Isamaya Ffrench is one of the most progressive and creative make-up artists in the industry, as well known for her work with icons such as Kate Moss, Madonna and Cher as she is for her daring use of prosthetics and eye-catching runway looks. Now she’s brought her darkly imaginative aesthetic to the make-up world, with the arrival of her debut beauty line. Here, she talks pushing boundaries, launching her own brand and the future of beauty.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight – yes, that is her real name and no, she didn’t make it up. “It’s Old English, either Mediaeval or biblical, from the 13th century,” Isamaya Ffrench says with a laugh when I bring up the subject. I’m sitting with the unconventional 33-year-old make-up artist – who has been hailed as the most exciting working in Britain today – in the back room of the Soho pop-up she’s just opened to coincide with the launch of her own make-up label, Isamaya Beauty. Situated next to a licensed sex shop, the all-black boutique feels like the physical embodiment of Ffrench’s subversive take on beauty.
As one of the most in-demand make-up artists, who works with icons such as Kate Moss, Cher and Madonna as well as new-gen supermodels such as Bella Hadid, Ffrench is credited with creating some of the most daring make-up looks in recent years. Known for ripping up the rulebook when she first emerged on the scene over a decade ago, she has created a new, truly artistic approach to make-up. Recognised for her darkly creative aesthetic, she’s as well-known for her out-of-the-box use of prosthetics as she is for her bold runway looks, which have seen her send models down the Giambattista Valli catwalk with their faces framed by wildflowers, or adorned with bold silver face piercings as she did for Jean Paul Gaultier’s latest couture show. She’s even used AI technology to put Kylie Jenner on the cover of a magazine where her made-up face appears to be melting.
The walls of the room we’re sitting in are plastered with campaign images for the first drop of her products, the Industrial collection. Shot by Steven Klein, they feature Ffrench herself clad in a series of bondage-inspired latex outfits (the inspiration for the Industrial range draws heavily from the BDSM subculture), in one, her face appearing from beneath an unzipped rubber hood. If her name seems otherworldly, then so does her look: when we meet, she is in off-duty, minimal make-up mode but is no less striking for it. Dressed head-to-toe in black, with long raven hair, luminescent skin and blue eyes framed by spidery lashes, she looks like a gothic take on a Disney princess. “I’m in these campaigns – and I’ll hopefully keep being in them – because I think it’s important to embody what I’m doing,” she says. “Plus, it’s cheaper, isn’t it? I don’t have a day rate.”
It’s a rather unusual choice for a make-up artist launching their own brand, but then pretty much everything Ffrench does is extraordinary. That said, her upbringing was, by her own admission, resolutely unglamorous – “I was raised by a family of engineers, and I was very tomboyish when I was young” – and her path into the industry wasn’t characterised by a love of make-up or fashion editorials. She was, however, always drawn to the creative, and cites Kevyn Aucoin’s seminal book Making Faces, which she bought with her pocket money as a child, as key to teaching her about the powers of transformation. “That book is my first make-up memory and I was obsessed with it, but I was also obsessed with cinema. I went to theatre school from a very young age, and I was always inspired by films such as Cabaret, with dark but glamorous concepts.” She enrolled at Central Saint Martins to study product design with the end goal of becoming a shoe designer, but while there took on a side job as a face painter, painting butterflies on kids’ faces to earn a bit of cash. “I still occasionally get emails from Mumsnet with people saying, ‘Hi, are you free to do my daughter’s party on Saturday?’”
It turns out she was pretty good at it – so good that she soon started applying her face painting brushes to adults. When a photographer friend asked her to turn his model girlfriend into a ‘sexy tiger’, the shots ended up in i-D magazine. “I just segued into make-up through fashion-industry friends needing me to do body painting jobs,” says Ffrench. “I was just there and somebody that could do it, and then I realised that, actually, maybe I could make a career out of this.” She is disarmingly modest about her meteoric rise, which soon had industry stalwarts such as Nick Knight hailing her as the next big thing. Her unorthodox approach was a breath of fresh air, earning her a reputation not so much as a make-up artist, but as an artist who happens to work with make-up.
