Makeup Artistic Director at Givenchy for over 10 très successful years, Nicolas Degennes is as brilliant as he is creative, and certainly as unique as he is elegant. The Paris-based creator has opened up about his life at one of the most influential maisons to Vendôme Magazïne on our very first anniversary:
Throughout this adventure I’ve felt like a sponge, like a person who absorbs everything: peoples’ emotions, peoples’ needs, women’s dreams and desires… Because I often talk about women, and I love them passionately. What interests me most is other people, the
need for a team in order to exist. Without women, I would feel nothing; neither in my creative process nor in the way the results of my work are shared.
They say choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life. Did you ever imagine that you would have such a wonderful and successful career at Maison Givenchy?
Let’s just say that at some point in your life you worked towards a certain goal, but you never imagined how far it would actually take you.
Having said that, I do believe now that I’ve been blessed with one of the most incredible careers possible. It’s not one I was destined for initially. I worked like crazy to be able to change things. I think that through passion, love and the vision of others, we ourselves can change, and we must continue to change things when we have the ability to do so. That’s
more or less where I stand today.
“Here’s an anecdote: one day we ordered a label for a bottle of French champagne to mark a special event. Two, three, then four months went by and we still hadn’t received the label. Then our boss went to see the supplier himself, saying I don’t understand, we ordered it six months ago, I’m still waiting and now it’s urgent, it needs to get done.
That’s the idea of creation: collecting experiences as you go along. You think about it, and you don’t stop thinking about it. Sometimes you have these ideas that are very traditional, and sometimes they’re completely outlandish, but you just go with it. This free approach allows you to be sometimes classical, sometimes a little crazy, sometimes imaginary, sometimes a fortune-teller… You stop listening to yourself and just let yourself hear the future. It’s interesting: the past is what gives you the ability to create. The experiences of a lifetime. So do I have an assertive style? Certainly, yes. At least I hope I do. I base all my products and collections on the story of my life and my passions.”
I take airplanes the way other people take the Tube. Yeah, I need that. I started travelling when I was 13 years old. At 16 I went to the United States, at 17 I was living there, and I’ve never stopped working. There are people who are rooted by their work, but my work has always taken me to different places; it has always been my signature, my way of being. I don’t know why, but travel has always bitten at my heels. I’ve actually had some frightening experiences on planes, but I’ve never stopped travelling because it’s a fundamental need without which I would not be what I am today.
Does your work show more of what you see, what you feel, or both?
At a very young age, I already wanted to start something. But I wasn’t surely exactly what. Ever since I was a child, I felt like I was different from other people, and I felt the need to create something. So I tried a lot of things, including painting and drawing. Then one day I discovered the world of photography and it forced me to start using makeup on people. I wanted to see things in very dark colours, with black lips. So I had to do these drawings, and I quickly realised that it was not photography I was passionate about, but makeup!
After having that epiphany at 17 years old, I’ve never stopped working, never stopped doing makeup.
When you look back now at the moment when you left everything behind to chase your dreams in the United States, how do you feel? Do you think you’d be where you are now if you hadn’t taken that risk?
As a child, I always wanted to go wherever life took me, then growing up I wanted to travel to far off lands in search of complete freedom. I got lost many a time, but if I hadn’t taken any risks, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Not in my way of thinking, or in my way of being, or in the books I read, or in the pictures I look at. If I had to start it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing, I would make all the same mistakes.
Japan brought me encounters with a city, emotions, stories, my life, a language, sounds, colours, drawings, my passion for detail… In the imagination of someone like me who yearns to watch, listen and touch, Japan represents all of that: it is a feel, it is sounds, it is an incredible vision that’s far removed from my own, and yet it is this vision that inspires me the most.
When you work on Givenchy’s beauty, do you do it in parallel with the clothing collections? How’s that process?
You need to have fashion at the forefront of your mind – the people who create fashion, the House’s unique identity, and Monsieur de Givenchy himself. I imbued myself with all of it.
In fact the Couture house allowed me to see Hubert de Givenchy’s drawings, because what was important for me was to create a new line of makeup, as seen through the eyes of a master couturier.
