Meet Isamaya Ffrench, the Makeup Artist Reviving Fiorucci
Have you heard? Everyone’s talking about it—how stale and stagnant the fashion industry has become. It’s all just recycled looks, they say. And I can’t say they’re wrong; oftentimes it does feel like the last novel idea in fashion was swooped up by Hussein Chalayan and then, a moment later, dissolved under a makeshift, indoor waterfall. But while the clothes being shuffled down the runways might not make people gawk and ogle like they once did, there are still areas of the industry that are relatively untouched—makeup and beauty chief among them.
“Compared to 20 years ago, this didn’t exist,” François Nars said—“this” being the popularity makeup artists and the makeup industry are currently seeing. And it’s true; where makeup artists were once an unseen presence on fashion shoots and in fashion shows, they’re now wholly integral to them. Just look at Isamaya Ffrench, the young British makeup artist, YSL U.K. makeup ambassador, and recently appointed Fiorucci designer, whose work and vision not only plays a crucial role in countless fashion shoots, campaigns, and shows—it’s oftentimes their sole focal point. Scan her work, and it’s easy to see why; if the design side of fashion is the older and slightly tired Brooklyn Beckham, then makeup artists like Isamaya are Romeo Beckham—or better yet, Cruz—Brooklyn’s younger, teen counterpart, fresh-faced, youthful, and brimming with trailblazing ideas.
The secret to Isamaya’s unfettered creativity might lie in her unconventional training—or rather, zero professional training as a makeup artist. Rather than turning her favorite pastime into a chore—as so often happens with people’s pursuits—Isamaya almost treats her job as an extension of playtime. Perhaps that’s what makes her work so unique, and allows her to think so vastly outside the box. Her job was, after all, born not out of tedious classes, but rather out of a febrile obsession with face painting.
The fashion industry today has lost most of the ’90s era, performative aspect it once had. And it’s a shame. Fashion should be lavish, extravagant, over-the-top, and kind of unreasonable—isn’t that why most of us fell in love with it in the first place? Thankfully there are still players like Isamaya, who not only get this, but are doing their best to bring it back.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Ffrench to talk about her love for Masterchef (the early years), the photographer she’s currently obsessing over, and her plans to revive a legendary fashion label.
You’re based out of Paris now?
Paris and London, yeah. It’s great. I just wanted it to be a bit quieter, really. You can focus [in Paris]. [In] London, you just get roped into doing everything.
What are some of your best job perks?
I suppose it’s been nice not to be in the same office every day.
I was working in L.A. [recently] and [took] a really great trip. I was there for nine days and ended up just hiring a car with my friend, and driving across the desert to Utah. So that was really nice.
I loved your edible cosmetics line. Was that a one-time thing, or something we’ll be able to buy soon?
So I used to be a chef before I got into makeup years ago. I started when I was 15 and I was doing that for like five years. That’s what I was going to do and I toyed with the idea when I moved to London, but then kind of put it on a shelf after a couple of bad experiences with cocky, hot-blooded male chefs. [Laughs] Bistrotheque do great collaborations and events and stuff, and I kind of wanted to do something that would allow me to explore cooking and food again. So this idea of culinary cosmetics came up; it was an opportunity to combine [makeup and cooking] and create a unique experience full of weird textures, colors, and flavors. It was just a pop-up, and I might do one here or in Paris.
Please do. And do you still like to cook?
Not like I [used to]. When I was 19, I was asked to go on the first series of MasterChef. It is a bit cheesy and commercial now, but in the beginning it was really cool. I turned it down; it was a bit of a regret.
“There’s a brand called Fiorruci, [and] we’re going to design all their capsule collections together, which will be fun.”
Who are your favorite people to collaborate or work with?
I worked for a long time with someone called Josh [Wilks], who is like my main collaborator and does art direction. We had a great run when we were working together, and we still work together now. There’s a brand called Fiorucci, [and] we’re going to design all their capsule collections together, which will be fun. We haven’t launched yet, it’s coming out in June. So we’re just working hard on it now.
I really like working with people like Tyrone Lebon, Daniel Sannwald, and Novembre Magazine—it always feels like a family reunion with those guys. [And] I’m doing a shoe collaboration with that brand Camper, so I’ve designed two shoes for them that will be in shops this year.
Are you still doing your line English School?
Well that’s kind of become Fiorucci. When we launched [English School], they got in touch really soon after we did it and said, “Do you want to come and work for us?” [And] we had to say yes. So, English School will exist again one day, but right now it’s Fiorucci for us.
I studied product design at University, so [design] is more of a natural thing [for me], I suppose. Maybe more normal for me than makeup.
Do you have a favorite person to put makeup on?
I really like working with Guinevere [Van Seenus]. She’s amazing.
The thing is—you can put any makeup on her, you can take any photo, and she’ll still be Guinevere. Like she’s so iconic, but she wears makeup really well and loves it as well which is really helpful because it’s good to be able to embody something rather than just be a canvas, you know?
Totally. What’s the most fun shoot you’ve worked on?
