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2 Oct

How Isamaya Ffrench Is Reinventing Beauty

LONDON — Isamaya Ffrench spent her summer break in Mongolia, sleeping in yurts, riding horses through the epic wilderness, subsisting on yak meat and milk, living the proper nomadic life for just a few weeks. “If I sit on a beach, I just take into consideration work and folks I do know,” she muses. “And I don’t need to take into consideration either of those things.”

She is an adventuress, the more distant the destination the higher. She’s recently been reading concerning the relationship between the left brain and the proper brain, logic versus imagination. “Latest experiences fan the flames of your right brain, so travel has at all times been a very powerful thing for me, for creative reasons,” she says. “Not pondering principally, just doing.” And feeling too. Ffrench was surprised how emotional she found the purity of her experience on the steppes. She claims she did quite a lot of crying.

Possibly that’s since the nomadic spirit touched her soul. In the last decade since Ffrench’s first appointment (as beauty editor of i-D magazine), she has variously been a brand ambassador for YSL Beauty and Christian Louboutin Beauté, a creative artist consultant for Tom Ford Beauty, creative director at Dazed Beauty, Byredo and Burberry Beauty, and beauty curator at Off-White. This was alongside editorial work like her sensible Rihanna covers for British Vogue (Dietrich eyebrow, September 2018, and TRUTH face tattoo, May 2020) and nine fashion week collaborations with Thom Browne.


All that restlessness got here home to roost in June 2022, when Ffrench launched her own beauty collection: Isamaya. And I do mean home. The business is predicated within the atmospheric and art-filled pile in East London that she shares along with her three Oriental Shorthairs, Goya the black cat, Salome the tabby and pure white Trinity, who ebb and flow around us as we talk. Once I ask what gives her probably the most pleasure in life, she says the cats. “These guys mostly.”

Ffrench studied product design at Central Saint Martins where one in every of the teachings she absorbed was that collaboration calls for total absorption in your co-collaborator’s headspace. She found it easy, “a bit like being an actor exploring a distinct way of things,” which was clearly an asset during that peripatetic decade when she was changing hats every 12 months.

But that’s made her brand Isamaya her biggest challenge because, Ffrench says, “I don’t have this singular vision in the way in which that Tom Ford does or Riccardo Tisci did at Burberry. I work not only for my very own brand, but I’m also working for fashion shows and music artists and have all of those different… um… buckets, it’s quite difficult to create a singular vision that may define me for 10 years. So, once I launched the brand I said, I don’t want to do this. I need to be like fashion people, I need to do quarterly drops, different moods, run with the zeitgeist.”

Ffrench is a storyteller; dark fairytales are a specialty. Long before her profession, she made money painting faces at kids’ parties. These days, she’s used prosthetics to work Grimm transformations on models’ faces. Her Instagram account says more in pictures than I could ever hope to do in words. But her own collections have given her the prospect to hone an intriguing personal narrative.

British Vogue cover September 2018

The primary was called “Industrial.” It used the visual language of BDSM, product caps given the complete Prince Albert piercing, the attention shadow palette in black rubber, 3-D printed with a unadorned torso. The second collection was “Wild Star,” gilded, crystalled cowgirl packaging. Steven Klein, who specialises in twisted fetishistic fashion narratives, created the visual correlatives, starring Ffrench herself.

Then got here “Lips,” her lip line.

Lipstick is Isamaya’s most successful cosmetics category, because it is for many beauty corporations. Ffrench’s approach to it defined her ethos. Her lipsticks arrived in an anatomically correct cock’n’balls chrome case. “People called it a risk, but I actually believed that we were at the proper time culturally, societally to do a product like that,” she says. “Now greater than ever, with gender politics on the forefront of quite a lot of conversations in fashion and wonder, and abortion laws in America and nudity on TV, sexuality and gender is an enormous topic because ultimately it pertains to your personal identity. And I believe, greater than ever, persons are trying to actually take ownership of that. So, it just felt like the proper time to do a dick.”

Those quarterly drops she originally envisaged — sell out, be gone — have been challenged by Lips. “Now I’m seeing it in the identical way Comme des Garçons do their Play T-shirts. It’s develop into something that is key to my brand, however it exists in its own little world of Lips. The product is so unique and it resonates loads greater than most of the other things we’ve done. Friends of mine tell me their mums and grans pinch their lipsticks, which I like. So, we’re going to proceed the road and just keep it growing.”

