INTERVIEW

« Creativity is really a mirror of yourself. So make sure you are good, and you will receive good things. »

Nicolas Degennes — Givenchy's creative director of makeup, talks about creativity, the importance of protecting your mind and staying true to yourself.


Nicolas Degennes

July 2018. Nicolas and I are sitting down to chat during breakfast at a hotel in St Petersburg, where our team has been staying for two nights during the shoot for InStyle Russia. This is the third time I met Nicolas through work. The first time was in Moscow, back around 2010. The second - in Paris in 2016. Now, here in St Pete's. Calm, focused, joyful and always a bit of a rockstar in his style, Nicolas will celebrate his 20th anniversary next year as the artistic director of makeup at Givenchy. And he has a lot of wisdom and experience to part onto those willing to pay attention. Enjoy!
Photo credit: Robert Jaso
Anton
Nicolas, could you talk about what your job as the creative director of makeup at Givenchy involves? What does 'creative' mean in your job title?
Nicolas
Let me start by saying that you have to feel good inside about what you're doing, just to begin the creative process. When I first started at Givenchy, they were doing this line, which was on the market at the time, called "the mirror line". So when they invited me to join and said that I would be working on that line taking it to the next level, I just called my friends and asked: "What do you think of this Givenchy?" Because they are doing this thing called "the mirror line" and I didn't want to work on it because it was created by the people in marketing and they went too far thinking from this angle. At the same time, Givenchy was doing incredible things… Givenchy has its logo, which is the four Gs and it's distinctively Givenchy - we are very lucky as there are only two beauty brands in the world which are easily recognisable by their logos: Chanel and Givenchy. So when you ignore this signature branding and start doing something like the mirror line, it means you don't get the fundamentals of the Givenchy house. They were doing five kinds of logos in the packaging and everything was mixed up!

When I got over to the house, I understood very precisely that I was going to stay only for three years or I'll have to change everything [in order to stay there longer]. I asked myself - "What could I do to get back to the fundamentals, to the core of Givenchy? What would be my input?" I realised it has to be simply a square, the four G's and pictures inside of it. And that's exactly what I've done. No matter what else surrounds you - you have to go straight to the point. When people look at it - they need to go "Wow, THIS is Givenchy!". And if you don't have a precise idea in your mind, if you don't know exactly what it is, other people will drag you away from it.

Ok, you have to listen to other people - this is important. You have to know that being a creative person is being with a team. Nothing is possible when you're totally alone. In the world, being alone is being alone and you don't do anything. You need your team to help you to get that point across, the one which you want to tell. So that's the first step.
Second, be careful about who is saying what, and to filter the chatter. You will be picking up amazing ideas coming from your team, but at the same time, you need to look really far ahead and never forget the one point you're trying to get across. This is the most difficult - you can have so much garbage inside your head because people are saying "I like this" or "I don't like that", and everyone is protecting their point of view inside of this creative process. The thing is, all of them are saying good things, but you need to understand why these things are good and why they are not. So you need to be alone sometimes to get clear in your head.

When I started at Givenchy - I knew it would be an incredible job, but at the same time dangerous - dangerous for me personally, for my brain, for me as a makeup artist. Of course, I've looked after artistic direction on many projects, but not on this level. So I decided to buy a house outside of Paris, in the countryside, as I was afraid that Paris would be too dangerous for me, for my health. In Paris, your mind can explode. And if you cannot cleanse your mind - you can't create anything. Like a painter. When you paint, you need to be alone.

Even when it's not working and you're not getting ideas, you need to close the door of your atelier and concentrate on that you're going to do. Same as writing. Sometimes your page is totally blank, and you don't have anything that you can put on that piece of paper… At the same time, if you don't consciously allocate the time to sit and to focus on what you want to write, paint or create, you will never do it. And you need to find this energy inside of yourself. So it is a decision you make. And once you make that decision, you need to say to others - THAT is where I want to go. And then you have to be able to show it to your team. And it's not an easy part because you know that people will judge this decision, which comes from inside of you.

