Where fashion and hair collide, you will find Guido Palau. As the Global Creative Director for Redken and probably one of the most influential hairstylists in the world, Guido’s work transcends the work of the modern hairdresser into an art form. Creating the looks to accompany the biggest designer’s runway shows and ad campaigns, nuances of Guido’s work become major trends worldwide. So when we had the opportunity to interview him between shows amidst Paris fashion week, needless to say we jumped at the chance and listened to every word with bated breath. Keep reading to learn what comes from the mind of a Mane Master…
How did you start doing hair?
I think I kind of started through an accident, really. I didn’t really know what else to do. I was always into fashion. Back then in the late 70’s, I was always interested in style, but I really wasn’t aware that I was. I noticed hair and I noticed looks.
I didn’t really know what to do and then a few of my girlfriends were hairdressers and I was like, “Oh I’ll do that.” I lived on the south coast of England in a small seaside town so I moved to London and I got a job at Vidal Sassoon. I liked being in the center of London. I liked where the store was situated, which was in the hub of the fashionable part of London. And at that point, it was probably ’82, it was the beginning of street style and independence with magazines and clubs. Young people were really having a voice with style, like John Galliano. Clubs were explosive, people dressing up more, and I loved all that.
I actually got fired from my job at Sassoon, and then went around various other salons after that. They said I wasn’t the right kind of person to be a hair dresser. Later on, I actually interviewed Vidal and he interviewed me for V Magazine which is a really nice turnaround—not that he personally fired me, but even those two years being there—setting, cutting and the architectural kind of cuts, I really loved.
Then I went to various other salons which were more about [hair]dressing in that period. Ladies in London used to get their hair dressed and coiffed. 40, 50-year old women were having 60’s hairdos, even in the early 80’s. Then, I went out on a photoshoot for a very small magazine with a stylist, and that’s when I sort of went, “Ah! This is what I want to do.” So I quickly left the salon and started to learn my skills through photoshoots.
Did you assist anyone?
It was different back then. It was a smaller industry, it wasn’t so competitive, and it took longer to get going. Now, my assistants leave me and they’re doing great things and shows the next season. Things happen much faster now. Back then, it was much more old school, you had to prove yourself, you had a portfolio, a test in the evening, a test with young photographers, which was great. It was real learning. And I’m still learning now. It’s one of those things I’m forever learning.
It was a very slow process of going around, being rejected, “you’re not good enough,” “come back again.” I’d go around with my book and they’d take it and just say “No.” I was resilient and along the way I met people that would help my career.
Sometimes, I don’t really know how I’ve landed to where I am. It was a lot of hard work. I’m 54 now and I’m still insecure about my work and I still don’t feel good enough at what I do.
What is the key to success?
To be good at your job, you can be a great hairdresser, but you need to have more: you need to have people skills, you need to understand what clients want, etc.
It’s not just about having one of those things. You can be a brilliant a hairdresser, technically, but if you don’t have those other things, you’re not going to get ahead.
I have a passion, I have my own style that I really like that is true to me, I have an essence I feel is me. I think I have good people skills, I think I can manage a team well, I think I can sense peoples’ energy and react to it. Normally, I’m quite calm. And you need all those things to be successful. I think a lot of young hairdressers don’t understand that and they get carried away with one success or one highlight. Very much when I work on the shows, even if it’s fantastic, the next day, it has to be good again. It’s not about like, “Oh, I did good at Marc Jacobs!” I’m not living off that for the next six days —it’s done, it’s the next thing, it’s the next day. It might be a client who just wants a ponytail, but that ponytail is as important to that client and you have to give that client your attention and make them feel special.
Along the way in my journey, somehow I’ve luckily ticked all the boxes. I’ve worked with designers I wanted to. I’ve been blessed, but maybe a lot of people in my position might go off the rails with that success, they might become complacent with it or they might get too ego-driven by it. All those things are important for the longevity of a career.
How do you stay humble and combat insecurities and doubts?
