Fashion’s favourite beauty editor Isamaya Ffrench has been raising eyebrows with her outlandish looks, which owe as much to her background in 3D design as to conventional ideas of glamour.
When beauty goes avant-garde
Twenty-six-year-old Isamaya Ffrench isn’t your usual make-up artist. Indeed, she is more likely to be found shopping for prosthetics than for cosmetics. Having grown up in Cambridge, Ffrench moved to London at 18 to study 3D design at Chelsea College of Art and Design before doing a BA in product design at Central St Martins, with a view to designing shoes. She took up make-up after helping out at her sister’s children’s school fete. ‘After a couple of years of self-teaching I got really into it,’ she says. ‘I used to cycle around London doing parties.’ Thanks to friends at St Martins, who knew of her side line, she ended up on a shoot with i-d magazine (which last year appointed her as its beauty editor). Through word of mouth she gradually built up more work on shoots, where she used her degree knowledge to inform her work. ‘It was all material-led,’ she says. ‘I would experiment with paints, clay and glue.’
Her bold, disruptive work is especially refreshing in a world besieged by contourperfect selfies, and it was quickly adopted by the style cognoscenti. She describes what she does as ‘basically pop art’. ‘It’s very creative but accessible to mainstream culture,’ she says. ‘My aim is always a style-less approach. I like to be versatile, so it changes depending on what I’m interested in. At first it was the whole “paint” thing, but I like to progress and not keep repeating.’
Her inspiration comes from typography, Japanese graphics and illustrations from the 1970s. ‘I try to not look at other make-up artists,’ she says. ‘It stifles me creatively. You just get into a downward spiral of thinking, “Oh, nothing is new, it’s all been done before!” It’s good to re-create things from a technical point of view but not ideas. I do love the make-up artist Topolino, though. He’s notorious for turning up to shoots with four lip glosses and nothing else.’
Her anti-establishment attitude has led to collaborations with the Japanese conceptual designer Junya Watanabe (of the Comme des Garçons stable). ‘You don’t see the clothes till the day before the show,’ she says. ‘You get a month to prepare, but he basically just sends you riddles. The first time I worked with him he sent me buzzwords like “industrial” or “synthetic”. We would spend days doing trials and then email him a make-up look and he would say, “No, no – yes, that’s more like it.” It’s a very formal process, but he speaks only Japanese so luckily doesn’t understand me when I’m swearing backstage!’
She was recently picked up by YSL as its new UK make-up ambassador. ‘They’re really forward-thinking – they love the weird work I’m doing,’ she says. ‘The anxiety when you join a commercial brand is that you might lose some of your integrity, but they’re really supportive of me.’ As well as shooting for YSL she will do make-up videos and ‘how to’s.
Alongside all this, she has gone back to her original plan, and is working on shoe designs with Camper; and earlier this year she launched her own label, English School, with her friend the photographer Josh Wilks. ‘We wanted to have a project for us, where we don’t have to say yes to anyone apart from ourselves,’ she says. She describes it as ‘a basic print label’ but says, ‘The idea is for it to be a platform to work with other creatives, whether that’s one-off clothing pieces, or working with a gallery – and we’d like to do ceramics.’ Currently on sale are white T-shirts, shirts and jeans emblazoned with classic advertising imagery with a twist (such as medicine packaging reading organic love, 500mg). ‘I don’t just want to do make up,’ she says happily.
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