How Isamaya Ffrench Went From Painting Kids’ Faces to Being One of the Most in Demand Makeup Artists

“I remember washing my nasty brushes in the sink and looking at her kit and thinking ‘That looks so much easier than what I’m doing. I’ve gotta do that.’ That was it.”

When she was seven, Isamaya Ffrench discovered Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces while in a bookshop with her mom. The late American makeup artist’s instructional coffee-table tome mesmerized Ffrench with the transformations it showcased and allowed her to escape. “I’d try every single technique and memorize the illustrations,” she says, sitting in the lounge area of New York’s Milk Studios. “They were so vivid for me.”

Despite her early exposure to the craft, Ffrench, who was born in Cambridge, England, never intended to become a makeup artist herself. But during university, as a way to avoid working at a bar, she started face painting for children’s birthday parties and fell in love. A four-hour workshop provided the basic fundamentals (“the Spidermans and stuff”) and also taught her how to work fast. “If you’ve got 25 kids and just one hour, you only have two minutes per kid,” she says. “It was this crazy training to be confident and quick with my lines and also to understand face structure.” Eventually she got signed by a “posh” agency and ended up at high-end parties for the children of members of Coldplay and the Spice Girls.

While studying industrial design, Ffrench was asked by a friend to paint bodies with clay for an i-D magazine shoot. “This other makeup artist was doing beautiful skin,” she says. “I remember washing my nasty brushes in the sink and looking at her kit and thinking ‘That looks so much easier than what I’m doing. I’ve gotta do that.’ That was it.” She bought foundations and started to get booked, but she still tended to do lots of special effects because of her experience with using wire mesh and latex.

Ffrench’s ability—and desire—to do avant-garde looks and push boundaries sets her apart from the dime-a-dozen makeup artists who only know how to contour and highlight faces for red carpets. She has turned Zendaya into an old lady (“She was up for it!”), used red glitter to look like blood trickling from an eye and added individual false lashes (which resembled spider legs once applied) to eyebrows. It would be an understatement to say that some of her looks are totally fucked up.

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“I don’t really care about things looking pretty for the sake of it,” she says. “That just doesn’t move me in the way something more emotional might. It tends to be human emotion with a character.” She also has no ego, often featuring herself on her own Instagram account in absurd looks and with accompanying silly expressions. “I’m British,” she says. “We like to take the piss out of ourselves.”

At just 28, Ffrench has already amassed a striking list of credentials. She has worked with photographers David Sims and Nick Knight and done editorials for Vogue Italia and runway looks for Kenzo and Iris van Herpen. She’s also international creative artist consultant for Tom Ford Beauty. (The designer got tipped off about Ffrench’s talent by Carine Roitfeld.) Ford tasked her with creating a third pillar among his cosmetics called Extrême. “He wanted to do something graphic and editorial,” she says. “Something colourful and very different from his existing line that would completely change the audience.” Four lash and brow tints, in shades like magenta and cobalt, and 20 eyeshadows meant to look like “melted metal” launched in the spring, followed by eight metallic matte lip lacquers. As for whether she’d ever create her own line, Ffrench is hesitant. “I don’t think it would sell,” she says. “It’d be too mental.”