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Subversive Rebellion: A Look Inside Isamaya Ffrench’s Blossoming Beauty Empire

Published November 6, 2022
Published November 6, 2022
Steven Klein x Isamaya

Isamaya Ffrench’s creative vision has defied conformity from day one. A Cambridge native, she began her makeup artistry by painting faces at children’s birthday parties to support herself while studying 3D design at Chelsea College of Art, and later, product and industrial design at Central Saint Martins. Ffrench acknowledges this unconventional introduction gave her a wider understanding of the structures and dimensions of painting the face. Being a member of the Theo Adams Company, a London-based collective of artists, musicians, actors, and dancers, provided creative expressionism; her time as a competitive springboard diver and classical and contemporary ballet dancer in her youth equipped her with the necessary discipline to manage the grueling Fashion Week schedules and long hours on set.

Her first editorial photo shoot for i-D, where she later became Beauty Editor, involved body painting nude male models covered in clay to represent deities. Since then, Ffrench has not only done makeup for every influential publication and fashion designer around the world, acting as Creative Director for Dazed Beauty in the interim, but also became the International Creative Artistic Consultant for Tom Ford, an ambassador for YSL Beauté, and Global Makeup Ambassador for Christian Louboutin. Creations include the Extreme line for Tom Ford, a range of long-wearing eyeshadows that represented molten metal, and lash and brow tints in an equally kaleidoscopic range of colors. She also devised Byredo’s first makeup line, which included sculptural products with a variety of textures, finishes, and colorways, from the dazzlingly bright to sensually subdued, displayed through CGI-generated campaign imagery. In 2020, she was appointed the Global Beauty Director for Burberry Beauty, working alongside Riccardo Tisci, turning models’ faces into starry skies on the runway, and launching the Colour Clash collection with bold yet timeless hues of vermillion red, gold, and burgundy.

From reptilian eyes at Dion Lee S/S23 to Rihanna’s pencil-thin, Marlene Dietrich-esque brows on the cover of British Vogue’s September 2018 issue, Ffrench’s looks never fail to express the vast creative tools of expression available to us through beauty. In sharing her inspirations on her namesake YouTube channel, Ffrench cites revered artists such as Kevyn Aucoin and Lisa Eldridge, but also more unconventional points of reference such as the airbrush artwork of Philip Castle (who created the movie posters for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket), the cyborg erotica of Hajime Sorayama, and photographer Leah Gordon’s visual essay of folk history in the Haitian town of Jacmel.

“If you want to create anything new, you always have to look outside of beauty. That gets harder and harder for us [but] if you put different inputs in, different outputs will come out,” she tells BeautyMatter. Citing music as a big impact on her working process, Ffrench adds: “Travel has always been a big part of my working creative life, not just for jobs, but because I like it. Travel is one of the only places where you can seriously absorb something different. It's just about letting go and immersing yourself into an environment, in a space where you have to think differently, act differently, and do things differently.”

When it came to branching out into her own namesake beauty brand, ISAMAYA, expectations were understandably high. Ffrench met the challenge with gusto, creating a brand model which operates on a limited-edition, capsule-collection basis, focusing on skincare-infused formulas with an innovative color payoff. “I didn't really think it would be something that I did,” she remarks about her decision to launch the company. “But at this point, I've now developed and designed makeup for four or five brands, and gone right through the whole process from material development onwards. I thought, ‘Hold on. I need to just do this for myself.’ You only get one shot at life, so you may as well put what you've got into it.”

“If you want to create anything new, you always have to look outside of beauty. That gets harder and harder for us [but] if you put different inputs in, different outputs will come out.”
By Isamaya Ffrench, Founder, ISAMAYA

The decision to launch a finite number of products is both an interesting exercise in creating desirability, but more importantly, a responsible decision in terms of decreasing excess product waste. “Lots of people like having things that they know, understand, and go back to 10 years later, and other people like new stuff. I might get to that point eventually with the brand, but I think whilst I'm building the brand identity, it's important that I try a lot of new things out, and that's the only way that it felt right for me to do it,” she explains of the business model.

