I never threw anything away make-up-wise; since I started, I kept everything because I can use them as a colour or texture or packaging reference.

CS: What are the considerations you have to take into account when you create a make-up collection?

PP: When I make a collection – there are four a year: spring, summer, autumn and Christmas – I have to make sure there are enough products that can please a woman or a girl no matter where she lives in the world. Girls in Tokyo, women in Sweden, Brazil… all different cultures, different backgrounds, different beauty ideals and different ages. I would like them to find in that collection at least two products that they can use. It is like a puzzle almost and of course all the while anticipating what might be a trend.

CS: What are the current trends?

PP: Well, to be honest, we’re not living in an era of seasonal trends. There are so many different trends happening at any one time that fashion and beauty can no longer be dictated in the ways they were 10 or 15 years ago.

CS: Does your make-up collection have to fit in with the clothing collection?

PP: Not really, although I’m lucky to have the chance to create make-up products specifically for the show. For my first haute couture show for Dior, Raf didn’t want any big make-up statement; he wanted something that looked like nothing. The venue was mind-blowing, like a big spaceship with mirrored walls. There were holes in the wall every 15 cm and out of every hole was an 8-metres high living orchid, and the light was really intense. So I proposed what you call an applied eyeliner, that was mirrored like the wall. I cut some shapes from this special paper; it didn’t look like anything special, but once it caught the light it was amazing. The great thing is that because of my role now, I can actually put these into production – in the next few months they are going to be sold.

CS: So it’s not like an eyeliner pencil?

PP: No they’re glued on, application, like fake lashes. Not every show I can do something like that but this time I could. So that is a fun thing. The show was on the Monday so we had the weekend to cut our 62 pairs of eyeliners in mirrors ready for the models.

JS : Cindy, what tends to come first in your work? Is it a material or a wig that influences the subject matter or do you choose a subject and then look for components to bring it to life?

CS: It’s a combination of all that, because sometimes the whole theme for a series will be the first thing that really comes into mind, like the clowns for example. Actually, that came to me as an idea based on something I had bought in a flea market; someone had attached big fluffy pom-poms to a really old pair of pyjamas to turn it into a clown costume. They’d even made a pointy hat that had a pom-pom matching the pyjamas. So I started thinking about clowns and then eventually got the props. Sometimes though, it is like you say, just a wig that inspires a character.

PP: Do you do research, like at flea markets?

CS: Yes, but I love going to flea markets anyway so it’s half work half fun. With something like the ‘Society Portraits’, I did a lot of research online looking at old paintings and bad society pictures.

PP: What was the starting point for that series?

CS: That whole series was actually inspired by a woman called Brenda Dickson, this kind of has-been soap opera star from the 80s. I’d never heard of her but she created this video that is on her website which is just the funniest thing in the world. It’s from around 1985: it starts out in this huge living room that is her apartment, just showing off how glamorous her life is; she comes out in this big shoulder-padded dress and some crazy hat saying, ‘Well hello, this is Brenda Jackson, if you wanna be like me then just watch this video tape and follow my make-up and style guide.’ She was so backwards with the make-up – you’d get such a kick out of watching it, Peter – she would say things like, ‘So, for blush you can do either orange or pink…’, [laughs] it was just hilarious… And in the background is this huge portrait of her; I was just astounded by the ego of the woman! That was when I decided I wanted to make these kind of portraits.

JS : Peter, you said you arrived at a time when make-up was all about literally stripping away to something pure and full of real emotions, while Cindy’s work is very much about layering and actually creating masks that express these sort of cracked and faulted characters.

PP: I see Cindy’s use of make-up as like a confrontation. In the ‘real world’, the things she explores and creates are exactly those things that most people try to cover up – and that is the strength of it, from my point of view.

JS: I don’t know if you wear make-up yourself, but as a woman I do, for example, when I go out at night. So I have this whole other relationship with make-up that is completely different to how I use it professionally. Sometimes I want to put make-up on to make a character look like they are different from me, but as if they are not wearing make-up. And then there’s something like the clowns: that was really hard because on one level I was learning about clown make-up, but then I was also trying to look like a different person underneath that clown make-up. It was a real challenge.

PP: I love clowns, they’re so intriguing. They’re very scary but at the same time they are like a magnet that draws you in. I love clown make-up too, because it is almost like Lucille Ball or Joan Crawford; if you look at those particular type of star, it’s all about the big red mouth, the pale skin, the red hair.

JS:  Do you see those bold colours still used so much these days?

PP: There is a lady who always sits alone in the Café de Flore in Paris who only ever wears full purple. She’s a real character, and when she was young she probably looked like Brigitte Bardot. But the first thing you think is, ‘Oh my god, that poor sad woman’, and then you think, ‘Actually, wow, she is pretty incredible.’ She has full make-up – always lavender and purple shades – and I can totally imagine her apartment, like a boudoir full of feathers and things. I don’t know if she is sad or happy, but as long as she feels good, and if she thinks she needs that, I think she can do whatever she wants. At least she is playing, maybe hiding something, maybe covering something up, maybe nostalgic for something, maybe she used to be very beautiful.

CS: Maybe she put her make-up on like that like 30 or 40 years ago and it’s just never changed.

The original article appeared in System magazine October 2014