What was being a hairstylist 35 years ago (when you started) like? What does it mean now and what differences do you see?
It was another planet, my dear Miss Kennedy. You couldn’t just enter the industry as it is nowadays. First, let me tell you something very interesting that goes a bit further back in time. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, there were no agents. If the elite press was in need of a hairstylist, they would call a hair shop like Jaques Dessange, Jean Louis David, Vidal Sassoon, to name some, and ask if someone was available to do the hair for a shoot. The hairdresser would pack a couple of things, go to the studio, do the hair for Vogue and go straight back to the salon.
There were no freelancers. Fashion stylists were employed full time by one magazine. No one was jumping from one branch to the next, like today.
What happened in the '80s? When magazines added more advertising, more ball game, more cosmetics and therefore had more content to be produced, hairstylists left their salons and started working full time for a photo studio. After some time, hairstylists became independent from photo studios and started working as freelancers, which is how the world of agencies began.
The best hairstylists were also the best hairdressers. They were the avant-garde, professionals in their field. The big brands, for example Sassoon, Redken, Kevin Murphy, L'Oréal and so on, would get them to create new looks and trends.
When I stepped in, maybe 12 years after that shift happened, you can imagine how extremely selective the industry still was. If you didn't have a major history being part of any of those Salons, having done hair for any Vogue shoot, there was almost no room to step into the industry. The club was very tight, and to get a member card you had to be able to do anything with hair.
Back then there were only five agents in Paris, whilst now there are about 50, or even more. In order to be able to get listed by one of those five agents, you had to show ability, talent and creativity completely out of the ordinary. Back then, these agents were true experts on hair. Sometimes they understood it even better than hairstylists. With no Internet at that time, they were the ones going physically to the clients, sitting down with them in meetings with leather books, explaining them why their best choice had to be you.
Your agent would give you a direction, would motivate you to create looks for your next editorial. They would drive you like a proper manager, as they really had to go out and fight for you to get the work.
Nowadays, agents are asking you to tag them on your posts on Instagram because they need your publicity. Things have gone the other way around. They do not defend your work as they cannot see the difference between Peter, Paul and Jake. If it's not you, then it's another one doing the job, and clients have got used to it. They just call the agents and put 1st and 2nd option on whoever is available.
But top hairstylists today have big names because they have built up their careers for 20 or 30 years. Today in 2018, big profile hairstylists, who created trends and a special way to see women are almost no longer seen as such due to their skills.
After being published in the elite press, we have been the influence for people out there, we have been the inspiration. Nowadays, the streets have become the inspiration for hairdressers and the Internet has allowed people to get to the top. At least one can create the impression to be big nowadays without even having a knowledge.
How did you start your career?
In 1989 a makeup artist friend of mine recommended me to her agent, saying she should meet this kid (me) because “he is fucking crazy, maybe too crazy, but he goes beyond and has a great personality”.
At that time, I had a book with only five or six images. Photographers had to give you a print. But in many cases, they would only give you a Polaroid. Can you imagine? What can you do with a Polaroid in your book?
So I went to see this lady and the walls of the office were covered with elite press covers. French Vogue, Italian Vogue, American Vogue, L'Officiel, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire... She asked me who my idols in the industry were and I said I was very impressed by Julien D'ys, Didier Malige, Oribe, Christiaan, Garren and Sam Mc Knight.
She looked at me and said: “Oh my friend, you're gonna need very long legs to catch up with them. These guys have been working for 20 years already. They are very big and there is no seat for you up there!”
I was totally intimidated by the presence of all those covers on the wall, and when I left I thought I was just dreaming, I was never ever going to make it. How would I get published by any of those magazines? There was no underground, no Internet and also assisting was no option, because I didn't know it could be done.
Months later, this agent called and said she didn't have a hairstylist for a Chinese Vogue shoot. It was a story where only the shadows of the hair shapes were to be seen on the wall. A big job, a nightmare. I told her I wasn't ready for that. She advised me to keep on testing then.
In order to find photographers, I went to every model agency proposing my services for tests and leaving my name everywhere. Within the following 2 years, I did over 200 tests with various photographers. Just to make you understand how selective the industry was, not even one of these has ever been published. Not one!
It was so complicated and felt so impossible to get on an agent's list with only a few pictures in my book, that sometimes I went to the train station, thinking of going back to Marseille. One day this agent lady called me again asking what I was up to and I told her that it wasn't going well for me. I could not pay my rent for my tiny room, I couldn't even buy products. I felt there was no way for me to enter the one and only door existing to get into this club. Nowadays there are so many doors you can't even count them.
How did you get into the club then?
