As with a multitude of creative partnerships, there is often one person whose moniker garners more attention than the other. In the case of Isamaya Ffrench and Josh Wilks, such recognition falls on the former. Isamaya made her name as a wildly creative make-up artist who applies her lipsticks, shadows and blush as though it's paint on a canvas. But since 2012, Josh’s role as creative director has seen the 'her' become 'they'. This summer signals the arrival of their latest collaboration, a debut clothing line titled English School.
Because spoke to Josh to find out more...
I used to see Isamaya hanging out on Brick Lane in a tutu and leather jacket back in 2008. Then a couple of years later me and a photographer friend were looking for a girl with a good pair of lips to model for some portraits and he was like, "I know just the girl!" That girl turned out to be Isamaya (who had stopped dressing like she was straight off the National Express from Cambridge by then). Before that I was running a clothing label in Dalston and spent my free time moping.
We were actually mates for ages before we started working together, but our first job was the window display for Liberty during London Fashion Week; we spent a whole week up on the roof in their little workshop just marbling mannequin parts. It was so much fun! A couple of weeks after that she asked me to help her again, this time making props for a Tim Walker shoot for LOVE magazine. Which again, was just another week of messing about with expanding foam and paint. Then we did another shoot and then another until I was turning up on all her jobs.
I studied Communication Design, so language and its effective presentation through semiotics, is what I consider foremost before suggesting a lip colour or eye shadow. In actual fact the make-up is often the last thing we think of when designing a look. I think this approach, free from the confines of someone educated in make-up, has been the key influence in determining Isamaya's standing within the industry. She is probably the sharpest person I know, and actually I think a lot of what we do together is just creative problem solving.
About a year ago we had this idea to make some uniforms for ourselves; working with Isamaya means you will almost always end up getting make-up on your clothes – and make-up it turns out is incredibly hard to get off! We are also inherently restless individuals and constantly seeking new modes of discovery, there's only so much you can do in one field before you begin to cover the same ground. For most this isn't necessarily a bad thing as repetition can be construed as one's working style. Isamaya and I are of the opinion that a style is restrictive however, in the sense that it'll end up defining you, like a mask that eats into the face obliterating your true identity.
We couldn't use Isamaya's name (for the label) so we came up with something that sounded structured yet ambiguous. I could imagine the romance of a neoclassical mansion carved from Portland Stone, whilst Isamaya could interpret it as a more pragmatic and enterprising concrete clad institute.
We didn't want the leap from make-up to be too severe so we decided to include it in some way within the initial designs. We had this idea of inventing a fictitious cosmetics company with lots of fake slogans based on the clinical branding of pharmaceutical products. Then we thought it would be cool to embrace that laboratory style look and make all the garments white. We spent a long time making sure the collection was a unified story.
I think it's a bit lame to design with a specific character in mind, so it was basically a big brainstorm that turned into tangible stuff. We'd go for a walk and one of us would go, "What about doing a T-shirt about a shampoo that's 2-in-1: anti-dandruff and anti-anxiety?" Then the other would reply, "Or a hand cream where everything you then touch turns to gold?"
The reaction so far has been great! I think people didn't know what to expect when we told them we were doing this, whether English School could be a legitimate, properly designed clothing line or simply a kind of "Get your Isamaya Ffrench T-shirts here!" kind of thing. But the online store is off the ground and we've also sold some stuff to a cool little store in Taiwan.
We want to create and release as our energies dictate; neither of us wants to get really into a collection and then not be able to show until months later, by which time we're sick at the sight of it! But it's not just about clothes – we also want English School to feed back into our other work. We have loads of ideas that don't really fit anywhere, but with English School we now have our own platform where we can showcase work that wouldn't really work anywhere but a gallery.
Text and interview by Zoe Whitfield
Film by Javier Sola