Isamaya Ffrench is a rebel. Her influence, even for die hard beauty fans who dwell outside the parameters of the fashion industry, is intoxicating. The plastered, skinny brows at Junya Watanabe AW16, extraterrestrial shimmer and LED-fixtures at Mowalola AW23, bioluminescent dyed tongues and separated Twiggy-style lashes at Chet Lo AW23, and chimeric transhuman animalia faces fantastically constructed with prosthetics and SFX makeup for Collina Strada AW23, have all trickled into the mainstream. She’s applied her supple makeup brush to the faces of stargirls from Rihanna, Björk and Cher, even operating as Burberry Beauty’s global beauty director and at Byredo Makeup as creative director. She’s traversed the globe with the likes of Madonna, Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner amongst many others while simultaneously maintaining pivotal consultancy roles at Tom Ford, YSL and Christian Louboutin before – finally – going it alone.
Ffrench launched her eponymous makeup line, Isamaya, just one year ago, launching three viral lines in the days since. “It was time to do something for myself and take a 360 [approach] from concept design to strategies to YouTube – the whole package. I wanted to get really involved,” she says in a Zoom interview. Everyday is different; from working in her Shoreditch office to doing “day-to-day bits” at home, getting busy on set for an editorial or ad campaign or “getting up at 5:30am to get on a plane to Italy to develop makeup in the labs”. But if one thing is clear, it’s that the 34-year-old is a cosmetics connoisseur showing no signs of slowing her insatiable roll.
From left: Chet Lo AW23 and Mowalola AW23
Her debut collection Industrial was a fetish-infused medley of glow serums, brow laminators, lip glosses and mascaras, cased in matt black vessels with wearable metal piercings and rings puncturing the packaging, and a shimmering eyeshadow palette based on a vacuum bed, inspired by the underbelly of BDSM. Wild Star debuted next, inviting lip liners, lipsticks, highlighters and a prairie-glam pigment palette to the makeup table for cowgirls and boys who are wild at heart. Taking a sustainable approach, all Isamaya products are vegan and cruelty free. Plus, Isamaya is a gender-fluid label, catering to everyone rather than the usual glamour girls. “The idea isn’t just to do one big, endless makeup line, but to focus on these very specific worlds. I love world building, I think that’s what I do best,” she explains. “It’s about having a stylist concept and then everything else takes place around it.” Ffrench’s only rule is that there are no rules. She says, “The most exciting thing [is that] I can do what I want.”
Ffrench knows how to deliver excellency; from the casing down to the formula, but beyond that, the label demonstrates that what is often considered ‘ugly’ or ‘grotesque’ can be beautiful too, pushing the boundaries of palatableness within the world of makeup and aesthetics. “Beauty as a word can be defined in the dictionary, but it’s very subjective and personal. Watching your partner give birth is beautiful, there’s beauty in nature, etc,” she starts. “I think context is really everything and at this point, the work that I do has become so esoteric around me that sometimes I think I have lost sight of what mainstream beauty is because I am so exposed to all these different versions of it. The more you are exposed to something the more it makes sense. A lot of the things that I think are beautiful are only because I have had so much exposure to them, but if I were to show my mum, she would think it was terrifying.”
Collina Strada AW23
Ffrench wasn’t a Kim K contour kind of kid – unlike the lot of us who spent our teen years devouring Youtube makeup tutorials to an almost religious extent. Rather than cutting her teeth with cosmetics for the sole purpose of looking “pretty”, she found herself interested in theatre, costume and performance, even enrolling in a theatre company for an era. “I used [makeup] as a tool for transformations and bigger gestures than just looking pretty,” she recalls.
Ffrench studied industrial design at university, but eventually dropped out of CSM feeling that the course wasn’t “conceptual enough”. Hustling on the side, she had a job doing “body painting and kids’ face painting”, which would eventually lead her to a body painting gig with i-D Magazine. Then the bookings began rolling in, and the rest is history. Ffrench quickly garnered a reputation for disruption, wearable artforms and impeccable product design. “It’s come full circle now,” she says. “So much of what I learnt at university – like injection fold techniques, 3-D printing, design, using software – has really helped form my relationship with objects and how I approach design. What’s really important to me, with everything I make, is that people have some sort of relationship with it. I think that’s what makes a design successful.”
That all became clear the day Isamaya released a dick lipstick – let’s talk about sex, baby… Dubbed Lips, the erotic range is an ode to the alt. Borrowing from Fetishcore and leaning into kink, embracing the fantasy, experimentation and sexual liberation of all things aesthetically horny, people ate it up. “We were expecting a lot more adversity to it, but I didn’t really witness anything other than a couple of people saying ‘what about doing a vagina?” the polymath says. “I mean, it’s a penis lipstick! The most obvious thing in the world! And I felt really good about the whole project because it reminded me that society isn’t dead.”
Photography by Zhong Lin for Isamaya Lips campaign
While launching a phallus-shaped lipstick may seem like some kind of societal commentary or probe, Ffrench never intended to make such a statement. “There isn’t a huge amount of intellectualism behind it. I’m not trying to say anything with my work,” she explains. “I just absorb what’s going on around me in society, with cultural movements and in the industry and respond to that. Things just kind of come to me.” So when she came up with the idea for Lips, there wasn’t an “agenda or political statement”. It was simply a matter of knowing it had never been done before and Ffrench’s belief that “the world was ready for a penis lipstick”.
The latest launch in the Lips collection comes wrapped up in a hot pink penis. The Flamingo Sheer Lipstick Balm is a hybrid formula with all the gloss and Vitamin E infused moisture of a lip balm with just enough melting, creamy pigment to juice up any pout. “I don’t usually like pink,” Ffrench admits, “but this lip I love. It has a real flesh tone to it and it’s girly and good fun.”
On top of managing her new internal team, building a community and making all the big business decisions at Isamaya, Ffrench has just stepped up to bat as Off-White’s fearless beauty curator. She’s also working on a documentary which digs into “beauty standards and ideals”, as well as a whole slew of monumental beauty launches which are currently in the works for the rest of 2023. Isamaya Ffrench is indelible.
Photography courtesy of Isamaya. Shop Isamaya Lips here.
Photography by Sivan Roshianu for the Isamaya Flamingo Sheer Lipstick Balm
Isamaya Ffrench doing Yves Tumor’s makeup for Mowalola’s AW23 catwalk show