Isamaya Ffrench’s New Take on ‘Sex Sells’
To promote her new line of lipsticks, the makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench commissioned an artist and a construction company to design, fabricate and build a massive fibreglass penis.
The 13-foot-tall, chrome-plated genitalia makes sense as a marketing tactic for this particular launch. LIPS consists of refillable lipsticks, coming in hefty, anatomically correct tubes weighing in at nearly 10 ounces each (about seven times the average). A classic red and a “very universal” sheer black balm are housed in silver and gunmetal penises, respectively, and go on sale on the brand’s website today. Additional shades and finishes will debut later this year.
A 25-second film features Ffrench in head-to-toe red (faux leather strapless dress, latex gloves, patent boots and red highlights framing her face), applying a red lipstick that she’s literally holding by the balls. She looks tiny standing next to the supersized replica of her lip colours.
“We’re not taking this object lightly, it’s not a funny disposable thing. It’s very heavy,” Ffrench, who stars in all of her campaigns, told me. The lipstick is indeed substantial, in both weight and price – each tube costs $95. “I wanted to pay my respects to the object.”
Ffrench said the concept came to her spontaneously, similar to previous collections.
She released her brand, Isamaya, in June 2022 with BDSM-themed makeup that had caps “pierced” with silver hoops. Her next capsule, gilded and Wild West-inspired, came with bedazzled, bronco-shaped tops on mascara and highlighter and a real rodeo party on the Sunset Strip with a motley crew of kids there to have fun, not take selfies. Ffrench is perhaps the most exciting thing to happen to makeup in years.
Previously, Ffrench collaborated with Byredo founder Ben Gorham on the perfume line’s makeup launch in 2020 and spent over two years as Burberry Beauty’s global beauty director (her contract ended in 2022).
“It’s the simplest idea I’ve had so far,” Ffrench said of LIPS. “It’s so literal you don’t have to tell very much of a story.”
After decades where breasts, vulvas and feminine silhouettes dominated film and art, experts say male genitalia are having their moment in beauty and beyond. The full-frontal penis is definitely trending, especially in movies and shows like White Lotus, Euphoria, Sex & The City, Red Rocket, The Righteous Gemstones and more.
According to MJ Corey, a psychotherapist and the founder of “Kardashian Kolloquium,” we’re in the midst of an “open penis fixation.”
“It means something different when we look at it from a lens of a woman’s production of penis imagery. It doesn’t feel like it’s being imposed upon us,” Corey said. “It’s a literal female gaze on the penis.”
Emily Morse, doctor of human sexuality and founder and host of podcast Sex with Emily, also lauded a rise in “female gaze-driven media.”
“It’s almost like equal opportunity. Why are we hiding the penis? We want to see it,” Dr. Morse said. “For so long women have been objectified in many ways, and now we’re saying, ‘I’m going to take your balls and have them by the hand and put them in my mouth – and maybe or maybe not you’re invited to this.’ It’s our choice.”
Sex in beauty
In fashion, sex has long been part of the zeitgeist. Balenciaga’s controversial BDSM-themed campaign, where children held teddy bears dressed in bondage gear, was an example of sexual marketing falling flat. But there are plenty of successful counterexamples; Tom Ford sold a $790 penis pendant necklace in 2014 (available in sizes small, medium and large), and Vivienne Westwood put penises on cords around models’ necks in her men’s fall 2016 collection. A $290 t-shirt from Acne Studios’ current collection, printed with a dainty penis bordered in lace and anchored by doilies, says “Forever mine forever yours.”
“Through the history of fashion, we’ve seen this symbol of a penis. It’s not something that’s so alien to new ideas of fashion. We’ve just never seen it in the beauty world,” Ffrench said.
In beauty, overtly sexual language and imagery is usually confined to product names or commercials.
Two of the bestselling makeup products in the world are Nars’ Orgasm blush and Too Faced’s Better Than Sex mascara. Orgasm, which hit department store counters almost 25 years ago, was the number one blush in the US in 2021, according to NPD data, and has grown into a franchise spanning the complexion, lip and eye categories. Better Than Sex, about to celebrate its tenth anniversary, remains one of the top selling prestige mascaras in the US.
Fragrance has enjoyed some more literal interpretations; Schiaparelli designed a perfume bottle shaped like a woman’s body to sell Shocking in 1937, and Jean Paul Gaultier did the same in 1993 with his namesake scent, one of “among the most innovative fragrances of the 1990s,” according to Michael Edwards, fragrance historian and author of Perfume Legend. Two years later, Gaultier introduced Le Male in a man-shopped bottle with a subtle bulge.
“I remember when Orgasm came out. It was kind of a big deal, but the packaging didn’t say too much about that. It wasn’t in your face,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and industry analyst at The NPD Group.
Art and design
More than anything, Ffrench views LIPS as art.
“At first glance it could be a paperweight or very interesting sculptural object,” she said. “It’s a very simplified, cartoonised version of a penis, there is hopefully nothing particularly offensive or detailed about it.”
Ffrench conceptualised the campaign and directed the futuristic, Stanley Kubrick-esque film her enormous penis co-stars in. Photos were shot by Malaysian photographer Zhong Lin, and were dually inspired by vintage ‘60s and ‘70s erotica and science fiction.
Purposely, a comprehensive campaign features images intended for a wide range of potential viewers. There are straight up NSFW product shots that could double as chrome dildos and close-ups of models Ajok Deng and Kairi Tokoro holding tubes by their testicles with the caps off. Other photos simply show red lips and open tubes with the testicles cropped out, meaning one wouldn’t ever know the lipstick was in the shape of a penis at all.
“The marriage of art and sex and design really does help push a culture and a conversation forward,” said Éva Goicochea, founder and chief executive officer of Maude, a sexual wellness brand. “You’re seeing the younger generation set the tone for who is going to be comfortable with this.”
Goicochea said the first retailers to buy into her line were Revolve and Urban Outfitters, which both target a youthful demographic. In 2020, MoMa put the brand’s sleek, minimalist vibrators in a Design Innovations for Women collection in-store and online, and Sephora recently picked up the line’s vibrators and other products.
“We’re in a moment of trying to liberate ourselves from all of the censorship that’s been imposed upon us – and creatively, that makes things very difficult because you can’t fully explore things in their honest and truthful way,” Ffrench said. “I hope in this day and age we can have a much more liberal attitude about sexuality and preferences.”