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The Bold, Cheeky, and Frequently NSFW Art of Malika Favre

By Charles Purdy

The French graphic designer Malika Favre‘s distinct and often very sexy style has made her one of the world’s most sought-after commercial illustrators. In addition to her personal creations, she works for clients around the world—publications such as the New Yorker and Vogue, as well as international brands like Sephora, with whom she has a growing, fruitful relationship. 

In her London studio, Favre creates work that is characterized by a striking minimalism: no line, no shape, no color is wasted. But within this minimalism, she creates images of startling beauty and depth. In this wide-ranging interview, Favre talks about her life and art.

(Please note that Favre frequently addresses sex and sexuality in her personal work, which is featured, uncensored, in this article.)

Poster representing the film
poster representing
poster representing

Favre created a series of posters for the 2015 BAFTAs, representing nominated films.

Create: How do you describe your work?

Malika Favre: I’d say it’s colorful, bold, minimalistic and narrative—and sometimes it’s also very sexy. 

Create: It is, yes—the erotica that you do is so beautiful. It’s sexy but also quite playful and even laugh-out-loud funny. What draws you to that subject matter?

Favre: This body of work is very personal to me. I think it’s actually how I found my voice as an illustrator: by designing my first sexy alphabet made of bunnies. As a kid, I used to draw naked ladies all the time—I’ve always been fascinated by the human body.

Also, I love playing with things that are so broad, so universal, that anyone can relate to them, wherever they are in the world. And sex is the embodiment of that idea. It’s the most universal thing on earth. 

When looking around, I realized that a lot of erotic art was done by men and was missing female voices, so I decided to share my vision. Also, I always try to add a touch of humor to my pieces, as I see sex as something playful and sometimes even funny.

When I started, my portfolio was filled with sexy work—but one of the things I realized very early on was that I couldn’t do that type of work commercially. I tried a few times, but it just never worked, and I ended up frustrated by the result. It’s the one aspect of my work where I absolutely don’t want to compromise, so I made it a rule not to create erotic work for commercial clients. 

Once in a while I do a new piece for myself, though, like Scissors or Orgy, which just came out as a rug. 

Malika Favre's print titled
Malika Favre's print title

Favre partnered with Parisian furniture design company La Chance to turn her Orgy print into an area rug.  

Create: When you were a kid, drawing your female nudes, how were those drawings received? What did your family think?

Favre: My mum loved it [laughter]. She kept all my drawings organized by year, so that’s how I found them a couple of years ago. There are some really disturbing ones in there, believe me. There is one of a girl dressed in this S&M attire—apparently I was nine when I did it. I asked my mum, “Did you think I was—I don’t know! What did you think?” And she was like, “Oh, you know, you were nine. I just thought it was the hormones kicking in.”… Very French in a way. 

Being French Algerian, my mum had a tougher upbringing than I did. I think she felt proud more than anything else, proud that I had a strong female voice and that I wasn’t scared to explore sexuality in my work.  

I was brought up in a very open family, so I’ve always perceived sex as being something funny and beautiful, rather than a taboo.

I still remember, I gave 69, which was another erotic piece I did, to my grandma at Christmas. It took her a while to understand what was happening on the paper—and when she did, she burst out laughing and told me it was beautiful.

Favre’s erotic work, such as 69 (above), is frequently available in her online shop—in various forms.

Create: So were you a very artistic child?

Favre: My mum pushed me to draw from a very young age, and it’s something I’ve been obsessed with since then. Growing up, I drew every single day. My family was a bit New Age and didn’t have TV, so my brother and I had to find different ways to entertain ourselves. For me it was playing, reading, and drawing.

My mum was a stay-at-home mum and was always creating things. But the truth is that she could never get around to selling any of it—she struggled with the business side of it and kept giving her work away for free to friends and family. She could create all these amazing things, but she never made a living of it.

