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François Nars: ‘There are many ways to be sexy’

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Sali Hughes

Sali Hughes

theguardian.com, Thursday 13 November 2014 16.38 GMT

Francois Nars talks to reporters backstage at the Marc Jacobs autumn/winter 2011 fashion show Francois Nars talks to reporters backstage at the Marc Jacobs autumn/winter fashion show. Photograph: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

François Nars is one of fashion’s most influential makeup artists. His work with acclaimed photographer Steven Meisel and influential hair stylist Oribe in the 80s and 90s on the likes of Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista helped create some of the world’s most enduring fashion and beauty images. Madonna’s many image reinventions, including those in her controversial book Sex, were also created with Nars.

Nars’s passion for makeup began during his childhood in the south of France, where he grew up obsessively watching Italian and Hollywood films and reading his mother’s Vogue. The love of makeup and photography that this inspired led him to train at the Carita school in Paris.

As his success grew over the decades, so did Nars’s frustration with the paucity of products available for professional makeup artists, and in 1994 he launched his eponymous makeup brand under the Shiseido company’s umbrella. Since launching his first 12 lipsticks, Nars has photographed all the brand’s campaigns himself, and has published four books of his photography.

For the past decade, he has mostly withdrawn from the fashion world and lived almost reclusively in Motu Tane, French Polynesia, refusing press interviews and any work outside the Nars brand, although in he did return fleetingly to create the makeup for his friend Marc Jacobs’s 2009 autumn/winter catwalk show .“It was fun and enjoyable, but I did think afterwards that it was probably enough for the next 10 years”, he laughs.

As well as his signature use of strong, bold colour, Nars is renowned for his unconventional choice of models; he has shot Tilda Swinton and Daphne Guinness, and his latest campaign face is the 68-year-old British actor Charlotte Rampling. He was also among the first to use black and minority ethnic women in commercial beauty campaigns.

“The 80s and 90s were the greatest time to be a makeup artist. There are many more makeup artists now and hopefully, we – Mary Greenwell, Stephane Marais, Kevyn Aucoin and others – excited young makeup artists and made them want to enter the industry,” says Nars. “There is a new generation now, and that’s great. Maybe one day they’ll have their own brands, but I think it would be very difficult these days to launch a cosmetics line. The market is somewhat saturated. I didn’t ask myself many questions; my work was everywhere and in so many magazines that I just thought ‘Let’s do it’. It was fun; I always kept it fun.”

To celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary, Nars reflects on some of his greatest images and explains his personal approach to beauty, makeup and photography.

Naomi Campbell, autumn campaign shot, 2004

NARS Fall 2004 Campaign featuring Naomi Campbell Nars autumn 2004 campaign featuring Naomi Campbell. Photograph: Nars

From the start, I used a different kind of girl in Nars campaign images. My choice to use models of colour such as Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Karen Park Goude was absolutely a deliberate one. I felt that makeup was universal and should apply to everybody. I didn’t want to create a makeup line for one ethnic group, it had to be multi-ethnic. To me, beauty is beauty. It doesn’t matter to me what colour the skin is. Back then, no one would have dared put Alek Wek in a beauty campaign, but I thought she looked so amazing, so beautiful, that as soon as I saw her I said: “I want her to be a Nars girl.” I was probably the only one who would have done that at the time. I suppose it was quite daring then, but I will continue to do it, always.

Erin O’Connor, x-ray campaign, 1999

Erin O'Connor for Nars Erin O’Connor for Nars. Photograph: PR

I love Erin. I loved her profile, her modernity, her haircut. She has one of the greatest noses and the longest neck and you always remember her. She was so great to work with, which always helps, and so sweet. I think you relate to, and get so much more out of, the subject you’re photographing if it’s someone with a great personality. That you can only achieve if you have a strong connection with the subject. It’s very hard for me to photograph someone when I’m not attracted by who they are. I try to pick people before I photograph them, so I’ve experienced very few like that, but it’s happened a couple of times in my career. Absolutely no connection whatsoever and it felt very blank. There was nothing.

Guinevere, Holiday Campaign, 2005

The Nars Holiday 2005 Campaign feat Guinevere Van Seenus The Nars Holiday 2005 Campaign feat Guinevere Van Seenus Photograph: Nars

I would say there was a certain point in the 80s, working a lot with Steven Meisel, where we created something different, and that has been very influential to today’s makeup looks. One thing was eyelashes. There were no false lashes in the 80s at all. I was the first one to bring them back. Black eyeliner in many different, bold shapes – we brought that back and changed it too. And I do see people recreating those images now.

