In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Reflecting on Isamaya Ffrench‘s background, it seems she was always destined to be known for a sculptural, boundary-shattering approach to makeup artistry. But it took her a little while to realize that she wanted to channel her creative impulses and ability to envision 3-D masterpieces to faces. Before building her impressive resumé, the newly minted global beauty director for Burberry Beauty grew up in Cambridge, England before leaving at the age of 18 to study 3-D design at Chelsea College of Art, then going on to pursue product design at Central Saint Martins.
Ffrench’s first foray into makeup could be considered the face painting gigs she did in her early 20s, when she spent her weekends entertaining at children’s parties. That somewhat modest beginning eventually led to a robust career in makeup artistry; Ffrench is now regarded as one of the top talents in the industry, celebrated for her ability to transform faces, bring otherworldly characters to life and apply her sculptural, artistic eye to makeup for uncanny, sometimes unnerving results. To look at some of her work — like, for example, Kylie Jenner‘s melted-looking makeup on the cover of Dazed Beauty last year — Ffrech is the Salvador Dalí of modern makeup.
In addition to her role with Burberry, Ffrench was also recently tapped to develop Byredo‘s forthcoming inaugural color cosmetics range, set to make its debut in October. Her work has graced the covers of British and Italian Vogue and Dazed, among others, as well as in the pages of i-D, Love Magazine, Vogue, Pop, Another and W. She’s worked with brands like Christian Louboutin Beauté, YSL Beauté, Tom Ford Beauty, MAC, Louis Vuitton, Ashish, H&M, Kenzo, Thom Brown and Junya Watanabe, as well as celebrities including Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian and helped to launch Dazed Beauty in 2017 as its creative director. (Didn’t I mention she had an impressive resumé?)
After being selected to helm Burberry Beauty, Ffrench took some time to chat with Fashionista about the highlights of her career so far, where she finds inspiration and her advice for aspiring makeup artists. Read on for the highlights of our discussion.
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Tell me about your personal background and how it led to your career choice as a makeup artist.
I grew up in Cambridge but at 18, I moved to London, as soon as possible after I finished school. I specialized in 3-D design at Chelsea College of Arts and ended up going on to study Product and Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins. After joining a theater company, I began working as a makeup artist for shows and creative editorial projects. That was back in 2010 — the rest is a blur.
You studied 3-D design and product design in school — how has that informed your approach to makeup?
I think it helps me solve problems like working with brands and attempting to translate their vision onto a face.
I also read that you started doing makeup by painting children’s faces at parties. Can you tell me more about how you got into that and how it led to a bigger career in makeup artistry?
It was really just a side job to help get me through university. But I ended up really enjoying it and feeling like makeup and faces were something more to be explored.
How did you first go about pursuing makeup professionally?
I didn’t have any training, it just all felt quite natural. My first job was for i-D magazine — and I didn’t even know what i-D magazine was back then. I think that set me up for bigger things. I just ended up going with the flow and painting faces and bodies until I felt like I wanted to pursue a more classical makeup route.
Is there any moment that stands out to you in your career as a big break?
I think becoming beauty editor of i-D magazine and then going on to launch Dazed beauty was a humbling moment for me. I feel really lucky that people believed in what I had to say and really let me just go for it with their support.
How would you describe your approach to makeup?
I just approach every job differently. You know, it’s just a job at the end of the day and I have to help the team get as close to their goal as possible, which could be a music video, a product, an editorial or anything else. I love all different styles of makeup and application from minimalism to maximalism.
What do you hope to communicate through your work?
I really don’t think too much about that. I feel like if you start to analyze your intentions too much, you become stifled and blocked and then question what you’re doing. So reflecting on that is something that should be saved for your death bed. I like to just go with the flow and do what feels right — I’ll think about it later.
How has social media factored into your career?
It’s an important tool in as much as it helps you showcase your vision and work to a wider audience and allows you to network with people you may never come across otherwise.
Where or from whom do you find inspiration?
From everywhere and everything. I am very curious and interested. I can get my inspirations from travel, conversation, art, documentaries and experiences.
You’ve said that Pat McGrath is “the most important makeup artist perhaps ever.” What has she brought to the industry and how has she inspired or impacted your career?
I feel like she brought fashion and editorial makeup to a mainstream audience. She’s incredibly creative and she has created so many new styles that set a kind of springboard for a lot of young creative makeup artists to dive off.
What do you consider your top five must-have products in your kit?
What did it mean to you to be chosen as Burberry’s Global Beauty Director? What drew you to Burberry and what do you hope to accomplish with the brand?
I love Burberry’s modern, edgy vibe. It has become an incredibly sexy, street savvy brand and I love that there’s a duality of chic simplicity and maximalism that balance each other. It manages to fall on the cusp of edgy and chic perfectly, and I would like to do that with the beauty side of Burberry.
I’ve always admired Riccardo [Tisci] and his creative expressions — even before his time at Burberry — so to be guided by someone like that feels very exciting, and I can’t wait for our upcoming work together.
Do you have one look or shoot that stands out from your portfolio as being your all-time favorite?
The portrait of me and Marilyn Manson. I don’t really think I need need to explain why.
What professional goals do you still hope to accomplish?
I’d like to direct more. I’m working on a documentary about beauty at the moment and I can’t wait to share it.
What advice do you have for young makeup artists who aspire to a career like yours?
It’s a very different time to be starting out than when I was 10 years ago. Just always be prepared to adapt to the climate and what is expected of you and you’ll be fine.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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