Creativity and Emotion: A Masterclass with Givenchy’s Nicolas Degennes

In 2020, Nicolas Degennes will be celebrating 20 years as the Art Director of Givenchy Beauty. Often cited as the genius behind the brand's makeup division, in person he presents himself with a visible balance of confidence and humility. In fact, it is what he advised Sciences Po students throughout his masterclass: “Be honest with yourself - don’t be too proud, don’t be too humble.”

As he opened his masterclass on 13 November 2019, in a lecture hall filled with eager-eyed students, the Makeup and Colour maestro introduced himself, stating: “I’m Nicolas Degennes, I’m 48 years old.” And then, he caught himself - “no wait, I’m 58 years old.” This slip was quite telling: Nicolas Degennes has a long and rich career behind him that began in a completely different era: Mylène Farmer, the beginnings of Canal+, Jeanne Moreau, and beauty before the internet, before even Instagram! And yet, today, he is still youthful and at the top of his game: finding inspiration everywhere, innovating with makeup and beauty products with a creativity that has remained undiminished over the course of 25 years.

When he was approached to do this masterclass, the Master’s in Communication, Media and Creative Industries of the School of Management and Innovation asked him to talk about his career, and specifically answer the question: “how did you get where you are?”

His response was not a linear list of steps or specific events that marked his career. Instead, his tips were more about character, which for him is the underlying ingredient of creativity. His first mantra: drive and hard work. “It’s hard work everyday.” But, whatever your dream may be, he explained, it’s worth working towards. Secondly, he told students, “you will be faced with choices, offers, propositions. Ask yourself why you would say ‘no’ - to anything.” According to Degennes, more often than not, there are very few reasons - if any - to say no. Finally, his third mantra: “remember who you are, and where you come from. Don’t forget your family and your roots.”

Nicolas Degennes began his career learning and doing theatre and photography in the United States, in Iowa, of all places. He had left France thinking he could not express himself artistically where he was, and he yearned for adventure and freedom. It was a challenge: he spoke no English at the time. He managed to work as a photographer, and it was when he was preparing photoshoots that he began applying makeup on the women he was to shoot. That is when he fell in love with makeup, and decided to become a makeup artist. Looking back today, he says: “I don’t think I was a very good photographer, but I do think I have done incredible things as a makeup artist.” 

This statement, though it could sound arrogant, is what he means when he says, “don’t be too proud, don’t be too humble.” It is important to realise your strengths, and judge yourself realistically and honestly. “Being too proud doesn’t help, but being too humble doesn’t help either.” In other words, there is no harm in knowing what you’re good at - if anything it’s more harmful to not.

He warns that often, society will attempt to put individuals in a single drawer. “You’re this or that, not both, or not a mix. If someone says you’re not able to do something, fight back. Prove them wrong,” he says. “One drawer is not enough, try and open them all.”

Nicolas Degennes decided early on in his career as a makeup artist that his work “needed to be a signature”. Finding his singular take on makeup, and making sure that his work would be recognised as his own, was key. Degennes discussed his creative energy, and how he directs sensations into artistic decisions and the creation of products. Three values guide his creative process: honesty, fidelity, and elegance. When he first arrived at Givenchy, he did not like what they were doing creatively. And yet, it was extremely important, he says, to learn about the roots of the brand and its founder. He did not want to make any drastic changes - it was up to him to integrate himself with the brand and be just to it. In fact, still today, the brand comes first, and his creativity is at the service of Givenchy.

A Q&A session brought the masterclass to a close. Expectedly, students posed questions pertaining to Givenchy’s ecological responsibility and environmental impact. Degennes explained that today there are three lists that categorize Givenchy’s use of ingredients: a blacklist of ingredients that are prohibited outright for they are dangerous to people or the environment; a grey list of ingredients that are not dangerous but should be used limitedly, and a green list of completely safe, eco-friendly ingredients. Degennes insisted that when it comes to ecological responsibility, trying to go too fast will never be the answer. Research and development takes time, but being fully conscious of the supply chain, from A to Z, is the first and most crucial step. Finally, when asked about what sacrifices he made for his career, Degennes replied that his personal time and not having a family were the biggest sacrifices he made. The question, he said, really struck a chord in his heart.

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