How to Make It In Fashion
The pioneering make up artist Isamaya Ffrench and photographer Maisie Cousins on how to make the fashion industry work for you
In July, Second Home roaming members 52 Insights held an illuminating talk with two of the fastest rising talents making their mark in the creative industries right now — make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench and photographer Maisie Cousins.
Maisie is one Britain’s most exciting new image makers, having been featured by the Tate Britain as well as collaborating with photography golden girl Petra Collins; Isamaya is the Beauté UK make-up ambassador for YSL as well as having worked with artists like Junya Watanabe, Kanye West and Rihanna.
In this interview with 52 Insights editor Ari Stein they share first-hand experiences about their road to success, as well as discussing their inspiration, creative processes and life as artists in London.
52 Insights: Isamaya, what was the moment when you realised that you had to take social media seriously to help your career?
Isamaya Ffrench: I suppose I started taking it seriously when I stopped being emotionally involved in it, when I lost my friends to, like, 70,000 followers and you become very detached from it. So I don’t have any real emotional interaction with my followers on Instagram at all. I’ve got to say, I don’t care if I offend anyone or whatever, and I don’t feel like I’m there to set an example. We don’t really know the impact of all that social media yet, it’s just at the beginnings of it.
What about you, Maisie?
Maisie Cousins: My following’s probably mostly younger girls as well. You feel like you have sort of responsibility — I wouldn’t post something really flippant, maybe I would have a few years ago when I didn’t have so many, but now I wouldn’t post anything flippant because it’s just kind of irresponsible. You wouldn’t expect that from a celeb or whatever, or a magazine, and if you have the same amount of people following you, you feel kind of responsible.
Do you think social media is damaging us?
IF: I’m sure it is, that’s one thing, I don’t look at Instagram anymore, I use it purely as a branding tool and I put my work on there — it’s like a portfolio. Sometimes I’ll do a selfie to show I’m a human and it’s not just some horrible, dry, obviously work thing. But to be honest I find it wholly uninspiring and I don’t personally find it contributes in any way to my creativity. If anything it just really dilutes it, because if you’re bombarded with thousands of images of people following trends and doing the same thing…
It’s a really weird thing, Instagram, you’ve got either the Instagrams of people which are just like a kind of Tumblr of images that are kind of cool and looks like a nice montage of images, you’ve got the selfie lot, you’ve got my favourite which is people just taking photos of random weirdos on the street, you know what I mean? And you realise, actually the majority of people’s brains are fairly generic and follow a pattern.
“I don’t look at Instagram anymore, I use it purely as a branding tool and I put my work on there — it’s like a portfolio. Sometimes I’ll do a selfie to show I’m a human and it’s not just some horrible, dry, obviously work thing.” – Isamaya Ffrench
But what’s really scary about this is there’s discussions going on with agents now with certain artists, like, ‘We won’t sign you up unless you have a certain amount — ’
MC: That’s like when they tell models they’re not skinny enough
They tell models the same now — you have to have a certain amount of Instagram followers…
MC: That’s just stupid.
IF: It’s not stupid, it’s an intelligent commercial decision
Back to your images – do you think there’s an hyper real version of people in both your work?
MC: To me it’s more like, ‘This happens, this exists, this is what people look like if you get really, really close to them, here it is’. Because you don’t really get to see people super-close, and it’s quite nice when you’re taking pictures. For me, the technical thing is a big bonus because it’s like, ‘Oh, cool, I can zoom into this person’s skin, I’m never going to be able to look at it like that normally’. It’s like an extension of things I can’t really do in my day-to-day. So I guess it is hyperreal in a way, and I guess yours is really.
IF: Yeah, I suppose when I started as a makeup artist, you go thru that exploration phase in a very simplistic visual way of working with colour, or paint, or, ‘A blue arm’s cool or whatever’s cool’. I lost interest in that very, very quickly. There’s no progression in that, it’s a very simple concept — it’s very two-dimensional. I think now I’m more inclined to look at things in a more narrative-led way, in a kind of story-telling approach.
So for me it’s very hard for me to do an editorial where there isn’t some kind of narrative behind it or a character. So I suppose in that way that you talk about hyperreal, it’s still got to relate to being a human in some way and connect emotionally to it, because otherwise it holds no currency to me and I find it boring.
But there’s still a lot of that boring stuff about, but I think it’s changing because we’ve had so much of that that we’re moving into a much more ultra-hyper… [laughs] place
I’d just describe hyperreal as ultra-rich, it’s just coming off the page
IF: It’s just fake.
MC: That’s why it works on phones, because you’re up close to your phone and you’re scrolling, and there’s something really detailed and kind of gory and close-up. It works on a phone. It would be great to have it also in a gallery, but it works well on phones, which I think is why I get so popular, and why maybe we both have so many followers, because it is detailed and on a phone it looks hot.
Do you both work with brands or have you?
IF: Loads, sorry, yes.
Could you give us a little drop of wisdom? The quote that I liked which is, ‘When you have creative parameters to work within, it’s always much more interesting as a process than just being free’.
IF: Yeah, sorry, that’s something I said a lot. I really like that. I think it can be either really stifling — it always teaches you something, which is the best way to look at it, rather than thinking it’s a really reductive thing, you can’t express yourself freely. I studied industrial design at university — we were taught to work with a brand, less independently so you kind of have to understand a brand’s visual language, because every brand has their own visual language, and understand that and then somehow infuse it with your creative vision. But I think that goes into makeup as well, and into photography, and into everything — you’re still working with brands, the photographer has a brand, the magazine is a brand, do you know what I mean?