You need to open yourself, but you cannot be vulnerable. You need to protect yourself. This means that if people don't like what you're doing - you don't give a crap.
At what point are you ready to take in people's opinions?

You take in opinions, but you don't respond too fast (laughs). You can say that you need time to think about it. Avoiding responding straight away is a good thing to do (laughs). That's because the energy can be wrong and if you answer spontaneously from this state - people will genuinely listen to what you respond since the position you hold implies that people should listen. Besides, if you answer too fast, you can make a mistake, and it is very hard to undo it. You can't go to everyone "Ok, I know I just said this, but I've changed my mind, and we are going to do the exact opposite". Of course, sometimes this can happen, but you have to be aware of what it does to you. You have to remember - when you say something - it is heard.


At what point are you ready to take in people's opinions?

You take in opinions, but you don't respond too fast (laughs). You can say that you need time to think about it. Avoiding responding straight away is a good thing to do (laughs). That's because the energy can be wrong and if you answer spontaneously from this state - people will genuinely listen to what you respond since the position you hold implies that people should listen. Besides, if you answer too fast, you can make a mistake, and it is very hard to undo it. You can't go to everyone "Ok, I know I just said this, but I've changed my mind, and we are going to do the exact opposite". Of course, sometimes this can happen, but you have to be aware of what it does to you. You have to remember - when you say something - it is heard.

Do you ever have a change of heart inside of you after the direction has been confirmed? Or, once decided, you don't change your mind, even in your private thoughts?
You can build it up in another way. Your main lines of thoughts have to be consistent. It has to be something you really believe in. Otherwise, once the process starts, you may realise that you just shot yourself in the foot because it's really hard to stand there and not say anything. That's why it is so important when creating, to go away to think, to put away all the garbage. To write down your main energies and to come back and say "Ok, this is precisely what we're going to do". And then, if someone says that they don't like it - you respond "Ok, throw me out. Because this is EXACTLY what we're going to do". You have to be very precise because that is what others are expecting from you. You have the job title for other people to follow you and you have to be strong to do that and not the contrary. And you need to fight people, sometimes, only because they think that you're taking them in the wrong direction.
But you know that you're going in the right direction, so you have to be careful and protect it and be very gentle with people. Being creative to me doesn't mean you push others aside and say "It is going to be this and that's it". We need to be gentle with everyone to make sure everyone understands what it is you want to do. I remember when I was young - I was harsh and rude when I was talking about my creativity and realised that people would simply be rude back to you. Even when you're working on something hard - you have to be gentle with people and explain what you're doing and why you're doing it, and then you will see that people will follow you willingly. Everything and everyone around you becomes a mirror of your life. Rude equals rude. Gentle equals gentle. What you're doing and what you are is a mirror of your life. And others around you are your mirror. So when you make mistakes - others will also make mistakes. Creativity is really a mirror of yourself. So make sure you are good, and you will receive good things.

After our shoot yesterday you talked about turning off your phone when you go to your house outside of Paris to get into the creative mode. Why do you do it? And for how long?

It really depends… Sometimes a day is enough, and sometimes it isn't. It depends on your levels of energy when you get to your atelier. Sometimes you know exactly what you're going to do. So you just do it. And that's easy. And it comes fast only because you've been thinking about it for a very long time.

At other times I would have a more complex job as I have to put more than 40 different colours together, which is huge. When you get to 40 colours, and you have 2 collections on the side - that's when you need to protect yourself. And the only way to protect yourself is being alone. Trying to concentrate, to put down, with honesty, what it is you want to show everyone. That means you have to think about it every single day of your life. For example, I went to the Hermitage yesterday, and I took pictures. Not too many, two or three, because again, too much can easily become garbage in your head and as I said - you have to be very careful with this. And I know that I will take three weeks in my atelier, utterly alone, just to put down all of these thoughts and ideas. But inside of this I also think about the music I will listen to during this time, the words I will use to describe my feelings because the words I'll use will be really important for the story I want to tell. Since I'm not a writer, I will hand over these words to a writer to then put them together. And here I want to say that it is essential to understand that you cannot do everything yourself - you need to concentrate specifically on your task.

