“An image isn’t enough. You have to have some sort of narrative”: an interview with Isamaya Ffrench

Make-up artist and illustrator Isamaya Ffrench is one of the most sought after creatives in fashion. In this extract from issue five of Riposte magazine, Liv Siddall talks to Ffrench about using make-up to tell a story, collaborating with designers on couture shows and using Instagram to document her creative experiments

Isamaya Ffrench’s work punches you in the face and bolts you out of your lethargic internet scroll. Many people refer to her as a make-up artist but the title doesn’t do her work justice. She creates narratives and characters that play out across the faces of those she works with. Achieving the perfect lip or eyeliner flick is not top of her agenda, finding a new way to express herself most definitely is.

If you haven’t heard of her, Isamaya is a young designer turned illustrator turned well-celebrated make-up artist. On paper she’s YSL’s UK make-up ambassador, i-D magazine’s beauty editor and she works with clients such as Chanel, Hermes, Selfridges and a handful of the world’s best up-and-coming fashion designers.

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Isamaya Ffrench, photographed by Neil Bedford for Riposte. Lead image (top): Personal commission, photographed by Felicity Ingram for The Telegraph

It all started during her time studying product design at Central Saint Martins. To earn a few quid she began doing children’s face-painting as a weekend job and quickly realised she was really, really into it. Later, while working as a dancer at the Theo Adams Company, Isamaya had her big break when London-based artist Matthew Stone approached her to do some body painting for an i-D shoot. “I decided it was easy enough to do and it was something that gave me creative freedom,” she says. “I’ve never looked back!”

Something about what Isamaya does is so refreshing compared to all the make-up advertising and imagery we are used to. Where most magazines stop at squishing a load of lipsticks together for a photo shoot, Isamaya will eat the lipstick and shoot that instead. Her work is bonkers: no-holds-barred creations like you’ve never seen before. You get the feeling she could be handed anything and do something brilliant with it. Perhaps it’s because she’s totally unaffected by the make-up world, treating it as an art medium rather than a branch of the fashion industry: paint, brushes, textures and colours have infinite combinations and possibilities for her to explore.

Personal experiment

Nowadays she has thousands of devoted followers who adoringly like, share and comment on her every update. Her rather addictive Instagram feed is made up of hundreds of photos of Isamaya doing things like putting two fake-boob chicken fillets over her eyes, lighting a whole pack of fags in her mouth, wrapping fishing wire around her tongue, or applying Letraset to her teeth. And that’s just the selfies; every other photo is basically a Tumblr of every fashion image you’ve ever glanced at and thought was cool (she’s behind the much talked-about pixelated lego masks of young designers Agi & Sam’s AW15 collection, and the plastic bags on the heads of models for Christopher Shannon’s). But mostly the images are wildly intricate pieces of work, practised on her own face.

“I use my own face because I can’t always hire a model and if we’re working together and have an idea, we normally just want to get on with it,” Isamaya says. “My Instagram feed is like a personal, chronological documentation of the creative thing that we do together, which is nice.” (The “we” she refers to is herself and Josh Wilks, who has gone from being her assistant, in 2012, to her primary collaborator).

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Lego masks for Agi & Sam’s AW15 show and make-up for Junya Watanabe’s SS16 collection

Isamaya told me about the duo’s experiences at London Fashion Week, which, at the time we spoke, had just finished. Isamaya and Josh are usually brought in when the designer’s collection is completed to spend some time with the clothes and start thinking about how they will interpret the concept with make-up for fashion week. For designers, this part of the process is incredibly important—until that moment they usually aren’t able to translate the meaning of the clothes into how the models actually look.

“The designers could have a reference of a really cool 80s punk or something, but if you’re going to cast young Russian models then you need to have somebody who knows how to look at a bigger picture,” says Isamaya. Her job is to see through the designers’ references (which could be newspaper clippings, songs or old photographs) and work with them to translate them on to the models. Well, that’s at LFW anyway; Paris is a different story.

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Camper campaign, shot by Daniel Sannwald

“In Paris it’s couture so the whole process is a lot more thought about. When we do shows with Junya (Watanabe) it’s a couple of months of preparing ideas,” Isamaya tells me. “We don’t get to see the collection until the day before the show, and he just sends formal, Japanese-translated riddles. He’ll give you buzzwords like ‘industrial’ or ‘synthetic schoolgirl’, just random words. And you have to solve the riddle and show him your ideas.”

Despite her playful manner—which must be part of the reason why certain designers keep queuing up to work with her—she takes what she does very seriously. It’s not just face painting; she wants people to understand that there’s a more philosophical approach to what she and Josh do. “It’s really important in our work that there are always elements that people can somehow subconsciously relate to,” she says. “An image isn’t enough. You have to have some sort of narrative to go with it.”

This is where Isamaya and Josh sometimes find it a little tricky. Where big brands and enormous fashion houses are clamouring to take a slice of their talents and share-worthy imagery, what the pair really want is to be treated as artists, not ad agency fodder. At the moment they’re keen to start experimenting with film. It seems they’re not content unless they’re pushing and experimenting again and again.

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Commission for Sunday Times Style magazine, photographed by Yelena Yemchuck

Isamaya confesses that she doesn’t feel comfortable when clients ask her to just “do make-up.” Covering someone’s face in a design is how she creates, and she finds it hard to instantly switch it on and perform. “Often we are faced with the dilemma of people who only want a cool image,” she says. “And yeah, that’s great and it may appeal to a 15-year-old who’s into fashion, but now it’s at the point where that’s not what we want to do anymore. You feel very flat because there’s no dimension to the work. That’s why it’s important to create a character rather than just doing a patterned face for the sake of a patterned face.”

You can read the full interview, in which Ffrench discusses copycats, trolls and making Lego masks for models at Agi&Sam’s AW15 show, in Riposte issue five. See more images of Ffrench’s work at isamayaffrench.com

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