Isamaya Ffrench, Beauty Editor, i-D


"I grew up in Cambridge but at 18, I moved to London—as soon as possible after I finished school! I specialized in 3D design at Chelsea College of Arts and ended up going on to study Product and Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins. Recently, I've been trying to figure out how my studies have informed my work and I think that they've given me a different perspective on dimension and an understanding of aesthetics. I learnt how to address the face as an overall, structural entity rather than just in two dimensions. It’s funny really, because growing up I was never interested in makeup. I used to dress up when I was a kid, but then I got into sport—I was a competitive springboard diver and that side of things took over my life. I suppose that I got into my makeup career in a strange way—when I was studying at university, I started doing children’s face painting as a weekend job. Really quickly, I got to a stage where I was taking it too far; the mums would be saying, 'Hurry up, it's been 20 minutes,' and I would be sitting there creating an intricate Spiderman on the face of a crying child. [Laughs]


Then one weekend a friend asked me to make his girlfriend up as a sexy tiger. I thought, 'Why not?' because I already had all my paints with me. And then I realized, 'Hang on, she looks alright! Maybe it doesn't have to be for kids!' Then it became a word of mouth thing and I started getting real makeup jobs. I did my first fashion shoot with for i-D Magazine with the photographer Matthew Stone. I wasn't really into fashion and I didn't know what I was doing—or even what i-D really was—but Matthew asked me to come and do some body painting to turn these boys into gods and deities, painted in clay...and naked. It was just an amazing experience and I suppose that everything sort of really took off from there. Although, there was a while where I just felt like a professional genital painter. I did one willy and suddenly everyone was like, 'She's fine, she'll paint willies!' So I just kept getting asked to. I have one-use brushes now—I don't want to contaminate the makeup!

I didn’t go into what I'm doing now in order to challenge gender or identity concepts, but for whatever reason it’s become this thing that I’ve started to explore. And the environment that our generation is in at the moment is all very virtual and encourages the curation of one’s own identity. Everything's become all about the ego and almost about the loss of one's self. Wearing a mask—even painted on with makeup—is a tool for constructing identity. But painting faces and using makeup is the oldest thing ever—I went to South Africa in January, which was fascinating; particularly the different decorations or patterns of scarification, which are indicative of the individual's place in society. I’m fascinated by all of that; and it's so relevant to modern western culture, where what you do is all about your social and cultural status. For me, makeup can be about creating a character and being in touch with that narrative. Even an eyebrow can say so much! It can engage with a cultural phenomenon and reveal something else. I used to work in an abstract, painterly sense—a red smudge here, a blue line there—but I think I'm finished with that because I'd like to explore makeup as a relevant addition to a face, to engage with the narrative of a character rather than just making something that looks pretty.


I don't really think it suits me, personally, to wear a lot of makeup. Unless it's that time of the month—then I'll slap something on. Although I am wearing a purple Chanel mascara a lot at the moment—Chanel makes some of my favorite makeup, especially the lip colors. In using colorful mascara, I've realized that if you want to change your hair color, you need to try a mascara first because it really does something different to you. I'm really into this South African skincare brand called Simply Bee; it's literally beeswax, propolis and a bit of almond oil. And I love this Jurlique Rosewater facial spray. But I suppose with makeup it's a bit like how Michelin-starred chefs end up eating pizza all the time; I enjoy it all so much, but not for myself. I have a big sack under my desk filled with products that aren't in my kit and it becomes like a lucky dip—I'll stick my hand in and whatever comes out, I'll whack on. Like, 'Oh, brilliant! Today I get Bobbi Brown!' and then the next day it might be 'Oh, shit! Green mascara!'


When it comes to my kit, I really love MAC, Mehron, and Kryolan because they are so good artistically, especially for greasepaints, body paints and mixing mediums. When you get into body painting, product quality becomes really important—it's got to be high-end pigment and water-resistant. Kryolan has the most amazing range of colors, and I really love MAC’s paint sticks. Also, I recently got my hands on these DecoArt People Paint Markers that are so great—they're like Sharpies, but for your face! I’ve got a huge amount of marbling paints, too. I went through a period of marbling hands after I did my own for a story for Love and then I kept getting requests for that.

I ended up using Bioderma because every other makeup artist does, but it's perfect for correcting mistakes with a Q-tip. Honestly though, for removing body paint, your best bet is just soap and water. I love Dior Glow Maximiser and Pore Minimiser and, obviously, Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream—for everything. And Shu Uemura does the best eyebrow pencil, it lasts forever. It’s not like a kohl, you have to apply it so many times to make it visible because it’s incredibly subtle, and they have wonderful grey tones in them.

I guess that, in the end, I look at the products I use less as products and more as colors. So I kind of have to separate them into categories of lip and cheek and eye, but, especially with brands like MAC offering mixed mediums, my whole kit should be organized by color. I was trying to explore that idea in a story that I did recently for i-D with Harley Weir, where I painted strips across Codie Young’s face. I only used foundations for that, from the Bobbi Brown BBU Palette, and tried to explore them in a way they’re not ordinarily used. It’s really great for me to be working with i-D because they’re so…real—so into street casting and real faces and characters. That’s obviously a big element of what I try and incorporate within my work, having a character as opposed to nondescript nothingness. Although I don’t know how to articulate my specific style or what ‘my woman’ is, that’s for sure. With artists like Pat McGrath or Georgina Graham, they have such distinct styles. I guess that I’m not quite sure what I’m doing yet, so I’m not quite sure who my woman is. Maybe it’s a bloke! It’d be funny if it was. I do love painting boys…"

—as told to ITG

Isamaya Ffrench photographed by Laura Allard-Fleisch at her home in London. Interview by Olivia J. Singer.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Hollo

    What makeup is she wearing in the first pic? The perfect nude lip et al. Details please!