“I got called Blow Job Lips at college,” Ffrench recalls. “Not very nice for a lady of eight, is it?” I squawked with horror. She rationalises that the sobriquet was probably inevitable when there have been also 16-year-olds in her school. Pause. “Possibly eight’s a little bit of a stretch. Possibly we should always say 14.” Though she insists her own lips haven’t played an instrumental role in her profession, their inescapably erotic voluptuousness has been a star attraction within the promos and on-line tutorials she has made for her products. “My dad’s got larger lips than me,” she says mock-indignantly. “I suppose I’m so desensitised to all of that basically. I mean, applying lipstick on myself or on models is only a job. There’s quite a lot of desensitisation that has happened to me and the way in which I take a look at things, especially since I got into makeup and fashion and that world. I believe quite a lot of people in fashion would probably say that. I mean, all of us look slightly bit fucking bonkers to most individuals. We do crazy shit and think nothing of it.”

Isamaya Lips

I suggested “desensitise” has a somewhat harsh ring, implying something awful that Ffrench has accommodated as a part of her work. “Yeah, exactly,” she says. “Obviously there’s a time and a spot for lips being erotic, but inside the context of my work and makeup application, it’s far more technical to me now. Interesting that you simply say that since it’s never crossed my mind. But I believe possibly it could possibly be like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got big lips in your face and also you’re applying your glossy product.’ Something quite interesting once I was in Mongolia, I got talking with our translator about what I do and he or she said eating fatty foods is an indication of wealth and good health, so glossy lipstick or lip gloss is the primary makeup product in Mongolia because looking such as you’ve eaten a fatty meal is a really erotic look for a girl.”

Which can be an ideal segue into Ffrench’s passion project of the moment, a documentary she’s been working on for a very long time now, working title “Cracking the Beauty Code.” It investigates the changing face of beauty, where it’s been, where it’s going. “It’s such a world conversation due to the web, because of films. Like, in Iran women walk around with bandages on their nose to fake rhinoplasty since it’s a logo of wealth. Or, in Korea, parents arrange trust funds for his or her kids to have cosmetic surgery after they graduate.”

Beauty’s cultural import has clearly intensified because the Nineties, a decade I spent working with Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop as a riposte to what she saw as the wonder industry’s pernicious peddling of “hope in a jar.” Ffrench still sees it. “The skin is an impermeable barrier, unless you’re using a steroid or needles. I believe there’s still quite a lot of crap on the market that’s just hope in a jar,” she says. “But persons are also more awake to that and that’s why the aesthetician and dermatologist’s roles have gotten increasingly essential and accessible. Something like having your blood in a centrifuge after which injected back into your face is common now. I’m an enormous, big believer in inside-out skincare, working in your gut biome. Your skin is your biggest organ. So, I do imagine in all of that.”

It’s hardly a leap from that to Ffrench saying, “I believe in a way my brand has never been just concerning the makeup. It’s more about engaging with an idea or an idea or a dream or fantasy in the identical way I suppose that fashion’s at all times allowed you to do this world constructing. And in the identical way that perhaps BDSM or a subculture does that. And, so, what I’ve at all times tried to do with my makeup and the storytelling is to transcend ‘That is something which you can placed on your face to make yourself look higher and feel nicer about yourself for those who’re having a nasty day.’ I’ve never really cared about that myself. I mean, I like covering up my spots with concealer once I can, and I believe I look higher with an eyeliner on, however it’s more concerning the makeup being a chance to explore a much bigger concept and a much bigger world and a much bigger idea.”

My brand has never been just concerning the makeup. It’s more about engaging with an idea or a fantasy.

