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Isamaya Ffrench on Where Beauty’s Magic Really Comes From

The glory days of backstage beauty are long behind us with front row makeup looks and social media “Get Ready With Me” videos taking its place. But true creativity and a-ha moments can still happen on the runway if we foster it.
Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2015.jpg
Junya Watanabe Spring/Summer 2015 (Getty)

There are many makeup looks that stand out as defining moments in fashion history: Peter Philips’ blood-red, oversized mouth, that both shocked and amused onlookers at Alexander McQueen’s fall 2009 runway show; Pat McGrath’s infamous makeup at John Galliano’s Dior Haute Couture spring 2004 show that transformed even the most elfish models into cartoon-esque Cleopatran glamazons; and Val Garland’s wonder-clown, starry eyed looks (tights pulled over the model’s heads to give them a mannequin-like presence) at Gareth Pugh’s spring 2016 collection.

All these moments represent a sort of golden age for runway beauty, where makeup artistry was a solid part of bringing a fashion designer’s vision to life. But when I really think about them, they feel lodged in a distant past — a time when onlookers at shows were as excited as the designers to see what the beauty department was cooking up.

The backstage show experience has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. I entered the fashion circuit just early enough to experience a taste of what it was like to be given a full 10 hours (or more!) to create a unique, never-seen-before look at a show. Some of my earliest shows are still some of my most avant-garde: full face Lego masks for Agi & Sam in 2013; Sellotaped lips and gloopy lashes for Junya Watanabe back in 2014; and, one of my favourites, Vivienne Westwood in 2013, which saw models with bubblegum blue plastic suctioned onto their faces.

Isamaya Ffrench backstage at the Dion Lee Spring/Summer 2023 show.
Isamaya Ffrench backstage at the Dion Lee Spring/Summer 2023 show. (Sivan Miller )

Nowadays, producers run a tight ship backstage. Hair and makeup teams often have only three hours to prepare the 40-plus models for a show. Sometimes, they’re even squeezed together on the same table. When you factor in runway rehearsals, it can create chaos for the already stretched beauty teams, desperately trying to get their jobs done to the highest possible standards. It’s not much fun for the models either. We’ve all seen the backstage photos of girls with six people pulling at them in different directions, not to mention the endless slew of photographers that push between talent and artists just to get “the shot.” It’s not surprising that there has been an increase in reported cases of discontent and exhaustion within the modelling community.

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Given these limiting conditions, I wonder if that’s why runway beauty in recent years seems to have taken a backseat, leading to what they used to call “minimalism” in the 90s, or “quiet luxury” as they call it now.

Meanwhile, the front row has become a spectacle of its own, often attracting as much attention as the runway presentations, if not more. Celebrities and VIPs steal the show quite literally with their flamboyant fashion and beauty looks. Take Doja Cat’s electrifying bedazzled red demon look for the spring 2023 Schiaparelli Couture show, or Tommy Cash’s humorous theatrical appearances all over Paris Fashion Week. Alexis Stone’s transformations into Jessica Lange, Jocelyn Wildenstein and Mrs. Doubtfire at various Balenciaga Couture shows push the question of identity and image ownership to new heights (despite the audience’s utmost confusion).

Our fascination with celebrities and personalities has grown significantly in the last decade and, as a result, people appear to be more interested in what celebrities are wearing (clothes and makeup alike) than runway fashion itself. Some might say the rise of social media has played a critical role in amplifying this trend, and created platforms’ own internal icons making it easy for fans to follow their favourite celebrities’ choices in real time.

Many front row personalities are brand ambassadors or have collaborations with fashion and beauty houses. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the front row and brands – a really smart strategic marketing move. Fashion shows also often coincide with, or are part of, larger events, such as awards ceremonies like the Grammys and Academy Awards. This makes media outlets’ jobs relatively easy: prioritise coverage of front row celebrities over runway fashion to satisfy the wider public’s obsession with popular culture.

I’m often asked to do VIP attendees’ makeup. When we can make that work, celebrities are made ready alongside the models backstage – a double whammy bonus for media content creators but an even greater blurring of the lines.

There’s no doubt there are benefits for the creatives. Brand product visibility on a “Get Ready With Me” video or a Met Gala celebrity are undeniably impactful and cannot be ignored from a business point of view. Yet, it seems the focus is shifting towards the process, the behind-the-scenes, the how-to, the relatable, rather than the final result.

But there are some moments that truly highlight the beauty of makeup artists and designers’ craft. In January, partners in crime McGrath and Galliano created magic for the Margiela Haute Couture show. She gave the artisanal broken doll characters from the collection a surreal, AI-looking glass skin that was as extraordinarily beautiful as it is revolutionary. The fashion world was in tears. The global makeup community was struggling to work out how the effect was achieved and what products were used. An army of beauty influencers tried to recreate the look in the coming days. The stratospheric coverage was an amazing tribute to every artist involved.

Fashion shows remain a critical platform for designers and beauty teams to showcase their creative work, build experience, set trends and define the zeitgeist. Over in a matter of minutes, these events require months of work, hundreds of people and millions of dollars to come together. When we allow a disproportionate focus on the side dishes rather than on the main course and prioritise trying to create a viral social moment rather than honour the core of creativity, we’ve missed the point.

Further Reading

Kosas Masters the Art of Reinvention

First with Gwyneth Paltrow and now with TikTok’s Gen-Z beauty queens, Kosas has charted a course to growth through rebranding, new products and customer base expansion.

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