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  • thunderlegz

    Love the way she speaks about her work, adding even another dimension to makeup.

    • carrie

      my thoughts exactly

  • Yasmeen Mjalli

    She is absolutely stunning--physically and intellectually! I marvel at the perspective she approaches make up with. She's innovating the simple task of applying make up by synthesizing it with an almost scientific philosophy. This is how positive change happens, how cultures evolve, how trends are conceived, yet at the same time all that change is sparked by ages-old idea! She's pulling ideas from South African culture that is thousands of years old! What a fascinating way to consider makeup--it's an evolving philosophy with beautiful philosophers and muses.

    • Cat

      Agreed. She's not just working on an aesthetic level but on an intellectual and cultural level as well. Super interesting to read.

  • Christine

    She's beautiful!
    I feel like a 5 year-old but I certainly did giggle at the 'professional genital painter' story.

    • tera

      yes! How do you explain this career to older family members who ask "so! What are you doing now?"

  • Miss Y.

    If she were to write a book abbout beauty and makeup and application techniques, I'd buy it in a heartbeat!

    • AsphodelJones

      I was just thinking that.

    • Emma Hager

      I second this! It would be so whimsical.

  • AsphodelJones

    I want *every product* listed in this Top Shelf.

  • heysarajean

    "I did one willy and suddenly everyone was like, 'She's fine, she'll paint willies!' "

    This alone won me over.

  • Lana

    This is one of my favorite ITG articles. After reading this, I am definitely interested in looking at my range of makeup as colors - something to create something different with. I do love painting on my signature look on a daily basis, but how liberating would it be to have a sack of makeup under my desk and slap on whatever I end up pulling out? Lovely.

  • Emma Hager

    I loved this Top Shelf. Her approach to beauty is so pure and full of whimsy.

    I also love i-D. It is disheartening to see so many fashion magazines these days following a very similar formula. Same model doing the same pose, styled in a very uninspiring way. I think in many ways fashion -- at least in the publications side of things -- has been suffocated by the act of trying to constantly prove its intellectual properties. Fashion can be intellectual, yes, but when broken down to the simplest denotation, it's consumerist and luxury industry based on clothes.

    So instead of trying to play it safe, why not own up to everything fashion is and can be, and have fun? Break boundaries, tell stories, etc. And that's what i-D does. It's honest and it has perspective.


    More makeup artists on Top Shelf! Kits, kits and more kits!

    • Adrienne Angelos

      Omg yes. I love that ITG has such incredible variety but I feel like they've done so many cool, eclectic people lately that I'm craving industry chops again.

  • Layla Corcoran

    What is the plant in slide 11?

    • sofie h.

      its a jade plant also called a money plant, least round the parts i'm from

    • sofie h.

      sorry mate i got the wrong slide #

  • Eliza

    This was a fun Top Shelf--and she might be the only makeup artist who started as a "professional genital painter" haha (or not, who knows?). I'm also interested to try the Shu Uemura eyebrow pencil--I rotate between some cheapo drugstore ones now.

  • Denisse

    This was a great post. Her perspective on art and makeup is really interesting. She's definitely an artist.

  • Larissa May

    i love the effortless make up look!!

  • Clever Girl Reviews

    I love her! I know a few body painters and have been painted myself so I really appreciate this getting more recognition!

  • Nicole Rivera

    So interesting! I'm more of a simple makeup person myself, but I absolutely love the art of makeup and all the wonderful and crazy things artists like these can come up with! This is a fascinating read and reminds me why I love ITG: always interesting and different perspectives on beauty & its role in our society.

  • Zoe

    Complete babe - love how full her face is (without sounding bizarre)

  • Bella

    Lovely to hear from a constantly evolving, deeply thinking and feeling creative. I work in science and am just fascinated by minds that work differently to my own. I love her sense of adventure and the open way in which she is always true to herself. And she's gorgeous too!

    • petal

      You always write the most lovely and reflective comments :)

  • Seline

    I love this. So random but I'd love to see more french women here. They have the best beauty secrets

    • guest

      she's english

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  • Shirin

    She's gorgeous! I understand what she means about her face not suiting too much makeup. I think some faces can take more make up than others. Sometimes I'm jealous of all the make up tutorials and full face looks people can pull off. If I attempt to recreate it I end up looking overdone

  • fdicct

    she is stunning!

  • Juan Jaar

    I've been obsessed with this girl for about a year, I spotted her in LOVE magazine by chance downtown and was transfixed. Shes created some of my favorite beauty images and I'm thrilled knowing that she's still got so much in her to go :)

  • katherine

    True artist!!!!


Chanel Initimitible Intense Multi-Dimensionnel Mascara
Jurlique Rosewater Balancing Mist
MAC Paintstick
DecoArt People Paint
Lubrex Hand Cream
Bioderma Créaline
Dior Glow Maximizer Light Boosting Primer
Dior Pore Minimizer Skin Refining Matte Primer
Elizabeth Arden
Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream
Bobbi Brown Cosmetics
Bobbi Brown BBU Palette