Icon Status: François Nars

There’s no doubt that maquillage maestro and creator of Nars Cosmetics François Nars is one of the industry’s most influential makeup artists. Along with founding a highly successful eponymous makeup brand, the legendary artist will forever be known by fashion and beauty enthusiasts for his defining work on some of the most iconic faces from the ’90s super-model pack.

“I’ve been lucky [to work with] so many beautiful women, from Linda Evangelista to Naomi Campbell,” says Nars. “Linda was a very good canvas and was probably my favourite to create so many looks [on]. She would really understand them and get into the persona of what we were trying to do,” he continues about the Canadian glamazon.

Nars with models Stephanie Seymour, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington circa 1998.

Born and raised in the south of France, Nars began his lifelong love affair with beauty as a child, thanks to his mother, Claudette. “Every month, my mother would buy French Vogue and I would comb through it for hours, looking at photos and the makeup looks,” he shares. “She was the first person to let me put makeup on her.”

Madame Nars also helped her son land his first makeup gig as an apprentice in Paris. “I had no connections, and the fashion world was closed except to the elite. So my mother made appointments for herself with three top Parisian makeup artists and spoke highly about me, and one offered me a job as an assistant,” he says. “She was my first publicist!”

Polaroid of Claudette Nars.

Nars soon went on to study at the famous Carita makeup school in Paris—fellow alumni include world-renowned makeup guru Laura Mercier—and after graduating, he landed his first magazine job at French Marie Claire assisting makeup artist Olivier Échaudemaison (now Guerlain’s creative director). “I was working with Olivier on a shoot, and he had to run to another one and left me to do the makeup. I got along with everyone so well that the magazine started calling me directly to do the makeup,” shares the legend about the pivotal moment that led him to strike out on his own. “Olivier was very supportive.”

Since his assisting days, Nars’ career has rocketed to illustrious heights, largely due to his namesake makeup line, known for its cutting-edge colours and creative textures.

Founded in 1994, Nars Cosmetics started out with a mere 12 lipsticks sold exclusively at Barneys New York and has gone on to include everything from makeup and skincare to tools, many of which have achieved cult-like followings. Not to mention, the brand has some of the most X-rated product names in the game. From a peachy-pink blusher dubbed Orgasm to a multi-purpose stick titled G-Spot, Nars products are every bit as empowering as they are provocative. “I keep an Hermès notebook with me at all times, which I write in 24 hours a day. Even in the middle of the night, I’ll wake up and write a name for a lipstick or an eyeshadow,” says the makeup mogul. “[And] inspiration comes from anything: literature, movies, opera, travelling, nature, poetry, or sometimes even the street.”

François Nars and Naomi Campbell.

Not only is Nars a mastermind when it comes to creating on-trend products, but the visionary also does some of his best work behind a lens, where he has been snapping his own successful campaign images since 1996. “When I first launched, I didn’t have the budget to hire somebody, so I thought, ‘Give me a camera—I’ll try it,’” says the makeup maven-photographer. “It wasn’t easy and took a lot of work and concentration, but I was used to working with such talented photographers like [Steven] Meisel, who would invite me to look in the camera, and that helped a lot. I love shooting our campaigns because I feel like I’m giving a living image to the colours and products.”

Photographing a range of subjects, from British-French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg earlier this year to legendary French photographer Sarah Moon in 2016, Nars uses his brand’s limited-edition collections and campaigns as a platform to celebrate fellow artists. “I select people whom I love and admire. It’s usually someone who has been a great source of inspiration to me,” notes Nars.

Nars and model Iris Strubegger shooting a Spring 2011 campaign.

As for one of the most memorable celebrity faces he’s captured, the polymath praises avant-garde style icon Tilda Swinton. “Tilda is captivating, self-assured—very Nars. I love her bold style, and really admire her work. As an actress, she brings such strong personality to the camera. And as a woman, she lives the experience of transformation and expression,” he says.

Nars may be renowned for working with the world’s biggest supermodels and stars, but for the makeup king, beauty is way more than skin deep. When asked what trait he most values in the people he chooses to work with, Nars responds, “Personality. To me, beauty is strength and character—it’s more than just a cute face.”