It all happened by pure luck. My devotion, my love, but also my naivety kept me going and testing. Just before I was about to give up, I made one last round, going to all the magazines and asking to see the beauty editor to leave my name there. I even went to the worst ones, like Playboy, hoping to get some work to put food on my table.
One day, in 1991, I was living in this tiny room underneath the rooftop. The concierge came all the way up saying I had a phone call. I went downstairs, I took the phone and a woman said she was from French Vogue. She needed someone to do the hair for an haute couture story and she asked me if I could come to the magazine's office to meet her.
I went there trying to look presentable, trying to hide my southern French accent. The lady explained that they'd had to postpone this shoot several times due to the bad weather in June, and now that it was good again, everyone was on holidays. She wanted to know if I knew how to put a hat on a model's head and if I knew how to hide the hair underneath that. They had 15 hats for this story. I said I could do that and when she told me I would earn 80€ for the day and that it was a two day shoot, I was so happy I couldn't tell. I was able to pay the rent for a couple of months with that.
Two days later, I was brought to this incredibly beautiful castle, where I found out the photographer was a famous woman with a massive profile.
The stylist put a big bag on the table, saying that all those golden medals with chains inside the bag were to be put on the hair. She said the story was “Gypsy haute couture”. They hadn’t told me before, but they wanted me to try one hair look with these accessories. If I couldn't do it, they'd have 15 hats as a back up for the story.
Wow, and what happened?
I did the hair they wanted to try for the first look. The photographer shot it, came back to the tent and said to the stylist, she thought it was great and wanted to try another look without a hat. After that, she wanted a 3rd one and then another one, and so on. We never used the hats. That day was my lucky day. I got the keys to the only door into this club.
After the story was out, this agent lady called me and said I should see her. All of a sudden I was doing Vogue all the time. But I tell you something. I wasn't ready at all. Technically, I was a joke. I was super young, I had not enough experience, it constantly terrified me that they would ask me a hairstyle I couldn't do. I was under constant pressure.
How did you get through this and how did you learn to deal with pressure?
I stared working my ass off like crazy to catch up, to compete technically at some point.
With the little money I earned with the magazines, I went to buy heads with human hair and practised day and night. As there was no Internet, or even later around 2002 when the Internet was really slow, I went to the National Library searching for magazines and books. I also went through the Vogue Archives and took laser copies. I collected all kinds of pictures, nailed them on the wall of my room and I wouldn't stop until I could do exactly what I saw on the pictures.
Many times, I didn’t understand how my idols managed to make the hair on the pictures. Bit by bit, I understood that I needed to tease the hair with my brush in certain ways, to use different brushes, combs, certain products to prepare the hair, attaching hair for volume and all that. It was a hell of a process, as you can imagine.
Where were you coming from and how did you direct where to go?
As I had never assisted anyone I had to find my own way. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach at all times. I was scared to do something wrong, always wondering whether I could deliver. My technics still needed development big time. But when you are that young, you don't know that it is only in your head, that you are only insecure because you are young.
Imagine you are on your own and you keep practising, trying to catch up with your idols, and suddenly you see your work published in the same magazine as them. And remember, it was a super tight club. It could end your career right away if you fucked up once.
Directing or projecting where I was going was impossible. The success caught me before I was ready for it. I felt at all times as if a sword was above me to cut my head.
You know, when you open the curtains to the world of fashion and you are lucky to be one of the selected ones, the train goes very fast. It was going fast at that time and it is going fast now too. The speed has never slowed down. All of a sudden I was working every day, travelling all the time, I was never home, I didn't sleep. The only thing that counted was keeping the level, practicing and delivering. It was constant stress for at least 10 years.
How did people prepare for photo shoots with no Internet, not being able to send PDFs across the world in seconds?
Well, maybe one out of a hundred times you would get a phone call in advance and you were given an idea of a direction. But generally speaking, there was no information, no mood boards at all. As I said before, at that time the industry was extremely selective, working as a hairstylist was technically super tough. There were only about 20 of them working across Europe and they could create anything they were asked.
I was super lucky to get good stories and subjects in most cases. Only a few times I was bleeding as I was asked something I didn't know how to do.
Imagine how fortunate I was when I had my first ever French Vogue shoot - the gipsy haute couture story -, did a messy hair texture and used the golden medals based on a movie I saw.
Was that your source of inspiration back then?
Well, yes, indeed. Before the Internet it only could be libraries, exhibitions and vintage movies, and I watched a lot! I used to watch all kinds of movies from the 30's, 40's, 50's... I paused the movies when I liked the hairdos, took pictures of the TV screen with my little Kodak, printed those pictures and hang them also on my wall to practise. With these pictures, I created books to have references when shooting in London or the US, as at that time I didn’t speak English yet. Also in the mid 90's I started drawing sketches, as sometimes I couldn't find any image.
