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The Beauty Classic: Dior's 999 Lipstick Never Gets Old

By Guan Tan

“The shade evolves like how everything evolves. I mean it's this basic tomato red, which is a beautiful red which matches most complexions,” says Peter Philip, creative and image director of Christian Dior makeup, on the new Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge collection of lipsticks which includes a 65-year-old shade of 999 red. “Of course, with time, formulas and ingredients evolve, pigments become more refined.”
 
Parfums Christian Dior
“The shade evolves like how everything evolves. I mean it's this basic tomato red, which is a beautiful red which matches most complexions,” says Peter Philip, creative and image director of Christian Dior makeup, on the new Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge collection of lipsticks which includes a 65-year-old shade of 999 red. “Of course, with time, formulas and ingredients evolve, pigments become more refined.”

“It is more of a tomato red. It is not a red that is too blue, but it is a bit more of an orange-red — but it is a red,” says Peter Philips, the creative and image director of Christian Dior makeup, in our phone interview. He is talking about his new collection of lip colours, christened Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge. Philips was trying to put his finger on a classic shade of fiery red, now known by its colour code, 999 — a historic colour that served as the backbone of the new collection, and one that has come to be synonymous with the house of Dior.

More often than not, this 999-coded red comes in a tube of creamy lipstick which has livened up the lips of women around the globe. Yet, the colour was first used in the late Christian Dior’s couture collections. “In those days, Dior was a pure couture house without a specific makeup department,” says Philips. These couture shows were infamously long-drawn, spanning hours as the models slowly meandered their way around the salon. Dior decided to include a vibrantly hued, full-red outfit right smack in the middle of the couture show. “Whatever collection he made, he had this red dress, which was a ‘coup de Trafalgar’. It was a wake-up call to keep the audiences alert. Out of the blue, there would be a red dress,” says Philips. “And to complete that dress, he then created that ideal, red lipstick.”

Parfums Christian DiorFrom 1953 till date, approximately 1,500 shades of Rouge Dior have been created. Here, Rouge Dior's evolution over the years.
From 1953 till date, approximately 1,500 shades of Rouge Dior have been created. Here, Rouge Dior's evolution over the years.

Christian Dior started experimenting with lipsticks in 1949, where he produced a small batch and gave it out to his haute couture clients as Christmas gifts. It took him another three years to perfect the lipstick formula, eventually launching the Rouge Dior lipstick in eight lip colours — to match different skin tones — in 1953.

Today, the arduous process of formulating a lipstick has not changed much. Philips took two years to perfect his new range of Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge, before launching it in late August this year. “It took us about two years because we have to work out the formula, then we have to see if it works in different shades — it has got to work well in light as well as dark shades.”

Parfums Christian Dior“The challenge is to reinvent and to bring new life into that red,” says Peter Philips on the development behind the new Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge. “We were working in the laboratories on a new, much finer film of makeup finish in lipsticks with a long-lasting effect and a shine effect that looks like a moist on the lips. And this formula has that capacity.”
“The challenge is to reinvent and to bring new life into that red,” says Peter Philips on the development behind the new Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge. “We were working in the laboratories on a new, much finer film of makeup finish in lipsticks with a long-lasting effect and a shine effect that looks like a moist on the lips. And this formula has that capacity.”

With this new launch, Philips designed 17 lipsticks and six ink lip liners, as well as four matching nail varnishes. It is a collection of highly pigmented, but lightweight formulas that feel like nothing is worn when it’s applied on the lips. To Philips, this collection pivots around comfort — especially for the modern woman who wants a hint of colour and glow on her lips, but finds traditional, creamy lipsticks too rich.

The numerous ranges of lipsticks, balms and tints he has designed are about giving women the freedom to choose. Yet, in the universe of cosmetics, choice is a relatively new concept — and one that could be seen as a marker of democracy and progress for females in society.

Back in the ’50s and even in the ’60s, “most of the women who could afford to wear a designer dress were not working women. They were women born [into] and who led a luxurious life,” says Philips. “Their hair was coiffed perfectly, the houses were maintained and clean, and lives were perfect. She looks perfect — in a perfectly designed gown, perfectly perfumed, in a perfect setting, with a perfect husband. That was how it was.”

Richard Burbridge"A red lipstick is a funny thing because it’s something that is very contradictory. A red lipstick is about seduction,” says Peter Philips. “At the same time, it creates a barrier because a woman with a perfect lipstick? She's not going to kiss you! It attracts, but it pushes away. It puts you, a woman, in the power position.”
"A red lipstick is a funny thing because it’s something that is very contradictory. A red lipstick is about seduction,” says Peter Philips. “At the same time, it creates a barrier because a woman with a perfect lipstick? She's not going to kiss you! It attracts, but it pushes away. It puts you, a woman, in the power position.”

Today, women wear their lipsticks very differently — not for decorum’s sake or to maintain the status quo in their households like before. They wear lipsticks by choice, to express their personalities while navigating society for themselves. A teenage girl clad in a T-shirt, denim shorts and sneakers could layer on a bright pop of red lipstick, in the same way a Dior couture client from the C-suite would wear hers, or she could choose not to wear makeup altogether. The societal rules that once bound women to certain behaviours and etiquette have now blurred, if not, collapsed altogether.

“Like everything these days, it’s the democratisation of fashion and beauty [which] made it acceptable for everybody to wear makeup,” says Philips. “It is always about giving choices to women.”

“So, if you were to look at the world through lipsticks, the world is a more equal place?” I ask Philips. “Absolutely,” he replies.

View Peter Philips' Rouge Dior Ultra Rouge collection here.