THE LONDON-BASED MAKEUP ARTIST ISAMAYA FFRENCH IS MAKING WAVES IN THE FASHION WORLD WITH HER UNEXPECTED APPROACH AND REFRESHING ATTITUDE.
As one of the most in-demand makeup artists in the industry, Isamaya Ffrench has the kind of schedule that would make even the most tireless workaholic feel a little weary. The past few weeks have seen London-based Ffrench travel to Morocco, Switzerland, Capri and Paris, juggling work for brands including Chloé and Nike alongside editorials for POP, Vogue Italia, V Magazine and i-D, where she also works as the magazine’s beauty editor. Oh, and on top of all this, she’s just moved house. No wonder it took us four failed attempts before we could finally meet up.
Given this frantic pace you might expect to meet someone who’s tired, perhaps a little grumpy, even. On the contrary, opening the door to her airy East London house, Isamaya Ffrench radiates a warm energy, her almost indecently pouty lips breaking out into a wide smile. With her standing barefoot in her kitchen making tea, it feels more like sitting down to a girlie gossip than an interview.
Known for her confident, colorful, creative makeup, it’s ironic to see that Ffrench herself is almost barefaced. “Chefs eat fast food,” she laughs. “If it’s for someone else I enjoy it, but for myself, I’m not really interested.”
She might be a girl in serious demand, but Isamaya Ffrench’s success has something of a serendipitous quality to it. Her current career is more of a happy accident than the result of a ruthlessly executed master plan. Raised in Cambridge, she moved to London aged 18 to study 3D Design at Chelsea College of Arts, followed by a degree in Product and Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins. During this time she began a weekend job face painting at children’s parties “because I didn’t want to do waitressing!” What started as a way to make a bit of extra money really got her creative juices flowing. “It was a bit like a training process,” she explains. “If I had enough time I’d go really overboard. Children think really creatively and it’s really fun to work with that.” Her lightbulb moment came when a friend asked her to paint his girlfriend’s face like a tiger. “I thought, ‘This is working, there’s something in this.’ At that moment I realized that this was an area that hadn’t been really well explored.”
Ffrench began to be booked for professional makeup jobs, her career propelled by word-of-mouth recommendations. Her first fashion shoot was with artist Matthew Stone for i-D, where she body-painted naked men to transform them into gods. Although she might be best known for some of her more theatrical work, Ffrench challenges the idea of being pigeonholed in this way. Her work often has a 3D quality—an echo back to those student days—but her aesthetic is versatile. “I don’t really have a set style, which at first I was afraid of but I really like now. I feel there’s more progression if you don’t. Sometimes you have to minimize yourself for the benefit of the bigger picture. If you want to make good work you have to put your own ego aside.”
What Ffrench does is about so much more than making someone look pretty; without straying into potentially sanctimonious territory she has found makeup gives her a platform for exploring issues of identity and gender. “I’m interested in the idea of trying to project the internal externally,” she muses. “I always go back to this idea of identity, maybe not so much a comment as an exploration. Makeup changes the face—if you put a mask on it, distort it, it not only makes the viewer question what they’re looking at and who they’re looking at, but also question themselves in response to that.” In today’s selfie-obsessed society these issues are more pertinent than ever. Ffrench notes how the digital world gives people a platform for “self-curation, self-projection.”
In an industry as oversaturated as fashion and beauty, it takes more than just talent to succeed. To have the kind of success that Ffrench has had by the age of just 25 is almost unheard of. Her success, she thinks, is down not just to hard work and vision but also her ability not to take herself too seriously. “I hope I can help create a happy environment [on set] and that people can trust me,” she says, adding that being able to have a laugh is her secret to staying sane in what can often be a crazy business. “I try as much as possible to have an element of some sort of humor in my work,” she says. “People are so nuts, if you can’t laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, you’re going to have a really hard time.” With that warm energy and infectious, conspiratorial giggle it’s not hard to see why Isamaya Ffrench thrives in a collaborative environment—she must be a dream to work with.
Part of the reason Isamaya Ffrench carries herself so lightly is that her interests range way beyond makeup. “I’m obsessed with other things; makeup just happens to be the outlet for it,” she says. A creative polymath, Ffrench also designs window displays and dances with the Theo Adams Company, a collective of dancers, singers and actors. Certainly she has that earthy quality of a tomboy, and you can imagine she’d be happier running around climbing trees than talking lipstick. Indeed, nature is something of a recurring interest to Ffrench. “I got really heavily into mycology [the study of mushrooms] and at one point managed to get an interview with the head of mycology at the Royal Botanical Society at Kew Gardens.” Would this have been her back-up career? “100%” she laughs.
The way things are going, however, that mycology career will have to stay on the backburner a little longer. Her star might continue to rise but for now the refreshingly grounded Ffrench is happy to just go with the flow. The adventure must be fun? “Definitely! It’s really colorful and I don’t know where it’s all going, which is interesting. Of course there’s sacrifice but I think if you’re creative it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, so long as it’s creative.”