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How Isamaya Ffrench Is Reinventing Beauty

The make-up wunderkind and BoF 500 cover star is growing a beauty brand that’s less about prettification and more about ‘world building’ for a generation that grew up with the speed and fluidity of the internet.
Isamaya Ffrench is growing a beauty brand that’s less about prettification and more about “world building” for a generation that grew up with the speed and fluidity of the internet.
Isamaya Ffrench is growing a beauty brand that’s less about prettification and more about “world building” for a generation that grew up with the speed and fluidity of the internet. (Lea Colombo for BoF)

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 perfect nomadic life for a few weeks. “If I sit on a beach, I just think about work and people I know,” she muses. “And I don’t want to think about either of those things.”

She is an adventuress, the more remote the destination the better. She’s recently been reading about the relationship between the left brain and the right brain, logic versus imagination. “New experiences fire up your right brain, so travel has always been the most important thing for me, for creative reasons,” she says. “Not thinking basically, just doing.” And feeling too. Ffrench was surprised how emotional she found the purity of her experience on the steppes. She claims she did a lot of crying.

Isamaya Ffrench launched her beauty brand Isamaya in June 2022.

Maybe that’s because the nomadic spirit touched her soul. In the 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 brilliant 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 came home to roost in June 2022, when Ffrench launched her own beauty collection: Isamaya. And I do mean home. The business is based in the atmospheric and art-filled pile in East London that she shares 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. When I ask what gives her the most pleasure in life, she says the cats. “These guys mostly.”

Ffrench studied product design at Central Saint Martins where one of the lessons 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 different way of looking at things,” which was clearly an asset during that peripatetic decade when she was changing hats every year.

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

Ffrench is a storyteller; dark fairytales are a specialty. Long before her career, she made money painting faces at kids’ parties. Lately, 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 chance to hone an intriguing personal narrative.

British Vogue cover September 2018

The first was called “Industrial.” It used the visual language of BDSM, product caps given the full Prince Albert piercing, the eye shadow palette in black rubber, 3-D printed with a naked 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 came “Lips,” her lip line.

Lipstick is Isamaya’s most successful cosmetics category, as it is for most beauty companies. 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 really believed that we were at the right time culturally, societally to do a product like that,” she says. “Now more than ever, with gender politics at the forefront of a lot of conversations in fashion and beauty, and abortion laws in America and nudity on TV, sexuality and gender is a big topic because ultimately it relates to your personal identity. And I think, more than ever, people are trying to really take ownership of that. So, it just felt like the right 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 same way Comme des Garçons do their Play T-shirts. It’s become something that is fundamental to my brand, but it exists in its own little world of Lips. The product is so unique and it resonates a lot more than many of the other things we’ve done. Friends of mine tell me their mums and grans pinch their lipsticks, which I love. So, we’re going to continue the line and just keep it growing.”

“I got called Blow Job Lips at school,” Ffrench recalls. “Not very nice for a girl of eight, is it?” I squawked with horror. She rationalises that the sobriquet was probably inevitable when there were also 16-year-olds in her school. Pause. “Maybe eight’s a bit of a stretch. Maybe we should say 14.” Though she insists her own lips haven’t played an instrumental role in her career, their inescapably erotic voluptuousness has been a star attraction in the promos and on-line tutorials she has made for her products. “My dad’s got bigger lips than me,” she says mock-indignantly. “I suppose I’m so desensitised to all of that really. I mean, applying lipstick on myself or on models is just a job. There’s a lot of desensitisation that has happened to me and the way I look at things, especially since I got into makeup and fashion and that world. I think a lot of people in fashion would probably say that. I mean, we all look a little bit fucking bonkers to most people. 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 part of her work. “Yeah, exactly,” she says. “Obviously there’s a time and a place for lips being erotic, but within the context of my work and makeup application, it’s way more technical to me now. Interesting that you say that because it’s never crossed my mind. But I think possibly it could be like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got big lips on your face and you’re applying your glossy product.’ Something quite interesting when I was in Mongolia, I got talking with our translator about what I do and she said eating fatty foods is a sign of wealth and good health, so glossy lipstick or lip gloss is the number one makeup product in Mongolia because looking like you’ve eaten a fatty meal is a very erotic look for a woman.”

Which would be a perfect segue into Ffrench’s passion project of the moment, a documentary she’s been working on for a 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 global conversation because of the internet, because of movies. Like, in Iran women walk around with bandages on their nose to fake rhinoplasty because it’s a symbol of wealth. Or, in Korea, parents set up trust funds for their kids to have cosmetic surgery when they graduate.”