Has this influenced the way you create and express your extraordinary creativity?
Yes, that is how I build references in my head. Over time, my brain literally became a library of its own, and it is still a source to me today.
Would you say you developed much stronger skills, finding out everything by yourself?
Absolutely, much stronger! You know, when you're young and you assist someone, all the technical skills you learn come from that person. You would stay with one hairstylist for years before they would start assigning you jobs they could not do by themselves. Back then, it was impossible to assist various people, hierarchy was very strong. You wouldn't dare to bring ideas to the one you were assisting.
What does creativity mean to you?
For me it would be a material, a texture or an image that you take and transform into something else, using a reference that everybody knows. I think it's a good definition. When you look very well into the history of hair, you find codes and references that have been re-translated in one way or another. Nothing is really new for a simple reason: geometry. Heads are round and will always be, and the hair is something you build around this shape.
In a way, there is always a limit on what is possible. Even if you think you do something no one has ever done before, you might find a reference and discover it was already done maybe 300 years ago. It happened to me many times and I reckon it happens to everyone else too. I think the way you re-translate the codes and references and push your boundaries is what defines your creativity at the end of the day.
Where is the future of fashion going?
To talk about the future, we have to talk about the present first. For the time being, fashion has opened so many doors to some many people, that almost nobody knows what is right or wrong. There is a thousand times more people in every department than has ever been before, so fashion has lost a little bit the sense of innovation. Everything is scrambled like a huge omelette.
From everywhere in the industry you have a new current, a different vision. You have people working with shitty technique and the ones with the best technique. Also, there are so many more magazines that keep changing freelancers working for them. Anyone can get kicked out and trashed like Kleenex. The quality is missing a bit.
But we shouldn't forget that the industry we work for is still a luxury market and that big labels are giving money to the luxury press so they can survive. Chanel, Estée Lauder, L'Oréal, Calvin Klein, Armani, D&G, all these brands allow the luxury press to survive because they buy advertising.
The wind changed and it is cool making expensive clothes look completely different as everyone could wear it. I mean, it's great to have different directions, mix up everything and break all rules. Of course it is super to have an edge or simplicity sometimes! Although, the establishment is still about luxury. Fashion should lift the level and sell happiness again. Whichever way, cool, edgy, whatever, but please, happy. Life is very tough for lots of people on this planet. In the news everything is drama. Never anything happy. People need to dream. They need it so much and we are professionals of making dreams. We can show the people that there is another world that can be created. So why don't we? Happiness, creativity and beautiful dreams are good for people and good for business.
What is the impact of social media in the industry?
Today technology allows nearly anyone with almost no knowledge to become famous in this industry with no criteria of selection. A young kid with Instagram can shoot a story and can have as much glory as the photographer who really has built up his career for 10 or 20 years. The codes that are used to make a picture major have disappeared. The news-feed we are confronted with has grown to an extent that no one can keep up with. For example, a magazine will be out next month. In the meantime, there are 30 days. During these 30 days people upload on social media millions of data more than this magazine could ever provide.
Now a girl next door can become an It girl shooting herself with her phone. If she has hundreds of thousands of followers - may they be brought or not - she can become the face, the consultant, even the ambassador for a billion dollar luxury brand. Seriously? Based on what knowledge can someone like that decide on teams to shoot campaigns for big brands that back in the day would have professionals working for them, creating trends based on technical skills and artistry?
If brands have to buy people to talk about them in their social media, I guess they are lost. I mean, do you really think that 15 years ago someone like Kim Kardashian would have had any chance to be on the cover of a high end magazine? The industry has lost its way, so social media has become the guide.
Everyone does it because no one wants to be left behind. It's almost become a competition to find the most insignificant girl and make her a star overnight. Things have gone completely in the opposite direction.
From a business point of view, though, it is almost impossible to plan strategies. The direction can change in a day. Anyone can appear today with money and a good PR and anyone can be gone by tomorrow. The heads of luxury brands won't listen if you talk to them about it. They would say, “this is how it is nowadays”. But if you hear them talking in private, you'll discover they are in panic, because they don't know how to sell anymore.
Magazines have gotten their legs cut off by social media and they don't hold up against their speed and their radius of influence. In the past, journalists provided surprises, spread the industries' information. People waited for months to see the designers' new collections. Today, shows, for instance, are up and running online the minute they are happening. It seems the social media have taken over.
Can the elite press survive that development?
