From his bold use of colour and his playful product names to his inspired collaborations, Francois Nars revolutionised the industry
In our regular series Icons we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy.
Francois Nars can trace his earliest beauty memory back to his childhood. “My father’s mother loved to paint her face and she did an incredibly beautiful job,” he recalls. “I remember she would create perfectly drawn lips – almost as if she was retouched. She loved eyeliner too and would line her eyes and draw in her eyebrows flawlessly.” There was also his mother - a natural beauty and who has long influenced his work. “I am lucky to have learned a little bit of everything from these muses. Every memory, or little treasure, sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
Growing up in the south of France, Nars would spend his days pouring over the pages of French Vogue, ripping things out and reinterpreting them on paper. He was obsessed with fashion, captivated by the exquisite works of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin from the 60s and 70s. “Those images woke me up to a certain sense of colour, make-up and artistry. I knew that world was something I wanted to be a part of and make mine. It was from that age to my graduation that I knew I wanted to become either a photographer or a make-up artist.” In the end, he became both.
After years practising his skills on his mother, Nars moved to Paris where he enrolled at the prestigious Carita Institute. At the time the fashion industry was a closed elite and he had no connections. Upon graduating, his mother, ever the publicist, made appointments for herself with three top Parisian make-up artists during which she would speak highly about her son. Eventually one offered him a job as an assistant. From there he became immersed with Paris’ burgeoning fashion scene, making friends with everyone from designer Yves Saint Laurent to photographer Paolo Roversi. Then in the 80s, he moved to New York, where he began working alongside legendary photographers such as Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, Helmut Newton, and Irving Penn. “I was lucky from almost day one," he reflects. "I started working very quickly because of the industry people I met in Paris - they took me under their wing and really loved me.”
Inspired by his mother’s light approach to make-up, Nars would always allow his models’ skin to show through, setting him apart from other make-up artists at the time. “I always used foundations with the smoothest texture and applied them with a light touch - photographers appreciated that I brought this transparency to the complexion.” But soon he realised that he could not make do with the beauty products on offer. It was mainly the limited colours that frustrated him, so in 1995 he set up own his make-up line: NARS. “It wasn’t planned,” he says. “It was very spontaneous which is what I think makes it so fresh.” But Nars has always been very spontaneous, it’s ingrained in the very way he works. “I try not to think too much. I follow my instincts and use everything I’ve learned over the years. I create products based on what I’m attracted to in that moment. For example, I can see a specific blue colour –in an accessory, a landscape, anything— and say I want to make an eye shadow exactly that blue. I am always reinventing products, never settling for the same thing. We are constantly moving and looking forward, we try not to create the same thing twice. It’s important to be open-minded and fresh, never boring.”
From his bold use of colour and his playful product names like Orgasm - a rosy-hued blush - and G Spot - an intense red - to his inspired collaborations with the Erdem, Marc Jacobs, Man Ray, and Guy Bourdin, among many, Nars’s eponymous brand has revolutionised the industry. “It's Modern. Audacious. Iconic,” he says. But it's so much more than that. Nars allows those who wear his make-up to feel strong, empowered, beautiful, and even at times subversive. It’s that elicit thrill you get when you slip your Deep Throat blusher from your bag and apply it. “I think 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.”
At a time when make-up was viewed as a means of accentuating natural beauty, Nars’s belief in the power of make-up as a tool for creative expression set him apart from the rest. “I am not as interested in aesthetic perfection,” he says. “Beauty is so diverse.” Something which is reflected in the brand's campaigns and surrounding imagery - most of which he shoots himself. “I have always been attracted by faces that are different – faces that have an impact on others. Those are the type of women I chose to represent the brand. I love strong women and interesting faces with character and personality. They can be a little odd but at the same time very beautiful. As long as I’m interested in someone and I find them beautiful. With Alek Wek, I photographed her before she was popular or well known. I wanted to push boundaries and show people a different take on what is beautiful.”
After six decades of working in the industry, a lot has changed. “There has been an incredible evolution of make-up,” he says. “Women are learning and experimenting more. Social media, professional artists, and of course the freedom of expression are helping women learn to play more with their make-up and not follow rules.” But amid the waxing and waning trends, the transient names and faces that play various roles within the industry, Nars remained a constant. “I never think too much about the future,” he says. “I work a few months in advance because I have to, but for the most part, I take it day by day. I celebrate the past but live in the moment. For the future of beauty, I’m not sure. But the for the future of the brand, I hope the image of the brand remains; I hope we continue to grow while staying true to our roots of offering modern, audacious and iconic make-up for everyone to as many people as possible.”
All photos are taken from Francois Nars, available here.