Nallah B. Sangaré is like a book. One with an intriguing title engraved on an equally enchanting cover that somehow gives nothing away. Born in France to an Ivorian father and a Malian Mother, this Nairobi-based Makeup Artist (MUA) has an indisputably bold and eclectic style. Coupled with a convivial aura, any encounter with her feels almost like you’ve known her for years. But that’s the thing, there’s a lot to learn about Sangaré. Hers is a book where the final chapter intentionally left out as the story is ever-evolving. Something we learnt as we caught up with her during her latest trip to Paris a few weeks ago:
We’ll be honest, we did a little snooping around before this interview and … there are just so many questions!
Becoming an MUA, for me, wasn’t your typical journey. I was supposed to be studying business but along the way I realised that it wasn’t really my calling. I used to do my own hairstyles and I have my own sense of style, so I thought I would go into the beauty field. In 2008, I officially decided that this is what I wanted to do. I then started working as a beauty advisor for Givenchy while being trained by the brand. Because they had a makeup range, I had to learn about it to be able to sell the product and that’s how I discovered my love for makeup.
Givenchy, you say?
When I decided that I wanted to orient myself with the beauty industry, I didn’t want to lose my academic level, so I went for a full year training at EMA-Sup Parfumerie. As part of my practical part of the training, I had to find a company to hire me and luckily this school already had a nice portfolio of luxury brands. But it was not easy as a black person to be part of this very white, French House. It was a daily challenge because of my style and my colour.
How did you start at MAC Cosmetics?
My experience at Givenchy showed me that I had to find a brand where I could express myself in terms of my style and who I was as a person. I looked up the MAC requirements and unfortunately, I didn’t have the required makeup diploma. I still applied many times, but it didn’t work out. Then, in 2009, I was working at another job in an area where MAC was recruiting. The lady at HR and one of the directors was walking past my door and when they saw my boldness and my crazy makeup, they gave me a business card and asked me to apply. It was like sweet retribution after applying so many times. Now they wanted me.
And they made you a trainer?
I say I am self-taught because I’ve taken functional trainings here and there to get the picture of what a topic or interest is. What really built my skills was being on the field. So even with makeup I was trained on the job. I started as a beauty advisor and makeup artist. Gradually, because of my diplomas, I managed to move on to become an assistant manager. And then five years later in France, I was one of the first black managers in MAC’s biggest store in the world. Because I was based in this store that was connected to the world branches, I discovered that they were moving into the African market. I applied for the regional trainer position and got it. I started in 2014 and I’ve trained 100 MUAs from six countries, namely- Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory coast, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Aren’t they diverse when it comes to makeup? You must have faced challenges…
One thing I was very particular about in the training was to understand the culture in the country and then gradually introduce products that would resonate better with the region. My first challenge was to make whatever we did locally relevant. Then my second fight was skin bleaching. I made the conscious effort to have a variety of complexions in the store to represent the spectrum of colours and to show customers that all shades are beautiful. That there was no need to bleach their skin.
Having been a trainer, how would you describe the new breed of artists and what would you like them to know?
I might lose some friends answering this. I am very confused on what is happening right now. Someone will wake up one day, buy a makeup kit and say they are a MUA just because they watched a few YouTube tutorials. I started out as a trainee; one of my first mentors was a MUA in the French film industry. I was humble enough to be mentored by different mentors with varying styles and fields – from cinema to fashion shows – to build my skills. Whereas today we just “beat faces”. When you see the results it really is beating because it’s painful to look at; especially with the brows. There isn’t an understanding of the science and rules of makeup when it comes to colour theory, as well as, Morphology – which is the science of understanding face shapes and the balancing of the face. You can’t say you are an MUA if you don’t know how to do this.
There isn’t an understanding of the science and rules of makeup when it comes to colour theory, as well as, Morphology…the new generation comes with only the basic trends.
With the versatility the industry demands, the new generation comes with only the basic trends such as contouring but not really understanding how to do it on individual faces. The photographer then must do so much post work in Photoshop that it stops being about the makeup. When I do a shoot, my main aim is to ensure that the photographer only does minimum touch-ups. That’s why I decided to add more skills to my repertoire because I don’t want to have any conflict with the hair or styling. It’s also why I’m learning photography for my own shoots.
Erm, when exactly did you manage to do all this? Because you’re 36 and have been working for over 10 years.
My family also wonders when I am going to stop with all these trainings. I’ve always wanted to explore things and I’ve never been scared to start something afresh. Whenever I felt that I needed a specific skill I would start another training course or a job that could train me on it. My main goal is to become the full package. You see, when I started by beauty journey I knew that I wanted to have a 360-vision. I look at my lifestyle and things I do for myself, such as hairstyling, fashion and wellness. I then take these elements that are important to me and explore them further to offer to others. It’s been a year since I started to work on my own business full time. I am the CEO & Founder of Nallah B. Sangaré Ltd. Brand, Image and Creative Consulting, where I wear the hat of consultant, freelance makeup artist, fashion stylist and hairstylist.
It must be scary to move from an established brand to create your own operation…
I think the word ‘scary’ is too small. Can you imagine what I’m going through [she adds laughing]? Because I have worked for over 10 years in the beauty field, moving from brand to brand. And now I don’t have my 9-to-5 anymore. On top of that I’ve decided to start my business in a foreign country with a different culture and where I have no connections. So, it’s certainly a challenge but an exciting one because I’m proving myself all over again.
You’re also the co-founder of KENIIA, how does this differ from NALLAH B. SANGARÉ Ltd?
I started KENIIA with another makeup artist in France about two years ago, but we officially launched in November 2017. It’s an online concept that offers makeup workshops and trainings on different topics, that you can access anywhere in the world. For example, one of our latest training was beauty for business. Working with a recruitment coach we help women to take care of their image in the business field.
My main aim is to ensure that the photographer only does minimum touch-ups. That’s why I decided to add more skills to my repertoire
While KENIIA is image consultancy for everyday women and corporate industry, my eponymous company based in Nairobi is an image and brand consultancy for the editorial and fashion industry. I launched about seven months ago and I have already worked with clients such as Madora and Lintons.
Parting shot: your influences in a nutshell
- Afropointilism – I created the concept to explore my culture through art. From freckles and dots to tribal art, it’s very important for me to incorporate my heritage into my work.
- MAC – My journey with them, and the opportunity to work at international Fashion Weeks and huge collaborations helped me to build my style and confidence in makeup skills.
- Danessa Myricks – She does exactly what I like to do with skin.
- Isamaya Ffrench – Specific style and finesse with makeup I look up to.
- Pat McGrath – Pioneer in Fashion Shows.
- Iris Apfel – I love her style! The big glasses combined with of a lot of accessories…she is just a white version of me. My dream is to meet her.