After creating a global makeup brand, overseeing editorials for magazines, and publishing a photo book on his private island off the coast of Bora-Bora, François Nars is taking to the silver screen for his latest project. 

As Nars Cosmetics, now owned by Shiseido, gears up to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the French-born makeup artist, photographer and creative director of the brand has made a documentary about his life, work and most of all his inspiration, particularly in cinema, called “Unknown Beauty: François Nars.”

But it might not be what you expect as he’s replaced the usual talking heads structure with footage of screen sirens such as Catherine Deneuve and Marlene Dietrich, comprising 85 percent of the documentary. 

“I really wanted to stay away from your basic documentary when you just sit on the chair and then the camera is on you and you have so many people talking about you,” Nars said over the phone from the Paris hotel room he just arrived in after spending time in his native south of France.

“I wanted it to be very educational and really show people what drove me all those years and all the aesthetics that really built up my creative world since I was a kid,” he continued.

In order to achieve his vision, he tapped director Lisa Immordino Vreeland — the filmmaker behind documentaries about Diana Vreeland (her husband Alexander Vreeland’s grandmother) and Peggy Guggenheim. “He’s a very private man. We actually discover a lot about him and the way he looks at the world,” she said of Nars.

Together, they handpicked clips from more than 50 of his favorite movies from the golden age of Old Hollywood to the Nouvelle Vague, of which getting the rights to use is no easy feat. Altogether, the documentary was three years in the making. 

“The film is structured in a very different way. I usually have a whole story arc,” explained Vreeland. “This is really a visual essay. It’s a meditative film.”

She described Nars’ interest in cinema as “this fine line of obsession and passion and then also extreme knowledge, because it’s not just a visual, it’s also an intellectual understanding of what it is.” 

Nars said the movie stars that inspired him at eight years old are still major influences today. “That really made a big impact on my mind and about what I thought beauty should be.” 

Lending poignance to the story are never-before-seen films and photographs from Nars’ own childhood in the Pyrenees and summers in Biarritz, featuring his mother Claudette, his first muse who later became a favorite photographic subject. 

“She was responsible for my love for beauty. She was very glamorous and a natural beauty, which helped me develop also a certain sense of what makeup should be. She was really a very key element. She’s always present in my mind,” he said of how his mother influenced his journey.

The movie clips and film of his mother are collaged with backstage footage from what Nars calls the glory days of creativity in fashion — runway videos from Paris in the ’70s; supermodels like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell goofing off between takes on Steven Meisel shoots in the ’90s — and commentary from some of Nars’ muses and collaborators, like actors Charlotte Rampling who narrates much of the documentary, Lauren Hutton and art director Fabien Baron.

Nars knows whereof he speaks. He was in the thick of this scene. After becoming a mainstay in the Paris fashion world, he decamped to New York City in 1984, working for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Vogue, and collaborating with designers including Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana and Anna Sui for their runway shows. Then came the ad campaigns with Versace, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Barneys New York.

“Moving from Paris to New York was so exciting. I was so lucky to work for Vogue right away and start working with all the great photographers. I arrived at the perfect time in New York,” Nars recounted. 

He launched his namesake cosmetics line a decade later with a collection of 12 lipsticks at Barneys New York. Over the past three decades, it has grown to encompass a full range of makeup and skin care, including products that have reached long-term blockbuster status like Orgasm Blush and The Multiple in Copacabana. He sold his company to Shiseido in 2000 and purchased Motu Tané, his French Polynesian island.

Sine then, he has released a number of books. In his most recent limited-edition tome Persona, Nars published more than 300 portraits of creative figures.

His hope for the documentary, which will premiere in New York next week, is that it will serve as a source of inspiration for others.

“Hopefully people will want to watch the movies that we talk about in the documentary in full and, and hopefully fall in love with them like I did and hopefully inspire them,” Nars said.

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