Similar to a fashion designer releasing a seasonal collection, she crafts an entire microcosm of beauty potential per range. The brand’s debut, the Industrial collection, was a sexually charged, provocative tour de force—breast plate-baring and latex-heavy campaign imagery included—which made its first physical appearance in the world with a pop-up activation in London’s Soho district.

Deriving inspiration from the world of BDSM, machinery, and fetish, the Industrial collection consisted of five core products: Skinlacq, a triple hyaluronic serum to moisturize the skin and impart it with a plumped-up glow, suitable for all skin tones; Rubberlash, a lifting mascara with proprietary latex lift technology, smart polymers, and black mica for extra glossy and seductively spiky lashes; Browlacq, a brow laminator with a hairspray-inspired formula and conditioning glycerin to sculpt hairs; Liplacq, a blackberry-hued, shimmery plumping lip serum with capsicum frutescens (or tobacco pepper) fruit extract, ginger oil, and soybean oil to boost lip volume; and Industrial Colour Pigments, a 14-eyeshadow shade palette. The shadows, with names like Whip, Diesel, and Initiator, are presented in a variety of textures: putty formulas that melt into the skin, mirror-like metallics, and duochrome shifting formulas. A self-proclaimed “grunge-inspired palette with a punk purview,” hues include the deepest of blacks, an iridescent, ethereal lilac hue, and antique bronze tones.

All packaging also perfectly encapsulates the collection’s theme, with rubber coating on the Rubberlash packaging component, a vac-bed encased female torso on the front of the Industrial Colour Pigments palette, and detachable barbell piercing rings across the face serum, lip serum, and mascara components. The piercing enthusiasm doesn’t end there, with a line of barbell rings and earrings, accompanied by T-shirts imprinted with stills of the campaign video, offering a further extension of the Industrial vision. “BDSM is a subculture that has a very strong aesthetic, which translates itself through clothing, through makeup, through ways of presenting yourself. I wanted to celebrate that with the ISAMAYA Industrial collection because I felt like there was no other space, especially in commercial makeup, that was looking at different groups in society, different subcultures, or themes, other than the very obvious ones,” she says.

The sophomore collection, Wild Star, melds the world of kitsch and glamour, a merging of nature and artifice where the glow of neon lights meets the rodeo mainstay of denim blue. Whereas Industrial was all about machinery and the human-made, Wild Star dips into a warmer, and more nature-derived, inspiration—but still with an equal level of eroticism and individual spirit.The colorways reference the beautiful tones of the cowboy cosmos: rich nudes, the vibrant oranges and blues of dusk and dawn, with a splash of pink and glitter thrown in for decadent measure. Packaging features gold and rhinestone-encrusted components, molded into the shape of horseshoes and bucking broncos. “For me, Wild Star made sense because I wanted to do something that felt very contrasting to the Industrial collection. I don't think anyone's expecting to see glitzy, gold horses,” Ffrench comments.

“Something I think about a lot is who makes the decisions? Who governs what's beautiful and what's not?"
By Isamaya Ffrench, Founder, ISAMAYA

The Wild Star Pressed Pigments Palette, the packaging of which transforms into a small case for personal items, features 12 sorbet-colored shades (including a subtle champagne shimmer, a bright fuchsia, and aquatic teal) with a cream-like feel and wet-foil finish. The Luckykiss Diamond Lip Glow is a lip-quenching balm-hybrid formula with a two-tone finish, courtesy of glittering pearl pigments, available in a mahogany-brown, coral-pink, and brick-red shade. Coordinating with these tones are the three hues of the Spur Stick Suede Lip Liner, a waterproof gel and matte-finish formula with a morphic formulation to ensure intense color payoff.  The Dazzle Up Highlighter is infused with retinol-mimicking alfalfa complex, shea butter, and jojoba oil to not only impart the high points of the face with a luscious dew, but also improve skin elasticity with wear. The Lash Lasso Lash Wrap Mascara contains a curved hourglass brush head and a curling, thickening formulation infused with proberry wax from the Chinese lacquer tree for soft yet voluminous lashes.

