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There’s More to Building a Beauty Brand Than Selling Lipstick

The most inspiring fashion brands from Comme des Garçons to Balenciaga are able to satisfy customer desire and still make sales targets. The same can be done in beauty, writes Isamaya Ffrench.
Fashion and beauty have to be both desirable and relatable, writes Isamaya Ffrench.
Fashion and beauty have to be both desirable and relatable, writes Isamaya Ffrench. (Josie Hall for ISAMAYA Beauty)

“Wet clay coming through!”

The fashion team winced every time I uttered those words and took an off-balance step. Back then, a slimy bucket splashing a £4,000 Alexander McQueen bodice that was being carefully pinned to the torso of Alek Wek wasn’t much of a concern to me. It was 2012 and I’d found myself in soggy overalls painting a group of models for i-D magazine as a favour for a friend. My kit in those days consisted mostly of big paint brushes and paint strippers, but when I saw the makeup artist delicately applying a fine powder to Alek’s perfectly illuminated cheekbone, I thought, “I could do that”.

Fast forward 10 years and a lot has changed. I’m not wearing soggy overalls — to work at least — and I have an assistant to carry the buckets. I still get down and dirty with clay, silicone and latex sometimes, but more often, I am the one delicately washing a model’s face in warm blush.

Some of the most exciting projects of my career have been deconstructing faces on the catwalk for the likes of Junya Watanabe, Thom Browne and Vivienne Westwood, or applying melted plastic bags to create reptilian-like skin. I love removing facial features like eyebrows with special effects glue to give a model a more otherworldly look and curing UV acrylic gel to create fake tears. (You saw it on the 2023 cover of BoF 500 first!) But as someone who likes to approach beauty in an out-there way — the outsider has always been in for me — I often get asked, “How does that, then, translate into sales?”

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I often look at fashion brands and ask myself the same questions. “How have they managed to accommodate avant-garde creativity and make it work in an accessible and commercial way?” Take Comme des Garçons for example: sheer mad brilliance. But you wouldn’t want to wear that plastic-wrapped balloon dress to a pub quiz night, would you? Or Balenciaga, with shoulder pads so large, I wouldn’t even be able to get into an Uber, let alone my front door. As two of the most successful fashion brands on the planet, how do they keep us coming back … and buying? Well, for every balloon dress, there are ten thousand Comme trainers sold in every major department store around the world and in the case of Balenciaga, no one rocks a 4 foot shoulder pad better than Kim Kardashian on Instagram.

Ultimately, fashion and beauty have to be both desirable and relatable.

Isamaya Beauty
In cosmetics, we’re all basically selling what sells best: foundations and red lipsticks (Zhong Lin for ISAMAYA BEAUTY)

In cosmetics, we’re all basically selling what sells best: foundations and red lipsticks. Ask Lisa Eldridge and she will tell you that red lipstick was first worn in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago and we are, of course, all familiar with Cleopatra’s iconic black kohl eyeliner. Not a lot has changed since. Yes, technology has advanced formulas (hopefully no one is still poisoning themselves with lead-based foundations and radium creams) and colour trends might change seasonally but most people still go back to the essentials of simple makeup.

There’s only so much you can do with a face. And women and men both want makeup to be used to elevate their own features, rather than obscure them. We all want to look our best.

Living in a cosmopolitan city is such a privilege. Being surrounded by people that are comfortable pushing boundaries means that capturing and relating to this kind of audience feels like the norm. It helps that I’m talking to customers directly with my brand, Isamaya, through various social media platforms with the confidence and initiative to embrace what I stand for: empowerment, self expression, creativity. But what about everyone else who might have this desire to self-express, too?

Launching a penis-shaped lipstick last year provided the beginning of an answer. The campaign was loud and upfront — it had to be — and the product itself caused a lot of talking beyond the fashion sphere. Nothing is as attention-grabbing as a 300 gram chrome penis in your pocket or, in the case of our campaign, a 20-foot chrome penis that was erected in Paris during the Autumn/Winter 2023 fashion week. Excuse the pun.

For me, this was the answer to reinventing and selling great makeup basics. Telling an exciting story with a focus on innovative packaging and campaign visuals that make noise and aren’t the clinically lit beauty shots we’ve been fed for the past couple of decades. But, I gave my customer — and even, a woman of ancient Mesopotamia — what they wanted, namely, a classic red lipstick.

Further Reading

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.

In This Article

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The Business of Beauty Global Awards - Deadline 30 April 2024