HAIR TALK: Kevin Murphy and Jen Atkin
When we heard that Australian hair guru, Kevin Murphy, would be in Los Angeles this summer, we knew we had to do something fun. We set him up with Mane Addicts founder Jen Atkin for a bit of a makeover story. Most of you might be familiar with Kevin’s amazing line of high quality hair care products, but did you know he also does all the styling for his advertising and editorial campaigns? Having lived in LA and NY in the 90’s during the forefront of hair styling as the bombshell art form it has become, Kevin has developed a knack for knowing what women want: beautiful, sexy, gorgeous hair that moves. And with an amazing new hair cutting shear that he recently designed (soon to be on the market), we knew Jen’s naturally wavy hair was just begging to be cut by this Mane Master. So with a little convincing, Jen and Kevin agreed to meet at Andy Lecompte Salon (for the first time) and play with her hair. If you’re wondering what a hair appointment is like when you are in the hands of a hair icon, just scroll below…
KEVIN: For Jen’s hair, I would prescribe the Plumping.Wash and Plumping.Rinse with a bit of Born.Again mixed in because her hair is naturally dry but oily at the scalp. This will condition it without drying it out.
JEN: The one thing that really attracted me to your products is that I love the packaging. I started using a lot of your pomades and waxes as finishing on set and I loved that you covered all the bases. You had something that was shiny, something that was matte. You had something that was strong, something that wasn’t as strong. It was really smart.
KEVIN: The packaging reflects a basic understanding of what it’s like as a travelling hairdresser. Everything fits really neatly into a really small space, so it’s more mass, less area. It’s like buying a pint of milk and it takes up the same space in your fridge as a quart does. So with a square bottle, it takes up half the amount of space but you get a lot more mass inside.
JEN: Speaking of traveling, you’re in LA for how long?
KEVIN: I’m here for six weeks. We have a big show where we present to 80 people and let them know what’s coming in the next year. We have a ballroom at the Mandarin and we do up the whole space and buy them dinner and we do the whole thing.
JEN: How cool. Have you spent a lot of time in LA?
KEVIN: I lived here for about two years in the 90s and then I moved to New York. I was known for doing beach hair in the 90s. I got a lot of work straight away doing editorial because I was this grungy guy from Australia, whereas in Australia I was considered to be glamorous! This was in ’98.
JEN: So in ’98 we were coming off of bombshell hair…
KEVIN: I think Victoria Secret had just started.
JEN: You were probably just ahead of your time.
KEVIN: When we first started to do it, people were like ‘oh that’s never really been done before’ and I did this Sports Illustrated 2000 Edition and I looked at everyone else’s hair and it was just wet hair, it wasn’t like a beachy styled look. So everyone was like ‘who’s this grungy guy from Australia doing beach hair?’ I actually had sand in the jar.
JEN: Stop! Did you really?
KEVIN: Yeah that was with another brand I had just prior to this company.
JEN: This is so fun to watch so you have these amazing scissors…
KEVIN: I just “shick” off and create waves.
JEN: To describe to readers, his shears are almost like the end of a bird’s beak, so it’s got a bit of a tip to it, which is really innovative because you can carve through the hair.
KEVIN: Exactly! Because of the roundness, you can really cut around corners so even when you’re doing just traditional cutting it gives it a bit of a balance. It’s still very precision-based as well.
JEN: Now when are these scissors available?
KEVIN: The scissors should be available in a month or so, we’ve already ordered them and they should be on their way.
JEN: Well I definitely need a pair as soon as you get them!
KEVIN: I will make sure you get a pair as soon as we get them. They’re really great for detailing. If you think about it, hairdressing is a series of hexagons so what the idea is that even when you’re cutting around layers you don’t have to go chop chop chop, it saves time. It was a nightmare to get them made, everyone thought I was crazy.
JEN: It’s difficult to explain in hairstyling terms of what your vision is, because I feel like the people that are probably making it for you have no clue what you’re talking about.
KEVIN: They just think you’re crazy but there’s always one person who gets it.
JEN: So cool though, I’m excited to see this! So now tell me a little about your history because I want our readers to know about the man behind the products that we all love.
