François Nars: Paint and decorate

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The world famous make-up artist François Nars has published a new beauty bible, revealing all the tricks of the trade. He talks to Harriet Walker

Make-up maestro François Nars launched his eponymous range in 1994 to critical and cult acclaim.

His career as a magazine make-up artist had, up to that point, seen him working alongside photographers such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton. Now recognised as one of the biggest names in the beauty business, Nars divides his time between New York and his own private island.

But let it not be said that he has lost touch with the real world, despite his phenomenal success. This month sees Nars launching the second in a triptych of beauty books, Make-up Your Mind, which features women selected at random from the streets of Manhattan and invited to be photographed by François Nars himself.

"I created this brand for real people," he explains, "for women all over the world, not just for models and actresses. They are a tool for us to get the brand known, but when I create the colours every season, I think about the customer that goes to the boutique, and we try to have quite a variety of women."

Make-up Your Mind: Express Yourself follows on from where the first book, published in 2001, left off. It was a beauty bible, a how-to guide for every occasion, in which models were photographed before and after they had been made up, and were presented with actetate overlays showing exactly how and where products had been applied.

This second instalment treads a similar path, but offers more complex techniques – and demonstrated on the teachers, lawyers and yoga instructors that Nars and his team spotted in the streets. It deals with three categories – play, perfect and polish – to cover all the bases that Nars has become so known for among the cosmetics cognoscenti.

"It's funny," he says of the trademark flawless look he has developed over 20 years of working for magazines, behind the scenes at catwalks and on beauty counters across the world, "that basically my concept and vision of make-up hasn't changed. It really has stayed practically the same. It wasn't like I used to do wild punk make-up: no, I always had the same vision. My mother never wore much make-up and she was a kind of natural beauty; she knew just how to enhance what she had."

Nars's love of fashion stems from growing up under the glamorous gaze of his mother and grandmother in the south-west of France. "They dressed well, had good taste," he remembers. "My mother hated foundation; she hated having a mask on her face – and she pushed me to build my own vision and concept of beauty for women."

That concept began as a range of 12 lipsticks, which arrived in store at Barneys, New York, in 1994 and sold out almost immediately. Packaged in slick, 10in, black rubber tubes designed with help from Fabien Baron, editorial director of Interview magazine and art director of Madonna's Sex book, they became the thing that every discerning cosmetics pouch had to contain.

Packaging is 50 per cent, but 50 per cent is the inside too," laugh Nars. "And at the time, I was working heavily in editorial, my name was all over Vogue and all the magazines. I think women knew my name from reading all those magazines, and that was a great help."

If they hadn't heard the name, they were certainly about to: the range broadened into other products and caused a stir with its irreverent and often provocative colour codes.

"They fell in love with a lot of the shades," he recalls. "They had good names – we didn't call them boring things, like 1, 2, 3 or 4. Instead, there was 'Shanghai Express' and 'Barbarella'. "These were joined by some of Nars's most famous and fast-selling products, such as a pink blush in 'Orgasm' and a peachier shade, 'Deep Throat'. They stuck in the imaginations of beauty editors and prospective customers alike. "I wanted to give an identity to the product, to make it less boring. The press loved it, women loved it – if the press like your product and women do too, you're onto a winner. It's a simple recipe!"

As is the make-up ideology at the heart of the collection: a clean and naturalistic elegance that doesn't feel oppressive to wear but nor does it leave you feeling bare. "It's definitely a European look," explains Nars. "In America, when I first came here, they were used to wearing more make-up – thicker foundation, more Max Factor, that sort of thing. But you have to know who you are and what you look like: if you know yourself a little bit, you don't need to follow trends. Just follow the trends that suit you – follow your own style, that's the most important thing."

Nars' new book is, of course, designed to help the reader do just that, with its step-by-step guides and topographical overlays. One of the cornerstones of Francois Nars's make-up philosophy is a uniform complexion, achieved by one of the brand's best-selling foundations, either in Pure Matte or Sheer Glow, for a more dewy look. To this, pantone shades of eyeshadows are applied, along with some of the blushers and illuminating creams that the brand has become known for, all mixed for a modern but sleek overall effect.

"I get inspiration from going to museums and great exhibitions," continues Nars. "Or walking in the park and getting inspired by the colours of the tree or flowers, or the street sometimes. It's limitless: I love early movies, my father loved movies and got me really into watching ones from the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Great movies are always good inspiration, and you can see that in the names of the colours in the range."

As a make-up artist, Nars works in a similarly spontaneous vein, taking each individual's face as a starting point – when creating the book he deliberately asked the sitters not to tell him about their lives in order that their circumstances did not affect their final look. "Of course, it's only make-up, for Christ's sake!" he laughs. "It's not building a spaceship, just have fun and try different things. People should be less serious about it."

To this end, Nars has also included a couple of male sitters in the book. "I don't really believe in men's make-up, so I only do it for the fun of it – to break it up a bit, so that it doesn't become boring."

There is little chance of that. With an emphasis that lies equally on colour innovation and cross-spectrum brights as it does on a classic, wearable and chic finish, each launch brings a fresh and invigorating offering of products. And Nars's new book is the perfect guide to help you mix them into real life in exactly the way that suits you.

Makeup Your Mind: Express Yourself by François Nars is available from Harvey Nichols, priced £29.99

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