The beauty disruptor crafting double-take makeup looks that refuse to colour inside the lines.

makeup artist Salwa Rahman for Nike React Element 55
makeup artist Salwa Rahman for Nike React Element 55

As part of a campaign to celebrate their latest shoe drop, Nike React Element 55, the iconic brand have enlisted the help of London’s most exciting and reactionary homegrown talent right now – all each formidable forces making waves in their respective industries.

One visit to the Instagram page of Salwa Rahman, and you can instantly tell that this is not someone playing by the rules. Glitter-encrusted eyebrows. Picasso-esque face etchings. Neon-soaked eyeshadow blocks. She did not come here to play.

Using her face as the canvas, the make-up artist showcases her fearless creations to her 12.4K followers, headily blurring the line between art, beauty, and everything in between. Obsessed.

We chatted with the beauty creator about being picked for the Nike collaboration and designing her own pair…

Salwa Rahman Nike React Element 55 trainer side on
Salwa Rahman Nike React Element 55 trainer front down
Salwa Rahman Nike React Element 55 trainer side on
Salwa Rahman Nike React Element 55 trainer front down

Can you tell me about when you first got into beauty?
Beauty has always been in my peripheral vision growing up. It was never the focus, always something that was there – kind of like when you have a dream about a person but their entire being is blurry. I was a tomboy growing up so even the thought of wearing makeup just didn’t sit well with me, as I thought it was making me too “girly” and that was an image at the time I fully rejected. However time changes perceptions, and as I grew older my understanding of what it meant to be “girly” vs. myself, developed more into an understanding that I could pick and choose the elements of beauty that I liked.

I think all social change starts when you begin to be acutely social, and for me that was the start of secondary school. I started seeing and hanging out with friends that were more feminine and had learnt beauty from their mums and TV adverts, and that led me to be more exposed to it.

I loved colour and so I bought a tonne of different lipsticks ranging from orange to black, but promised that I would never wear foundation because a) I didn’t need it and b) it was too conforming. Even now, my perception of beauty is changing, I am now comfortable enough to wear foundation and do feminine looks, but also can fall back into my love of colour and from time to time I just squiggle something half-arsed on my face. The fact that I can pick between either of these looks tells me that I haven’t been completely consumed by the beauty industry’s need to produce perfect-looking people, with perfect-looking faces. 

How would you define beauty?
There isn’t a single, standalone definition for beauty. It’s not a black and white topic – rather it’s formed of layers of colours, textures and shapes. For me, it’s self-expression; it’s the umbrella term for a person’s imagination, for their confidence and comfort. 

Why is it important to you that you don’t envision beauty in a conformative way – is this a mode of beauty you’re trying to promote?
I wouldn’t call my beauty non-conformative, it’s simply me having the agency to choose how I want to present myself. I would consider my version of beauty as humanistic, and if that is non-conformative then I’m not too sure what that says about the beauty community. When I say humanistic, I include the fact that my perception of beauty encourages mistakes, it encourages the use of colour and imagination because all those elements combined is to be human.

When I started painting my face, I didn’t have the set intention of giving the beauty industry the finger – in actuality I just assessed what was out there and I chose to embody and reinvent things that worked for me and I’m incredibly thankful that it’s allowed others to see beauty in a new light. I’m promoting a space where individuals can choose their tools and their looks, it’s to have the active choice to follow the ”rules”, or to break them or even to bend them beyond recognition – but it all falls fundamentally on having the autonomy to do so. 

How do you hope people will feel after seeing your beauty looks?
Inspired. Normalised. Encouraged. Happy. Curious. These are a few of the feelings I hope are conveyed when people see the looks that I do, it’s an active encouragement to say that nothing is considered too weird, and if it’s something that you want to wear you are well within your rights to do just that. 

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever had?
Keep doing what I’m doing – throughout the past year or so I’ve had wonderful messages from people around the world encouraging me to just be myself. It’s like that wonderful quote from Coach Carter, whereby the light that I’m shining out is illuminating others to then become their own beacons. I am happy to be a part of that progressive network. Although my work is very much individualistic in the sense that I do not regard myself as a “influencer”, I can’t deny that it is nice to know that by simply existing and doing what I feel is comfortable for me, it’s allowing others to be comfortable within themselves. 

What was your reaction to getting picked by Nike to collaborate for the React Element 55?
It was incredibly exciting to be a part of a Nike campaign, I think that Nike is a huge platform and is a massive force in shaping contemporary culture – especially within the youth. To be able to be a part of something so visible is exhilarating, less so because there’s a slightly larger image of me posted somewhere, but more so because it enables me to have a reach that I would not be capable of by myself.

It gives me a platform to inform people not to be consumed by what is being presented to them; it allows me to perpetuate self-love and individuality. It shows that as a young south Asian Muslim woman, I am able to disrupt (not that I ever had a problem with being seen as a problem) by simply being myself, and in that chaos and disruption am able to help create a new wave of perception that strays from the normative beauty scene. 

