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Warpaint Interview: Phyllis Cohen – Face Lace

November 8th, 2023

November 8th, 2023

You may think you don’t know Phyllis Cohen.  She is the illustrator, bodypainter and makeup artist who created Face Lace.  You will know her work, even if the name isn’t familiar.  Since the 1980s she has been sought out and courted by the non-conformists and the mainstream alike.  Working with fashion and music icons like Zandra Rhodes, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, her work has been featured in editorial photo shoots, music videos, film and live stage shows.  Did you see Lady Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl show?  Her look included one of Phyllis’ creations.  Tim Burton’s Dumbo? TV smash Euphoria?  Adam Lambert live?  All have featured Face Lace pieces – and they can regularly be seen on the catwalks during Fashion Week.  If you joined us for Look Good Live last year you will have seen MUA James Mac using Face Lace pieces during his demonstration on the Warpaint Live Stage.Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Phyllis using Face Lace during an “Art of Make Up” masterclass

As well as being an artist and a creative, Phyllis has studied how we perceive the beauty of the human face and has written for many publications to expand the concept of beauty. Phyllis is greatly in demand as an educator, and has given Masterclasses in the USA, Singapore, France and the UK. She puts her vast experience into every design she creates for her Face Lace range. Each piece starts out as a unique artwork meticulously researched from different eras and cultures of decorative arts. Phyllis loves what she does and has a passionate team of makeup artists and artists who work closely with her.

We spoke to Phyllis about her incredible career – her inspirations, her creative process, the people she’s worked with and what she’s planning to do next.   Get comfortable and immerse yourself in Phyllis’ world.

Face Lace’s newest design, Cyborgeous. Photo Matthew Shave

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lac

What was your inspiration for starting Face Lace?

Due to my illustration background, when I began to do makeup I had to come to terms with the difference between working on a 2D surface that didn’t move to a 3D surface that was a live person, that talked laughed and moved. It was actually a wonderful experience because being an illustrator is a quite an isolating profession. As an illustrator, I always did very detailed illustrations that took 100s of hours, and within that type of practice I became quite a hermit. With makeup I only had a few hours to do makeup, which forced me to not be so obsessive. My illustration background gave me good skill with brushes though, and soon I got a reputation for very precise work. Especially as this was back in the early 80s way before retouching.

Pink Floyd back catalogue poster

When working on sets with large film crews, there was always pressure to be able to work quickly, I began to experiment with ways to create precise work. To me there is nothing worse than having allotted time to produce good work reduced and then having to look at your work on film, knowing that if you had been given 30 minutes more it could have been so much better, and of course with continuity, once they start filming you can’t change it.

So in the early 90s I started to use stencils for detailed work which I cut myself before the shoot. This turned into my technique for all body painting jobs and some fashion editorials, from the mid 90s up until I started Face Lace. Sometimes I would spend up to 100 hours preparing stencils – as I did for the Pink Floyd Back Catalogue poster. By cutting stencils particular to each brief, I found that I could reduce painting time by half, and this was always popular with production always looking for ways to pay fewer hours for large crews and talent. In the late 90s I discovered a machine that could cut stencils for me. This was the machine that eventually got me thinking that I might cut something that could be left on the skin as a design in its own right.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

How did you end up working with Zandra Rhodes?

I had gone to Art School for illustration, in California, but when I graduated and started doing makeup, in the early 80s LA was not like it is today, there was really only sports and some music videos happening there. So I left for Milan in 1982, where some of the fashion photographers I had met at Art School were living. I stayed there for 8 months and when everything closed in August I went to London. I went to see an agent who agreed to take me on and sent me to see photographers.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Some of Phyllis’ work for Zandra Rhodes

One of the first photographers she sent me too was Robyn Beeche. Robyn was Australian and one of a handful of female photographers working in London then. She loved alternative fashion, and had a reputation for capturing the Punk and New Romantic scene. She also had a wonderful group of non-conformist friends, which included the wonderful Andrew Logan (sculptor and creative of the famous Alternative Miss World) Divine (drag Legend) and Zandra Rhodes. Robyn had been cataloguing all of Zandra’s dresses and had developed an enduring friendship and working relationship with her. Robyn Beeche had been working with an incredibly talented Makeup Artist and fellow australian Richard Sharah. He had done many campaign posters for Zandra and her fashion shows.

