François Nars & Steven Klein

NARS / Steven Klein

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.

NARS / Steven Klein

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.