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A vision of beauty: How François Nars makes the world look good

Make-up artist, photographer, businessman, creative director. François Nars makes the make-up that make-up artists love. He should know what he’s doing having worked as a successful make-up artist himself before setting up his eponymous company in 1994 with a collection of 12 lipsticks sold exclusively in Barneys, New York.

The success of this initial collection spurred Nars on to create an entire range and NARS Cosmetics was born. A cheeky way with names ensured his Orgasm range was splashed across the glossy pages of fashion and beauty magazines giving the NARS matte black rubberised packaging global recognition, but it’s not all hype. The brand’s focus on quality of colour, purity and texture (and the fact that the products work for all skin tones) have made it a worldwide success.

PretAirporter Associate Editor Clare Austin with François Nars at the Ritz Paris

Legend has it that the budget for the brand’s first advertising campaign was so limited that François Nars decided to step in himself, so igniting a passion for photography and a talent that has seen him shoot every campaign since. Nars is no slouch at championing the genius of others either as the brand’s love of collaborations shows. Recent collections have borrowed from Andy Warhol, Sarah Moon, Steven Klein and most recently Charlotte Gainsbourg. François Nars also enjoys a fruitful professional partnership with renowned creative director Fabien Baron who takes credit for the brand’s sleek packaging.

NARS Cosmetics was sold to Shiseido in 2000, reportedly earning its founder enough to buy his own island in French Polynesia but François Nars remains very much the hands-on director of the brand.

Listening back to my recording of the interview, the tape is full of laughter: Despite his success, François Nars is a man who by his own admission doesn’t take the business of make-up too seriously.

Walking into Nars’ suite at the Ritz, I am greeted by his latest campaign image for NARS Cosmetics: Bella Hadid wearing Powermatte Lip Pigment. “She looks like a rock star, no?” says the man who not only created the product and founded the company but shot the image too. Oh, and the New York-based Frenchman has just been awarded France’s highest decoration: the Légion d’honneur.

PretAirporter: Congratulations on being awarded the Légion d’honneur. What did receiving it mean to you?

François Nars: I was surprised and proud. I’ve actually brought it on this trip to Paris because my parents were not in New York when I got it so I had to bring them the actual medal. They are very proud. It’s such an incredible honour, the highest you can get in France. I never thought I would receive the Légion d’honneur even though I tried my best to represent France as well as possible in the United States and all over the world. And it’s a beautiful medal on top of that! Once in a while I look at it and say: ‘Is that really mine?’. I must say it’s kind of strange because I have got awards before but never anything like the Légion d’honneur. It feels great, definitely feels great.

Bénédicte de Montlaur Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy hosted the ceremony in New York at which François Nars was presented with the Légion d’Honneur
Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy Bénédicte de Montlaur hosted the ceremony in New York at which François Nars was presented with the Légion d’Honneur

Your latest collaboration with Charlotte Gainsbourg has been very well received.

I am very very proud of it and very happy. There was total trust on her side and on my side so what else can you dream of? She is the perfect muse.
I gave her carte blanche, total power so she was able to do anything. I told her: “The collection has to be you Charlotte, it has to resemble you, it has to look like it has come from you. This is not a collaboration that I will just put your name on and then we do everything behind your back and we will just show you it all at the end.” No, from day one she decided the colours, the packaging, everything. I mean really everything you saw in that collection was hers even to the names for each colour. I wanted it to be so personal. And that’s how, to me, a collaboration with one person has to be.

French polish: The NARS x Charlotte Gainsbourg collection for Summer 2017
French polish: The NARS x Charlotte Gainsbourg collection for Summer 2017

Why did you decide to choose to create a make-up collection with someone not known for wearing a lot of make-up?

I love women who don’t wear too much make-up. I also love very eccentric women who wear so much, Anna Piaggi for example (the late, celebrated Italian fashion journalist). I love women who really know what they love and have a strong sense of style and what’s right for them. Charlotte is not a person who wears lots of make-up but she does love make-up. She knows what looks good on her and that’s why I trusted her. She knows what will work for her and will work for many many millions of other women because some women are afraid of make-up. Not everyone is like Kim Kardashian, some women are very scared and afraid.