That might need something to do with the way in which she was introduced to the alchemical power of cosmetics. Ffrench’s parents maintained a hippie aversion to the artifice of things like cosmetics, but, by some quirk of fate, they’d a replica of makeup maestro Kevyn Aucoin’s “Making Faces” of their bookcase. She was eight when she found it. She doesn’t prefer to go into details about her childhood, but her dad, an engineer, had a hoarding problem which made the family home in Cambridge oppressively Dickensian. She’d escape into Aucoin’s world, where he transformed average-looking women into goddesses. Or she’d sneak into her parents’ room and watch Cabaret: Liza Minnelli’s “divine decadence, darling,” green nail polish, over-painted faces, transgressive theatricality transcending the horrors of the rising Nazi threat that gave the movie its disturbing undertow. It’s still one in every of her favourites. “The ability of whatever I saw, regardless that I don’t consider it anymore in that way, has at all times carried me from that horrible dark space into something transformative.”

Possibly it was at that young age that the notions of transformation and transgression became intertwined for Ffrench, but she doubts it. “I don’t take a look at any of my work and go, ‘That’s provocative or transgressive.’ I never have. I just do what I like. It’s the context. If it was in an art space, if it was Jeff Koons doing a penis, nobody would think anything of it. Nevertheless it’s not, it’s in Vogue.” Still, it’s hard to skim her body of labor without detecting her instinctive attraction to pictures which are as prone to disturb as they’re to please, especially when the dramatis personae of that work have included the likes of Marilyn Manson, Yves Tumor and Julia Fox — controversy magnets, all.


It’s some extent of departure from her high-profile predecessors Pat McGrath and Charlotte Tilbury. They might probably tell origin stories that were quite much like Ffrench’s, starting with editorials in cult style magazines, constructing key relationships with designers, making deals with major cosmetics corporations before launching their very own brands. But once I asked Ffrench if she saw her own story as continuity or a break, she answered, “I actually don’t know. The generations have had such wildly different experiences of what it’s to work within the industry and find out how to survive it. Pat and Charlotte were of that generation just before social media, after they were in a position to dominate the editorial space that was the one place where you possibly can exhibit your portfolio. As soon as Instagram happened, it was the democratisation of artistry in hair, makeup, whatever capability. So, everybody could go, ‘Oh, that is what I can do.’ Up till then, there hadn’t been that sort of public space. It was just editorial or music video… So, I believe we’ve really needed to sort of… fight… I don’t think I fight too hard, I’m not desperate, but I believe there’s just been a distinct level of being on. I’ve got to be on on a regular basis. Because for those who’re not, then you definitely’re out.”

“I mean, we just have to supply a lot work.” Ffrench elaborated on her vision of media Darwinism. “All the various social media platforms, video content, TikTok, interviews, every little thing, identical to content overload. So, it’s quite a stretch navigating your individual sanity and having to consistently produce stuff.” And someone in Ffrench’s elevated position would feel such pressure, I wondered. “Why do you’re thinking that I went to Mongolia, mate?” she spat back. “Yeah, on a regular basis. I even have to be doing stuff on a regular basis.” Awful, I offered meekly. “Yes, hideous.”

“As soon as Instagram happened, it was the democratisation of artistry in hair and makeup,” says Isamaya Ffrench.

Ffrench’s antidote has been to stretch her wings in a way that implies the dimensions of success that McGrath and Tilbury now enjoy matters less to her than following her own creative instincts wherever they could lead her. Like “Mantle,” the eerie electronic folk single she recorded with composer Sam Thomas. She directed and stars within the equally eerie video, which does a remarkably good job of channelling the mood of cult horror hits “Midsommar” and “The Wicker Man.”

That decade of bouncing from gig to gig says all of it. Restless. She wouldn’t disagree. “I even have to feel like I’m exploring recent things. Otherwise, I’m not interested. Okay, we’ve got BDSM in everyone’s brains in the mean time. That’s where I used to be once I was developing Isamaya. Great. We’ve got Wild Star, Beyoncé doing her cowgirl… So, then the lips we talked about, perhaps they’re relevant for where we’re in society, and conversations around gender and sexuality. Great. I believe it would be really hard for me to attempt to define myself by the way in which a product looks for the following 10 years. But I’m going to must. And next 12 months, I can be doing that.”

She’s in place to do it. Ffrench loves her investors Davide de Giglio and Francesco Costa. “And I’m very proud to say the brand has achieved seven-figure revenues in its first 12 months,” she says. “I’m hopeful our disruptive approach to the category is reflected in our financial success.” Greater than that about her game plan she is reluctant to disclose. Except this: “I believe I’ve got to somewhere that feels timeless enough for me to go along with it for a very long time.”

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