At the start of the almost global lockdown this spring, and despite witnessing “the world kind of falling apart,” Tom Pecheux found confinement in his Parisian apartment to be “a wonderful moment.” Pecheux, YSL’s global beauty director, has been an in-demand editorial and runway makeup artist for decades, so getting to stay home and whip up his own meals (and avoid jet lag) was a welcome reprieve, he says. He spent the first few weeks batch cooking (leftovers got stored in the freezer), cleaning his home and paging through coffee-table books for visual stimulation. “I love to go to galleries,” he says. “That’s usually how I clear my head and get inspired by the craziness and the creativity of people. Because I couldn’t [go out to] do it, I was doing it at home.”

The other thing Pecheux obviously hasn’t been able to do is apply makeup, which for him is a disappointment – not because his work has ground to a halt but because he hasn’t been able to use his kit to transform women. “It always makes people feel better, in my opinion,” he says. “I know it may sound silly to talk about makeup at this time, but it’s very sad to feel like you can’t be helpful.”

He starts the process with a facial massage using a little oil; this helps him get an idea about the quality of the skin he’s working with and also an emotional read on the woman before him. “If she lets go and totally abandons herself, that means she’s trusting and relaxed,” says Pecheux. This process helps him work more efficiently, and it can also erase any nerves or insecurities the woman might have. “It usually works, I have to say,” he adds. If it doesn’t and he’s unable to connect with whoever is in his chair, Pecheux uses makeup brushes instead of his fingers as they are “a good barrier” between him and the bad juju.

The son of a Burgundy farmer, the 57-year-old trained as a pastry chef before turning to beauty at the age of 19. He’s part of a generation of artists who had to break into the industry in a pre-digital world. He attended makeup school in Paris for six months and then worked on getting his name out there – including assisting Linda Cantello – before eventually landing a shoot working with photographer Mario Testino and Carine Roitfeld, who was then an up-and-coming stylist. The trio became a team, collaborating regularly and becoming known for a sexy yet cool look that exuded a joie de vivre that was later to be seen in ad campaigns (Hermès, Burberry, Gucci under Tom Ford) and editorials. Pecheux’s contribution was uncomplicated: a healthy, glowing face with barely any foundation. “I remember models who were used to working in America were like, ‘Are you insane?’” he says. “At the same time, they loved it because their skin could breathe.”

Pecheux’s approach to beauty is to simply enhance what a woman already has. “I like to make women feel true confidence with who they are rather than trying to change them into something they are not,” he says. That’s not to say he doesn’t like to bend the rules a bit. “Of course, being French and being my age, I like a certain level of irreverence,” he says. “I like fun and naughtiness for sure.” (He’s also capable of pushing boundaries, like with the glossy black lips he did for YSL’s fall/ winter 2008/2009 show, which beauty editors of a certain age still remember fondly.)

It’s this point of view that beauty brands were seeking, along with his expertise, when they brought him on to direct their lines; Shiseido hired him in 1999 to be its creative director. He says that working for the Japanese brand exposed him to that culture’s preference for everything to be “precise, neat and delicate” whereas at Estée Lauder, where he went on to work in 2009, he understood that Americans want their skin to be covered. “The makeup is more full-on and obvious,” says Pecheux.

In 2017, he landed at YSL, which to many seemed like the best and most obvious fit of all. Frenchwomen, he believes, want their look to have “life.” “Pretty much [all of them] put their hands in their hair and fuck it up a little bit when they come out of the hair salon,” he says. “They kind of do the same thing with makeup. It needs to be a little bit…alive.”

It’s no wonder Pecheux is unsettled by the rise of the Instagram face, which is characterized by thick black liquid eyeliner, heavy foundation, contoured cheeks, blocky brows, strips of false lashes and overdrawn lips. “It’s mediocre makeup, where everybody has to look the same – it’s using technique without any soul,” he says. “It’s also teaching you that you are not a good person [as you are] so you have to change, to not be individual. It’s a form of beauty communism.” In his role at YSL, he would never propose such rigid ideas. “I prefer the generosity of creating a range of colours that will fulfill the desire of most women around the world,” he says.

Despite the fact that social media – where there is pressure to document your every move – has forever changed the game, Pecheux doesn’t really engage. He has 153,000 followers on Instagram but goes months without posting. “I’m not against it,” he says. “But I don’t understand the need people have to show the world what they are eating, where they are sleeping, their dog.” Most of all, it seems like he just laments how things used to be kept more under wraps and the sense of anticipation that would build in the lead-up to something being released. “I remember being a young makeup artist and waiting every month for Vogue Paris to come out,” he says. “Or waiting for two, three or four months to see the new Gucci campaign shot by Mario Testino or the new American Vogue with Charlize Theron or Marion Cotillard or whoever the actress was. Today, you feel like there is no…” Mystery? “Yes,” he says. “I find it very strange that people don’t want to have a secret garden – a secret place.”


YSL Beauté Slim Glow Matte lipstick ($50) is available in 12 matte shades, all giving a subtle glow.


This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of ELLE Canada, available on newsstands across Canada and on Apple News+. Subscribe here


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