Illustration of a young girl drawing, by Malika Favre

By the time I was a teenager, an artistic career didn’t seem viable at all. I was quite materialistic and headstrong back then, but I remember wanting to earn decent money and have a stable job. I never felt art was an option. So I kept drawing as a hobby but decided to pursue science for my A levels, followed by engineering prep school. I loved physics and mathematics back then and wanted to become an engineer. But after a couple of months in prep school studying like a maniac and barely seeing the light of day, I realized I was never going to be happy doing that as a living.

In high school, I loved the fact that I got to do a bit of everything: French literature, philosophy, English, sciences—but when I arrived in this postgraduate course, It was all about science, forget the literature, forget everything else. I missed all those other things, and I quickly felt frustrated. I was 18 and didn’t know what to do with my life. 

The only thing I really knew how to do was to draw, so I decided to apply to art school. I chose advertising rather than fine art and still had no intention of becoming an artist. I thought I was going to become an art director in an advertising agency. Twelve years on, and I have never spent a day working in an ad agency.

Create: Can you see a common thread in your style, from childhood to today?

Favre: I think I truly found my voice when I was 27, but I started playing with negative space in life drawing class in art school. Our teacher would push us to go to the essence of the pose by limiting us to 30 seconds per pose. This is when I learned to let the lines breathe, to hint at what was in front of me with a single line instead of drawing every single detail and shadow. Movement was more important than accuracy, and I learned a lot in that class. There and then, I started the process of paring things down, but I was doing it with a pencil instead of vectors. When I look back at my childhood and art school drawings, I can see all the different stages that led to what I’m doing today.

Create: So you’ve been a freelance illustrator for about five years now. I read a 2012 interview you did at the beginning of that transition from agency to freelance—now that some time has passed, can you talk about how it has all gone?

Favre: It has been nothing short of amazing. Like anyone, I guess I was a bit scared to go freelance. At that time, I didn’t really consider myself an illustrator—I left the nest after five years working as a designer at Airside [a design studio], so it was all new to me. I feel I got really lucky: I’ve never had a day without work, which is pretty good five years on.

image of a woman's face in profile, by Malika Favre
image of a woman putting paper clips in her mouth, by Malika Favre

Create: Have there been any big surprises along the way?

Favre: I think working in a design studio prepared me really well because my process was more the process of a designer than an illustrator. I knew how to talk to clients, how to present my work, and how to build relationships. I think that’s something a lot of illustrators have to learn the hard way when they start out. I was quite lucky with that. I guess my biggest surprise was the realization that you need a good business head as well as talent. It’s all the things other than drawing that you need to do to make it work: choosing your clients, when to say no, when to say yes, how to use social media, and stuff like that. I didn’t expect that to be quite so prominent.

Create: Has all that stuff been a challenge?

Favre: Well, I was lucky that I had an agent straightaway, so that simplified a lot of things. But I think I found it all more exciting than challenging. I quite like that part of the process as well…. I’m a bit of a weird creative person; I’ve always loved doing tax returns [laughter]. I even used to do my friends’ tax returns; that’s how much I love it. Well, now I have an accountant, but I used to love it.

I guess the most challenging thing for me was probably the strategy of the whole thing, the politics of being an illustrator. I’ve always been against this idea that if you work for this client, then your image is going to suffer, or you shouldn’t work for that client…. From the beginning, I was just like, “It doesn’t matter the brand, I’m going to work if the job is interesting”— I mean, as long as it’s not someone who sells weapons, oil, or drugs…. For the first three years I really followed that rule to go with the flow. But in the past two years I’ve started to think a bit more about where I want to be headed as an illustrator and the type of clients I want to have.

Washington Post
Marie Claire cover by Malika Favre
Parisianer cover by Malika Favre

A selection of Favre’s magazine covers.

Create: Are there any dream clients on that list?

Favre: Let me think…no, not really. It all happened so fast, and it really hit me when I got to a stage where I had worked with a lot of the people I really wanted to work with, a lot of great magazines—like the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post—and a lot of exciting clients, like Gucci, Sephora, Chanel. I’ve worked for so many different clients, and I’m now at a stage where I want to work for myself more. So I’ve put a big part of the advertising work on pause, and I’m trying to focus more on collaborations instead.

