Part mad scientist, part surrealist artist, Isamaya Ffrench is one of the beauty world’s most intriguing stars. Her knack for bringing characters to life with a warped sense of wonder and otherworldliness has been shaped by several aspects of her life, from growing up as a performing artist and working as a children’s face painter, to her degree in product and industry design, which equipped her with the skills to work with all sorts of unexpected materials (from prosthetics to shredded metal), and to bring innovative edge to the colourful, chaotic realm of beauty.
In less than 10 years, her boundary-shaking make-up artistry has shaped quite the resume: Think former beauty editor of i-D and launch creative director of Dazed Beauty; past ambassadorships for brands like YSL Beauty and Christian Louboutin Beauty; and make-up artist behind some of the most show-stopping runway beauty looks from Junya Watanabe to Vivienne Westwood. She’s also dreamt up some of the most avant-garde editorial concepts, including the two British Vogue covers featuring Rihanna—one with the paper-thin brows and glossy petal-lip in September 2018, and the other with the word “Truth” transcribed across the superstar’s forehead in May 2020.
Her most recent venture, besides her collaboration with Byredo for their new make-up line? Ffrench is now Burberry’s global beauty director, a stellar appointment that takes her back to her British roots—where there is still room for transhumanism and experimental beauty, while celebrating the classic but cool, confident Burberry woman.
Vogue speaks to the make-up maestro on her vision for the brand, superhuman touches, products to try and what’s going on for spring/summer 2021.
Growing up, was there one thing that made you think differently about beauty?
“When I was seven or eight, I loved reading [renowned makeup artist] Kevyn Aucoin’s book, Making Faces. I sort of forgot about it until I became a makeup artist, then I remembered how obsessed I was with it. He was a magician really, and transformed these iconic women into other iconic women. My work with [performance artist] Theo Adams was inspiring because he pushed me into the ‘diva’ zone, thanks to his glamorous influences such as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Shirley Bassey—and that wasn’t my world. It gave me a new perspective on beauty, which I didn’t have before. My initial perspective was minimalism, industrial design and 3D.”
From industrial design to the beauty industry, how do you think your background in 3D and product design informs your creations today?
“My degree gave me a better understanding of how to work with brands, while keeping the brand’s aesthetic at the forefront and implementing my own aesthetic. Also, I grew up in quite a masculine environment. I did lots of things like dance and theatre, but my family is made up of mostly engineers—so there is always this sense of problem solving, all the time. I feel a lot of what I do in beauty is to problem solve, in a way that I’m presented with an idea or inspiration by a designer or brand, and they want to communicate something but don’t know how or what it is even. I’m there to solve the riddle.”
How is it like working with such a heritage brand like Burberry, which has specific codes, and distinct visual identity?
“When people talk about pushing boundaries, I think they often think of things that are shocking, surprising and unconventional. While there’s a space and time for change, I don’t necessarily think that there’s a need for that at every brand. Working with Burberry, what we do is all about enhancing one’s own beauty, and working with products that make you feel confident, empowered and modern. Rather than the other kind of British beauty that can be eccentric or punk, it’s nice to be able to balance the cool with the classic for a brand so rich in heritage.”
How would you describe your relationship with Riccardo Tisci and Burberry? How do your visions intertwine?
“I’ve always been a fan of Riccardo and his vision, way before we worked together at Burberry. He’s got such a strong, powerful and exciting vision of a woman, one strikes a balance between femininity and masculinity, and he’s shaped the brand into one that’s more sleek and sexy, which I think is brilliant.
“There’s a kind of luxury, coolness and expensive quality that ties in with his vision of the brand: It’s the classic-yet-modern woman. It’s also about representation, in terms of the people we work with, the casting and the people who we want to represent the beauty element of the brand.”
What are your favourite products from the new collection?
“I love one of the Essential Glow Palettes because it’s not just two steps—it’s a deeper contour cream and a taupe that you blend. Plus, you’ve got two brushes and then two highlighters, so it’s almost like offering a few more steps to the basics we know. If you want to go easy and add light definition, or really sculpt your face and make it look amazing, then this is the palette. My other favourites are the Cat Liner in Jet Black, and Lip Velvet Crush in Cinnamon.”
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What is your inspiration behind Burberry’s spring/summer 2021 beauty looks?
A lot of what we’re looking at at the moment is great, healthy, polished skin, which weaves in again with Riccardo’s aesthetic. Burberry Beauty is about making you look your best. It’s not about Studio 54 eye makeup, but healthy-feeling skin. You can add a red lip lacquer or you can do a cat flick, but fundamentally it’s about maintaining good, clean skin and immaculateness.
Your works evoke such a bold otherworldliness, with recurring themes like transhumanism and escapism. Where does this sense of alternative creativity come from?
“It’s a great question that I don’t have an answer to, because there are no rules, agenda or statement behind my work—I like to create things to entertain myself, to do something new and different, or to encapsulate something I’m interested in at that moment. I take my tools—my make-up—and tell a story, a fantasy of characters that inspire or excite me.”
Do you think self-care can cultivate self-love? What are your rituals to do so?
“I am taking more time to properly cleanse and do my skincare, which has become part of my winding down routine at the end of the day. This eases me into other things I do at night like read and meditate. But when I do take some time for myself and go on a holiday, I don’t take books with me anymore because I want to force myself to just do nothing. We’re part of a culture where we don’t really allow ourselves to just switch off—we’re constantly on our phones, checking emails, checking social media etc. If I go away to relax, I want no distractions, I want to daydream.”
Are there any other beauty trends or movements we should have on our radar?
“In general, there is more of a holistic movement towards mental health and not glamorising procedures anymore, but instead glamorising loving yourself more. There are a huge number of things that feed into our relationship with changing our face actively. So, on the one hand, those procedures will be common and [there will be] more of them because they are now lunchtime procedures, without downtime. So people will be less afraid—but equally, I don’t think we will see as many people going to extremes anymore because it’s an out-of-date concept.”
Additional quotes from British Vogue.