A reoccurring collaborator for Ffrench on ISAMAYA’s campaign imagery has been renowned photographer Steven Klein, whose depictions of individuality encompass latex-clothed nuns, nighttime city dwellers bathed in the artificial glow of the metropolis, and garter-wearing femme fatales smoking cigarettes beside a vintage racing car.  “We both love making cinematic images and visuals. I'm a beauty person, but more of an identity and character person, and I think Steven has a really great ability, more than maybe any other fashion photographer I know, to be able to put cinema into the beauty and fashion space, and make it feel like it all levels up a bit,” Ffrench comments on their partnership. “He just felt like the right person to collaborate with because he also wanted to create a very authentic narrative and environment. It should feel timeless.”

For the Industrial campaign, Klein filmed Ffrench in a full latex bodysuit covered in harnesses, her painted face slowly emerging from the rubber hood like a mysterious orchid blooming in the night, caressed by various latex glove-covered hands. The dynamics of power, agency, dominance, and submission draw interesting parallels to beauty. On the one hand, beauty is cultural capital, yet who determines what those specific parameters are isn’t always in the hands of the consumer. Teetering on the edge of body autonomy and pressure to conform, beauty is a wonderfully paradoxical universe in which one can simultaneously be empowered through creative expression and yet feel questioned about what does and doesn’t fall into the realm of acceptable versus unacceptable.

“Something I think about a lot is who makes the decisions? Who governs what's beautiful and what's not? I think for a very long time, it's been the commercial enterprises, big beauty brands, celebrities, that kind of thing, that have told everybody what beauty looks like,” Ffrench remarks. “For me, it was really important to, in a commercial space with a platform like mine, talk to an audience in a way that says there's definitely other representations of beauty that other people legitimately love and feel express their most potent and authentic self. That can be worn through this genre, or be through expressing yourself in that way, and it doesn't have to be pretty. It might be more of an empowering image of a person or a masculine version of a woman, or whatever that is for you.”

For the Wild Star campaign, also shot by Klein, there was an equally freed expression of sensuality, this time with Ffrench as a modern-day cowgirl, her skin with a sweaty glisten, donning shimmering copper eye makeup and a glossy burnt-orange lip, wearing a crystal-covered bra and brown leather cowboy hat. The story revolves around a glamorous Texan girl working at a local bar, surrounded by rowdy and drunk cowboys. “I'm not a super glitzy person, so in order to really inject some of myself into the campaign, I had to take all of that and put it into a dive bar to give it a real sense of authenticity,” Ffrench states. “She’s a character in the midst of all of this very masculine chaos who's able to feel empowered and dominate the space with her makeup and beauty in the same way as the Industrial campaign character did. I can't help but put ideas of empowerment, my own female empowerment, into the work that I do. Hopefully that translates to everybody.” Beginning with a launch party at Saddle Ranch in West Hollywood, ISAMAYA will be showcasing the range in an Airstream trailer across different venues in  Los Angeles between November 4-6.

The beauty of ISAMAYA extends beyond the surface—not just metaphorically, but with the brand’s philanthropical and environmental endeavors. “One of the things that I wanted to get serious about is sustainability and what that means for my brand. We've been discussing it with our sustainability consultant, and one thing that really makes sense to me is to have products that can be reused, repurposed, or have second lives,” she adds. Not only does the brand place an emphasis on reusable PCR packaging and ensuring an ethical production process, but it also partners with a single charitable organization for each collection, not just donating funds but amplifying the respective enterprise's message.

For Industrial, it is The Worldwide Tribe that uses creative storytelling, including The Asylum Speakers Podcast, to draw awareness to the refugee crisis, providing support for those in refugee camps in the Middle East and Europe. For the Wild Star collection, the partner is the American Wild Horse Campaign, a nonprofit that protects the nation’s wild horses and burros through humane management and conserving the lands of their natural habitats.

Regardless of what theme Ffrench decides to explore with her next collection, the result is sure to be a thing of captivating beauty, with a lot of substance beneath the enthralling surface.


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