Create: How do you find a balance between personal work and client work?

Favre: It is a hard one to balance! I always feel like I don’t do enough personal work, but I still try to do as much as I possibly can. Sometimes I just feel I have to do it, and it becomes a matter of finding the time for it. I tried taking a day off every week to do personal work, but that just doesn’t work for me. So I take breaks—quite a lot of breaks. Last year I took three months off; this year I took one month off after Christmas. I just take big chunks of time off when I have a big idea I want to develop for an exhibition project. I am actually working on a new Cabaret series right now, which is something I have been wanting to do for a while.

On a smaller scale, I also try to feed my online shop regularly. My shop is a great outlet for me and allows me to breathe. When I think of a print concept, I make time for it during a week where I’m not that busy, or alternatively evenings and weekends.

I really need to do self-initiated work; otherwise, I go crazy.

Illustration of a woman's face, from Malika Favre's
Illustration of a woman's back, from Malika Favre's Cabaret series
Re-imagined movie poster for

The first two illustrations are from Favre’s Cabaret series. The third is a re-imagined Cabaret movie poster that appeared in the film magazine Little White Lies.

Create: Describe an ideal workday.

Favre: I’m very intense when I work. If I wasn’t myself, I would love to be able to work maybe four hours in the morning; then go for a nice lunch with someone I haven’t seen for a while and have a really great conversation; then maybe go see an exhibition, just to let my brain breathe; and then come back and work maybe two or three hours before finishing at seven. That would be my perfect day. But in reality I work about ten to twelve hours a day…I don’t know how to do it any other way. When I start drawing, I can’t stop.

The only way I take a break is by going away—I go on holiday and travel a lot because I can’t do a healthy break during the week or during the day. It is all or nothing with me.

Create: Can you talk about your process a bit? How do you approach an assignment or a project?

Favre: When I receive a new brief, the first thing I do is a lot of photographic research—a lot. If it’s for a specific place, I’ll go there and photograph it. If it’s for a more general concept, I do a lot of online research. I always start on Google, with image searches for the most obvious things I can think of that link to the brief, and then I start jumping from one thing to the next. It’s a very organic process. I never know what I’m going to find.

Then I start sketching. I sketch digitally now, just because a lot of my work doesn’t really translate into pencil sketches—it’s all to do with colors and bold shapes. So I just very roughly draw in Illustrator…. An idea often leads to another concept, so I go back online and start exploring some more.

And I do that, back and forth, until I have enough ideas. I usually produce a lot of sketches, maybe four or five different ideas for an editorial piece, for example. And then I pick the ones that I think work best and present them to the client.

Create: So when you start sketching in Illustrator, you don’t necessarily know what form the piece will take?

Favre: I always start drawing with some kind of a broad concept in mind. But the composition is something that evolves organically. I never know what the final piece will look like. Often the best things happen by accident, which I find fascinating.

Create: What’s inspiring to you these days?

Favre: I think traveling is a big part of my inspiration. When I’m in my everyday life, I am extremely focused and tend to not look around or pay attention to things that surround me. But as soon as I get out of my comfort zone and out of London, I start looking at things in a very different way. I try to travel as much as possible and take lots of photographs of places I find interesting—my work uses a lot of strong light and strong shadows, and believe me you never see those in London, where it’s all quite flat and gray. So in order to feed my imagination, I need to go to places where you can see that, to see new things.

hot air balloon, illustration by malika favre
London illustration by Malika Favre

Create: You’ve said in previous interviews how much London inspires you. How is your relationship with the city going?

Favre: Well, London—I’ve been there for twelve years, and it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship now, as with Paris in a way.

I would never be where I am if it wasn’t for London. It’s a concentration of so many diverse people and things: you have people from all over the world, doing very exciting things, there’s a lot of innovation around, and it feels very free. It’s different from Paris, which is quite static in a way. London is forever moving. But the downside of that is nothing ever stays the same, so your neighborhood can change in just a year or two and become something totally different that maybe you don’t like as much. Or people move away—it’s all quite unsettling in a way; you don’t have that cozy feeling of being part of something that’s going to last.