By sheer luck he had just decided to move back to Australia, so Robyn was looking for another MUA to work with. Richard had also had training as an artist and was an amazing painter. Although I could never fit his shoes, Robyn was intrigued to work with me as I had come from a similar background. After about one year of working with Robyn doing many test shoots, which everyone did, back then even the models, Robyn was confident that it was time to introduce me to Zandra. She is an absolutely extraordinary person, so hard working and creative – a huge inspiration!

Beaded lashes on Punk Icon Scarlett Cannon

The first thing Robyn and I did for Zandra was a poster, then I did her makeup then I worked on the first fashion show for her in 1984 I believe. I was very intrigued by the beautiful patterns of her silkscreens, and wanted to incorporate them into the makeup, but it would have been too time consuming to paint them by hand. Someone told me that you could paint latex onto plaster casts and then peel the latex off and reapply it using eyelash glue on the skin. So I began to play with this technique. I dyed the latex and began to incorporate crystals and string of beads and bit of fabrics and all sorts over the years I incorporated this technique for Zandra’s show

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

In the 80s you worked with many boundary-pushing artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including David Bowie, Boy George and Annie Lennox – what are the key memories you have from that time?

My overall feeling is gratitude, I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I was allowed to stay working in the UK for the first 2 years, due to being from a Commonwealth Country – Canada. For 7 years I had to get letters of support from Editors of Magazines, and Fashion designers, Music agents, and take them to Lunar House in Croydon where they process UK work permits, to get approval to stay working for another year. God knows what they made of my portfolio of work whenever my number came up to present everything to the Immigration officers, and they took it in the back for an hour or so to make judgement.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Phyllis’ cover for Art and Design magazine, photographed by Robyn Beeche

A lot of my success is due to meeting and working with Robyn Beeche who was one of the few female fashion photographers working at the time. It was through her I met Steve Strange lead singer of the band Visage, who had the hit Fade to Grey. Steve was very well connected and word got around. It was all word of mouth back then, and what people saw in magazines. In the 80s things were very open and creative, especially in the editorial world.

The weekend Supplements that came with newspapers, were always looking for interesting images. There was one magazine “Art and Design” which published nearly all of Robyn’s and my test pictures as covers for several years. I was told some years later, that the magazine had a sort of cult following with Fashion Students due to our covers.

Phyllis’ work featured on the cover of The Observer

My big break came when Robyn and I were commissioned to do a cover and inside feature for the Observer weekend supplement. They asked us to do a monochromatic theme and to work with the genius milliner Stephen Jones. Robyn suggested doing something with painted shadows. I loved this idea and went to my collection of Hollywood Movie still books, which has been an inspiration forever! I found a great photo of Joan Crawford done by the famous George Hurrell, and asked Robyn to recreate the lighting on a model. Robyn took a polaroid of the model with the strong chiaroscuro lighting and I copied the shadows back onto the model’s face.

The Observer used the photo and did a feature inside titled “Making up is Art to do” they also made huge posters which they plastered all over London. It was this poster that David Bowie saw, and asked me to recreate for his “Jazzin for Blue Jean” video.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

David Bowie. Blue Jean make up by Phyllis. Photo Greg Gorman

Up until the time of the shadow makeup being featured on the Observer Magazine people did see me as a little too non-conformist. I used to go around to see Beauty Editors with illustrated layouts which incorporated ideas from contemporary and modern artists like Jackson Pollock, Mondrian, and Warhol for beauty editorials which most beauty editors thought were just too weird. But when the Observer cover came out, those people thought OK she’s a bit crazy but she can turn weird ideas into something beautiful. I also worked with a lot of hairstylists in the 80s, Robert Lobetta, Trevor Sorbie, Toni and Guy. Through that network I met Annie Lennox who is wonderful, lovely, and was interested in experimenting with makeup.