High profile editorials followed, then prestigious brand collaborations, starting off with becoming an ambassador for YSL and moving on to stints developing Tom Ford’s Extreme line, being appointed Burberry’s global beauty director and launching Byredo’s first make-up line. “With those brands, I was brought in to shake things up,” she says. “If they have a very strong aesthetic or a lot of heritage, it can be difficult for them to go there. So, I go there for them.” The launch of her own brand – which was two years in the making – was almost inevitable, and Ffrench admits she relished being able to fully express her own personality and taste without being forced to dilute her vision. “In beauty, people have stopped taking risks – there’s a formula, and I know a lot of people don’t feel like they have anything to connect to, because it’s all too commercial. I think it’s so important to inspire people and show there are other ways of doing beauty.”
The Industrial collection features five hero products: a lash-lengthening mascara housed in a rubber casing; an illuminating skin serum; a do-it-all eyeshadow palette; a lip-plumping tinted gloss, and a brow laminator, which you can cover over with foundation to completely erase your brows and pencil them in, as Ffrench memorably did for Rihanna on the cover of British Vogue in 2018. “The first drop started with me asking, ‘What do I like? What do I want to wear?’ This is the aesthetic I align with and there’s nothing like that in make-up currently, so it felt important to do something that stood out.”
The packaging was inspired by the punk rock movement, with the mascara, serum and lip gloss bottles skewered by a silver piercing to tie in with the tough-looking, hand-soldered rings and earrings that are available to buy alongside the make-up, inspired by Ffrench’s own taste in jewellery. Music is a major influence in her work – she grew up playing classical guitar before performing for a time as a singer with the avant-garde theatre collective the Theo Adams Company and formed
the experimental music project Alto Arc last year.
Industrial Colour Pigments
Triple Hyaluronic Glow Serum
Another key focus for the range was sustainability, which Ffrench cites as being hugely important to her personally. “Beauty is one of the biggest industries in the world and there should be better care taken if you’re going to be using up resources. It just baffles me that there are so few options out there.” She hired a sustainability consultant to help her make the best decisions possible when it came to packaging and materials, and many of the products have been designed to be reused or repurposed – one of the eyeshadow palettes might double up as a jewellery box afterwards, for example. Ffrench references Vivienne Westwood, who she has worked with for a long time, as an inspiration thanks to her ‘do more with less’ philosophy. There will be several different make-up collections launched each year – a concept inspired by fashion’s four seasonal drops – with the next release in October. While Ffrench is tight-lipped about what we can expect, she does say it will be completely different to Industrial and will most likely appeal to a new audience.
Latex Lift Mascara
Maximizing Lip Serum
Ffrench has a devoted legion of fans keen to emulate the edgy looks she creates for her high-profile clients, who she says have taught her more about make-up than any professional course ever could. “All the women I work with have a strong vision and a sense of self and identity. That gives me a lot of inspiration. Cher has actually taught me a lot – she used to work with Kevyn Aucoin, so she’s the original.” As well as being inspired by her clients, she admires the work of the greats such as Val Garland – “some of the stuff she’s done with Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen is just exceptional” – and Lisa Eldridge, as well as her friend Daniel Sällström, who’s known for his high-concept drag make-up looks. “But I try not to look at what other people are doing too much, otherwise it can become like a snake eating its tail.”
Ffrench has recently filmed a documentary about the evolution of global beauty ideals, but as for her own provocative aesthetic, she insists she doesn’t set out with the intention of challenging or unsettling people. “I just do what comes out. I find it funny when people say my work is confrontational – is it really, with everything else that’s going on in the world? I just follow my gut, and that’s the pure output. For me, beauty is anything that moves you.”