Philips, who had an artist for a biological dad and a business-owner stepfather, decided on a relatively traditional course at first: He got a degree in graphic design in Brussels. But soon after graduating, he headed back home to attend the Antwerp Academy, where he became swept up in the fashion revolution that was taking place courtesy of famous alums like Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Martin Margiela. It wasn't until he attended the Paris shows as a dresser that Philips caught the beauty bug. "I was a huge fashion victim in those days, and I saw something in makeup that was intricately linked to fashion but didn't require having to make a collection," he says. After graduating in 1993, Philips built up his book doing test shoots with aspiring photographers and stylists, among them Willy Vanderperre, who recently lensed the Jil Sander campaigns, and Olivier Rizzo, who these days most often collaborates with Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons.
The pivotal moment in Philips' career came at a Raf Simons shoot, when he drew a Mickey Mouse face onto a model in perfect scale (graphic design degreescan come in handy). After that, he segued into similarly inventive illustrations using skulls. "People flipped out," Philips recalls. "They really remember the spectacular things you do, and the pure beauty things they take for granted. I learned a lot from that." Chanel took notice of Philips' handiwork after Karl Lagerfeld met him on a Fendi shoot. "They were very interested and they kept on booking me, but I didn't even dare to dream," Philips says of the opportunity to run the brand's makeup division. But one day, the house's former creative directors Heidi Morawetz and Dominique Moncourtois—the latter of whom was the last employee to have been handpicked by Mlle Chanel herself—invited him to their atelier and asked him how he'd feel about taking over. "I was shocked," Philips recalls. Having never worked for a big company, he suggested an "engagement period" to see if it would be a good fit. After a two-year courtship, it was settled. "We drew up a contract and got married!" Going corporate hasn't changed Philips' artistic approach much. "There's space for playing here, which is great for a creator," he says. One place that Philips likes to play is in the nail department, where Morawetz and Moncourtois set a very high bar. "I waited in line for Rouge Noir!" Philips admits of Chanel's famed shade No. 18—also known as Vamp, the metallic burgundy polish created by his predecessors in 1994. Two years into his reign, Philips has released Gold Fiction, a limited-edition gilded lacquer; Robertson Boulevard, a trend-setting collection of four Pop Art-colored varnishes; and, of course, Fall 2009's sold-out Jade. Chanel is hoping Philips can do for lipstick what he's already done for lacquer and skin art. His first major launch, Rouge Coco Hydrating Crème Lip Colour, is designed to woo the lip gloss-loving youth set. Its easy-on, one-swipe glide should persuade girls who grew up on Chanel Glossimer to embrace the sophisticated side, but what'll really sell them is the range of shades. Rouge Coco has its crimsons, but it mostly comprises rose and pink hues as well as mauves, caramels, and deep berries available in matte, pearl, and soft-shimmer finishes. "I wanted to get rid of the stigma that lipstick has to be red, which may scare away a lot of women who may be really curious to discover it as a power tool."