NYTimes // February 2011
François Nars: Behind the Makeup, a Low-Profile Artist
François Nars, the man behind the makeup, in his SoHo studio.
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
TODAY, the first stand-alone store of Nars, the makeup brand known for its sleek black packaging and luscious color range, will open on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Like its creator, the Frenchman François Nars, the store is a study in contrasts. Close to Marc Jacobs’s cluster of boutiques and the Magnolia Bakery, it has Old World charm, with moldings and a marble fireplace from Chesney’s. In line with today’s eco-conscious imperatives, its distressed black-stained wood floors are reclaimed from the Ohio River Valley.
Like him, it’s a study in contrasts.
But there’s a showstopper amid the store’s muted classiness: a stand at the back of the store lacquered in the popular Nars hue Jungle Red, which happens to hide the cash register. It adds a definitive note of calculated va-voom.
Mr. Nars, an accomplished photographer and author of portrait books, including “X-Ray” and “NARS 15X15,” which benefited more than a dozen charities, wants to make women stand out. Over the years, his magic touch has transformed idiosyncratic beauties like Isabella Rossellini, Alek Wek, Daphne Guinness and — for the 2011 Fall/Holiday campaign — the Italian model Mariacarla Boscono in to-die-for royal blue cat eyes.
But in an interview, he said he has little desire to be a star himself. “In this world, you do your job, a good job, and that’s what counts,” said Mr. Nars, who made his name as a makeup artist in the overly polished ’80s doing fresh-faced looks that let freckles and other idiosyncrasies shine through. “Some people put a lot of fuss around them. I’m not an entertainer. Let’s not get things confused.”
Bearded and bespectacled, Mr. Nars, who is in his early 50s, spoke last week at his rarely seen studio on Wooster Street, where he dreams up colors for four seasonal collections, with an average of a dozen products each, that Nars puts out annually. One wall was crowded with portraits of Tahitians and still lifes from a forthcoming book he’s putting together about his inspirations from the French Polynesian island Motu Tané. He bought the island after Shiseido Cosmetics bought Nars in 2000, a deal that left him with a remarkable amount of creative control.
Mr. Nars, who wore a black Dior Homme suit, was unfailingly polite and exacting, complaining at one point about how the studio’s black-stained wood floors scuff too much for his taste. He and Fabien Baron, the veteran art designer who helped create the space, made sure the ones at 413 Bleecker would not.
During a two-hour meeting discreetly attended by an assistant, the closest Mr. Nars came to showboating was pointing out a portrait of him and Madonna that sat on the floor along another wall of his studio with more than a dozen framed photographs.
On the set of a long-ago magazine shoot, Mr. Nars, then clean shaven, stands embracing Madonna, in blunt-cut bangs and wearing a skin-tight pale pantsuit that exposed an oval of her rear end. His thumb was on this peephole, a smirk on his face. Nor was he shy when meeting Marc Jacobs on the set of a Steven Meisel shoot, back when Mr. Jacobs was the creative director for Perry Ellis. “Steven wanted him naked in a bed, and I had to apply makeup on him,” Mr. Nars said. “I think it was for American Vogue. It was very laid back the way we worked at the time, always laughing, never formal.”
Their mutual admiration continues today. Mr. Nars will design the makeup looks for Mr. Jacobs’s fall show next week, as he did when he returned backstage after a long hiatus to do 65 different makeup looks for autumn 2009.
He has not gone on Oprah Winfrey as contemporaries like Kevyn Aucoin and Bobbi Brown have. “I felt very uncomfortable,” Mr. Nars said. Growing up near Biarritz, France, he said, “It was never in my mind to be famous.”
Odile Gilbert, the French hairstylist who is working on the Jason Wu and Rodarte shows this Fashion Week, can vouch for that. After befriending Mr. Nars in Paris, she decamped with him to America in 1984, moving into a two-bedroom two-bathroom loft in SoHo that doubled as a kind of self-imposed culture boot camp. “We, two kids, were totally curious,” she said of that time.
They rented old American movies and discussed art, from Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings to Irving Penn’s photography. “He was trying makeup on me, of course — it was fun,” Ms. Gilbert said. “A lot of people were passing by, Steven Meisel, Anna Sui, all these creative American people we loved.”
Mr. Nars, a night owl who prefers to go out one-on-one with friends, if at all, is the rare bird today who favors mystery rather than Tweeted over-sharing. He said he’s baffled by Nars fans who wish to know what he had for breakfast (at any rate, he wakes early only when on Motu Tané).
Still, in a nod to modish new media, Mr. Nars has planned a nook in the Bleecker Street store that will be devoted to stocking his favorite things (none as mainstream as Oprah’s, guaranteed). They are expected to include Ms. Gilbert’s hair pins from the Parisian boutique Collette, a Matcha green tea Mr. Nars adores (he’s a fan of Japanese food, especially soba noodles and tempura) and a vintage Marlene Dietrich flip book.
The shop, whose location Mr. Nars chose because it reminds him of a “great little street in Paris,” will also sell exclusives like a rosy 413 Bleecker matte lipstick and a new limited-edition Bento Box with paint-on-lipstick pots and room for more makeup.
In the run-up to the grand opening, the brand has run a charm offensive in the West Village, partnering with the restaurant Betel to create an Orgasm cocktail, after his most famous blush; discounts for staff members of neighboring restaurants; and gift bags for auctions to benefit local schools. This could be read as a pro-active way to forestall the kind of neighborhood grumpiness the Marc Jacobs stores have weathered, or just a sign of Mr. Nars’s humility. “We’re trying to reach out to them, and try to be adopted by that little street,” he said with the air of a castaway.
Mr. Nars’s close attention to detail, which shows in his striking and nuanced pigments, is a reason for his line’s success, his admirers say. “His products are the OxyContin of cosmetics, dangerous and addictive,” Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador at large of Barneys New York, where Nars’s first dozen lipsticks appeared in 1994, wrote in an e-mail. “François offers women drama and definition with graphic brows, bold colors. He offers them a little idiosyncrasy, self-expression and individuality. Think Frida Kahlo, Ava Gardner or even Simone de Beauvoir!” He explained that it’s “a certain tough chic, which is memorable, anticonformist and anti ‘Real Housewife.’ ”
In May, real women, some north of 50, who love Nars will be featured in the second book in a trilogy of guides, entitled “Makeup Your Mind: Express Yourself.” At that point, Nars will host a big party, instead of one pegged to the store opening. The first “Makeup Your Mind” featured many 20-something models, and he’s planning a final book of celebrities from varying professions.
One catch: They have to pose without makeup for the “before” shots. Asked whether it’ll take some cajoling to get stars to agree, Mr. Nars said, “It will be hard.” But, he added: “People have to learn that everybody is the same. If you wake up in the morning, even if you’re a movie star, you look like everybody else. The reality is that makeup is there to help. That’s what it’s for.”