Malika is a world-famous illustrator from Paris who has been living and working in London for over a decade. Through her career she has worked for the New Yorker, Vogue and BAFTA among others.
"I found there are more bridges between disciplines in London. Here, you can reinvent yourself or even change path as long as you have the drive and the talent".
What do you consider your nationality to be?
Have you ever considered yourself a Foreigner?
Funnily enough, because my mum’s family is from Algeria and even though she was born and raised in France, I felt more like a foreigner in Paris than here. In France I grew up needing to explain where I came from because I looked mixed-raced. Six month after I arrived in London I had this funny encounter with a cab driver who asked me where I was from. My first reaction was: “my mum is Algerian...etc..”. He looked surprised and replied : “oh my god, you sound so French”. This is when I realized that none cared here.
Why did you move to London? What was your original reason?
I arrived here thirteen years ago. Just like a lot of people, I wanted to spend one year abroad, see something different, so I thought: “I’ll live in England for a year, see what it’s like and then go back” and I never did. Things snowballed, I found an internship at a design agency that I loved called Airside - got offered a job soon after and stayed there for five years.
Was it hard to integrate or simply staying away from home?
Being away from home wasn’t the hardest as my family is spread out everywhere anyway, we’re almost all expats. The toughest part was missing my friends. I have a very strong group of childhood friends and it felt weird to have to start from scratch and recreate a new circle. But I also came here with one of my best friends and that really helped. I have to admit that we both found it very hard to make English friends at the beginning.
What do you think was the reason?
I think it’s a cultural thing. Being new to a country which is not your own you need and seek new friends, while people who were born here already have their network. After a few years I started to make some good English friends but most of them are still expats even today after 13 years. I think it’s also because we share the same experience. And I have to confess that I get along better with Latin people in general [laughs].
Do you remember any personal challenge?
The language was the hardest part. English is a very easy language when it comes to getting by but it’s a very complex and difficult one to master. You have to learn how to stop translating in your head and understand the culture rather than the words themselves. There is a definite gap between what people say and what they mean over here… [laughs]
Once I figured that part out I started loving it, especially when it came to working situations.
French people can be very direct but also very harsh and hurtful. I love working in a British environment. When you get feedback from a client for something that doesn’t work they don’t yell at you or tell you that you’re rubbish. They say things like “it could be stronger” or “I am not sure about this colour but what do you think?” This way you don’t take it personally and as long as you can read between the lines you’re fine.
Was there any special encounter or a community that helped you navigating the culture?
There was no specific community but I was really happy that I was part of a studio and I didn’t work as a freelance from the beginning as working alongside British people really helped me. I loved the fact that when you arrive here and your English is not so good, no one ever slows down for you. I ended up in creative meetings where I had no clue of what was happening [laughs]. So I pretended until I did understand.
Do you think you would have been able to produce the same kind of work if you stayed in Paris?
Never. I am not sure I would have ever been an illustrator if I stayed. Maybe a miserable web designer? I have nothing against web design, it’s just that I’m really bad at it.
I went to art school to study design but never studied illustration as such. There weren’t many small design studios over there so everyone went into advertising and it felt like you didn’t have much choice.
Back then I didn’t know that being an illustrator was even a job. The whole creative industry felt like it was more about who you knew than about what you did. I didn’t have any contacts as my parents had no connections in the creative industry. When I arrived in London I realised that it wasn’t about who you knew, it was about the quality of your work. Even if your English was rubbish as long as your work was good you would get a chance.
I also found there were more bridges between disciplines in London. Here, you can reinvent yourself or even change path as long as you have the drive and the talent.
People don’t care what school you went to, especially in illustration. None of the illustrators I know studied illustration, they studied fine art, product design or architecture.
Where did you find your style?
It happened organically over the years. I didn’t plan it as I didn’t think of myself as an illustrator. When I was at Airside, they encouraged their designers to create personal work in their spare time (t-shirts, sculptures, jewellery, anything that inspired us really). The studio would then produce and sell it on their shop. The aim wasn’t to make money beside what was necessary to sustain the shop. I loved that concept. That’s when I created my first bunny alphabet. Originally I didn’t know what I was drawing, I was just experimenting. I started to apply graphic design principles to illustration, instead of seeing illustration as just a decorative thing. It became a challenge to use as little colour as possible or being bold, like you would do in graphic design. I even used some grids in illustrations. You always have some backbone in my illustrations, whether it is the golden ratio or the isometric grid or typographic for the alphabet. I always try to convey an emotional story, questioning why I do things. And if I don’t need something, I remove it.
I created a lot of prints for the shop over the years and at some point I realised it was time to do my own thing. A couple of clients started to ask specifically for the type of work I was producing and that made me realise that maybe I was on to something.
At the end of the day your style is unique to you and your journey. It is very personal and directly connected to the people you met and the experiences you had. If you’re copying someone’s style you’re basically lying to yourself, it doesn’t belong to you. And if doesn’t belong to you it can’t be good.
Were you excited when you were asked to draw the cover for the New Yorker?
I was over the moon as it was my ultimate bucket list job. It’s probably on every illustrator’s bucket list actually. You can check it here.
Do you feel your origins inspire your work?
I think so. I never really thought of it like that but the feedback I got was that my work was very French, somehow. The glamour, probably the things I saw as a kid. When you live in France or Italy you see people dressed very well, you have these very classy ladies and this had a big influence on my perception as I was growing up.
What about the local influence? Has London changed or influenced your style?
I truly found my style in London. I was drawing before of course but London made me into the illustrator I am today.
Do you think there’s something unique to the London culture that helped you in this process?
It’s the fact that London is so diverse, that there are so many influences. Everyone is bringing their own country to the table and this makes the creative scene so much more exciting. You get hints of everything. Paris is still very French-centric. When you work there you tend to work mainly with French clients for French brands or magazines. Here, not only you do work for people from other countries but also for UK people that are foreigners themselves.
London also feels like a “young” city. When my family came to visit they were shocked. My uncle was like “where are the old people?” [laughs]. A lot of people come in their early twenties.
Something you would like to share with the British people?
Living abroad is about getting out of your comfort zone. It forces you in a situation without a parachute. Your survival instinct makes you work twice as hard. Living in a foreign country really changes you. I feel French but people back home find me a bit British sometimes. Because you get influenced by the culture you live in and it’s always for the best. I think it’s an experience everyone should have, even if they end up going back home at some point. For me it might be when I retire but I am not ready yet. If I leave London it will be to live in yet another country.
What are the plans for the future?
I don’t know, maybe New Zealand or Barcelona. I’m currently taking it a bit easier with work, after seven years of working like a maniac, I am finally taking some time to think about my future. London was instrumental in setting up my career but I now feel I want a higher quality of life which London cannot offer.
What words/ideas do you associate with Foreigner?
Culture, Food, Accent. I love accents.
What if you had to illustrate it?
It would a mysterious character. It’s someone who comes from a place you are not familiar with. Mysterious and sexy.