The department store beauty hall is treacherous territory — always on the ground floor, so you can’t escape without a fight. Scents from the perfume hall attack your nostrils without permission; copycat clinical-white cubicles look so sterile it’s unclear where one brand’s booth ends and the next begins, and girls with precisely made-up faces and readily-rehearsed lines dubiously try and sell you “the dream”. Beauty is big business and it pays to be safe, but beauty brand NARS has never played by the rules.
Founded by its namesake François Nars in 1994, everything about the brand pushes boundaries. The slickness of its iconic packaging, masterminded by legendary art director Fabien Baron, still epitomises minimal cool almost 20 years after its design. And the ad campaigns, in which Nars plays make-up artist and photographer, achieve the near-impossible: they make make-up desirable to Generations Y and Z who don’t buy into the whole “if you are beautiful, life is beautiful” schtick. “Everybody wants to express themselves, and make-up is a great way to do that. You can be as creative as you want, so I think make-up will be there for a long time,” says Nars, when we meet in New York to talk about his upcoming collaboration with photographer Steven Klein, due out in November. “If I think of any era, what defines it, for me, is the make-up.” Indeed, the brand has always paid homage to the people, places and faces who defined the most creative moments of times gone by. From Andy Warhol to Guy Bourdin, Nars has always felt it necessary to team up with subversive image-makers and Steven Klein is no exception. “I love his work so much. I have adored his photographs for years, but he is so much more than just a fashion photographer — it was an obvious thing to ask Steven to work with me on this,” he explains.
In a separate conversation at his stunning industrial studio in New York’s Chelsea, Klein agrees there was a natural ease to the collaboration: “It was probably one of the easiest projects I’ve done in a really long time. We exchanged some of my images and arrived at the ones you see in the packaging to represent what we’d done. NARS is such a cool brand that it was easy. The best part was picking the names.” With monikers like ‘No Shame’ for a bold plum lipstick, ‘Full Service’ for a luxe brush set, and ‘Don’t Mask, Don’t Tell’ for a four-part blush compact, think less ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ and more ‘Perks of Being a Pin-up’. The NARS x Steven Klein girl, quite frankly, doesn’t give a damn.
“Young people are more concerned with having fun and having great experiences. Gender and sexuality don’t matter to them anymore. I feel like older people are more concerned with it,” Klein says. The seamless sensuality that laces Klein’s work is what has made his images so identifiable and kept him at the forefront of fashion photography for more than two decades.
Klein’s aesthetic has always been ahead of its time, pushing the boundaries of gender in powerful images laced with overt sexuality. “When I started taking pictures in the 90s, androgyny was a movement. I felt that men and women were becoming closer, becoming more equal and I found it interesting. I knew that was where the future was heading,” he says. “Growing up in clubs in Boston, with the drugs, with transsexuals with razors in their mouths, it’s always been a part of my world — it’s nothing new. I can’t avoid the sex aspect; I think the nature of everything starts with a sexual attraction.” Just follow Klein’s lens to the packaging. He and Nars chose 11 photos from Klein’s archive that best embodied the sexual spirit of the 23-piece collection, and worked with Fabien Baron on the addition of Steven Klein’s name to the logo and the design of the cases, that, in shiny black lacquered vinyl with metal trim, are more S&M than the safe plastic compact at the bottom
of your bag.
The partnership was brought to life at a party in Alder Manor in upstate New York in a stately home with surprises in each room. Nude Adonis-like men wore eye-masks revealing smoky eyes, eerie-mannequins and neon signs were planted at the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool, and beautiful models writhed around behind sheets of clear plastic that partially obstructed your view — it was like a house of horrors, but the only thing that was haunting was the beauty. “I feel like we made Steven’s photographs come to life,” Nars says. “We were able to create a whole world. A room with a car, one with broken mirrors on the floor, it was Steven’s vision and my world next to it.”
The NARS idea of sexuality is as varied as it is modern. “I have always been very global,” explains Nars. “I like to think about make-up as a universal thing. All my life I have been working closely with the transgender community, putting make-up on boys, on girls. Make-up translates as a universal way to make people look great, whatever their sex, whatever their race, whatever their age. I’ve never put up any barrier and my world has never been limited.” The success of Klein and Nars comes from their shared vision of the world around them. This is more a meeting of pioneering minds than a “maybe she’s born with it” marketing strategy. Their worlds mesh, beautifully.