By the end of the three weeks I will hand over all of my sketches and pallets and colours, and at this point, it will no longer be my job - the team will take it from there. It is not mine anymore. Don't complain if others don't understand you completely - just do your best until that point and then let go and switch to something else. This is another way to protect yourself. For me, this was the hardest thing to understand, but it needs to be done.

After our shoot yesterday you talked about turning off your phone when you go to your house outside of Paris to get into the creative mode. Why do you do it? And for how long?

It really depends… Sometimes a day is enough, and sometimes it isn't. It depends on your levels of energy when you get to your atelier. Sometimes you know exactly what you're going to do. So you just do it. And that's easy. And it comes fast only because you've been thinking about it for a very long time.

At other times I would have a more complex job as I have to put more than 40 different colours together, which is huge. When you get to 40 colours, and you have 2 collections on the side - that's when you need to protect yourself. And the only way to protect yourself is being alone. Trying to concentrate, to put down, with honesty, what it is you want to show everyone. That means you have to think about it every single day of your life. For example, I went to the Hermitage yesterday, and I took pictures. Not too many, two or three, because again, too much can easily become garbage in your head and as I said - you have to be very careful with this. And I know that I will take three weeks in my atelier, utterly alone, just to put down all of these thoughts and ideas. But inside of this I also think about the music I will listen to during this time, the words I will use to describe my feelings because the words I'll use will be really important for the story I want to tell. Since I'm not a writer, I will hand over these words to a writer to then put them together. And here I want to say that it is essential to understand that you cannot do everything yourself - you need to concentrate specifically on your task.

By the end of the three weeks I will hand over all of my sketches and pallets and colours, and at this point, it will no longer be my job - the team will take it from there. It is not mine anymore. Don't complain if others don't understand you completely - just do your best until that point and then let go and switch to something else. This is another way to protect yourself. For me, this was the hardest thing to understand, but it needs to be done.
What do you mean when you say "being honest with yourself"? Is it understanding where you personally want to go, listening to your intuition and desires, as opposed to where the market wants you to do?
It's both. You have to understand your market, that's for sure. You have to know why and for who you're working. Also, when you are with journalists - you have to be able to answer all the questions they ask you. If you've created a product through the pressure of marketing, for example, you won't be able to answer these questions as you would've had to memorise everything that the others wanted you to say. This is not creative action. In creativity, you have to have input from yourself, and this will make one artistic director differ from another one, and each will go in their own direction. Listen to your heart, then your brain, understand how you're going to explain your ideas to others and think it through to the very end. If you lose consistency somewhere - analyse and try to understand where is that link which isn't working and why.

As I was saying earlier - it was really nice working yesterday as there was energy coming from all the team - everyone was together. When you lose even one person on the team - you will lose the picture. The same with writing, painting, making collections.
You cannot be vulnerable. You need to protect yourself. This means that if people don't like what you're doing - you don't give a crap.
To come back to being honest with yourself: say you love dancing. Does being honest with yourself for you mean that you draw your inspiration from dance since this is what makes you feel alive?
Yeah, in a way. Being honest with yourself does not mean that things will happen because you want them. It means they will happen because you've been working towards them. A creative job as an incredible one, but it's a lot of work. Honesty means that you have been learning, reading a lot, you know about art, and when someone talks about a painting - you know it, and you can draw these references in your brain fast. If I'm talking about Picasso, Dali, whoever… Rembrandt - when I speak about Rembrandt you have to understand that he's all about lighting. And if you know all of this - you can consciously drive your brain to your areas of inspiration. Honestly is also formed by knowledge.
What's really important to understand for the younger generation is that Instagram is not enough. Knowing who is doing that picture on the other side of the world? Ok, you know it. But a lot of these are garbage. You make like it or not, but the question isn't whether you like it, but WHY do you like it? Or "Why, I, as a person, DON'T like it?". And then you might store a lot of this garbage in your head, and you will have to clean it out. If you don't like something - don't judge it. Just say "Ok, it's not for me" and just let it go. Otherwise, it will consume a lot of your energy. Judgement consumes energy, and you have to hold on to your energy as only with energy can you create something. This energy is going to make you do something. So don't lose it. Each time you're losing something - you don't create, you're simply being dragged the wrong way.
Do you try to protect yourself from people who are cynical?
I don't know them. I don't care about them. I don't listen to anything they have to say. I've been loosing too much time in the beginning, letting them take my energy. And they are very good at it!
By the end of the three weeks I will hand over all of my sketches and pallets and colours, and at this point, it will no longer be my job - the team will take it from there. It is not mine anymore.
When you get to your atelier, and things don't happen straight away, what is your process? How much time do your spend by yourself, walking or mediating versus how much with external references to get ideas?
This is also something that you need to be careful about. Take as much from outside as possible, but then you have to be able to clean out your head. By asking yourself - what it is that you like and what you don't? And what is going to become your knowledge in your field and what will become garbage that you don't want to keep? Speaking about garbage - protect your mind, don't listen to everyone. Be careful. Life is short. It's really short, it's running so fast, and you don't have time to lose in this uncertainty.
Be clear about where you want to go. I teach my assistants when they are drawing a makeup line - don't look at where you start, look at where you want to finish. Then the line is going to be straight. The painter is doing precisely the same thing.