What do you think makes your work so disruptive and reactionary?
I don’t think anything I do is actively disruptive, but again – if that’s how it is being viewed, then that’s simply commentary on how we have shaped our society to see that embracing a mistake (or a bit of mess) can be seen as non-conformative. We’ve been conditioned to produce perfect aesthetics and that just isn’t realistic – life is disruptive and I just do my best to navigate that with some wonky eyeliner. 

What was your starting point to designing your shoe?
Actually, I was completely stumped on how to design my shoe. Beauty is completely different because it’s temporary and I can change and adapt the elements that I didn’t like, whereas to create a whole shoe was a little crazy as it was something that was for forever.

I actually hosted a ‘family-feud’ style design challenge with my family – getting everyone to design their own shoes on different tabs so that I could pick and work on the shoe design I liked best. I thought it would be cute, it would be a team effort and I would have an essence of my family within my trainer. However all the designs were trash (sorry, not sorry to my family) so I had to start from scratch. After trying out a few different colours, I had finally created something I really loved.

What did you want to convey with your shoe?
I brought in my love for clashing colours as well as tying in my dual identity – the vibrant orange clashing with the cool blue translated my British-Bangladeshi self and how two colours (potentially) harsh colours could actually come together and work so well. I wanted to add the word “bideshi” to the tongue – it’s a Bengali word that translates to foreign and again, where the word has inherent negative connotations, I choose to embrace and champion being foreign because there’s nothing wrong with being different. 

photographer Lauren Maccabee, stylist and journalist Bemi Shaw, and makeup artist Salwa Rahman for Nike React Element 55

Salwa Rahman (M) with Bemi Shaw (L) and Lauren Maccabee (R)

photographer Lauren Maccabee, stylist and journalist Bemi Shaw, and makeup artist Salwa Rahman for Nike React Element 55
Salwa Rahman (M) with Bemi Shaw (L) and Lauren Maccabee (R)

What kind of person do you imagine wearing this shoe?
In the wise words of Monique Heart (RuPaul’s Drag Race), “a shoe is a shoe is a shoe.” I don’t think that it’s restricted to a single demographic. It can be worn by anyone – I want people to do what people do best, and that is to adapt the shoe to their own style and aesthetic. For them to wear it and feel amazing, that would be great! So please, if you wear it I would be so grateful! 

When do you feel most creative?
Creativity parallels my day to day life – there isn’t a specific time in the day or evening that I’m particularly inspired. I’m growing to be incredibly aware of my surroundings and through my heightened perceptions I see things that I would then want to emulate or include in my work – this could vary from inanimate objects like buildings and flowers to the work of artists like Rothko or Yayoi Kusama.

It’s a visual process and the beauty of my surroundings honestly just triggers it, it sounds a little cliché but it’s the truth. I think practically, I get to try out my little ideas just before I take off my makeup – I sit there and just scribble and draw and it gives me a chance to see a tangible result of what was merely an idea and it gives me something to work off of. 

Why do you think it’s important to nurture female creativity?
Although the world is changing, we cannot deny that systemic and ingrained patriarchy and misogyny exists. Female creativity is simply one layer to our complex selves and it is integral that we claim our creative space in order to explore ourselves, in order to exhibit our talents and to gain recognition for being exceptional human beings. Creativity comes in multiple forms and honestly, for most it’s a method of self-care and it is that notion of caring for the self that makes it so important to nurture female creativity.

What would be your top tip for someone starting out trying to get into your industry?
We live in a society that is incredibly voyeuristic and that can be overwhelming at times – especially in the beauty industry where you might feel that a certain aesthetic is gaining more traction, or people have created looks that are similar to yours. Always look after yourself, prioritise your creative flow and mental health and when you are in a positive space, everything else will fall into place. 

What’s next for you?
I’ve recently co-founded a collective titled Bideshi. It consists of me, @a8lia and @umberghauri, and working with a team that is made up of incredible south Asian creatives is refreshing and allows us to really influence our projects with our authentic selves. It’s a signifier for a community that is still finding its feet, especially in the creative field. We currently have a few projects that we are working on, so I’m excited to see how we can grow that. 

What is it about London that gets you excited, and keeps your work energised?
London has an indescribable energy – I think it has a weirdly accepting energy, which is great when you are just trying to do you, yet it’s always changing and adapting contemporary culture. I love the sense of community that London brings, to say you’re a Londoner is to belong to a city where your wacky make-up can get admired and complimented by a middle-class, white Essex man on the C2C train – that’s pretty cool. 

Find out more about Nike React Element 55 here.

Introducing Nike React Element 55 campaign
Read our interview with Nike React Element 55 collaborator Bemi Shaw
Read our interview with Nike React Element 55 collaborator Lauren Maccabee