There’s been a few now. Tyrone’s always fun—he always has really great casting and he’s a friend of mine as well so it’s always a good crew of people. It’s been great working with Mert & Marcus, they’re just unstoppable. It’s very rewarding to watch people who are so confident in their vision and deliver perfect results instantly. They’re also great fun to be around. I’ve only worked with him once, but I love Jean Baptiste Mondino because he really gets my world. He understands performance, emotion, elegance, humor, everything. He’s not afraid of ‘naffiness’ or ‘cliche.’ I’m not so interested in what’s ‘cool,’ really—an image has to move me.
I know you’ve done the makeup for some shows—do you like doing that? It must be super hectic.
Yeah it’s fine! It’s different in different countries. It’s kind of stressful in London because now you only get, like, two hours to do the hair and makeup so you can never really do anything spectacular—in two hours, with 27 girls, doing hair and makeup. Whereas in Paris, it’s generally more conceptual and things are more thought through and there’s more preparation—it’s more like an exhibition rather than, like, really quick catalogue.
Has there been a moment in your career thus far where you’ve thought, “Holy shit—I can’t believe this is my job”?
Actually, it’s still kind of special for me to work with MAC and YSL. Obviously, when there’s a brand that you feel you know personally and serves you, it’s always very special to work with them. And as a makeup artist as well; it’s not like it’s a designer or something. [Working with MAC] is kind of like confirmation that you’re doing okay. And they’re such a great, forward-thinking team.
“I don’t just like low-fi stuff with nude faces. I also like David LaChapelle, ultra high, glossy, pop-y, sickly stuff.”
How do you usually come up with your ideas? They’re so incredibly creative.
Awww thanks. Depends—either a magazine will send me a theme and I’ll come up with something, or I’ll see a girl and it will kind of come from her being a character. Or I’ll think more in a narrative way, say, imagining it was a film scenario and then trying to reinterpret that into something. It sort of comes from anywhere. I just like things to be really well stylized. So I don’t just like low-fi stuff with nude faces. I also like David LaChapelle, ultra high, glossy, pop-y, sickly stuff. It just has to be really stylized—I think that’s the thing. So for me, it’s less about having a style myself and more about being style-less.
Have you ever had a dream, woken up, and been like, oh whoa there’s an idea! I’m always hoping that’s going to happen to me, but it doesn’t.
Probably! I’m quite into dreams. I think there’s definitely something to be said about listening to your dreams and I read a lot, so a lot of the time I’ll just go for a really long walk and it’ll come. I think that’s the key—to not try and overthink something. If you’re someone with a stutter, the less you think about trying to say something, the easier it’ll come.
What’s the weirdest thing or ingredient that you’ve either used or put on someone’s face? I feel like you use lots of weird things.
This was eight years ago, and it was just a shoot for a dishwasher brand or something, and they had each of these characters and it was all about food. So one of the girls had a [real] octopus on her head and all sorts of seaweed and stuff. One girl’s head was made out of a cake. [Laughs] So that was kind of funny. I often have to use weird materials like clay or nylon—that kind of thing.
Can I ask you about a couple looks and how you did them? I saw an image you posted recently—I think it was a scene from Alfie in your mouth? That was crazy. Was that photoshopped?
No no, that was a piece of newspaper.
How did you do the look—I think it was you—where you looked really old and your skin was really wrinkly?
Just prosthetics. I used a lot of makeup, silicone, putty—that sort of thing.
And this is probably simple—but you’re great at doing a really glossy lip.
I love a glossy lip.
I love it too and I’ve always tried to do it, but it rarely works.
The only thing is, when you do a glossy lip on camera, there’s a window of about four minutes where it looks great, and then after four minutes it’s like here [points to chin]. So you’ve got to be brutal with your photographer and be like, you’ve got four minutes and then I’m wiping it off.
What kind of stuff do you usually use for that?
The best one I’ve come across is MAC Lip Glass and probably the best one I know—it really stays in place, which is great. I also have loads of cheap $3 lip glosses which are good too. I’m not a makeup snob; if it works, it works.
Good to know. And is there a product that you couldn’t live without?
Maybe a Touche Éclat. Now they come in five shades, which is great because before they just had the one very light one. But it’s really good actually. Honestly, until I went to YSL I didn’t know anything about it. But it’s good for just you as well, or me.
Are you working on anything for YSL right now?
Yeah I do a lot of their social media content, I do shoots for them, and kind of consult on their products. A bit of an all-rounder helper.
So genius. Is there an editorial that you’ve always dreamt of doing but haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to do?
Yeah there are loads. I just did one with a girl called Charlotte Rutherford and she’s kind of a newish photographer—as in, she’s young. Actually I’m really excited about her because I think we’ve gone through this period of everybody being really afraid to, like, go over-the-top with retouching—and I mean not just retouching to make something beautiful, but I mean making it look really airbrushed or really fake or extreme.
We’ve gone through this epic, seemingly endless state with everyone shooting on film, copying all the Harley Weirs and Jamie Hawkesworths—very natural—but now I really want some action. So Charlotte’s great because she’ll really get a reference and she’ll go there. We just did a great airbrushed story where they look like these airbrushed poster girls—it’s really cool, I can’t wait.
Check out more of Isamaya Ffrench’s work here.
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