With regards to my collections, I work two years ahead of the product launches. At the moment I’m finishing my collections for 2019 and early 2020, because you have to start early and move quickly to make sure the products are ready on time. You also have to brief all your collaborators on materials and textures that don’t exist on the market, to ensure that Givenchy stands out as a bold and distinctive brand. So I work well ahead of the rest of the work in fashion, which is more about the “now”… I need to go beyond “now” and start inventing what it will be.
Do you carry a little notebook with you to write down spontaneous ideas?
Yes, I have one but I’ll often purposely leave it behind because I don’t want to overloadmyself. It all depends on my energy. There are times when I have the energy to draw no matter where I am, and there are other times when I simply enjoy listening to silence.
Drawing and silence allow me to develop myself. Taking too many notes prevents me from reading as much as I’d like to, and I need to read, so when I get back into my notebook some things just burst out of it. There are things I’d like to reread and review but ultimately it ends up overwhelming me.
Makeup is about feeling good, feeling beautiful, feeling yourself, feeling wanted, feeling loved, being passionately aligned with your self-image. I don’t think makeup is about wearing a mask; it’s about loving yourself passionately. From too much to not enough, both have real meaning for people, because makeup is primarily for you.
Once you’ve found what you like, makeup becomes something for other people, because they look at you much more often than you look at yourself. And other people are extremely important in our lives.
“Most of all, don’t try to make it so that you’re working for someone who already knows something. I believe that the truly playful and creative moments are when you’re making unique colours and textures for people who will discover them through “virgin” eyes. My work consists in getting people to understand why I’ll sometimes use a word like “support”, or why I’ll use a colour as if it were a passion, or why I’ll use something that looks like lines. Or how I put all these words together so that they lead to textures, and textures to colours, and so on.
That’s my world. It’s a world I try to share, but obviously from year to year I want to surprise you. Creating is about surprising people, and I like to create surprise in others.”
Intense colors are recurrent. Do they represent a moment or part of your life, or a wish?
Yes, each time, because colours are some of the energies that surround me in life. I don’t think my life could be transcribed as a colour or texture. But I do think energies can be transcribed as a texture or colour. And these are the energies I want to immerse you in. I want to speak to you and help you understand the things that will allow you to move forward, using the only thing I love with real passion: makeup.
How did you feel the first time you launched a collection at Maison Givenchy? Does every new collection feel like the first one or do you experience different emotions every time?
It’s a different emotion every time. I’m not here to write a novel, but rather something that will stand the test of time. The other day I was at an exhibit and I entered a room where there were more than 200 paintings on display. And they all had the same energy. They were presented in different ways, with varying colours, but you could see the artist’s personal touch throughout.
Of course, this consistency is the mark of a great artist. I hope that one day through Givenchy’s work – or at least in the makeup work I’ve done for Givenchy – there will be some common, recognisable thread that represents this wonderful couture house.
The most incredible experience I’ve had at Givenchy was the day I signed my contract. At that time, I knew we had to develop the line, I knew that everything had to change, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. All I knew was that I had to completely rethink the makeup line, but in a way that would reflect the history and identity of Givenchy. It has been an incredible battle that required unwavering will on my part and the help of others along the way. It was a wonderful experience, and that’s what I’ll remember most dearly about Givenchy.
Make-up has its own evolution; do you feel like you ride along or on your own direction?
You simply cannot do it alone. Now I have dreams, and I want to make them come true. I don’t want to lie to the women and consumers who love the Givenchy brand. It’s crucial that we be honest with our consumers and fair with our products.
When you succeed in building something, you have to know when to stop, and it’s very hard, but at some point you have to wrap up one story and start another. Finishing a story, turning a page, opening a new notebook, writing another book: these are all magic moments. They’re a new beginning with a fresh boost of energy!
What are your other passions besides make-up?
Two things I hold very dear are painting and reading.
I’m grateful for so many people… in a word, all those who trust me or have trusted me. With great humility, I think about those people every day. I need them; even when they’re no longer here, they are always by my side.
If you could give your 18 year old self an advice, what would it be?
The exact same thing.
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