For me, if they at least take back the way of happiness instead of showing a monochrome world and sometimes even a funeral, of course they can. They should become again the icon of a super interesting way to live, showing some joie de vivre.
In my opinion, it is their only way to survive against social media and not to kill fashion completely. Have a point of view, have an opinion, do not hide behind a safe commercial wall of imagery with no intention to inspire people again. Whatever you do, make people happy with the contents you are creating. Make them see how beautiful, different or interesting life can be when they open your magazine. Don't put the symbols of the industry, your business, your brand in a position and make the models look almost guilty to be wearing luxury, or make them even look inaccessible, unreachable.
In the end, we are selling a product for people out there. Don't get me wrong. There are magazines with a creative point of view giving a different direction in creativity and expressing modernity nowadays. But the number of stories providing that are only a few out of hundreds, which is absolutely not interesting at all.
At the moment, it feels to me like fashion has forgotten that the message the industry provides should be for everyone. Today it's fashion for people in fashion. The competition occurs within the industry. It's about who is going to be seen more and more loved tomorrow. There is no message for the people outside. Magazines should carry on trying to invent themselves again, inspiring people again. I wish big labels like Chanel spread positivism. They would be sold all the time anyway. I would love to see them set an example and become again the inspiration of a lovely dream. If they do so, others will follow.
Do you find inspiration on the streets? If not, where do you find it nowadays?
I would say that, when magazines were leading in information and remained the only ones to show trends, unique looks or create a bit of inspiration on the streets, there was not much to look at. It was the job of the elite press to be the inspiration. As they have renounced to keep going, suddenly the street strikes back.
Let's be honest. In terms of looks, the street has become much more creative than the luxury press. People nowadays are much less afraid to be what they are and to show their own style. Social media has supported that. If today you dress yourself funky for some occasion like Halloween, for example, and you post it on Instagram, people on the street get very much inspired by that. Some would follow that example and go even beyond than a magazine would nowadays.
Everybody has something to show now. Looking crazy and eccentric or having an individual touch has almost turned normal. Having blue hair and working in an office is nothing that will be talked about anymore for weeks. So, yes, I can be inspired by a person on the subway. But really, I am a bit like a vacuum cleaner. I am swallowing all information. Anything can turn into a potential idea to me. I can pull inspiration from the visual library I have built from the time I was constantly practicing hair looks.
It can be the weird colour of a car, a strange pair of shoes, the front window of a shop with a strange design. Also, it can be a reflection of light on the wall, a rusty handle on a door, it can be the shape of the water on the sidewalk making a river. The list is long. Sometimes I see shapes of a hair when I look at the clouds in the sky. Clouds keep changing and moving, and so does the hair.
Where do you see the future of hairstylists with a profile of 35 years and what could be the end of their careers?
It depends on the hairstylist. If the flame in one's heart still burns and one still enjoys and celebrates hair, the career will never end. Probably people won't remain in the same industry for so long. There are so many opportunities to express oneself, that the next generation, perhaps won't sign up for a lifetime commitment.
Having a career of 35 years seems already exceptional for the young generation. People in the industry are becoming younger and younger in all departments. To my concern and from what I have been through, I don't see any other possibility, but to end my life transmitting my knowledge.
I want to found a school and teach. Also, I want to give students the opportunity to learn any style they want. Even if the looks weren't for me, I still want to teach and explain how to do it technically. After all these years, I think, my biggest desire now is to give everything I know with all my heart, without hiding anything.
I have worked with Karl Lagerfeld a few times and once I heard him saying something that has never left me. A young man was telling him how major he was and what a legacy he has created. Karl stopped the young person and said to him: “But, my friend, what do you think? Do you think I am going to take all that with me into the wooden box without giving it to the others before I die?“. Honestly, Abra, I will never forget that. He was so right! What are you gonna do with all your technique, your hairspray and your blow dryer in the wooden box, hmm? You should give it away so that the next generation can enjoy it.
I am going to give it back and maybe I can even inject some hope into young kids, give them the opportunity to express something, the opportunity to see that there is a happiness they can pass on to people through hair!
What would you tell the young generation so they keep going?
I think today's youngsters face so much more competition. There is a tremendous increase of people on the market, but at the same time, creativity is kind of mediocre. I would like to tell the young generation that no one can forbid you to have fun and spread that enjoyment. For what it's worth, the social media has a bright side here. Do it for yourself. It is the most important thing.
If you don't get to express your creativity by working for the elite press or a high end brand, you can still create whatever you want. Believe that you are not limited. Keep on going and enjoy your love of doing hair. The limit is only a point of view. It is not the wall that you might see when you open the window. If you look above the wall, you can see the sky. All you need to learn is how to travel.