KEVIN: So I first started looking into product because I had very sensitive skin and what I found when I went on photo shoots is I was getting better success using the makeup artists’ products than using the hair products. So I started working for a beauty company, and they said, this is the hair in the morning before filming and then this is the hair in the afternoon and it would be all greasy. So I started wondering how could I transform the hair without making it greasy. I found that I was using body lotions, makeup, toner, serums, etc… I spoke to a friend of mine whose a biochemist, and asked why hair product on the hair makes it greasy, but when I use skincare products it absorbs? And he said, ‘oh it’s the molecules, they’re much smaller.’ So I thought to myself, why don’t I make hair care that’s actually thinner. So we started researching skincare and I was knocking on people’s doors but nobody would believe me so I took a course to learn about aromatherapy and I started making skincare products using those techniques and adapting them for the hair.
JEN: That’s so interesting! Can I tell you, I had a meltdown once on a shoot because they wanted the hair really wet and I didn’t have my gel with me, so there was a body bronzer by Saint Tropez and I thought, okay I’m just going to go for it and it worked amazingly! And it didn’t get dried out where I had to keep applying it.
KEVIN: The thing about hair product is also when you’re on a shoot, you need to be able to change it all the time, and if you’ve got one product and it’s really heavy, you can’t really change the hair. You need to be able to layer many different products on without it getting greasy.
JEN: So you started knocking on doors…
KEVIN: So I started knocking on doors, and finally knocked on the right door. I found this guy that I waited three months to get an appointment with and he was really not very keen to talk to me at all, but then I showed him all my theories and research. I’d done everything I could to learn about hair, aromatherapy, and natural therapies. He eventually said “you might have something in that, I’ll give you a go!” I made them for my salon at the time. My salon was in Melbourne, which was probably the version of this sort of [West Hollywood] area, like Melrose Ave. I had very loyal clientele and this was the big hair time. Everyone would come in for the big bouncy blow dry. We used to a thing called ‘Hairdo and Eyes.’ All the girls would come in on Friday and they would line up down the block. We got really famous for doing ‘Hairdo and Eyes’.
JEN: Okay so you had this amazing idea, ‘Hairdo and Eyes,’ girls would come in and get really gorgeous glam blowouts and then they’d get their eyes done.
KEVIN: Yeah cause most people don’t want the whole thing, you know? They’d come in with their own foundation on and then they would just have their eyes done so they’d walk out with their eyes and their hair done. All this was during a recession in Australia. I went to the bank and said I wanted to open another salon and they said ‘you’re crazy, we’re in the middle of a recession!’ And I said, ‘hair booms in these times.’
JEN: Right because that’s the one thing that can make you feel good when you’re stressed out.
KEVIN: You probably can’t buy the new car, the fifteen hundred thousand dollar handbag, or the new house, but you can buy a new hairdo and look fabulous!
JEN: The only things that can make you less depressed during a recession are alcohol and a good haircut. Okay, so now, this is the product that you’ve come out with now right?
KEVIN: I wanted to do something professional as well cause I was selling my line Crisco and Murphy in more retail type places. I felt hairdressers really suffered when it came to products. I wanted to make something professional. So I thought ‘out with the old, in with the new’ and I’ll come back with all new things. The line I had was so organic and purist and it didn’t have anywhere to go. I needed to have a little bit of unnatural in there to make it actually do its job.
JEN: So that was the inspiration behind the line, and you’re talking about the formulation. How long of a process was that?
KEVIN: To get one product off the ground it takes about six months, which is actually really quick because with most companies it takes years. Again, it’s a hairdresser in the driving seat so I don’t have all these marketing people to come up with statistics or anything but it seems to me that emotion doesn’t happen by statistics.
JEN: And you’re really the first Australian hairstylist to really break through internationally…
KEVIN: Yeah I think so, but there’s a lot of Australians working and doing great things.
JEN: But in America, correct me if I’m wrong, but are there a lot of Australian hairstylists doing editorial work?
KEVIN: Not really actually, you’re quite right about that, I never thought about it.
JEN: Well I love that you never thought about that. That’s really quite an amazing accomplishment that you have now become a household name. It’s probably odd to hear me say that to you because you probably just imagine you’re waking up and answering e-mails and going to work everyday but I think it’s a huge accomplishment to be able to break through, especially in the states.
KEVIN: America was really easy to tell you the truth. I think it was just the right time, right place.
JEN: But it’s also gotta be good product, because trust me, my garage is full of a lot of product that’s just pitched out there but not necessarily great.
KEVIN: I think there’s a box of broken dreams in everybody’s cupboard. And I don’t want to be that box of broken dreams. I think that being able to be innovative is great; it’s a luxury. I see other people with their companies and what they have to deal with and I wouldn’t want to sit in on any of those meetings. I think having a hairdresser at the helm is really unusual in this day and age. Because mostly beauty is led by marketing companies.