I was asked to work on a 12-month series of makeup based on Horoscope signs for Miners Cosmetics, which ran in “Looks” magazine in 1984. I would submit my drawings for makeup designs to the Art Director and they would approve almost everything. We would do a day for each look every few weeks. I worked with legendary Hairstylist Robert Lobetta on the shoots. The makeup I did would take up to 4 hours due to my perfectionism and no retouching being available.  Robert would take up to 5 hours. The photographer Gary Bryan would usually do a whole still life shoot while we were busy in the makeup room. The first polaroid to test the lighting usually happened at 5 pm. Obviously that type of photo shoot days are long gone, but I think that spirit now lives on in Instagram. I also think there wasn’t much market research back then, so advertising was really open minded and creative, especially with the hair makeup and styling.

Aries the Ram for Miners Cosmetics

Do you have to approach designs differently depending on where they’ll be used – TV, catwalk, theatre, editorial etc?

Not really.  If they are a commission for another pro MUA, I will get them to send as many references and sketches as possible, and then I follow their brief as closely as I can. That is a really exciting part of Face Lace to be able to create with other super talented MUAs. I have spent many hours either with the makeup artist by my side trying different shapes as I did with Sarah Tanno and Andrew Gallimore, or we work remotely through emails, WhatsApp or Zoom calls to talk about the samples I create and make tweaks. I can show the designs on a mannequin or myself and then work on the vector and cut an altered shape and show them in real time.

The difference between what I do for Face Lace and what I do for commissions, is that for Face Lace collections I have to think about how a design will work in bulk production, if it will suit lots of eyes and faces, and if the consumer will be able use it easily.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Pieces created for Lan Nguyen-Grealis. Model Ashley Isham

For commissions I can get quite complicated and not have to worry about making more than a couple. Conversely, for Fashion Shows I have been asked to create really tiny shapes that work like accents to makeup, like for Lan Nguyen-Grealis.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Have you ever seen an image of one of your designs and thought “Wow, I made that?”

I think that moment hit me first when Lady Gaga wore the specially commissioned Crystallised Eye Wings for her Super Bowl 2017 half time show.

Hunter Schafer as Euphoria’s Jules, wearing Spikelihood

I also got a similar thrill when our designs were used by the Award Winning MUA Donni Davy in the first Euphoria TV Series.

Recently we went to see the amazing Adam Lambert in concert, and he was wearing our designs on stage- that was a big thrill to see him wearing our designs LIVE.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

You’ve studied many eras and cultures of decorative arts – do you have any favourites?

I really love Art Nouveau, all those swirls just carry me off to another dimension. But I am also interested in the ornate motifs of the 16th century Renaissance, where they combined human, animal and plants forms to create fantastical creatures. Jumping ahead to more recent times, I love HR Geiger, and currently I am obsessed with Iris Van Herpen.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Fractura

Sometimes I am not sure exactly where the ideas come from- right now we have a viral design called Fractura, which came from an idea of trying to represent a shattered mirror in eye makeup.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

What was it like working with Lady Gaga, another boundary-pusher. How involved in the creative process was she?

I always work with her wonderful MUA – Sarah Tanno.  Sarah either calls me or sends me a WhatsApp, telling me what she is thinking and what the deadline is. Knowing the deadline is important, as we usually go back and forth with many versions and need time to do that. Luckily Sarah has large gorgeous eyes almost identical to Lady Gaga, and of course she knows what Gaga likes. So I will work on something usually over the weekend and get it sent off to her express delivery and wait for her comments then do more versions. Sarah will do a first edit trying them on herself, and we will make a short list.  I will do versions of the shortlist in many different colour variations, so that the designs can be trialled with the styling, lighting, dance routine and song. I believe it is at that point Sarah and Gaga make the decisions which ones to go with.

Lady Gaga wearing the Crystallised Eye Wings designed and created by Phyllis

Once we get final approval myself and my team will burn the midnight oil to get the extras made in the chosen shapes and colours and crystal colours, the crystals are ALWAYS AB- the most expensive and sparkly.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

We love how varied your designs are – what are you currently inspired by?

