LIFE ON NARS
François Nars, the founder and creative director of Nars cosmetics and recipient of the Legion D’Honneur, on bad boys, muses and why Make-up should be fun.
Interview maxine leonard
You trained with famed make-up artist Olivier Échaudemaison. What was it that flamed your passion to pursue a career as a freelance make-up artist?
When you are young you have many dreams to fulfil, you have all the excitement of being young. At the time I was 19. My passion was to become a make-up artist. I had the energy to do anything, the sky was the limit. When I assisted him it was probably for no more than a year. I started to freelance quickly.
You challenged the norm, exploring the depth of individual characters and removing the mask. How did you form this identity? At the time it ran contrary to the editorial ideal.
I feel like I never compromised, which is why I like what you are doing [with Beauty Papers]. I never wanted to fit the mould. When we worked for Vogue and more established magazines, especially working for Steven Meisel, we always wanted to break rules, to be the bad boys when it came to beauty and not do the traditional.
The brand began by creating a collection of lipsticks at Barney’s. How did this come about?
I had a relationship with Bonnie and Gene [Pressman] who were the owners at the time. They knew my work very well because I was shooting the campaigns for Barney’s with Steven Meisel and we became good friends. It was a great way to test the market and see how the name NARS would really resonate in the industry.
Character and emotion play an important part in our identity and how we portray ourselves. What was your approach when creating these colours?
My inspiration came from Italian and French actresses, people in fashion; I had many women who I was always very inspired by. The first shades were named after famous movies; Jungle Red came from the movie The Women.
I wear Jungle Red.
It’s still a very good red. We keep most of the launch shades in the line today.
When you launched your initial advertising campaign for NARS it was revolutionary for its time but so relevant now. Diversity is a word that’s commonly used now in our industry, but at that point it was something that wasn’t recognised. What was your approach and why?
In America at the time the beauty industry was completely different. I felt that the girls I wanted to represent photographically and stylistically with make-up were faces like Karen and Alek, they were the vehicles for what I wanted to say with makeup. Those girls were very close to what my vision of beauty was. They were different, not the obvious supermodel beauty. I had been very influenced by shooting with Steven Meisel but I wanted to do something different like my book X-Ray, which I see that you brought…
All the way from London… It’s heavy! X-Ray challenged the idea of portraiture, broke boundaries and questioned personality. What inspired you to create it?
I started loving to take portraits of people. I thought to myself it would be great to start making a portfolio. So I had this crazy idea to do this book, which practically ruined the whole company because it took so much money to do it and we didn’t have any. It’s probably the reason I sold to Shiseido [laughs].
America was very conservative. Blonde girls with big smiles, happy, commercial. I wanted to go against that. I brought my European culture and adapted it to change the vision they had in their minds.
Because you were so driven to complete the book?
Yes. The book was done from scratch. I had to get studios, go to London, Paris, LA and NYC. Then you need assistants. I was completely obsessed by Richard Avedon shooting on 8×10 format, the most expensive. I said we have to do it like that, it’s so beautiful.
I love that… a labour of love. Feels very familiar!
You know what I said – if there’s no more money, then the company closes and we’ve done it. It’s like your magazine, if it sells it sells, and if not then at least you know you’ve put all your guts into it and it looks great and then you go, ‘Let’s do the next thing!’
The job centre! When you launched the campaign you shot the visuals. Was that your introduction to being a photographer as well?
Yes. But I also took the pictures for the campaign for NARS because we didn’t have money. I like odd girls, different faces, and no rules. It came very naturally. I took a camera, took an assistant and started shooting. The girls were the most important thing.
Did you have any formal training in photography
No, absolutely not. It was from 24 years of working with legends, which was the best school of training.
I ask because at Beauty Papers artists are picking up the camera more and more to record their creative and, in turn, owning their creative.
Yes, I don’t think photographers like it. But it’s OK, I don’t think hair and make-up is given credit for making important imagery. It is very important and I always give that credit.
Liberating beauty gives us a brave and more honest face and I feel it’s oppressive to present one ideal to society. What were your perceptions of beauty in our society at the time your brand launched?
The market was very traditional, very American in that way. Blonde girls with big smiles, happy, commercial. I wanted to change that. One of the first images I did was a girl with freckles. At the time, that was never seen. The ’90s were a good time to break new blood. I didn’t fight or struggle because NARS was my own company, so I could establish what it is I wanted and how it should look.
I feel like we are trying to do that with Beauty Papers because it’s just us, we don’t want overlords. Beauty Papers believes that the space for play has been reduced. The visual landscape of our industry changes in seconds. Has this affected your approach to beauty as an artist?
Oh yeah! Everything that is happening changes incredibly quickly, especially with the digital world and Instagram. You really have to keep up. Ultimately, it’s not only about what you want to do, it’s about what people are expecting you to do and what the market is about. It’s very hard as an artist to not compromise. It’s quite a challenge every day.
Are your creative juices fed when you do your brand collaborations with artists such as Sarah Moon and the new launch with Man Ray? Are those the moments for you that represent feeding the soul creatively, and is that what you really want to represent you?
The challenge is to keep an image and continue building the brand. We have to be honest here, a lot of people do not actually know who Man Ray was. When I did the Guy Bourdin collaboration, many people didn’t know who he was. So, you really have to find the right ones. It’s an enormous amount of work to be able to ensure that whatever comes out presents what I love and who I am, but at the same time, will the women buy the products? It’s a major challenge you have to really stay on top of your game. I have a great team at NARS, which is important to me. They support me very well.
Do you think brands should be socially aware? Or do you feel brands shouldn’t have to be answerable, but should concentrate on moments of play and creative freedom?
It’s hard because for me I feel the message I have given is about freedom. There’s something very fresh and innocent about make-up. It’s about painting yourself and playing with colours. So, to me, it has to be like that.
You have to feel the person behind a make-up line is having fun,
like a mad scientist. I always look at other make-up lines and
it’s all beige and brown and it’s depressing. I love the alternative
too much to be simple.
This issue is themed on etiquette, which is an art in itself. Do you think you see in today’s society a shift in etiquette, looking at selfies, social media and changes in how we portray ourselves?
I’m very old school. It’s funny because nothing shocks me; violence does, but nothing I see socially does. I love the tradition of establishment but I also love the new and look to the future. Breaking boundaries is important but you need balance to move forward. Equilibrium!
Beauty Papers sets out to liberate the beauty industry and to give the creative freedom back to artists. We believe it’s our responsibility to look at the culture of beauty and show society alternative visions and voices. What advice can you give us on our journey?
I rarely compromise in my work and you have to keep doing what you think is right and believe in your gut. You have to follow your instincts, which I always do. My advice would be to keep doing what you like; people need to dream and make-up should represent that. Make-up can be a very superficial thing but it definitely makes people dream. It’s part of my DNA to make sure that’s always the case.