You, yourself is a brand
IF: You just have to be flexible creatively, that’s the only way to do it really. It’s just fun.
So from what I understand is that you feel more comfortable working with brands because they give you parameters to work within?
IF: I definitely don’t feel more comfortable working with brands, but it’s nice to have both options. I love to do just freely my own creative work and my ideas, but it’s also fun to be challenged, you don’t face so many challenges when you’re just doing whatever you want.
But when you work with a brand, or your clients like Chanel, how sticky and nosey do they get?
IF: Really nosey, yeah, but I suppose they have to be because ultimately you’re representing them and that’s why you have to be clever and flexible within your own work and sometimes do something that’s not hugely creative but that satisfies them. Because ultimately they do allow you to do other things or they will fund your personal project.
Where do you work, Maisie?
MC: Just wherever I can, I don’t have a studio and I don’t really want one either because I feel like it would probably restrict me a bit and I don’t want to have to pay any more money anyway. I just have my lights, and wherever I can fit them. I make things depending on what I have to make — I may take a still-life because I’ve only got a small flash and a small area, or I’ll take a big picture because I’m lucky to have a bigger space. What I like is things being there, and I’m not going to edit anything out because fuck that, no one’s got time for that shit.
“I don’t have a studio and I don’t really want one either because I feel like it would probably restrict me a bit and I don’t want to have to pay any more money anyway.” — Maisie Cousins
[Isamaya], what do you use in all your work, do you use pencils?
IF: Just a paintbrush, just face paints
And then when you get it photographed, the photographs are also quite incredible. Is that a discussion you have with a photographer?
IF: Most of the time. It depends, if it’s my project, yeah, it’s always great to have some kind of conversation because I’ve generally got a fairly specific image in my head, so it’s nice for it to be translated. This is a photographer called Will Selden and he’s really great at portraits, so I really like working with portrait photographers because they’re always able to catch something. I often find fashion photographers have a different angle, I think [you get] something a bit more emotionally engaging when you work with a portrait photographer.
Audience Member: When did you start making money?
MC: I’m still not.
AM: Or does it matter?
MC: No, it doesn’t matter. It does to an extent, but for me, I like a boring job on the side — a nice, little shitty job that pays the rent. So the boring money is paid by a boring job, and then all the photo money can go straight back into the photos, so that’s really exciting money — I like to separate it.
IF: Probably worked for free for about four years, which I think you have to, and I think that’s part of the nature of someone becoming successful, it’s not just about being talented. It’s different as well, because, say, Instagram didn’t exist when I started, but it’s just about having the stamina and if you love it then you can’t do anything else. It’s just a no-brainer, you just fight your struggles when they come.
“I probably worked for free for about four years, which I think you have to, and I think that’s part of the nature of someone becoming successful, it’s not just about being talented.” — Isamaya Ffrench
Why are apprentice electricians paid but not apprenices in the creative industries? Is that a discussion we need to have?
IF: Yeah but it’s also a discussion that needs to be had in London, because you go to New York, or you go to Paris, and everyone’s paid for every running job, every assisting job — it’s very much a London thing. I lived for free with a friend for a year, and that is probably the only reason I managed to… That was a huge stepping stone in being able to pursue work because I wasn’t earning any money.
MC: When I graduated it was probably the lowest I’ve ever felt in my whole life, especially coming back to London in a house that I didn’t even have a bedroom in. I was going back to my mum’s house and it was like, ‘Number one, I’m lucky as hell to even have a family in London to come back to, but it’s bullshit, there’s no jobs for you, and they don’t teach you that in uni’.
That’s one of the things I found so frustrating about uni, it was all about kind of, ‘Here’s what this guy in the 18th Century said about philosophy and photography one time’, and then it’s like, ‘Write a fucking essay on this’, and you’re just like, ‘Really? This is so boring’. And they don’t teach you really, really, really important — things I still don’t know like taxes, and things like that, and making a website, and approaching a gallery.
It’s so archaic the way the arts are still taught. No disrespect for my tutors because they were all very, very lovely people, but it’s just so old-fashioned. When you come back to the real world you’re like, ‘oh my god all of that is just absolute fucking waffle’.
“It’s so archaic the way the arts are still taught. No disrespect for my tutors because they were all very, very lovely people, but it’s just so old-fashioned. When you come back to the real world you’re like, ‘oh my god all of that is just absolute fucking waffle’.” — Maisie Cousins
IF: I dropped out for all of those reasons.
MC: I nearly did.
IF: And just became a face-painter for four years and I still do it now obviously. So just cycling round doing kids’ parties for, like, four years, and that was how I funded everything. That’s a pretty hardcore tenner an hour, and you do like one hour one week. It’s tough.
I wouldn’t say Instagram is the best platform ever, but right now it kind of is — give it a year, there’ll be something else. You just have to make the most of that one platform. I can’t really think of any other platforms… There’s Twitter, that’s where you put all your jokes.
IF: It’s just hard for everyone to find a creative job, that’s just the nature of it, I think. Not just being a creative, it’s always hard.
Find out who we’ve got talking next at Second Home: secondhome.io/whats-on