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Isamaya Ffrench: Creativity Unbridled

Burberry’s new global beauty director talks makeup, music and cooking.

Isamaya Ffrench, Burberry’s newly minted global beauty director, didn’t have color cosmetics on her radar from the get-go. “It was kind of a mistake,” she said of her start as a makeup artist.

Ffrench had trained in dance and theater, then studied 3-D and product design, but with the intention of continuing the pursuit of her first two passions.

“I took up a part-time job as a face painter and body painter because it was creative and a fun job, instead of working in a bar,” she said.

Around 10 years ago, a friend, the artist Matthew Stone, asked Ffrench to work on an i-D magazine shoot featuring Alek Wek.

“I didn’t even know what i-D magazine was at that time,” admitted Ffrench. “Just from doing that job, and finding it so fun and easy, I decided from that point onward that I was going to really apply myself and become a creative makeup artist.”

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Ffrench’s star shot upward from there. She worked with designer Christopher Shannon, Arena Homme Plus, began getting show bookings, then signed on to Tom Ford, Christian Louboutin and Byredo, with brand ambassador and creative director roles.

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“I think I was probably in just the right place at the right time in London with that kind of arty crowd,” she said, of her start. But, in fact, it’s uber-creativity fueling her meteoric rise.

“Probably some of my greatest inspiration is from talking to people,” said Ffrench, adding artists are “essentially a sponge, and the world around you is like a long input system of visual and audio information. It just gets into your brain, and then you make stuff.

“Weirdly, although there is a sort of fantasy element in my work, I’m actually much more a realist,” she said.

Ffrench explained someone had told her James Joyce once said that a good writer always writes as if the actuality of events were happening. Similarly, she aims for a believable version of fantasy.

Her creations are unforgettable. For the Giambattista Valli spring 2020 show, Ffrench festooned models’ faces with live flowers. For Thom Browne’s spring 2019 display, she colored the underside of models’ chins in orange or blue. Eye makeup, with bold strokes of black liner, echoed the spiky metal necklaces worn at Junya Watanabe’s spring 2018 show.

During the quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ffrench remained housebound in London’s Victoria Park, “reflecting, really, and cooking — I suppose getting comfortable with doing things that we probably should be doing normally, like having a balanced life.”

Ffrench was a chef years ago. The multihyphenate has also been collaborating on a music project with a friend.

“Up until now I’ve been working with him every other week sporadically, when we could get a session in. But that has been really nice to be able to be in a studio every week together,” she said, keeping mum on details.

“If I was to look at the creative chapters of my life, music has probably been the thing that’s really defined and led them,” she said. “For example, when I set up Dazed Beauty a couple of years ago, I was very much into techno, EDM and electronic music.”

So, too, was she inspired by the visual art and artists linked to such genres.

“So Dazed Beauty was initially going to be a kind of prog-rock project, which is why we went for the art nouveau font for the logo,” said Ffrench, referring to the Dazed Digital video series. “But then it transformed, and we started to work with a lot of digital artists that had been working on the techno scene and with EDM and IDM artist, music artists and stuff. I was influenced by a lot of the graphic design around techno music.”

Dazed Beauty, she said, “was a worldwide platform to try and initiate the younger generation in a more inclusive movement of, say, makeup and makeup artists — and just people in general. That’s always really been something that I have strived and fought for. Diversity is not just important, it’s imperative, and to treat people equally and give people opportunities.

“I feel very fortunate I work with a company like Burberry, which is very inclusive,” continued Ffrench. “When you’re affiliated with brands you want them to reflect the way that you feel.”

She was first attracted to the brand because of its chief creative officer, Riccardo Tisci. “I’ve always loved his work,” Ffrench said. “He is a genius.”

She felt perhaps he had plans to push the heritage brand that’s English (like Ffrench) in a new direction. Her vision for Burberry’s makeup is a work in progress, since she joined Burberry Beauty, which is part of Coty Inc., just during the lockdown, though she’s done numerous advertisements for the label, such as the TB Monogram and Festive 2019 campaigns.

What does Ffrench like best about product development?

“Trying stuff on,” she said, with a laugh. “That’s always fun. It feels so amazing when you have the product, when it’s made, on the shelf and out there. It’s so rewarding. And also people enjoying wearing the product.”

Ffrench envisions the trend evolving from today’s heavily creative, transformative makeup to more subtle uses.

She believes the color-cosmetics category needs to keep pace with beautification in general, as more people opt for procedures like injectables. There’s also a market now for much more creative and interesting colors, and Ffrench believes brands will start integrating wellness and skin care into their makeup, too.

“People are expecting more from their product now,” she said.


Inside the Mind

What are some favorite makeup looks that you’ve created?

“One of them was probably on Marilyn Manson. He’s one of my icons, so it was just a dream to work with him. It was going to be for his album artwork, and then we ended up releasing it as a Halloween portrait. I was in prosthetic and special-effect makeup in the photo with him, sitting on his knee.”

What are you reading?

“I was reading ‘Knots,’ which is poems by the psychoanalyst R.D. Laing. I’m sort of working my way through ‘Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975’ by Max Hastings.”

What about podcasts?

“I just finished all of the ’Grounded With Louis Theroux’ series. I love Louis Theroux. I’m actually working on a documentary at the moment about global beauty aesthetics, so he is quite an inspiration and good research material. It’ll be a televised seven-part series.”

Your favorite color?

“Burnt orange.”