It was 25 years ago that Fran?ois Nars launched his eponymous collection at the beauty counter of Barneys New York.
To this day, those initial 12 rich lipstick shades—evocatively named and housed in sleek, matte onyx square tubes—encompass the style and innovation at the center of his global beauty empire. Not to mention, they remain in permanent rotation for pro makeup artists and women everywhere. From Schiap, an electric fuchsia named after designer Elsa Schiaparelli, to Jungle Red, a warm crimson inspired by a scene from 1939 film The Women, each of his cult classic hues is not only high impact but creates a sentimental narrative. So it’s only fitting that Nars is celebrating the success of the past quarter-century by relaunching his original dozen—with an ample bonus of 60 additional shades, no less.
Ahead of the expansive NARS lipstick release later this month, the legendary makeup artist speaks with Vogue about his lifelong love affair with beauty, why red lipstick is a perennial classic, and his hope for the next 25 years to come.
What are your earliest memories of discovering beauty and developing a passion for it?
My mom and my two grandmothers were big influences because they were very elegant. So, of course, when you’re surrounded by beautiful ladies, it wakes you up to a certain world of beauty. And then my parents were big collectors of books and had a big library. I remember looking at an incredible range of books on paintings—Picasso and Matisse! Without really knowing it, it makes an impression on you as a kid. I was probably 10 years old, looking at all those amazing painters. It’s ironic because I was very influenced by black-and-white movies, too. My parents were really into movies and would let me stay up very late at night to watch them. I was watching all the silent movies with [Greta] Garbo and [Marlene] Dietrich, and it was a revelation for me. I was hypnotized by them! By the makeup, of course, but also their style and the elegance. It really structured my vision of beauty. I was fascinated by Hollywood—it was the incredible dream machine.
Why did you choose to debut your line with lipstick, and how did you settle on the original 12 shades?
I didn’t have the luxury to launch a full line and just see how it goes, so lipstick seemed like a good way to test the public. My name was out there, but I thought maybe it could be a disaster. [Laughs] I thought, hopefully, it will work, and if not, we’ll just move onto something else. So thinking 12 was a good number, I just picked the colors I loved. Women love great reds, but also pale and neutral pinks. They were the colors I used in the pages of Vogue on girls of the time like Linda [Evangelista]. And then I asked Fabien Baron to do the packaging. He was the only person I wanted. I didn’t have a second choice!
What makes lipstick a transformational, tried-and-true classic for women?
Lipstick gives you a certain sense of glamour. It goes back to the golden age of Hollywood where you could not imagine a movie star in Hollywood without it. It has the power to really give you an extreme sophistication immediately. I mean, even in a pair of jeans with a simple white tee. If you put on red lipstick, it’s magnetic! I love pinks, beiges, and neutrals too, of course, but there is a fascination with red lipstick. My grandmother always wore red lipstick.
Which of your reds reminds you most of your grandmother?
Jungle Red! It was that bright, bright red women would wear in the 1940s. During wartime, red lipstick was really red.
Your shade names are as celebrated as the pigments themselves. What is your process for dreaming them up?
When you give lipstick a special name, it becomes more than just a lipstick. So I started writing ideas and collecting names in a little notebook. When it came to naming the product, I’d think, this is a great Shanghai Express because it looks like Dietrich’s lipstick in the movie, or this is Jungle Red because it’s the same shade they use in The Women. Each product has an identity, and I always thought: Women will remember these names more than “strawberry red” or “pink flower.” [Laughs] It gives women imagination. It’s an object they come to rely on to help them dream.
What do you foresee for the next 25 years of NARS?
I go to sleep at night knowing that women on the other side of the planet are buying my lipsticks. That’s the amazing part about having a makeup line. I love making women feel beautiful, and I’m here to build something that lasts. It’s not just the creativity, but longevity too. We’ve lasted 25 years so far, but we’re still young—that’s the foundation. We want this brand to go on for another 25 years! And then hopefully in a hundred years, it will still be here.