What's funny about creating is when you get to your finishing point, you will then realise that another point will come into sight further down, and then another one, and another one and this will continue. It will never finish, and you need to understand that.
Perhaps that's why you didn't answer my question about times when you have no ideas (laughs) - because you are always on the lookout, taking pictures, collecting ideas, for those checkpoints in the future?
Exactly!
Is your mind never completely empty, you always have something in there?

For sure. I have to. When you are lucky enough like us to travel - you can pay attention to so many things: the people, the light, all these buildings, this is not nothing. This is a lot. And you have to put it all in your head. For example, when you see the church here in St Petersburg and you see the gold and the white together, you think "Wow!" Like yesterday, in the Hermitage, when you get to the stairs, you have the white AND the gold. And normally you don't put the white with the gold because it doesn't work. Yes it does! Hmm, how can I integrate that? How can I use it as a reference for my work? I think it's going to turn into something. I'm going to play with it. I don't know how yet, but I'm going to find a way. That was really pure. And this kind of pureness - it's brilliant. To try to get there, to this pureness. White and gold is very unusual for me. Normally you talk about a colour and gold. Not white and gold. Just because you don't usually see it. In France it could be beige and gold, or whatever. So yes, I do always have a lot of things in my mind, of course.

Is your mind never completely empty, you always have something in there?

For sure. I have to. When you are lucky enough like us to travel - you can pay attention to so many things: the people, the light, all these buildings, this is not nothing. This is a lot. And you have to put it all in your head. For example, when you see the church here in St Petersburg, and you see the gold and the white together, you think "Wow!" Like yesterday, in the Hermitage, when you get to the stairs, you have the white AND the gold. And you usually don't put the white with the gold because it doesn't work. Yes, it does! Hmm, how can I integrate that? How can I use it as a reference for my work? I think it's going to turn into something. I'm going to play with it. I don't know how yet, but I'm going to find a way. That was really pure. And this kind of pureness - it's brilliant. To try to get there, to this pureness. A white and gold combination is very unusual for me. You usually talk about a colour and gold. Not white and gold. Just because you don't usually see it. In France, it could be beige and gold, or whatever. So yes, I do always have a lot of things in my mind, of course.

