By Sarah Brown, Vogue magazine
It was 1984 when François Nars-and his roommate, a hairstylist hopeful named Odile Gilbert-set out from Paris for New York, dropping their bags in an apartment on East Thirty-second Street. They moved to a loft in SoHo a few years later, and to say that their beauty careers took off is a bit of an understatement.
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Tonight at the Fashion Group International's annual Night of Stars gala, François will receive the well-deserved award for Beauty Luminary. (For an idea of the company he is in, fellow Luminaries this year include Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Daphne Guinness, Amar'e Stoudemire, and on). His good friend Isabella Rossellini-with whom he produced many Vogue covers together over the years-will present him with this honor. On the occasion of this career milestone, Vogue looked through the archive, and talked to François about his fondest fashion memories, his inspirations, and his future.
François, you've done more than two dozen covers for Vogue! Is there one that is most memorable for you?
I never actually counted them, but yes, something like that. Probably the most memorable one I did was with Polly Mellen and Paulina Porizkova [in 1986]. They had tried to put Paulina on the cover a couple times, but for some reason she could never make it. She was so beautiful, but Dick Avedon never got a picture he was really happy with. So they booked me for one last cover try, and I decided to make her extremely soft-no obvious makeup, no dark shadow on the eyes-just very clean, very fresh. And they finally loved it. Dick loved it; Polly loved it. They just loved the way she looked.
There is such an intimate relationship between fashion and beauty. How do you translate a designer's fashion message-Marc Jacobs's, for example-into makeup?
Working on fashion shows, you work with the designer and try to read his brain-what was in the creative process, what images did he have in his head? With Marc, he always needs to have a certain woman or a certain era or certain characters in his head to create a collection, and makeup is definitely key to him. For his spring show, he showed me pictures of Cowboy Kate-remember that book from the late sixties?-and then the Sweet Charity movie and all the old Cabaret images. He wanted a little of that decadence, but translated into something more today, more modern. I wanted to use lashes, but I said: "We've got to do it a different way," so we cut down pieces of lashes and stuck two or three together, in different spots. That's the great part of creating a look for a show or a photo shoot-you're really playing. That's the most important attitude to have when you work in fashion. Always call yourself back into question and ask: "Is that right? Do we love this? Do we hate that?"
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Speaking of Marc, it was he who brought you back into the fashion world with his fall show in 2009, where you created unique looks for 65 different models. Up until then, you had been taking an extended respite on your private island in Bora Bora. What made you come back?
For me, it was fun to work on creating that place, building the houses, working with the decorators and Christian Liaigre. I needed a break from fashion shows because I had done so many over the years. It's very refreshing to go away and take a break, to clear your head, and just get into something else. For me, it was very important, and it was the right time. Fashion is in my blood no matter what-it's part of me-so when Marc was interested in making me come back, I took the offer right away.
It was the big news of that New York Fashion Week, a major event in itself that you were doing the show.
It got so much attention, I was shocked. I was excited to come back, but I never thought other people would get so excited. It makes you feel really, really nice! It was very flattering and people were really sweet, welcoming me back backstage. And then, what we did had never been done: that many makeup looks at one show. Usually there is one makeup look, one hairdo. It's very rare that a designer is open to creating different looks, so that was also a big hit.
In the last decade or so, your interests have expanded beyond beauty to photography. Was that a passion that you discovered when you stepped back and took a break?
It actually started before, when I started shooting the ads for Nars. It was a budget question at the time, so I jumped into taking photographs because I knew exactly the kind of images I wanted to give to the brand, and the type of girls I wanted to shoot. Having worked with so many of the geniuses, I'd learned so much. It's the best sort of photography school, to work with people like Penn or Avedon or Meisel. I felt . . . I don't want to say confident, but I didn't ask myself too many questions. I had very clear ideas about what I wanted, what I wanted the makeup to look like. I wanted to show more skin, especially in those first ads, and I didn't want too much retouching. Especially here in America, we had so many cosmetics campaigns that were so retouched and so plastic; I wanted to take a different approach to a cosmetics campaign. I started shooting the book X-Ray at the same time. Photography for me is so linked to makeup and hair-you're always checking the light; you have that same relationship with the model, making her beautiful. So it didn't feel like a whole different world to me. I think in life you have to evolve and keep yourself amused, interested, excited. If I only stuck to makeup, I would probably get bored.
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I think it's safe to say your products have some of the all-time best names-Orgasm, Jungle Red, Belle de Jour, Chinatown, Schiap. How do you name them?
You know, I always said we were either going to give them numbers, or interesting names. I didn't want to go with boring names like Pink Peach. It had to be almost like giving each product its own personality, so that women could dream, could connect to the product, could feel like they were wearing something special. I wanted it to be fun. And sexy, too. Because makeup is a sexy accessory-women use it to look sexy and to feel sexy, for themselves and for the world. It gets difficult, because, you can imagine, we've been copied a lot. I have those little Hermès agendas, and 24 hours a day I keep writing names that come to my mind from books that I read, exhibits I go to, movies, places. I keep writing names. That's how it works. I usually think about the name first, and then a color matches that name. Nothing is really planned.
Ginta, who is in your spring campaign, will be at your table tonight. Who are your other muses? Forgive the cliché, but what is beautiful to you?
Character, personality, and style. Innate style. Something that you cannot get by just wearing a designer's clothes. Something that you're born with. I'm not so interested in perfect, plastic beauty, and I think it translates in the girls I've shot over the years for Nars, from Guinevere to Iris to Mariacarla. I love those girls. I love the more interesting faces, with maybe a strange nose, not just the Texan blonde. By picking those girls, I think it's changed what I've seen in other campaigns. Now you start seeing different girls and different faces. I think there's been an incredible evolution in the beauty industry, which is a great thing.
What's next? I know you have the Tahiti book coming out in 2013.
I'm working on the layout right now-it took ten years to do. I think people will be very surprised. It's a black-and-white book, no makeup. It's landscapes, still lives, older people, young children; it's very different. I think it brings across my vision of those islands, the South Pacific. I may shoot another X-Ray for Nars, which is a huge, huge amount of work. The idea is to shoot people all over the world, portraits. So that could be one project that will take about two or three years. I have a list of people I was not able to shoot for the first book-Karl [Lagerfeld], Christian Lacroix. I have a really big list. Plus, we're going to be opening more stores, about six or seven in the next three years. I'm going to be pretty busy!
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Photo Credit: Fairchild Archive
By Sarah Brown, Vogue magazine