I love women who don’t wear too much make-up

All the colours and formulas that Charlotte picked are very easy to use for anybody and the collection had an incredible response.

Creative collaborators François Nars and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Creative collaborators François Nars and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Of all the NARS collaborations, which has surprised you the most?

I would say the Sarah Moon collection. It was so feminine and delicate, very different from the previous Andy Warhol, Steven Klein and Guy Bourdin collaborations which were much more colourful. Sarah’s collection was so surreal and transparent. I was very thrilled when I saw everything. Also, because Sarah is still with us, thank God, I had that direct contact and we did it together. It maybe wasn’t the biggest seller but the result, to me, was fantastic and it looks so beautiful.

Ephemeral beauty: Compacts from the recent collaboration between NARS Cosmetics and photographer Sarah Moon
Photography archive: In 2013, NARS Cosmetics launched a collection inspired by French photographer and artist Guy Bourdin, an early influence on François Nars himself

When I type N-a-r-s into social media, it automatically auto-corrects to NARS – how does it feel to have your name become so synonymous with make-up?

Thanks to the women. Really. Thank you to all the women out there on the planet from Asia to South America to the United States to Europe, everywhere. Thanks too to all the people around me that work so hard to make it that way. Thanks to myself a little bit too for having the original idea to do a make-up line I guess! It was a lot of hard work on everybody’s part including myself when I first started. It’s pretty incredible. It’s a very abstract feeling at the same time: When you realise your name is all over the planet and that when you go to sleep, people wake up on another side of the world and start wearing your product. It’s a very funny feeling but very thrilling.

The photographer’s muse: François Nars shoots all of the brand’s campaigns including this just launched image of Bella Hadid for NARS Cosmetics Powermatte Lip Pigment

Which is your favourite NARS product of all time?

You know, they are all my children, I can’t say I love one more than the other but I really love Velvet Matte Lip Pencil because I would have loved to have those in my kit when I was working as a make-up artist.
I love the Liquid Blush that just came out and is doing so well. Both are amazing because they contain so much pigment and they are so rich and perfectly matte.
I love the Multiple Stick because it’s really such a great product to have: Five minutes to give a great glow. Those are my top three but now we are launching a new matte gloss Powermatte Lip Pigment and and it’s amazing. Fabien Baron has created a beautiful packaging for it, Bella Hadid is the face of it. It’s a very velvety matte gloss, not dry, stays on all day and it has every shade from light to neutral to strong red.
That is the good thing about being a make-up artist and having a make-up artist line. I’m not just a chemist in a factory creating a product who doesn’t test it necessarily on real women. I am very critical, very tough on whatever comes out. If I don’t like the texture, the formula, the colours, I make them re-do it until it’s perfect. Quality, quality, quality.

The product that launched a thousand quips: The best-selling Multiple Orgasm

Has the rise of selfies and social media changed the way you create make-up because you know that women are going to be constantly photographing it?

No absolutely not. It doesn’t influence me in any way because make-up is universal. I create make-up for women all over the world. The ones who do selfies, the housewives at home who do no selfies, grandmothers who will maybe do a selfie with the grandchildren.
Women inspire me, that’s all, I don’t ever think about how make-up is going to photograph when I’m creating it, certainly not for selfies. That’s not my job, my goal. What I care about with make-up is how women are going to look in real life.

How has the rise of the beauty vlogger and online tutorials affected the way you work as a creator?

There has been an incredible evolution of the access to beauty not only because of social media but also because there are so many more choices in make-up. Women are learning and experimenting more and magazines, professional artists and the freedom of fashion are helping them to explore these options and make fewer mistakes along the way.

