Beauty

François Nars talks beauty inspiration, breaking rules and buying islands

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Shannon Peter
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He’s the man who has launched a thousand trends, but make-up artist François Nars does not believe in them. Shannon Peter finds out why… 

François Nars is a man of contradiction. He’s spent more than 25 years at the epicentre of the fashion scene, collaborating with some of the world’s most important designers, from Marc Jacobs Jacobs to Karl Lagerfeld. He’s also masterminded products that have defined generations and conceptualised some of the most seminal make-up looks to grace the catwalk. But, despite being the definition of a trendsetter, Nars does not believe in trends.

It’s a surprising fact I discover in a fourth-floor suite at The Ritz’s Paris outpost. This man, who practically sells trends for a living, has no real drive to make them, instead preferring to borrow from the past to create timeless products. Which makes sense when you realise the 12 lipsticks he first launched in 1994 (including the now cult Jungle Red and Shanghai Express shades) as a frustrated make-up artist are still a mainstay in women’s make-up bags today. The man doesn’t even use Instagram, yet his brand’s @narsissist account has garnered a 4.6million strong following, that’s pretty impressive.

It’s little wonder his brand has remained relevant for 23 years, such is its rule-breaking, nosh*ts-given mentality that goes against everything we thought we knew about the industry. Where his peers champion youth, in 2014, Nars chose 69-year-old Charlotte Rampling to face his brand. Where foundation ranges continue to ignore the vast spectrum of skin-tones out there, Nars safeguards his particularly far-reaching shades. And where so many brands disguise wishy-washy products in fancy packaging, Nars ensures only the hardest-working formulas and punchiest shades find their way into his purposefully understated black casing.

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And the contradiction doesn’t end there. It might surprise you to hear that this dynamic French businessman, with his multimillion pound beauty empire, a love for provocative product names such as Orgasm, Deep Throat, Threesome, and a life spent surrounded by some of the most daring names in fashion, is actually an introvert. 

In fact, he suffers from a persistent shyness stemming from a childhood spent in rural France. In its palest form it makes him a little antsy during public appearances, and at its most extreme it saw him purchase a 10-acre island in the South Pacific in 2000, to escape the madness of his hometown of New York. It doesn’t get much more remote. 

But you wouldn’t spot this introversion upon meeting him. Nars, the man still at the helm of his brand (although he sold it to the Shiseido group in 2000), is the kind of person who radiates warmth, from the first signature double cheek kiss to the final hug goodbye. So how exactly does this trend-dodging, lifelong introvert remain at the forefront of beauty innovation? Here, he reveals the secrets behind his success…

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You’re a stalwart of the beauty business, yet you remain a trailblazer. How do you stay relevant in a world that is evolving at record speed?

I get bored very easily. I always want to bring new energy, new images, and I hate falling into a mould that never changes. My company has been around for 23 years and you can start losing the energy that you had for it at the beginning, but I always try to evolve and bring something experimental. You have to push the boundaries. That is why [Nars] is getting more popular because people appreciate we take risks. And you have to take risks in life.

Where does this rule-breaking mentality stem from?

I’ve always been attracted to very shocking people: eccentric women, people who have a lot of personality, who dress wild, but always with great taste. From a very young age, I would watch movies from all these Italian directors, like [Federico] Fellini – you know, that Italian era known for being so eccentric, creative and crazy… I’ve always loved the wildness, so I think that’s where my approach stems from.

Growing up in rural France, were wild people hard to find?

Yeah, there weren’t many. When I was 15 I started to hang out with people who were 25. I wanted to be an adult. I had a few friends my age but I liked the older crowd and I found a group of cool girls, each with really good style. They dressed in YSL and one of them had a fragrance boutique, so we would hang out there.

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Is that how you choose your muses now?

Oh yes. There needs to be a physical attraction, of course, but the personality is also very important. I need strong characters. Character is key.

How do you view age in an industry obsessed with youth?

As long as people have charisma, it doesn’t matter about age. I love young and I love old. Some people focus only on youth, because of course who doesn’t want to be young? I wish I could go back to being 24, but there’s a beauty in every step of your life. And it’s the wrong message to rule people out simply because of their age. I would die to shoot Vanessa Redgrave, but it hasn’t happened yet. Diversity is so important to me – all women want to be empowered and feel beautiful. Hopefully Nars helps them to do both. 

You’re a self-confessed introvert – how does this manifest itself?

I’m very shy and have tried to fight it over the years. I never planned to be in front of the camera – my job was to be behind the camera, doing make-up and making models and actors look great. I like to work in a small circle. As soon as I have to go to a department store and meet thousands of people, I try my best but it’s not my favourite thing. There’s something very thrilling about seeing people’s reactions to Nars and the products but I do have to push myself in those environments.

Do you think your introversion benefits your work?

Oh yes, absolutely. Introverted people find a way to create their own world. When I was a kid I was a big dreamer and hated school, so I would come home and listen to classical music and create my own fabulous world that made me forget about the things I hated. I used to skip school to go to silent movies. And as the Seventies was a very creative time, there were so many fabulous movies so I would learn a lot. And thank God I did it, because of course in school I learned great stuff, but at the cinema, I learned so much about style. It was my own education.

