Beauty and the breast
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
On a Tuesday lunchtime, Anissa Kermiche is sitting by the window of her marshmallow-pink office, surrounded by paintings, drawings and a pair of fabric breasts (an artwork by Sally Hewett). The south London space is part studio, part showroom for her eponymous brand of jewellery and homewares. Today, however, the French-Algerian designer is having her make-up done by Isamaya Ffrench.
After admiring each other’s work from afar, the pair were introduced by mutual friends seven years ago. “I have no recollection of where we met but it was probably somewhere glamorous,” says Ffrench, who is wearing chunky thigh-high black leather boots over leggings, her long auburn hair pulled into a plait. The pair share an infectious energy and a love of dressing-up, and both bring a playful, offbeat aesthetic to their creative endeavours. Their stream of conversation turns from the challenges of running their own businesses to burnout retreats (Kermiche is booking one as a Christmas present to herself). That’s until she blurts out, “Can you make me look less like a cat?”, and begins to miaow loudly as Ffrench flicks smoky-grey eyeshadow into a smudgy cat’s eye. “You’re more difficult than Madonna,” bemoans the Cambridge-born make-up artist.
At 34, Ffrench is no stranger to the whims of celebrity clients; her artistic approach to make-up has been called upon by everyone from Björk, Rihanna and Gwendoline Christie to Kate Moss and Kendall Jenner. “Working with Cher was a moment when I thought, ‘Wow’,” says Ffrench, whose flamboyant style of work spans glamorous cover stories to more outré, gothic – even grotesque – creations replete with fake piercings and prosthetics. In a 2020 campaign for Byredo, Ffrench styled herself with purple lips and acid-green eye make-up but also other-worldly white contact lenses and alien-esque ears.
Performance is something that Ffrench, who is classically trained in ballet and contemporary dance, understands. At the age of 12 she starred as Annie in the West End, and she has been a member of the artist-led Theo Adams Company since 2010. At university, however, she opted for product and industrial design at Central Saint Martins in London. “I dropped out because it wasn’t conceptual enough for me,” she recalls.
Instead, she took on a number of part-time jobs, including working as a children’s face-painter – a pursuit that quickly attracted attention. “Body painting and make-up-y stuff” became a new creative outlet – “like painting or sculpture”, she says. “But I like collaboration, as opposed to painting on my own in a room. People started to ask me to shoot editorially, and so that’s kind of how I got into magazines and fashion.”
As well as working as a make-up artist for designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Junya Watanabe, brands including Hermès and Versace, and a stint as the beauty editor of i-D magazine, Ffrench has consulted for and helped to develop a number of different brands. She has played a hand in the beauty offerings from Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Louboutin, Tom Ford, Burberry and Byredo. “And then I finally felt like there was a space for me to do my own thing.”
Launched in 2022, the Isamaya range of make-up range embodies Ffrench’s offbeat aesthetic. Paintbox-like eyeshadow palettes, such as the 14-hue Industrial Colour Pigments (£95), are “grunge inspired”, and “a rebellion against beauty convention”. The maximising Liplacq serum (£32) is designed to give “bee-stung lips” in glossy and glittery shades of Metal, Rust and Black Veil. The Lips collection, launched earlier this year, caused a sensation with its statement packaging: a shiny phallic case.
“I love the Skinlacq,” says Kermiche of Ffrench’s Triple Hyaluronic Glow Serum (£60), designed to add shine and smoothness, applied before or after make-up. “I wear it every day, and maybe three layers when I go out. I’m also obsessed with the bottle. It looks like a pearl.”
Earlier this year, Ffrench invited Kermiche for a makeover. “For my [YouTube] channel, I like to interview creative people while I do their make-up,” says Ffrench, whose video with Kermiche involved bleaching her eyebrows – a look she adopted for a month. “Anissa is a fascinating person because she is obviously incredibly beautiful and talented creatively, but she’s also a total nerd.”
“At school, I loved maths and geometry – to me it was like a game,” says Kermiche, 38, who studied engineering and computer science before switching to jewellery design, first at Central St Martins, then in London’s Hatton Garden. Since releasing her first fine jewellery collection in 2016, her offering continues to straddle the classic (such as her 14ct-gold pearl-drop Wuthering Heights earrings, £375), the delicate (including the diamond Brontē Doré drop necklace, £720) and the quirky. Like Ffrench, her work plays with modern sexuality, and she frequently references the body: recent designs have included the Rubies Boobies (£205) and Le Derrière gold stud earring (£165) and the medallion-like Olympe de Gouges necklace (£1,700).
“From the beginning I thought her jewellery, with the female torsos and the legs, was just so cool,” says Ffrench, who is also a fan of Kermiche’s homewares – a collection that began with the curvy, ceramic Love Handles vase (£340) shaped like a female hips and bottom that became a viral hit around the world. The flirtatiously named Can Candlestick (£195), Jugs Jug (£350) and Tit-Tea Pot (£135) need little explanation. Both friends know how to titillate and provoke with their wares. “Anissa has developed a really great aesthetic that celebrates bodies – wonky bodies, imperfect bodies,” says Ffrench, who has a set of the bottom-shaped Popotin drinking glasses at home (£70 for a set of two). “It’s all quite tongue-in-cheek. It’s fun.”
One of Kermiche’s most recent launches takes another leap in scale: a limited-edition series of suggestively curved and coiled steel dining chairs (price on request). “I’m a bit of a fantasist – I’m always dreaming of new shapes and new collections but I don’t think about how practical they are going to be. But not being aware of these things beforehand allows me to create without any limits.” She then admits that the production of the chairs has been a “logistical nightmare”.
Both creatives love a good party. For Halloween, Ffrench threw a party at The Arts Club in Mayfair with the theme “Creatures of the Night”. She dressed as a lobster, an outfit that centred on a sequined red unitard with handmade claws and legs attached to the side. Doing her own party make-up, however, doesn’t excite her in the same way as when someone else is the canvas. “It’s less expressive; more like I’m doing it because I have to,” she says. Yet she’s often the face of the Isamaya Ffrench launches, sporting part S&M, part superhero mask-like metallic blue eye make-up and multiple “piercings”, or with bombshell red lips and Man Ray-inspired dew-laden lashes.
Kermiche’s usual approach to make-up is minimal: “I like to look glowy, with a bit of orange on my cheeks. I now do lip liner. I learned from one of Isamaya’s tutorials to use an eyebrow pencil on the lips because it looks more natural. And this summer in Greece, I put just a touch of gold glitter on my eyelids, and everyone noticed.”
Gold is always a good party look, suggests Ffrench, whose eyeshadow shades encompass “a really dirty gold”, a “futuristic, playful gold” and a more chromatic version “which is girly and glitzy”. “And I think gold looks really good on lips – it’s actually very flattering, particularly if you are wearing gold jewellery. Just treat it like an accessory,” she advises.
For Kermiche, the smoky cat’s eye is layered with gold up to the eyebrows, while lips are first neutral and ultra-glossy before being painted a deep red. The effect is dramatic but utterly wearable. As Kermiche puts it, Ffrench has worked her “Isa-magic”.