Thank you so much!  In the twelve years I have been designing for Face Lace many trends have come and gone. When I created the first collection of 12 designs, there was no precedent so my starting point was to create designs that you might try to paint with eye liner but would take hours and hours. So all the first collection was in matte black and very ornate- just like lace – and that’s why I chose the name.

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

2002 experiments with makeup stickers

We still have 3 of those original designs on our website and people still buy them. We used to do a LOT of masks like for Masquerade Balls too but they waned in popularity after about 4 years. At first I used to work like a designer and come out with 2 collections a year, but then I realised it was better to come out with a few new designs every few months for different seasons and yearly events like festival season, Christmas and Halloween.

In 2016 I found an amazing multichrome material which we called “dazzle”. That really took off, as that particular colour shifting technology hadn’t been used on the eyes before. We launched our “Dazzliners” at IMATS (International Makeup Artists Trade Show) in 2016, and as soon as we put it on a friend and she walked around the floor, our stand was flooded with people asking “I saw someone walking around with incredible shiny things on their eyelids, what was that?” In 2019 multichrome pigments started to be used in Eye shadows.

Face Lace DazzLiner design

Unfortunately we have had many copyists since 2014, some incredibly blatant, using our name, direct copies of our designs, and helping themselves to the imagery I commission and pay for. Since we became aware of this problem I have made sure that all our designs registered with several Intellectual Property offices even before I have photographed any collections, months before they launch. It is VERY frustrating and time consuming to fight this, and if I see any copies being sold on Amazon, Etsy and ebay I use their forms for Intellectual Property Infringement to take the sellers down, having official registration numbers for designs really helps that process.

Face Lace Fleurty design

The problem of being copied, was really difficult to cope with and made me decide not to catastrophise about stolen designs but become even more experimental to create designs that COULDN’T be copied, so I started to experiment with using multiple layers of colours and materials. Our Spikelihood design which was used in Euphoria, is made of 4 layers of different materials with different colours finished and textures. Since 2018 I have been experimenting with 3D designs, that has proven to be a really interesting area to explore.

I am always trying to challenge myself, searching out new materials and textures to experiment with. I am trying to find more materials made without plastic, and we now have several designs with top layers that are plastic free.

 

Do you have a client or show that you would love to work on?

We have had so many amazing opportunities of our designs being used on so many celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Missy Elliott, Doja Cat, Katy Perry, Tina She, Zendaya, Rico Nasty, Halle Berry, Dita Von Teese and used on so many films and TV series, including The Favourite, A Star is Born, Emily in Paris, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, The Voice, Pop Idol, First in Fashion, Glow Up to name a few. I feel it would be greedy to expect even more! The legendary Lisa Eldridge asked us for custom Stars, when she worked with Tim Burton on Dumbo and that would be a dream to get another chance to design looks for his films. As a HUGE dream it would be amazing to work with Serge Lutens, who was such an inspiration when I first started as a MUA.

Eva Green wearing Black Stars commissioned by MUA Lisa Eldridge for Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

What’s next for you and the brand?

I hope soon to be able to find time to go back and do a PhD, on the Perceptual Science Of How Makeup Works. it’s an area I began studying in the mid 90s on an MA course, and have used what I discovered since in makeup work. I’m very passionate about being able to share this information so that people REALLY understand how makeup works. On our @face_lace TikTok our best performing posts are where I talk about this research and apply it to makeup and show how I use it when I design shapes for Face Lace. People always say there are no rules to makeup, but there are actual rules of optical illusion in makeup, and how we see attractiveness is hard-wired into our brain. One of the most astounding scientific studies I read, proved through repeated tests that even newborns (repeated with different nationalities) stare at “attractive” faces longer than average faces.  In my PhD I would like to research different ideas of how we can see beauty beyond stereotypes of youthfulness and fertility.

And on the Face Lace front? I always have lots of ideas so watch this space!

Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

Face Lace Fringenious design

 

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nterview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

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Interview Phyllis Cohen Face Lace

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