You have talked about make-up being ‘an enhancement, not a mask’. Do you think the current trend for a very artificial look: contouring, Instagram filters etc. has gone too far in camouflaging reality?

Make-up is to enhance beauty and I believe trends should not be followed blindly because someone tells you to. You should look in the mirror and know what makes you look good. Even if you feel that you don’t know what to choose, in the end you always know what’s going to make you look and feel great. It is very important that you really believe in yourself, believe in yourself first, but also believe in your own beauty.

The new Powermatte Lip Pigment, shown here in Don’t Stop, with packaging designed by the renowned Fabien Baron

Do you think make-up for men will ever become mainstream?

It’s hard to tell but I believe only a very limited percentage of men want to wear make-up: Actors, rock stars, David Bowie. But, real men, real-life men: Doctors; dentists; workers in factories? I really don’t believe they will ever wear make-up. The only make-up I think they would wear would be tinted moisturisers. An easy, single product for evening out skin tone. Maybe a lip balm, neutral, no colour so it’s not really make-up.

I might be wrong. The Egyptians wore make-up like crazy regardless of their sexual orientation or anything else so you never know. Anything could be possible. But I don’t see it happening. All the make-up lines that have been created for men have failed so I think that’s the proof that it’s probably the wrong thing to do. I do believe in skincare for men, that is a great market as men become more and more aware of their skin and want to make their skin look great.

How do you come up with the names of your products?

I keep a little Hermès book that I write in 24 hours a day, even in the middle of the night. It is important that the colours have an identity and the names help give them that identity. It makes you dream a little bit.

The chosen one: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil (shown here in Dragon Girl) is one of François Nars’ all-time favourites

Make-up is an art form steeped in history and utterly creative. As an art form do you think it is understated?

No, not at all. I remember seeing Guy Bourdin’s work at a very young age, around when I was ten or 11 years old in the French Vogue magazines my mother read in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. The magazine was extremely creative with works by fabulous photographers such as Helmut Newton and Man Ray. All those images woke me up to a certain sense of colour, make-up and artistry. I didn’t know anything about art at the time, but I had a very, very strong attraction to those images because of the strong colours and make-up looks. It was around that time that I knew that the fashion/beauty world was something I wanted to be a part of and make mine. It was from that age that I knew I wanted to become a photographer or make-up artist. Today, I would say that there has been even more of an evolution in make-up in everything we do and the art form is more prevalent now than ever.

I believe only a very limited percentage of men want to wear make-up: Actors, rock stars, David Bowie. But, real men, real-life men: Doctors; dentists; workers in factories? I really don’t believe they will ever wear make-up

You have described yourself as a shy person: Do you see make-up as a way of creating an armour to face the world?

Yes, in a way. Make-up is a great tool for transforming yourself. It’s fun to play with, you can become somebody else or find yourself in a look. There are so many different ways to achieve a look, so many tools and colours to use and play with. You can always take it off, so play with it, it’s fun.

Of all the photographers you have worked with, who has had the most profound impact on you?

It’s hard to choose only one! I have already worked with so many incredible photographers that inspire me, most recently Steven Klein and Sarah Moon. I loved working with Avedon, Penn, Newton, Meisel. Many times (Steven) Meisel would invite me behind the camera and that helped me when I began photographing our campaigns.

I create make-up for women all over the world. The ones who do selfies, the housewives at home who do no selfies, grandmothers who will maybe do a selfie with the grandchildren

How do you treat your skin when you travel long distance?

I love getting facials. My all-time favourite spas are the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa and the Imperial Spa at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz.

You have said that you very inspired by travel. Is it the journey or the destination that inspires you the most?

I would say both. There is so much inspiration in my life that comes from so many different sources. I do love travelling: I pick up many different ideas from all over the world. I love learning from unique cultures in each city that I visit.

Clare Austin
written by: Clare Austin
With a background in fashion and beauty journalism for magazines such as Elle and Harper’s Bazaar Clare is a beauty enthusiast whose pulse quickens whenever a new product hits the shelves.