JEN: Yeah, and I can tell if somebody’s just endorsing it. It’s not necessarily a product they started from scratch and really believe in.
KEVIN: To be able to have that is a luxury.
JEN: Do you think you’ll ever move to the states or you’re happy in Melbourne?
KEVIN: There’s a bit of pressure this year for me to move to America, but I enjoy being cut off. I like being away from all of it.
JEN: So from New York, you said you did editorial for two years, then you went back to Australia?
KEVN: Yes. I was doing this editorial work and it’s a pretty heavy schedule. In New York, you’re only as good as your last gig, so if you do one bad hairdo, you’re just over – that sort of thing.
JEN: Is it very competitive in Australia?
KEVIN: Yeah it’s just as competitive. The industry’s not as big, there’s not as much riding on stuff, there’s not as much money because all the big brands are coming out of America or Europe. It’s pretty groovy to live there. So in New York, I thought to myself, ‘I could probably die here and no one would know.’ And I thought to myself I could probably make 100 grand tops in a year, doing what I’m doing, kill myself and be miserable or I could make hair products and make a lot more. So I thought to myself, I’ve only got two hands, what am I going to do with these two hands? What can I do in my sleep?
JEN: Well you’re so smart because I don’t think a lot of hairstylists think like that and I think if anything, they sell themselves short. I think people don’t keep challenging themselves or think about how to leave a stamp in ten years.
KEVIN: I did think like that. I got my first editorial in American Harper’s Bazaar and I thought to myself, I’ve made it! And then I realized people just turn that page. I had to say to myself, ‘okay I’m not really here, let’s figure out how I’m gonna get ‘here.’’
JEN: I always say we have the ‘freelance blues.’
KEVIN: I did find that in that very high-end industry in the 90’s, there was always someone there to torture the hairdresser. Photographers used to be evil. They’re not evil anymore because evil doesn’t work anymore.
JEN: Beause we have Instagram and can call them out on it! Now when you say evil, you felt like the photographers wasn’t supportive of what you would do?
KEVIN: It was just a different world. They weren’t friendly, nice, great to work with people if you know what I mean.
JEN: A bit of divas. Now I would say the 90’s created all aspects of divas. I think there were hairstylist divas, there were makeup divas, and that’s slowly gone away.
KEVIN: I think these days you just can’t be a diva, because there are 14 year old girls doing exactly the same thing that you’re doing from their bedroom, and getting more hits than you are.
JEN: If only we could all be 14 again. We’d do it all differently. I feel the diva mentality has gone to the wayside. I feel like there’s more of a camaraderie with stylists now and I feel like everyone’s a little bit more supportive.
KEVIN: When I first got to New York, I was very fortunate because I got a great job fast. All my other friends who lived in the city had a five-story walk-up and were living above a Chinese store, and I walked into an apartment. It was just the right place, right time for me and they weren’t happy for me at all. It was a new time, so it was tough but it was exciting as well. I mean grunge was such a big thing, was such a big change in fashion, in hair, in the way people did hair in photographs, the way that we use product, the way we make people look, the way that that shifted the clothing.
JEN: Did you have to kind of shift your hairstyling techniques?
KEVIN: I was already there for some reason. I think that when I got to New York they were just discovering grunge, but I was kind of beach grunge.
JEN: I love it, you were like O.G. Australian Grunge. It was authentic for you because I mean, there’s nothing better than Australian beach hair
KEVIN: Before us there was no such thing as beach hair. There was just wet hair or there was dry hair.
JEN: This is so fun for me because in ’98 I was graduating high school and I was supposed to go to college but then I saw Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn music video and I swear to you Kevin, that’s the reason I started doing hair. I wanted that haircut so bad. I started cutting on my own with shaving razors from the grocery store. It was all about Natalie Imbruglia and Kylie Minogue.
KEVIN: Okay so I travelled with Kylie for like ten years! That’s how people started noticing me because I was Kylie’s hair and makeup artist. In the 90’s there wasn’t makeup like makeup today, so it was a glossy lip, whatever you put on lips you’d put on the cheeks, and then you’d put very little on the eyes and a flick of mascara. I pretty much just handed them stuff because I didn’t really know how to do it. And what was interesting was when makeup became makeup I was like ‘oh I’m really losing out.’
JEN: So you were doing both hair and makeup for her?
KEVIN: Yeah I toured with her for a couple of years, we did two or three national tours.
JEN: I did Madonna’s tour once, I did the dancer’s hair, and Andy [Lecompte] did her hair. I would never do it again. It’s such a hard life. I can’t imagine what it was like for you; you were such a gypsy for so long.
