A Red for Citrus Season: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Red Square

This week I’m diverging from the 2020 Lipstick Chronology in order to review my first new lipstick of 2021: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Red Square!

I spent much of my January no-buy scouring the web for a replacement for Topshop Matte Lipstick in Rio Rio, which I bought and reviewed back in June of 2015. I still own Rio Rio but can’t bring myself to wear it, partly because it’s almost six years old, but mainly because the tube is so beat-up and gross-looking: those pretty rose-gold stripes wore off almost immediately, and the white plastic coating somehow attracted every speck of dirt in my makeup bag. However, Rio Rio was the first and, until this week, the only bright orange-red lipstick that I’d ever found truly flattering. I’d been looking for a dupe for a while and had tried on some of the iconic orange-reds, such as MAC Lady Danger and NARS Heat Wave, but most of them turned either neon or Popsicle-orange against my cool, muted coloring. 

I didn’t give up the search, though, because there’s always been a place in my lipstick collection for a bright warm red. Orange-reds feel as elegant as blue-reds or dark reds but a little more playful and casual, and when you really want to wear a warm red, a cool one just won’t do. Warm red lipstick has been around as long as red lipstick has been around, though I tend to associate it with costumey looks from the ’70s and ’80s, like this one:

Photo by Barry Lategan in Vogue, 1974. Image from Martin Harrison, Beauty Photography in Vogue (1987).

My search picked up steam in January because I was inspired by the mounds of citrus fruits at the grocery store—and by my near-nightly concoctions of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, orange vodka, and tangerine La Croix. The darker blotches on the middle right half are closest to the color I wanted:

My Googling led me eventually to Red Square, which I felt comfortable buying without swatching because I’ve been a fan of the Velvet Matte Lip Pencil formula since 2013. (Until the pandemic ends and it’s possible to swatch makeup again, I’m trying not to buy lip products in unfamiliar formulas, since they have the potential to deliver unpleasant surprises in texture or smell.) And I’m pleased to report that Red Square is exactly what I was looking for!

By the way, I ordered Red Square from Sephora, and I don’t think I’ll be buying anything from their website again for quite some time. The package took nine days to leave their warehouse and showed up without the mini YSL lipstick I’d selected as a gift with purchase, and the facial cleanser I’d ordered was missing its cap. This is an extremely first-world problem and I feel silly mentioning it here, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had such a bad online ordering experience.

Red Square is perfectly balanced between red and orange (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NARS makes the best reds), and I feel uncomfortable classifying it as either one (though I’ve been lazily referring to it as “red” this whole time, so I guess I’ll just keep doing that). I can’t figure out whether it has a white base; I don’t think it does, but it leans slightly brighter on my face than it does in this swatch on my hand:

Here it is on my lips, where it looks a little more vivid:

As it turns out, Red Square is an almost perfect color match for Topshop Rio Rio. (Which might be a moot point, because ASOS bought Topshop this month and seems to have eliminated the underrated Topshop beauty brand, alas.) Rio Rio is a touch darker and redder than Red Square, but the two are practically indistinguishable in the swatches below. L-R: ColourPop 7 Springs, ColourPop Dream Easy, Red Square, Rio Rio, Marc Jacobs Rei of Light.

I haven’t been able to figure out when NARS launched the Velvet Matte Lip Pencils (if you know, please leave a comment!), but I’m guessing they’ve existed for at least fifteen years, so it’s kind of astonishing to me that in 2021 they still boast one of the best matte formulas on the market. In fact, the VMLPs might have my favorite matte formula of all time, though MAC’s is also a contender. There’s not much to say about the formula that hasn’t been said already, but Red Square is a particularly good example of why these pencils have remained so popular for so long; it’s lightweight, scent-free, non-drying, long-wearing, just all-around magnificent. The one annoyance is having to sharpen the pencil now and then, but the pencil format keeps the product fresh for many years—my Mysterious Red from 2013 is still going strong—and cuts down on plastic waste, so I really can’t complain.

I wish I’d been motivated enough to imitate the Vogue look above: I’m especially fond of those big red splotches next to the half-shaved eyebrows. Instead, here I am wearing Red Square as I would on a normal day, with neutral matte eyeshadow (Pebble Beach and Boa from ColourPop That’s Taupe), peachy brown blush (Tarte Paaarty), and subtle highlight (Glossier Haloscope in Quartz). I’m also wearing elf Brow Wow Gel in Neutral Brown, which I plan to review here before too long, since it’s received some buzz for its alleged similarity to Glossier Boy Brow.

When I posted this selfie on Instagram a few days ago, I was surprised at how many people commented that they loved Red Square on me. I’ve always had this idea that warm red lip colors don’t flatter my coloring as much as berry or wine reds do (I blame my mother for that assumption), but I’m starting to change my mind. A neon red like Revlon Fire and Ice will inevitably clash with my undertones and make my skin look a little dull, but Red Square actually seems to brighten my face. It also brings out the brown in my predominantly green eyes, which is interesting.

Another photo, in which I’m wearing exactly the same makeup but a different shirt, because you’ll never convince me that color coordination is tacky or uncool, damn it:

I hope to return to 2020 Lipstick Chronology next week, time permitting!

5 thoughts on “A Red for Citrus Season: NARS Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in Red Square

  1. […] My hunch was right! Molten Chocolate has a slightly redder base color than Enamored did, but it’s otherwise a spot-on dupe. I’m not enamored of Molten Chocolate’s packaging, however: a tall and skinny twist-up crayon that looms head and shoulders over all my other lipsticks, which annoys me because I’m unduly fussy about the arrangement of my makeup on my dresser. More materially, the lipstick’s shape makes me nervous that I might break the bullet if I twist it up too far. I appreciate the crayon form for precise application, but I think Bite could have made it a bit shorter and wider, or else housed the lipstick in a more durable wooden pencil à la NARS. […]


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