Beauty’s cultural import has clearly intensified since the Nineties, a decade I spent working with Anita Roddick who founded The Body Shop as a riposte to what she saw as the beauty 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 think there’s still a lot of crap out there that is just hope in a jar,” she says. “But people are also more awake to that and that’s why the aesthetician and dermatologist’s roles are becoming more and more important and accessible. Something like having your blood in a centrifuge and then injected back into your face is common now. I am a big, big believer in inside-out skin care, working on your gut biome. Your skin is your biggest organ. So, I do believe in all of that.”

It’s hardly a leap from that to Ffrench saying, “I think in a way my brand has never been just about the makeup. It’s more about engaging with a concept or an idea or a dream or fantasy in the same way I suppose that fashion’s always allowed you to do that world building. And in the same way that maybe BDSM or a subculture does that. And, so, what I’ve always tried to do with my makeup and the storytelling is to go beyond ‘This is something that you can put on your face to make yourself look better and feel nicer about yourself if you’re having a bad day.’ I’ve never really cared about that myself. I mean, I love covering up my spots with concealer when I can, and I think I look better with an eyeliner on, but it’s more about the makeup being an opportunity to explore a bigger concept and a bigger world and a bigger idea.”

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

That might have something to do with the way 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 had a copy of makeup maestro Kevyn Aucoin’s “Making Faces” in their bookcase. She was eight when she found it. She doesn’t like 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 of her favourites. “The power of whatever I saw, even though I don’t think of it anymore in that way, has always carried me from that horrible dark space into something transformative.”

Maybe it was at that young age that the notions of transformation and transgression became intertwined for Ffrench, but she doubts it. “I don’t 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, no one would think anything of it. But it’s not, it’s in Vogue.” Still, it’s hard to skim her body of work without detecting her instinctive attraction to images that are as likely to disturb as they are to delight, especially when the dramatis personae of that work have included the likes of Marilyn Manson, Yves Tumor and Julia Fox — controversy magnets, all.

Isamaya Ffrench lives in an art-filled house in East London with her three cats.

It’s a point of departure from her high-profile predecessors Pat McGrath and Charlotte Tilbury. They could probably tell origin stories that were quite similar to Ffrench’s, starting with editorials in cult style magazines, building key relationships with designers, making deals with major cosmetics companies before launching their own brands. But when I asked Ffrench if she saw her own story as continuity or a break, she answered, “I really don’t know. The generations have had such wildly different experiences of what it is to work in the industry and how to survive it. Pat and Charlotte were of that generation just before social media, when they were able to dominate the editorial space that was the only place where you could show off your portfolio. As soon as Instagram happened, it was the democratisation of artistry in hair, makeup, whatever capacity. So, everybody could go, ‘Oh, this is what I can do.’ Up till then, there hadn’t been that kind of public space. It was just editorial or music video… So, I think we’ve really had to kind of… fight… I don’t think I fight too hard, I’m not desperate, but I think there’s just been a different level of being on. I’ve got to be on all the time. Because if you’re not, then you’re out.”

“I mean, we just have to produce so much work.” Ffrench elaborated on her vision of media Darwinism. “All the different social media platforms, video content, TikTok, interviews, everything, just like content overload. So, it’s quite a stretch navigating your own sanity and having to constantly produce stuff.” And someone in Ffrench’s elevated position would feel such pressure, I wondered. “Why do you think I went to Mongolia, mate?” she spat back. “Yeah, all the time. I have to be doing stuff all the time.” 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 suggests the scale of success that McGrath and Tilbury now enjoy matters less to her than following her own creative instincts wherever they may lead her. Like “Mantle,” the eerie electronic folk single she recorded with composer Sam Thomas. She directed and stars in 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 it all. Restless. She wouldn’t disagree. “I have to feel like I’m exploring new things. Otherwise, I’m not interested. Okay, we’ve got BDSM in everyone’s brains at the moment. That’s where I was when 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 are in society, and conversations around gender and sexuality. Great. I think it will be really hard for me to try and define myself by the way a product looks for the next 10 years. But I’m going to have to. And next year, I will be doing that.”

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

Further Reading

About the author
Tim Blanks
Tim Blanks

Tim Blanks is Editor-at-Large at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers designers, fashion weeks and fashion’s creative class.

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