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And did your parents support this creative streak?

They had tonnes of books at home on art and photography, and my mum would read all the fashion magazines. She was very elegant and she loved to dress up so it was my parents who introduced me to this world. They didn’t know I was skipping school, but I don’t regret it because it was a positive experience. It wasn’t like I was doing drugs so I never felt guilty. As long as you do something that you feel is a positive thing, it’s OK to lie. It got me where I am today.

You’ve become a tastemaker in the fashion world, but how do you feel about trends?

It’s funny, because technically I should love trends. When I was a kid I loved ‘trendy’ things. I’d look at women in magazines and think, oh she’s so trendy. But as I get older I’ve veered away from the concept. Style is more important. And just like fashion, when it comes to cosmetics, women should have a timeless wardrobe. Find your good reds, your perfect foundation, and then if you want to bring a colour you’ve seen on a runway, that’s fine.

Do you follow lots of people on social media to keep on top of what everyone’s talking about?

No, I don’t. It’s terrible, right? I feel guilty. Once in a while I go and look. I find it refreshing without social media, but some people can’t live without it. They spend 24 hours a day on Instagram. But I’m probably one of the few people who stay away from it.

So, how do you keep your product line so fresh?

I like to keep one step in the past and one step in the future. That’s the key. I always find inspiration through artists, exhibitions and movies. I have a library in my mind. I know colour schemes, movie references, iconic make-up looks. But I do stay alert to what’s going on in fashion: new designers, fashion shows and all that. It’s that combination that allows me to create new things.

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Do you look at other brands?

Sometimes. I go to Sephora as it’s easy to see everything at once and see all the great new ideas. But I don’t look too much, maybe every three months or so, because I like coming up with my own ideas from what I think and feel. 

It shows true confidence in your creativity that you’re not chasing and competing… 

I’m not insecure about what we do. I believe that in the end we always focus on making good products. We’re perfectionists. I make sure every product really works and being a make-up artist for so many years, I’m very critical. I give people a hard time and tell them when a product isn’t good enough. As long as my name is on the packaging I have to be sure the product is very good.

How do you come up with your shade names?

The name has always been a key for me as it gives an identity and a personality to the product. I could call it pink or red, but when you give a product a name like Jungle Red you transport people. That’s why it’s so hard to discontinue a product because if they love it… Today I was in a store and [the store assistant] read my name and said, “Nars? Are you François Nars? You’ve discontinued the one colour I was so in love with, please bring it back.” If the names weren’t so strong, they wouldn’t get so attached. It’s easy to forget if it’s just a blusher.

Speaking of which, Nars sells nearly 1,400 Orgasm blushers every day. Does sex still sell?

Sex will always sell. Until the end of days. Sex can’t go out of fashion, ever. But funnily enough, Orgasm was meant to be about an orgasm for life. It wasn’t necessarily linked to sexuality. You can have an orgasm when you buy fabulous clothes or a great bag. It was more about feeling great. I never anticipated it would be so successful. But sexy names and sexy things always sell.

There’s no denying you’re an expert, but are you still learning?

We never stop learning. Yes, I have good experience behind me, but there are always new formulas and shades to discover. I have created thousands of shades over the past 23 years, but I’m always learning and trying to work with the stylists and the Nars chemists just to be sure we have something new there.

Why did you decide to buy an island in French Polynesia?

Because I’m crazy.

Did it take you long to decide to buy it?

It took a few days. I’m very decisive and I know right away if I love something. I had never even been to French Polynesia before. It was my first time there and I was on holiday and the colours were so crazy, the blue lagoons were so beautiful, I felt like I was in paradise. I’m Pisces, so I love the ocean. So what could be better than buying an island and living surrounded by water? It’s like a dream come true. No one else lives there and I can spend five months without going out.

Do you feel inspired by being there?

Yes, it constantly inspires me and that’s why I made a book with all my photography of the island [Faery Lands – Tahiti]. I love the people and the landscapes. It’s very inspiring. As a make-up artist, you see three million colours, thousands of greens and blues. It’s very dramatic; it’s like a theatre stage. And then there’s the fragrance of the flowers, the air, the monoi [a local scented oil]. We have a fragrance coming out in 2019 inspired by the island.

Are you excited about what’s to come next?

I’m afraid of the future and how hatred and violence have become part of our lives. But I’m not afraid of the future in any other way. I think there are so many more great artists to discover, so much more to create. And I’m not scared of growing older. There are so many products I want to design. I will be creative as long as I can.

The hit parade

The four hardest-working Nars products that every woman should own

1) Blush in Orgasm

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2) Soft Matte Concealer

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A newcomer to the Nars hall of fame, this ‘stretchable’ concealer covers every blemish and plumps skin without gathering in creases.

£24, nars.co.uk

3) The Multiple

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One swipe of these twist-up sticks across cheeks, eyes and lips will bring warmth to even the most drained complexion. Orgasm is the bestselling shade.

£29, nars.co.uk

4) Audacious Lipstick

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No other lip product is adept at imparting such high-intensity colour in a single swipe, plus the tapered nib makes light work of a precise lip line.

£26, nars.co.uk

This interview first appeared in issue 383 of Stylist, 13 September 2017. Images: NARS