Let's talk about music - how you said you get inspired by it. Could you give an example? Does, say, rock inspire a certain colour because of the energy you feel from it?
Hmm, yeah. It's a mix of everything. When I listen to music, words are very important, in English or French. The tempo is also important because it drives me somewhere. Sometimes I even listen to music that I don't like at all. Like jazz, I really hate it. Simply because it gives me another energy. But you have to know all of them [styles]. Again, judgement of it doesn't help. If you say - I hate it, how much energy does it take to hate? So much of it is lost hating. Try to understand WHY you don't like it and how you can explain why, because there is always a reason why you don't.
Does it get down to you wanting to share with the world what YOU think is beautiful?
I'm trying to explain, for my part, that women, who I work with, ARE beautiful and yes, what I'm doing could be beautiful for them. I'm not creating things for me. In creativity, you never do something just for you. You do it because you have a point and because there is someone you want to touch with it. This is what creation is all about. It's not about writing a book and then locking it in the drawer and not wanting to share it with anybody. You're writing a book because you want to tell someone about your energy. Same with painting, which I've been doing lately. Yes, a lot of them I don't want to show to anyone, but I will eventually, I have two or three that I kept, and I know I will do something with them. When you create fashion - you create it for a man or a woman to wear. Not just for yourself.
You expressed your opinion yesterday about brands having the responsibility to show the truth. Can you talk more about it?
All brands have something to say, from their fundamentals. And good ones stay honest to their ideas, which they emphasise. A brand for me is a signature. And once you lose it - you will be working on someone else's signature. To me it's like a pyramid - you base has to be solid. Then whatever happens on top - it doesn't matter as much because your fundamentals are solid.
Judgement consumes energy, and you have to hold on to your energy as only with energy can you create something.
You mentioned that these days you ask to retouch less, to be honest with who these women are, not to change them into someone else.
Remember I said that you have to know where we are coming from? Well, we used to work with, and you had to retouch a lot because you couldn't do it in a subtle way. Now, working with digital, you could be a lousy photographer, but a good retoucher will fix it up. You can be a lousy makeup artist and if you work with a good photographer - you will "become" a good makeup artist. Because everything will be retouched - the lines of the lips, the lines of the eyes… Anything the photographer wants, things that haven't been done on the set: add lashes, add eyeliner, change the colour of the eyeshadow, the lip, anything. And we went through this fake phase.

What's happening today is that the beauty consumer is looking at these pictures a lot and she knows that there is a lot of retouching on them. And she knows that it's fake. This means that she cannot see herself in that picture, she will never be like that. It is not a mirror of herself; it is something else. It is a mirror of society, which has been fake for a long time, but now we want more truth, more honesty. That's one of the reasons that I try to push Givenchy to be very careful with retouching because showing the truth is better than showing fake. We went into the fake before, and we loved it! Without a doubt. I totally loved it. But I really think that now we need more alive energy.
We need to understand that we, all of us, are alive. We have meanings; we try to express it through the way we are with the others. And it's always a matter of the way YOU are with the others. A matter of sharing with others. You can see when someone is taking pictures just for themselves all the time. What does that mean? What are you trying to express? You have fragility? Yes, maybe. The way you're acting in this world? Ok, you've done it. But after a thousand pictures, which pictures can you give away as being you? And after all these pictures there is still no answer? I lost a lot of people around me, and now, when I look at a flower, I try to ask myself - how many more times will I get to see it? What are the chances that in my life I will see it 10, 11 times? Better to think that everything is so short, so make it honest, make it truthful. And that's why I will fight from now on to have more truth around me and less fake. Again, I loved the fake phase of our industry. But it's time to turn the page and do something else.

And this comes back to when I was talking about reaching a pinnacle - we loved the over-retouching phase, this energy was very good at that time, and we made a bold point, but what is going to be the next point we make? And that's the interesting thing about creativity - you never stop thinking. And then you follow up with your own background, the energy with the people around you. And your own private life drives it too. It's a mix of everything.

Of course, life is hard, for everyone. Whoever you are. So that new chapter is my new destination, and I really want to work on that as I find it very interesting.
So that's what you talk about when you say you want to be honest with yourself? The direction in which you, inside yourself, really want to go?
Of course. That checkpoint. The new one.
Sometimes I even listen to music that I don't like at all. Like jazz, I really hate it.
How important is it for people who work with Givenchy, whether it is a photographer, a makeup artist or a stylist, to understand who a Givenchy woman is?
It's the main thing. It's not just important. It is THE point. It's the final point. If you don't understand it - don't do it. I have a lot of people around me who simply try to validate their own point of view. I'm not going to fight it, but I won't have my name on the product.
Is there room at all for personal interpretation? For example, if you say that the woman needs to be confident - everyone's understanding of a confident woman is different. Is there room for that?
I'm sure yes, but then again, if you want to do that - you have to talk to everyone on the team one by one in order to then build it up in a gentle way. And don't try to say that you're totally alone as it will never work. If you want to have your own point that you want to get across, make the others understand precisely why you want to do it. And if they do understand, one by one they will follow you.
It's my responsibility to convey my message to them so that they will want to follow in the direction I choose. At the same time, it's their responsibility to be wanting to work in this way. And they will have to put their name on it. If you don't want to do something and you want to fight someone over it - do it. But it has to come from inside of you. In the end, it comes down to two things: the brand that you're working with and what you think yourself honestly. Everything else is on the side.

