The London beauty alchemist changing the game

Seamlessly shifting between beauty and art, see how self-taught and tech-savvy innovator Isamaya Ffrench is redefining the boundaries of make-up

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All clothes and accessories by Junya Watanabe SS15Photography Nicolas Coulomb, styling Agata Belcen

This profile is part of the On the Up series spotlighting the next generation doing great things to push London’s creative scene forward. In partnership with Microsoft’s most recent Windows upgrade, Windows 10, the series explores the past, present and future of eight trailblazing, tech-savvy artists

Isamaya Ffrench is no ordinary make-up artist. At 25-years-old, the self-taught innovator has already worked with some of the world’s most revered fashion photographers – Miles Aldridge, Richard Burbridge, Tyrone Lebon and David Sims among them. Her visionary art has graced the pages of Dazed, AnOther, LOVE, POP, Vogue Italia, V Magazine, and, as you may have guessed, the list goes on. Recently appointed YSL’s UK make-up ambassador, a position she juggles alongside her stewardship as beauty editor of i-D, Ffrench has garnered a reputation for her simultaneously iconic and iconoclastic work, as she redefines notions of beauty, pushing the limits of what make-up art can be.

“In faces we seek truth and understanding, so when you challenge that by painting them,” Ffrench says, “it disturbs our normal interaction and sense of who someone is. I love to challenge that – I like the idea of creating imagery that catches you out!” Such an element of surprise is distinctive to her playful treatment of the face as an artist’s canvas, onto which an unexpected story might be told. Often experimenting beforehand with the help of illustration apps, Ffrench has a multitude of facial stories she can always come back to and take in new directions. For her, make-up art is not a question of making someone look “pretty”, but of stimulating “emotional responses, such as nostalgia, euphoria, fear, or surprise”.

It is funny to think that someone so in touch with the possibilities of their discipline, studied Product and Industrial Design at university – a course, Ffrench notes, that favoured “mass production for mass consumption, rather than subjective creativity for the individual”. Luckily, her side-job as a children’s face-painter proved to be fruitful, leading Ffrench to leave Central Saint Martins, before joining a London-based collective of avant-garde performers across music, dance, drama, art and fashion. Soon, word-of-mouth recommendations landed her on an ethereal photo-shoot with Matthew Stone, painting Alek Wek as a statuesque deity.

That, alongside Ffrench’s surreal, nightscape visages for Christopher Shannnon’s S/S 11 show, carved her “breakthrough moment”, from which point her phone did not stop ringing. With her strong online presence – a naturally awesome Instagram account – her following skyrocketed, and now even Nick Knight is a fan. In an interview with Ffrench for SHOWstudio, he stated that she is the first make-up artist since the legendary Pat McGrath to make genuine waves in her field. But it is precisely because Ffrench refuses to stick to the confines of make-up art that makes her work so original.

Drawing inspiration from cultural phenomena as far-reaching as Japanese calligraphy and tribal scarification, Ffrench’s working process often begins with a series of collated images categorised into different subgenres, from which she seamlessly develops her ideas. Her creative practice, however, embraces “intuition”, and what simply feels right on the day. This allows for that element of unpredictability to surface – looks that might be “a little rough round the edges” – although she is quick to acknowledge the wonders of digital retouching, which always forms part of her post-production process.

Asked where she sees her discipline is heading, she muses on “downloadable makeup”, and shoots located in space. A sci-fi future for facial adornment? Maybe, but without forgetting “narrative”, she says, “a back story, history – something cinematic”. Not surprisingly, then, when quizzed on who she follows most closely, Ffrench expresses her admiration for the inexhaustible imagination of Val Garland’s make-up work, as well as the rainbow stories of Alex Brownsell (the cult hair stylist who led the dip-dye revolution). Here’s why she thinks they are doing great things: 

VAL GARLAND (@THEVALGARLAND)

"Even though she has a worldwide reputation as being one of the world's most iconic and pioneering makeup artist of the past century, she still amazes me with her unchallengeable creativity and range within the genre of makeup. A.k.a always relevant and fresh ideas." 

ALEX BROWNSELL (@ALEXBROWNSELL)

"My number one colourist! Alex owns Bleach salon, so she is better known for her colouring but she's just as talented at session styling and haircuts."

Ffrench is shown using Windows 10 on the Surface 3 to sketch out make-up inspirations. The Windows 10 upgrade is available to download free for a Windows 7 or 8.1 PC here

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