And that’s exactly what also makes it really exciting when you’re starting your career and you need to feed off that energy. Now I’m at a point where I’ve done that, and I want to improve my quality of life. The quality of life here in London is really poor. It’s super-expensive, and the weather is awful, which for me is a bit of a problem because I love my share of sun—it’s in my blood. I’ll forever be grateful to London, but I don’t think I’ll stay here for much longer…. But then who knows—ask me again in five years.

illustration of woman in a pool, by Malika Favre

Create: We’d love to talk to you again in five years. Where might you go next?

Favre: I’ve been looking for my perfect place for the past couple of years. I actually thought at one point that I wanted to move to San Francisco or Los Angeles. When taking a road trip around California, I realized that San Francisco was probably the place that was the best fit for me. It felt like home straightaway. But then again it’s a culture that is very far from my European roots. I also love Buenos Aires; I think I could live there If only the economical situation wasn’t so tricky. My most recent trip was to New Zealand, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I could definitely live in New Zealand—but, again, it’s so, so very far.

Create: I always like to ask artists about where they work. What is your studio like?

Favre: I work and live in a kind of industrial loft space that’s not too huge but not small; it’s kind of a big open plan with old floors, and I’m surrounded by prints and Sephora boxes I’m working on. As soon as I set foot into the flat, I told myself, “That’s it; this is going to be my first home in London.” So I started buying a lot of beautiful secondhand furniture and colorful cushions. It looks a bit like a playground, I guess. It’s very playful—patterns and colors everywhere.

Hide and Seek was Malika Favre’s first solo exhibition. It featured this charming minimalist animation, and it led to her ongoing collaboration with Sephora.

Create: You mentioned Sephora, one of your major clients. How did that relationship start, and what’s going on with them?

Favre: Funnily enough, the head of communications at Sephora in France, who is British, saw my work in an issue of British Vogue—a series of cute geometric ladies. She really liked it, so she went to check my website. The core identity of Sephora is black and white stripes with red accents, and the first thing she saw was my Hide and Seek exhibition, which was all black and white, stripes and patterns, with a hint of glamour.

She showed it to her team, and they contacted me straightaway. They said, “It’s really weird because it’s almost like you’ve been working with us already.” It was less of a commission and more of a collaboration from the get-go, because it was the type of work I was already doing for myself, and we had a common ground. We kind of merged our worlds…. In Europe, it’s a very fun and glamorous brand. We started with some small internal illustrations, and slowly they asked for more and more, and now we’ve done dozens of projects together: packaging, posters, pouches. I even experimented with some window displays. And that’s what I love about this client. If tomorrow I have an idea for something new and fun, I can present it to them and they’ll try to find the budget to do it.

Sephora are super-lovely, really nice clients. And this ongoing collaboration is interesting because it’s the first time I’ve taken on a client as my main client. I have always juggled a lot of different clients and projects, and I loved the novelty of that process. But I’ve been working with Sephora for two years now, and as we are working more together we are building a stronger relationship. I’m going to be doing a lot of packaging, all the special occasions like Christmas and Mother’s Day, as well as pictograms for their website…it’s kind of an all-around design and illustration job.

Woman astronaut illustration by Malika Favre, for Sephora Galaxy
Woman in astronout helmet, illustration by Malika Favre
Sephora

Among Favre’s work for Sephora is this campaign, called Galaxy.  

 

Malika Favre's lipstic illustration for Sephora
Malika Favre's fingernail polish illustration for Sephora
Malika Favre's perfume illustration for Sephora
Image of a store wrap for Sephora, by Malika Favre

More of Favre’s work for Sephora: her glamorous aesthetic and bold use of pattern make her work a perfect match for the brand.

 

We’re grateful to Malika for spending so much time with us—we’re big fans, and we hope to talk to her again soon. You can keep abreast of all of Malika Favre’s work and activities via her website and shop, and we highly recommend following her on Instagram!