Again, you have to really understand exactly where you want to go. If you don't - there really is no point. Go aside, be alone if you like and try to build it. Do your research, look at art, pictures, don't judge anything, but really understand which are the ones you love and for what reasons you don't like others. As it will then be critical to be able to explain to others why this isn't the message you want to convey. And if you know this - you will then know how to correct it to make it into something you do love.

It takes time to build that trust, right? For people to trust you so much?

I think it's a life-long process. It will never stop. And each year, with a new collection, a new book, a new painting, you have to be renewable enough to be able to build up the next one. When you're too sure of yourself, too confident - you are in danger also. But it's not that kind of fragility you need either, which is why you need to be careful of the others and you need to be able to step to the side sometimes, turn off your phone and your computer and try to focus, even on the blank page. And you don't go out of the room after ten minutes of not getting anything on that piece of paper. Stay in for eight hours in front of that blank page. And you will see - things are going to come, and you will be able to build something.

And then you have to be consistent. And the next day, if you didn't write or paint anything - go back and work on it again. And by yourself, because the others aren't able to help you with this process. A really important point with the creative process is that you do it for others, but others will not help you do it.

It takes time to build that trust, right? For people to trust you so much?

I think it's a life-long process. It will never stop. And each year, with a new collection, a new book, a new painting, you have to be renewable enough to be able to build up the next one. When you're too sure of yourself, too confident - you are in danger also. But it's not that kind of fragility you need either, which is why you need to be careful of the others and you need to be able to step to the side sometimes, turn off your phone and your computer and try to focus, even on the blank page. And you don't go out of the room after ten minutes of not getting anything on that piece of paper. Stay in for eight hours in front of that blank page. And you will see - things are going to come, and you will be able to build something.

And then you have to be consistent. And the next day, if you didn't write or paint anything - go back and work on it again. And by yourself, because the others aren't able to help you with this process. A really important point with the creative process is that you do it for others, but others will not help you do it.
Can you talk about what you do on a yearly basis for our readers to understand the scope of the creative process you are in? The colours, the shapes?
First I try to think of the words. Which words will drive the whole thing? When I settle on words, I then have to pick the textures. So right now we are in 2018, and I'm working on our 2020 collection. Finding the right texture involves meeting a lot of people - chemistry guys, suppliers, just to say "This is exactly what I want". What is going to be the touch of the new foundation, the new concealer, what you like and what you don't? And try to explain to them why you don't like this and why you love that. And getting higher than the thing that you like as you need to go higher. And this takes a long time.
During this process never forget the message you conveyed to them initially because people are working with you based on what you said and if you get to the product and you change your mind - that's a big NO. It will take three more months, and everything will collapse. This is why it's important to stay consistent.

Of course, I also have to think about packaging. I have four collections this year, thinking about the main products, three times a year, a huge collection of eyeshadows, of lipstick and the texture of each, which changes each time. You also have to understand the cost of these textures and how to make something you love, if it's turning out to be too expensive, also affordable to the consumer.
When Givenchy chooses a photographer to work with - what do you look at? Technical? Energy?
Of course, the technique is very important. A mix between fashion and beauty is essential because a photographer needs to be a part of that. How can they adapt their lighting? A few years ago we were saying "fake". Now we say "reality". How can they adjust themselves to this reality? And their retouching is also important. Also how they can integrate with the team on the shoot as we don't have time to lose these days to mess around. And of course, to understand what is Givenchy. TU
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