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Designers know what they’re getting when they work with Isamaya Ffrench, the makeup artist and founder of the makeup line Isamaya Beauty — and it’s never “French girl” beauty or “no-makeup makeup,” fashion week clichés for designers who prefer that beauty silently accessorize their clothes with invisible makeup and non-hairstyles.
In February, Ms. Ffrench spent days prepping prosthetics and special effects for the Collina Strada “Don’t Eat My Friends” show, in which models were turned into birds with exaggerated foam beaks or cats with rhinestone patchwork ears. At Dion Lee, Ms. Ffrench liquefied iridescent green eye shadow so she could airbrush it over laser-cut, lizard-effect stencils. Models looked like really pretty reptiles.
Ms. Ffrench, 33, is known in fashion circles for the off-kilter runway beauty she has created for such labels as Thom Browne, Vivienne Westwood, Junya Watanabe, Balmain and Off-White. For her latest gig as the beauty curator at Off-White, she’ll develop beauty offerings with Ib Kamara, its art and image director. (Ms. Ffrench was behind the space-age silver eyebrows, black glossy eyelids and silver eyelets on models’ faces at Off-White show in Paris last week.)
Now Ms. Ffrench’s own beauty brand — most notably, a recent collection of lipsticks in penis-shaped tubes — is drawing attention from mainstream beauty shoppers.
“I’m really happy it was as well received as it was,” Ms. Ffrench said in an interview. “I would have been bummed out with society if it wasn’t.”
Clockwise from top left, makeup looks created by Ms. Ffrench at Collina Strada, Dion Lee, Thom Browne and Off-White. Credit… Clockwise from top left, Charlie Engman; Dion Lee; Rob Kim/Getty Images; Matthew Avignone for The New York Times
It was February — Valentine’s Day to be exact — and she was dressed in fashion-week black: vintage football trousers, an R&M Leathers top, sneakers and a leather harness necklace from Lasègue Falret, which makes luxe bondage accessories. She had already spent hours backstage at Thom Browne painting asteroids, stars and planets on models’ faces.
“What I’m really loving is that old ladies loved it,” she said, laughing. “Do you know how many people said, ‘My grandma saw your lipstick and wants one’?”
Ms. Ffrench is quirky, unfiltered and candid about her upbringing and less-than-traditional ascension through the ranks of luxury fashion and beauty.
She was born and raised in Cambridge, England. She spent much of her youth “highly stimulated,” she said, training six days a week as a competitive high diver until age 17. She briefly studied product design at Central Saint Martins and took up children’s face painting as a side hustle before dropping out at 19 and joining the performance company Theo Adams as a face painter (for adults) and, eventually, a body painter.
“It was a gradual process from a varsity approach to makeup, and I had to get to grips with regular makeup at some point,” she said. “It worked backward for me. I refined and refined and learned along the way.”
When she was 22, a friend asked if she could do body painting for a shoot in i-D magazine, her first of many jobs in fashion and magazines. Among her memorable features, Ms. Ffrench painted intricate stained-glass motifs on faces and, in another, covered a model’s body in pale pink paint with a cracked clay finish to look like an ancient statue. In 2014, i-D asked her to be its beauty editor.
“It was at that moment that beauty brands felt that they wanted to inject some creativity and the way to do that was to partner with artists,” Ms. Ffrench said.
A year later, she was approached by YSL Beauty to be a brand ambassador, and then by Tom Ford Beauty, where she served as a creative artist consultant. Tom Ford, the man, even named a lavender lipstick after her. Creative director roles at Burberry Beauty and Byredo followed.
“I have very sophomoric ideas, and she heightens them to such an amazing level,” Mr. Browne said of Ms. Ffrench, with whom he has collaborated on eight fashion shows. “Makeup has to have a fantastic kind of approach. I don’t want just ‘pretty’ or ‘normal.’”
With Isamaya Beauty, Ms. Ffrench pushes her uniquely British point of view a step further. Makeup, packaging and advertisements are plentiful in their references to Dame Vivienne Westwood, counterculture and Britain’s punk legacy. (The “true U.K. punk from the 1970s and 1980s,” Ms. Ffrench said.)
Like Ms. Westwood, Ms. Ffrench appears in her brand’s campaigns, sometimes alongside other models, and always in a way that’s sexy, whimsical and a bit crass. Sometimes she’s riding a bull in star-shaped pasties and a pink cowboy hat dripping in crystals, wearing the most glamorous makeup you’ve ever seen. Other times she’s clad in latex draped over a 13.5-foot chrome penis — like Angelina Jolie in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” but lewd.
So far, Ms. Ffrench has released three makeup collections, each with distinct themes that don’t overlap: B.D.S.M., cowgirls and phalluses. The inconsistency is the consistency.
“What I needed to do for Isamaya was have this regularly evolving, interesting brand that would hopefully feel very relevant because it would be rooted in some kind of zeitgeist,” she said.
Her first collection, Industrial, includes a $115 black eye shadow palette with a 3-D-printed woman’s body. The tops of a highlighter, a lip gloss and mascara are pierced with silver hoops. The follow-up, Wild Star, is all shiny gold with warm undertones and bedazzled gold compacts; Wild Star’s Luckykiss lipsticks have crystal-encrusted, bronco-shaped caps and costs $50 a tube.
But what has led to the greatest fanfare is Lips, a collection of two lipsticks in weighty, phallic chrome cases that cost $95 each. Much of the marketing is N.S.F.W.
Last week, a larger-than-life replica of the lipstick case was transported to Paris, where it will live until March 10 at a pop-up in Dover Street Market’s 3537 event space. To celebrate the opening of the shoppable exhibition on March 4, guests who bought a Lips lipstick were offered a complimentary engraving (on the testicles). Isamaya-branded condoms in black wrappers, also complimentary, were passed around.
Ms. Ffrench said that the two shades of lipstick, a black balm and a “London red” inspired by Royal Mail and England’s phone booths, sold out within days of their February release. She plans to release new shades every few months.
In April, Lips will get its latest addition: a pink lipstick housed in a metallic, flamingo-pink penis.
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