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Make Beauty Weird Again: How Next-Gen Creatives are Subverting the Makeup Industry

Canadian makeup artist Mimi Choi specializes in illusions and creates surrealist looks that completely reposition, blur, or replicate facial features

Strange things are happening in mainstream beauty campaigns and new-season runways. Luxury beauty has rejected the airbrushed ideal of the mid 2010s, a celebration of creativity with edge as makeup cycles back to a storytelling device. On the frontlines are the makeup-artist talents creating campaigns featuring smeared lips, mismatched graphic liner, and unnaturally hued complexions to replace classic cat eyes and tastefully muted blush, and challenging the senses. There’s no better example of this than what was seen at Marc Jacobs FW22, where maximalist runway looks were paired with exaggerated square-cut hairlines, with bleached brows and high shine illuminator rising from temples to edges. The result was both beautiful but unsettling, eliciting a sensation that the models were outside the realm of the expected. Fashion has long been intertwined with theatrical beauty, from Pierre Cardin’s avant-garde facial embellishments and Val Garland’s full faces of night sky glitter for Giambattista Valli FW18, to Alexander McQueen’s otherworldly bruising seen on Kate Moss for his acclaimed FW96 show – or really, any of McQueen’s showstopping collaborations with legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath.

Singer FKA Twigs’ makeup has always hovered outside the realm of the expected

Away from the runway, beauty themes of distortion, unnatural proportions, and illustration are being explored in real time on social media, with products marketed as artistic tools, paint pots, pigments, and crayons to create with. Even the humble mascara has been given an editorial overhaul, with the lash-lengthening launches from Byredo highlighting the stylized alien green tube alongside its volumizing properties. Women are dipping their toes into the trend by deliberately clumping lashes, opting for thickening formulas that add an unexpected and unpolished volume. Highlighters have evolved from pale golds to unearthly greens, blues, purples, and reds, for cheekbones that shimmer with an eerie light.

Makeup artist and former Byredo creative director Isamaya Ffrench has been a longtime champion of distorted, otherworldly looks

For those just test-driving their inner unorthodox, graphic liner is an easy place to start. Try underlining, with the standard wing flipped to trace beneath the eye before flaring out – a successful jump from Christian Dior’s FW21 couture show to street style. Encouraging the inner creative, luxury beauty brands are embracing the women leading these trends. Makeup artist and former Byredo creative director Isamaya Ffrench has been a go-to for global beauty brands looking to add more edge to their campaigns, with the likes of Tom Ford, Christian Louboutin, Burberry, and YSL turning to her for subversive input. Backstage, she painted faces at Thom Browne and Kenzo, and delivered editorial looks for international editions of Vogue. Her eponymous makeup launch now joins other makeup artist-founded brands from industry leaders like Pat McGrath, Gucci Westman, and Hindash.

Ffrench says her own collection is the culmination of her 10 years in the industry, minus the creative restrictions that come with working for a major brand and its stakeholders, and bolstered by her raw instincts. “When I started to make a name for myself, I had no background in beauty, I was just using makeup to tell a story,” she explains. “I wasn’t thinking about ideas such as attraction or the conventional notion of beauty because those are such small parts of the whole creative spectrum. There are other things to look at that are artistic and interesting and rich!” The brand’s announcement made an impressive impact this summer with an undeniably individual campaign, featuring a latex-bound Ffrench contorting for Steven Klein’s camera, her lashes spiderlike and slightly chapped lips tinted a raw-meat red. Ffrench’s choice to work with Vogue favorite Klein is perhaps the most indicative of the brand’s direction, the short film and stills confrontational with their provocativeness, an in-your-face collision of art, beauty, and fashion.

Alexander McQueen

There’s an element of kink to the black-clad Isamaya products, the Rubberlash mascara with its own piercing, the overt outline of the molding on the Industrial Color Pigment Palette that combines grunge-inspired grays and browns with metallic green, red, and burnished gold. The eyeshadow names – Fetish, Whip, Sweat, Flesh – give more insight into Ffrench’s risqué direction. Teased on social media before its limitededition drop, Isamaya the brand seems to appeal to not just the art school alt crowd, but to a wider section of beauty lovers who would have balked at creating a deliberately clumpy lash or bleached-out brow. Like a seasonal fashion capsule, each beauty collection will be produced in a limited drop, then archived. “The nature of Isamaya’s structure, releasing limited-edition drops, will allow us to create a new visual world every time,” Ffrench says. “To reach different consumers, but also to adapt our offer to keep doing better in terms of product quality and sustainability.” In other words, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Mimi Choi

In addition to moving product, social media has helped shift these editorial looks into something thrillingly relatable, suggests Mimi Choi, a Canadian makeup artist who specializes in illusions, describing her work as “surreal, otherworldly, unpredictable, shocking, and unique.” She’s earned her 1.9 million Instagram followers by sharing her evolving creations. Taking between two and 16 hours to complete, her surrealist looks completely reposition, blur, or replicate facial features, turning Choi into a mutant of her own making. Reimagining herself as a tiger, a catch of deep-sea creatures, and even a slice of cherry pie, Choi says she doesn’t choose concepts to make people feel uncomfortable. “I focus on executing designs that give myself a visceral feeling. Many followers have told me that my art offers an opportunity for them to self-reflect,” she says, drawing her inspiration from architecture, literature, classical art – and her own night terrors. “I have suffered from sleep paralysis since I was four years old, a condition in which my mind is awake, but I am trapped inside an unresponsive body. During these bouts, I often hallucinate as I struggle to wake up fully. These can be frightening visions and have inspired some of my more morbid looks,” she details. “Interestingly, I found that after painting a vision on my face, I would stop experiencing that specific hallucination. In a way, sleep paralysis is a source of inspiration for my makeup and my makeup is therapy for my sleep paralysis.”

Giambattista Valli

The result is wildly original beauty concepts with as much in common with a Dalí as with a MAC makeup campaign. This individualism is what makes unorthodox beauty so relevant now, notes Ffrench. “This is a state that’s only reached when you’ve had the deepest introspection and when you manage to get rid of external influences,” she explains. “There is nothing more beautiful than someone who’s in full possession of themselves and who is living to the beat of their own drum – it doesn’t relate to an established aesthetic recipe at all.”

Originally published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

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