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Backstage beauty: Makeup secrets we learned at Paris Couture Week 2011

It's three hours before this month's Chanel haute-couture show and all the models have arrived at a makeshift hair and makeup room within the expansive Grand Palais.

Although still sporting their street clothes (skinny jeans and cutoff shorts that show off their mile-long legs), the girls are gradually being transformed into a legion of Coco-fied ladies.

A thick ring around their eyes has been shadowed in a shade of metallic black only faintly lighter than the brand's classic quilted 2.55 handbag. Achieving this effect requires no fewer than five different products. For the show, a band of lace will be placed across the models' eyes to evoke an elegant "burglar" mask.

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Once the look is complete, each makeup artist and model approach Peter Philips, the global creative director for Chanel Makeup, who offers his approval – or not.

A similar scene played out a day earlier over at Armani, where the hair and makeup artists have set up in a lower level room of the Théâtre National de Chaillot.

There, Linda Cantello, a widely respected beauty-industry veteran who was anointed Armani's international makeup artist in 2009, instructs one of her team members to make the models' eyes "darker and more blended." It's a striking coral lid and brow bone she wants, one that contrasts the two black streaks extending horizontally past the outer crease as Cantello's wink to geisha makeup.

Given the decadence and excessive preconceptions of couture, the beauty visions at Chanel and Armani seem comparatively restrained. Ditto the looks at Azzedine Alaia, Bouchra Jarrar, Giambattista Valli and Elie Saab.

But as it turns out, there's a reason why couture beauty tends to be an exercise in understatement. "With couture, I just want to do something more precious and delicate," says Philips, whose mile-a-minute answers were barely audible over the chorus of whirring hairdryers.

"It is different because couture is much more about the métier d'art. There is just so much more care – everything is so expensive, so rich, everything is done by hand," he continues. "Couture doesn't need to be overaccessorized ... because the pieces speak for themselves."

By contrast, he says, he often conceives of more extreme makeup for ready-to-wear.

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Cantello, for her part, explains that a bold beauty statement would not be in keeping with Armani's classic, muted aesthetic, regardless of whether the show is ready-to-wear or couture. "Armani has always liked beautiful women and a refinement to the look; he doesn't like caricatures," she says.

It's worth noting that both Chanel and Armani have and use their own beauty lines (unlike Giambattista Valli or Elie Saab, who both worked with M.A.C. Cosmetics). This means that the runway also serves as a platform to showcase the new Chanel Rouge Allure Velvet lipstick or Armani Eyes to Kill shadow.

"[The products] are designed to look good on the catwalk but also comprehensible for women," says Johan Lundin, the Paris-based marketing director for Giorgio Armani Beauty, which is owned by L'Oréal. For the spring 2011 couture collection, Armani's space theme was realized as a dramatic purple palette. "You can push the beauty further with the shows," Lundin says. "But then you take the trend and make it wearable; it doesn't have to be overpowering."

This season, there was one exception to the minimalist makeup message. At Dior, the models were given candy-coloured, blocky eye paint, electrocuted-looking hair and slime-green nails. Think Nefertiti and the Bride of Frankenstein dolling up for the circus. Granted, the look was consistent with the fashion; too bad it all proved so overwrought and bewildering.

Conversely, there may have been feathers tucked into the coifs at Gaultier and Alexis Mabille, but the makeup looks at both shows remained toned down.

Cantello and Philips say they receive references about the fashion several weeks to a month before each show. Once they've created a direction, they usually have a few rounds of finessing with the label's design team to achieve the final look.

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A universally important consideration with runway beauty is how the look will translate in profile, since show attendees see models from the side. The Japanese theme aside, this also explains why Cantello opted for the side eye detail. "The audience views the models from the side so we're very aware of how it looks to [them]."

Making one look work for all the models' faces can be the toughest part of the puzzle, Cantello admits. "[Sometimes] you're supposed to be doing a long eye but maybe they'll have a round, droopy eye; you have to tweak it to make sure it fits every girl."

But Philips has to contend with an additional challenge the night of the Chanel show: sticky, muggy heat and little air circulation in the backstage area. That the makeup isn't melting down the models' faces is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet he remains cool and calm. "If I start at them now, their makeup is going to pancake. [Better to] let them sweat and be human."

Despite years of doing runway makeup, Phillips says, the novelty has not worn off. There is, however, one part of the process that he wishes could be different.

"What I would love to do, actually, is just see one of the shows. Because I never see the shows. I'm always backstage with the lineup."

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