KEVIN: It’s different though when you’re in the inner circle.
JEN: We call it the ‘A-Group.’
KEVIN: It’s a different set of rules. It’s much more comfortable. But once you get off the merry-go-round, you can’t get back on. So again, you have to decide am I gonna die on the road or am I gonna survive. And essentially, there is a time when you get over the hill.
JEN: Yeah and I think if anything, I’m always telling everyone, as an artist you really do have your fifteen minutes. I got a great piece of advice from Renato Campora: ‘Nobody is your client, just hope that the phone is ringing.’ I also feel like there’s a common thread in the story you’re telling me which is that you’ve been really courageous. You might not know exactly what you’re doing, but you’re willing to learn. Like you telling me that you doing the Kylie tour and you were supposed to do hair and makeup and you just made it happen. I think it’s really amazing that you just throw yourself into situations that might be scary, but you just make it work
KEVIN: I think I’ve always been a bit of a dive in and let’s work it out later type of person, which hasn’t always been to my advantage. I went broke three times. So the last time I went broke, I was determined that was the last straw. I said I’m not going broke again.
JEN: But that’s so grunge of you to go broke three times!
KEVIN: It’s really easy to do. The last time we didn’t actually go broke, but there was a time where we were actually making this much and we’ve got that much over there and there was a gap of about 2 million dollars. So it was huge, and I thought, something better happen really quickly, and luckily it did.
JEN: Wow! You know, I think that’s another thing to talk about. I’ve heard stories of John Frieda when to first start his company he took a mortgage out on his house. I know there was a time when Oribe was not in the great position they’re in now, or Frederic Fekkai is another story of kind of going bankrupt once or twice. I think in the same token as success, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
KEVIN: Those are times when you learn how to protect yourself. Like when I was doing Crisco and Murphy, I just left one day and thought I’ll just do something else. At that time I realized, ‘oh this is a bit harder then I thought’ but I’d never give up. I’m one of those people. Keep asking the same question until the answer is eventually yes.
JEN: That’s amazing to hear. I love that you said you’ve been broke a few times because I think that people need to hear that. As a freelance artist, we have the blues. You’ve got your highs and you’ve got your lows, and when you’re high you’re really high and when you’re slow and you’re not doing what you want to be doing you’re so depressed, it’s hard on your heart. And then when you’re really busy and things are going well, it’s another type of hard because you’re like oh my god how am I gonna keep up with all of this? But I think it’s important to keep perspective.
KEVIN: I think going broke was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it made me understand what was really important in my life. I’d seen some friends fall by the wayside and I’m like oh my god you had so much and it just slipped through your fingers.
JEN: Also artists are usually a bit complicated, so it’s hard because they aren’t usually business people.
KEVIN: Yeah, I wasn’t a business person at all, but I surrounded myself with really great businesspeople.
JEN: And that’s another testament to you won’t get anything unless you ask for it.
So I want to ask you also, I understand LA and New York and the vibe and what’s in vogue right now. I want to know a little bit about Australia.
KEVIN: Okay so what’s happening is I think the internet has made the world very small. The only things that you see going on is New York, LA, Sweden, Denmark, London, and it’s all going on at the same time in Australia as well. I think that the only difference with Australia is that it’s just a bit too hot to look good, so they get away with pretty much wearing nothing. Like when I see the young girls I think ‘you’ve just got nothing on!’ Melbourne’s very dry, and I find that you can function quite well in a dry heat. But Sydney’s really humid and you get really sweaty really fast. You get out of the shower and you’re already wet again. So the girls have a really good way of making things look more effortless.
JEN: So you think that effortless is really true to Australia
KEVIN: I think that’s what defines Australia is the effortless style. But, as you know, effortless isn’t really effortless.
JEN: I always joke that I spend so much time doing hair to make it look like nothing was done to it.
KEVIN: It takes a long time. People don’t just roll out of bed and look like that.
JEN: It’s so funny how effortless has become the norm and so in vogue. Also a shorter cut.
KEVIN: I’ve been noticing a bit more short. I’m afraid of short hair, I’m not really a short hair guy. I think the industry really wants me to cut hair short.
JEN: Are extensions very popular in Australia?
KEVIN: Yes, not as much cause the girls are getting sick of them but curly hair is really big. Everyone wants curly hair.
JEN: This is so fun! I actually get to be pampered for once!
KEVIN: You look great!
Be sure to follow @love_kevin_murphy for more #manespiration.
Photos: Mike Rosenthal @mrmikerosenthal