The work of féted make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench is a veritable cauldron of ideas and influences: horror movies, gender identity, beauty, dance, high-board diving and so much more can be plucked from her portfolio. Filtered through her deeply personal taste for the eclectic, her painted forms grace (and often subvert) the editorials of your favourite magazines, the campaigns of your favourite brands and the music videos of your favourite popstars. Isamaya has stumbled into a career arguably built on the concept of transformations - making her perhaps the perfect Semaine subject at this particularly spooky time of year…
‘Transformation’s fun! And also what makes [makeup] interesting - when there’s a proper narrative behind it. Otherwise you’d just be doing the same sort of bold eyeliner twenty times over…’ Upon meeting Isamaya you very quickly get the sense of someone who has found the perfect formula for expressing bonafide ideas without ever compromising on the natural-born desire to entertain that so evidently courses through her. In our post-shoot tête-à-tête she talks enthusiastically about ‘the symbolism and the signs and the signifiers…’ before breaking into a huge grin and rounding off with, ‘…and all that kind of shit.’ There’s also the small fact of the matter that here she sits, after 12 long hours of shooting, perfectly at ease in a fully realised witch’s costume. Blacked out teeth, a manic wig and - the pièce de résistance - a crooked, warty witch’s nose all come together just so. When it comes to realising her work, the i-D Beauty Editor and UK ambassador for YSL Beauté (amongst various other high profile roles that no doubt place a heavy emphasis on the ‘B’ word) does not shy away from the ‘uglier’ side of her tastes.
On the contrary, it has become a liberating point of difference, as any follower of her work will attest to. For Isamaya, it all boils down to ‘emotions,’ an inherently positive force to harness. ‘Why wouldn’t you want to make something emotional? ‘It makes people more involved in things and connect to it and in a way get excited by it, even if they don’t necessarily like something.’ She continues, ‘what often happens in the commercial [makeup] world is that there’s no emotion behind these images and it’s a bit like industrial design - just removing all the quirks [so that it appeals] to a mass audience. You have to strip off the interesting bits so that you have this very simple thing that everybody can understand very easily and I’ve got no desire to do that at all. So I’m very happy if there’s people that don’t like what I’m doing!’
The reference to industrial design is no accident. It is the subject that Isamaya studied at university when she first moved to London some eight years ago - an eighteen year old fresh out of Cambridge with A-levels in physics, maths - ‘that sort of thing’ - under her belt. ‘I wasn’t really gearing up to do anything creative until just before applying to uni, when I was like hang on a minute - I’m not going to be a dentist!’ After doing ‘an art thing’ as she puts it, Isamaya explored the worlds of product and industrial design through her studies, but found her true calling in the somewhat unconventional part time job she used to support herself… It was face painting at children’s birthday parties that gave Isamaya the transformative and performative elements she’d been craving in a fun-filled context. Exactly what was missing from the reductive, academic confines of her chosen degree. She threw herself into it with gleeful aplomb and dedication.
‘I mean, I did get to the point where parents would say, “okay, you’ve spent twenty minutes [painting] this kid now, I think you need to do someone else!”’. Things snowballed in - if you are to believe Isamaya’s self-depracating take on things - an incredibly organic and easy-going way. Making children into pint-sized Spidermen (or -women) soon transformed into shooting with the likes of Matthew Stone for i-D, co-founding her own clothing label (English School) and continuing to perform as part of a theatre company. And what further evolutions might the future hold? ‘I mean awesome if I am [still doing makeup] but I think only do what you enjoy and if I’m not doing makeup in five years then that’s for a reason.’
Transformations, as any horror movie aficionado will tell you, can seem scary. Isamaya Ffrench is testament to just how fun and exciting they can also be.