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21 Sep

Meet Isamaya Ffrench, the ‘Salvador Dalí of Modern Makeup’

Meet Isamaya Ffrench, the ‘Salvador Dalí of Modern Makeup’

At first blush, one might describe Isamaya Ffrench as a makeup artist (or MUA), however the label proves woefully reductive. While her painted faces have graced the runways of Thom Browne, Junya Watanabe, and Vivienne Westwood, she is an artist with a capital A.

Citing English painter Francis Bacon, French photographer and perfumer Serge Lutens, and Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama as inspirations—visual artists who were once on the vanguard of innovation—Ffrench is now carrying the torch forward in her own way.

Using the human face and body as her canvases—including those of Cher, Bella Hadid, and most recently Kate Moss for the September 2022 cover of French Vogue, not to say her own—she often conjures whiplash lines characteristic of Art Nouveau while employing Brutalist materials like concrete and steel. Armed with an in-depth knowledge of prosthetics and a Dadaist color palette, her oeuvre integrates the visual legacy of the twentieth century with an elevated Ex Machina-style twist that feels eerily foreign.

In My Recent Flesh, a 2021 performance piece she created for WePresent, Ffrench slithers out of a tub onto a floor of concrete slabs under flickering lights, her head covered in tentacles. In a world of pretenders, she is the real article—something unflinching and avant-garde.

“Isamaya Ffrench is a real visionary,” said Edward Enninful, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Meanwhile, Fashionista dubbed her the “Salvador Dalí of recent makeup.”

Swatches of the Industrial Color Pigments eyeshadow palette by Isamaya Beauty. Courtesy of Isamaya Beauty.

Ffrench’s artistry is simply too idiosyncratic for comparisons, nonetheless. And now, she has literally launched her own brand, Isamaya Beauty. It offers vegan in addition to cruelty- and paraben-free cosmetics in themed capsule collections, dropping every few months in limited editions.

“Surrealism actually feels too contrived for me, or too removed from the reality—a bit like fashion versus art,” Ffrench told me over matcha lattes one recent afternoon at Soho House in London’s Mayfair. Wearing a structured black bodysuit with peekaboo cutouts, figure-hugging acid-washed jeans, dramatically winged eyeliner, and a broad smile, she exuded la présence (because the French would say).

“People might assume I’m drawn to fantasy due to creative nature of my work, but I’m actually not. I’m a truth seeker.” (Incidentally, for the May 2020 cover of British Vogue, Ffrench painted the word “truth” across Rihanna’s eye line.)

She continued: “I’ve at all times been taken by Art Nouveau’s appreciation for the natural world. I’m also a sucker for Dada and Brutalism—I really like the graphic, fierce honesty that comes with those styles and materials.”

Ffrench’s uncanny, sculptural creations have bedecked the covers of assorted Vogue editions, in addition to the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Love Magazine. For an October 2017 Dazed spread shot by Daniel Sannwald, she transformed musician Yves Tumor’s teeth into cracked white-and-blue porcelain veneers with gold seams, each nodding to the traditional Japanese art of Kintsugi (which mends broken ceramics with lacquer and gold) and fiddling with the pop-culture imagery of blinged-out grillz.

Ffrench turned musician Yves Tumor's teeth into her canvas, shot by Daniel Sannwald for <i data-src=

“Isamaya has such authentic creativity,” said Riccardo Tisci, the chief creative officer of Burberry, for which Ffrench has served as the worldwide beauty director since 2020. “She isn’t afraid to push boundaries” (see the prosthetic Bambi-inspired ears she created for the brand’s Spring 2022 womenswear presentation).

Ffrench’s non-traditional story began in her hometown of Cambridge, England, where as a baby she fell in love with the Kevyn Aucoin tomes The Art of Makeup and Making Faces. Later, while studying in London, she learned face painting to earn some extra cash, which led to working at posh children’s birthday parties (think Coldplay offspring).

Before long, she found herself painting adult faces at British designer Christopher Shannon’s 2011 menswear presentation. Her playful creations were spotted by i-D Magazine, which hired Ffrench for her first fashion photography shoot—and the remaining, as they are saying, is art history.

“I used to be alien to the makeup industry,” said Ffrench, who studied product design at Central Saint Martins and trained as an expert dancer. “My first ever shoot was as a body painter” (in 2011, with British digital artist Matthew Stone, she transformed the model Alek Wek right into a living clay sculpture for i-D Magazine). “I suppose that was refreshing to the creative individuals who hired me for editorials.

“With makeup, you’re painting on a 3D canvas, but I approach it as a way, not an end. I take advantage of it as a part of a much bigger picture, and if that greater picture requires me to create something makeup can’t reach, I’ll go further and use other things.”

In Paco Rabanne’s 2019 Phantom fragrance business, she used elaborate face, ear, arm, and horn prosthetics, combined with snake-eye lenses and facial rhinestone appliqué, to create a sparkling menagerie of sexy aliens. And for Put It On Your Face, a brief film that she made with Byredo (where she was previously the creative director) and Italian Vogue in 2022, Ffrench tapped her old dance troop—the multidisciplinary, London-based Theo Adams Company—to choreograph a Chicago-esque routine.

Along with makeup, Ffrench often works with prosthetics. Shot by Daniel Sannwald for <i data-src=

“Isamaya is a maestro in the sector of ‘It shouldn’t work, nevertheless it does,’” the British painter Benjamin Spiers told me. “It’s fascinating to speak together with her about art because her incredibly specific and deeply astute visual intelligence at all times brings something recent into the sunshine. That intelligence manifests in the whole lot she does, from her own art to how she dresses.”

He added, “It’s at all times a pleasure to see her since it’s at all times a surprise. Which is one other way of claiming she’s a risk-taker, she’s restless; she’s an explorer, at all times inclined to try to discover a novel way of doing things.”

The debut Isamaya Beauty collection, Industrial, dropped at Selfridges in July, featuring a flexible eye shadow palette and BDSM-inspired packaging with wearable chrome rings and earrings. Accompanied by an erotic performance piece filmed by Steven Klein, it solidified Ffrench’s role because the patron saint of creative nonconformists in all places.

“There are such a lot of art forms and subcultures that never make it into the business beauty world, and I’m excited to champion those,” said the artist, who’s on the brink of drop her next collection this fall. “It will be wild—with a capital W.”

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