There were not so many rules in the 80s as there are now. Fashion and beauty was more blurry. It was starting to be less interesting and we brought back a sophistication, a creativity. Everything had been very natural, very American. Meisel, Oribe and I started mixing things up – reshaping brows, bleaching them, being much bolder with makeup, using wigs and lighting to create a transformation. We started working with talented models in the way they did in the 60s. It was a more creative, less conventional view of beauty.

Amber Valletta as Catherine Deneuve, spring campaign, 2010

NARS Spring 2010 Campaign featuring Amber Valletta Nars spring 2010 campaign featuring Amber Valletta. Photograph: Nars

I adore Catherine Deneuve. Amber Valletta got into her character very easily for this shoot. Amber is a great model because she loves to model, she loves acting for the camera, she loves makeup and fashion. It’s a real talent, and not many have it. When you photograph somebody, you try first of all to capture the essence of that person. It’s a movement, it’s a gesture, it’s an angle. All those things are what makes a good picture. The great models, such as Veruschka or Kate Moss, are incredible because they love to be photographed. They love fashion, art and the creative process. Often today you meet a model who doesn’t care about the picture, who’s bored and wants to go home. You can never be a top model with that attitude.

Guinevere, spring campaign shot, 2009

The Nars spring 2009 Campaign feat Guinevere Van Seenus The Nars spring 2009 Campaign feat Guinevere Van Seenus Photograph: Nars

As a makeup artist, you use a lot of colour, otherwise you’re really not a makeup artist. You’ve got to be attracted to playing with the rainbow of colours, to creating new ones, because that’s what makes being a makeup artist a fun job. But it was important to me that the Nars line was balanced between very neutral and basic shades and brighter, bolder colours. I want to offer women a choice. There are ways of wearing bright shades in a subtle way. You can use black or brown to tone down brights, or use pastels such as pale corals, apricot, lavenders that look great with a brown eye shadow. You get a touch of colour without it being overwhelming. With bolder colour, you can use a strong black liner. It’s all a question of balance, though – if you use bold colour on one area of the face, you simplify or tone down the rest. It’s not a whole look – few people can get away with that. But any woman can wear colour without looking as though, as we say in France, she fell over in a makeup box.

Daria, dual intensity shadow campaign shot, 2014

The Nars Dual Intensity eyeshadow campaign The Nars Dual Intensity eyeshadow campaign Nars Photograph: Nars

Sexy is very important in our brand. Because makeup is a sexy thing, like beautiful jewellery, great shoes, a sexy bag. But, ideally for us, not in an obvious way. I don’t want it to be cheap or vulgar because I think there are many ways to be sexy. A woman in a man’s suit can be extremely sexy, like Charlotte Rampling in our Audacious lipstick campaign. I don’t associate sexy with vulgarity. This shot is obviously very inspired by the work of Helmut Newton – super-sexy makeup with thick, heavy bangs and so on. Very 1970s French Vogue.

Daphne Guinness, Holiday 2010

Daphne Guinness for Nars Daphne Guinness, Holiday 2010 Photograph: Nars

I think the movies are probably my biggest influence. Movies and places – so many shade names have been influenced by my travelling and by movies because I’m such a film freak. Movies and actors I love have featured many times in Nars collections and imagery, so many of my lipsticks have been named after movies. Garbo and Dietrich, those were the two women that I was always fascinated to look at because the movies at the time were like a total fantasy – the lighting, the clothing, the makeup, it was like a surreal universe and really built up my love for photography, for lighting. If you look at all those movies, you can feel that the director Von Sternberg was building Dietrich’s face with light and makeup and angles. He was so in love with her face. So Garbo and Dietrich were really my icons as a kid.

Stella Tennant, spring campaign shot, 2013

Nars spring 2013 campaign featuring Stella Tennant Nars spring 2013 campaign featuring Stella Tennant. Photograph: Matthew J Santo/Nars

In general I like faces that are a little bit odd, not a little cute nose and heart lips that are a bit plastic and Barbie doll. As much as sometimes I guess it could be fun to photograph a Barbie doll, in general it’s not what I’m attracted to. Women with character, bone structure, a strong nose. I love character in the face. A little bit like how Fellini picked his actors, always odd-looking women with very strong features, looking like birds with long necks or an angular face or pointed nose. I love that, it’s more inspiring for me. The model is totally part of the creative process. A good model is larger than life, a muse, someone who is almost superhuman and unreal. That’s the way I was brought up. Gradually, the models became more like real people. And that was great and an important movement. But it could also be dull, and it was great fun to work with the woman to create a fantasy.

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