Stéphane Marais loves flowers – lilies, peonies, roses, you name it – the balcony in his Paris flat is bursting with vivid, flaming colours that are reminiscent of his experiments in make-up, which he documented through the medium of Polaroids for Beauty Flash, the seminal photo book published by Steidl in 2001. One of the top make-up artists in the world, Marais has created Shiseido’s luxury line Clé de Peau Beauté, launched his own range and has painted all the big faces of the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, to present, his brush always in pursuit of movement, of texture, and of a magical moment to capture. To Marais, beauty is about joy and making people smile. When asked about his vision, he said: “Make-up makes me happy. It’s not surgery. You wash it, it’s gone. So why not have fun with that?” And in an industry full of seriousness, branding and strategic posing, there’s something very refreshing, honest and poetic about this approach.
Maxine Leonard: How did your journey begin?
Stéphane Marais: I went to Paris at 18 to do marketing at university, but of course I hated it. Being in Paris, at that age, I met a lot of people who were in creative fields – fashion school, art school, design school – and that was more exciting for me. I found a make-up school, the biggest one at the time, but after three months of studying I thought the course was obsolete for me, so I left. I was feeling ready, so I went to see magazines to show [my] press book. After that it all happened very fast, people were talking about me very quickly. At the time it was easier for people who had a different approach to make-up and a different vision.
ML: What was the conventional approach at the time?
SM: It was old-fashioned. It looked old. And I loved different things, such as black. I loved dark circles. I loved things that were not appropriate for academic school, so I did it my way. That’s how I started. And I quickly met very important people in my career, such as [Peter] Lindbergh.
ML: How did your first shoot with him come about? And at what point did you play with the idea of black and coal?
SM: My first shoot with [Lindbergh] was a story for Marie Claire. I was replacing a big make-up artist, Jacques Clemente, who recommended me to the editor; she was the biggest editor in Paris, so I was anxious, but I did it. That’s how I started working with Peter. And two weeks after that, Peter’s office called me to tell me that he wanted to see me, so I went and Peter said, “Okay, I have a big story with a girl for German Vogue; we’re gonna do a Marlene Dietrich – she looks like Marlene Dietrich, but I want a real Marlene Dietrich. Can you do it?” I said yes, no problem. Of course I was feeling sick the whole week! But I did it and he was impressed and I’d won him over.
ML: There’s a lot of emotion in your make-up, too; it’s textural. For me, there is no beauty without emotion, and I think that your hand really registers that. That’s why I asked about how you began your journey because I wondered if you had an artistic background, if you painted or something.
SM: No. Photographers who watch me working ask, “How do you do it with your big fingers? You’re so delicate; it’s almost like paint,” but I don’t see myself; I just do it the way I feel it. I’m very sensitive when I work, very delicate, and strong sometimes.
ML: And a master at blending.
SM: Yeah, I’m obsessed with that.
ML:When you created your own make-up range in 2001, the packaging challenged the conventional approach taken to marketing brands and the imagery and the products to me sort of represented movement and beauty, but in a very abstract and artistic manner. How did you come up with that concept?
SM: I wanted something that makes me smile, that responded to the times we lived in. I wanted something… not solid, but free, with no limits.
ML: I love that you use the word smile, because so much of the business has stopped smiling.
SM: It’s very naïve, it’s childish, but it’s me.
ML: And wasn’t there instructions in that packaging?
SM: Yeah. It was difficult to convince [Shiseido], so I did it myself in my studio with my assistant. I said I want something that you don’t have to read, so you have no problem with language, translation. I wanted something visual. With certain products like the eye gloss you need to see the result, you need to see how to apply it. So I did this Polaroid, showing the step-by-step: how to apply, how to place your brush, how to move it. It was very important for me to make sure the customer understood. Even when I buy make-up, I’m asking myself these questions, ‘how do I do this?’ I don’t have an explanation leaflet – it’s about texture, and you have to make the customer feel secure with the product.
ML: It’s quite special to give people that confidence, and it’s a great observation actually – you talk about security and our make-up is our armour and we use it to represent ourselves. It can change from day to day, but it is emotion and armour.
SM: It changes because your mood changes, so you have to really propose something you can play with, according to what you want and what you’re in the mood for.
If you feel good about something your vision is more respected, because you have an opinion and you say it. It’s easy to convince people when you are sure of yourself and you stand for it.
ML: The documentation of your make-up in Beauty Flash feels like a moment in time that represented freedom, creative expression and liberation. What are your thoughts on the change in the industry as time has moved on, and do you feel creatively there are as many possibilities to explore and challenge?
SM: There are always possibilities. The good thing is Beauty Flash is a reference of things I’ve done. You travel for years, your childhood, you have all this emotional baggage that you build on, you can redo things, and you have to push forward. You take risks, and it’s up to you to go further, or to go in another direction. The freedom is not the same, you know on shoots now you have people commenting, ‘no, no it’s too much’ or maybe an editor-in-chief will not like it, you have to compromise, but you also have to fight a bit more.
ML: Do you fight a bit?
SM: Yeah, if you feel good about something your vision is more respected, because you have an opinion and you say it. It’s easy to convince people when you are sure of yourself and you stand for it. Also people don’t know where they want to go, so if you show them or give them a way, they will take it, if you convince them.
ML: I suppose there’s no interference from a photographer either, you just push the button – there’s a surprise element to it.
SM: Yes, it’s a surprise. I took a lot of Polaroids because I love photography. I never pretended I was a photographer, but I pretended to have an eye. You know how when you work with a photographer on a shoot sometimes you just let it go, and you see things happening, you see beauty, you see an angle, you see movement, so there’s a bit of a frustration there when I see a moment and the photographer misses it – I’m very present on shoots, so I see things. I love the old Polaroids at home. At the end of the day, it’s like archives of a period.
ML: Do you think beauty can be a political vehicle?
SM: No. What I do, it’s all about fake in a way. But that’s the beauty of it, you wash it and it’s gone. You don’t bring a message with beauty, you just bring happiness, you bring a solution.
ML: I think there are certain representations of women in the media that have affected society in a negative way.
SM: Because there is a big company behind them, and magazines are not free.
ML: Right I’m gonna ask you a really make-up artist question now, what is your favourite black?
SM: It’s a greasy black. Like a pencil, or cream. I love that.
ML: You know Diana Vreeland said, “The greatest thing is passion. If you love someone you can love them as much as you can love them but if it isn’t a passion it isn’t burning, it isn’t on fire and you haven’t lived.” What would say is your burning passion?
SM: Travelling – meeting new people, discovering new cultures, new cities. When I am in a new city, I always wake up early and walk.
ML: What advice would you give me with the magazine?
I think you should stay with your conviction. You know if you have a subject, just go for it.