Like, last night at Givenchy [during Paris Fashion Week], I came home and I just turned on the TV. I’m not lost in the idea of it. I’ll go over the good points of my part of the show and the bad points and try and learn from that. I probably go home and watch the TV too much. I’m not really out celebrating at all. I’m very in the fashion business, but I’m very removed from it at the same time. I don’t need to be patted on the back. I know when I’ve done a good job and I know when I’ve done not such a good job.
I realize that work isn’t everything for happiness and it’s not everything in life. Even though success is really nice, and I’ve obviously worked for it and wanted it somewhere, at a certain point I’ve realized it’s not everything. We’re always taught it’s ‘success, success, success.’ If you’re not successful, then you’re not anything—it’s such a wrong idea of life. There are other qualities that are important in everyone which society doesn’t throw upon us.
I suppose the older I get, the more I realize that there are other things that I want to be successful in personally that are as important as work success, even though I love work and I love the challenge.
Hair is an incredible medium, because it seems like whenever you think everything’s been done with it, something new happens, which is incredible. How all the wrongs (which I love in hair) are the rights now and all the things that are right, are so wrong because everything changes. I’m lucky that I get to do my job on great-looking people and get it photographed by the best in the world and that’s my privilege. Nobody can tell any hairdresser their work is wrong or right because it’s personal. Because what you do is what you do and what I do is what I do. Who’s to say the way you do hair is right? There isn’t a board of taste. I try to convey that to people. If I do something that’s quite ugly, because of my longevity and my success, people will look at it much differently.
My ‘thing’ is—I grew up in the 70s—it’s about punk, it’s about a sort of in your face-ness, it’s about a slice of androgyny, all these things that really make me tick in life, I put into my hair. It’s the person in the room who isn’t so stylish, the person that’s done their hair badly that maybe attracted me, it’s the cool kid who feels shy in the corner with the strange hair growing up that I loved. And all of that is in my work, still, it doesn’t matter if I’m working for someone fancy, that is truly who I am. So if people truly want me to be that, that’s who I am. And I know when I do that, it’s when it’s me. Of course, I have to adapt now because of my job, but you don’t have to be me. You could say, “I’m that California babe who likes beach waves and ombre hair.” That’s fine, that’s what you know best, and that’s whet you’re gonna do best. There’s no point in you trying to be me, because you’re not me. You didn’t grow up in my environment, in my background, you don’t have my eyes and you can’t see it in my way, as I can’t see the true essence of living in Malibu, because that’s not where I grew up. But if you did, you’ll know the spirit and you’ve seen beachy hair, you’ve seen salty hair, and grown out color, you’ll know that so when you do it, your essence will be that and it’ll be better than mine.
For the hairstylists out there: don’t just replicate what I do or what whoever does, because that’s them. Try to find your thing. In any artist, that’s what makes someone truly good. It’s quite hard, because hairdressers in general are a strange bunch. They’re kind of very unsure of themselves in this artistic field. I always wave the flag for hairdressers and that’s why I’ve done books, kind of tried to make it an art form not to play to any celebrity. I didn’t want it to be about the celebrity for me, I wanted to distance myself from them. Because I felt like it was about them and your attachment to them and that would be masking myself against someone else’s idea of themselves. It was a purposeful decision. I don’t enjoy that process and it’s a different discipline you need for that.
What are some of your biggest career challenges?
My doubts sometimes can squash me, so getting over that all the time is a challenge. I have to go to Miu Miu after this, and it’s in my mind. Even though I’ve worked for them 15 years, I doubt myself about whether I can do it again and pull something off. I’m always questioning myself.
I think they’re daily challenges. Every job is a challenge in a way. I’ve worked primarily with Steven Meisel and I can work with him daily for like six weeks everyday and I still feel challenged every time I walk into the studio. I never take for granted that he’s an amazing photographer and he can work with anyone and he’s chosen to work with me. Maybe he doesn’t see it like that, but I still do after 14 years of working with him. Sometimes, it’s a burden I’ve got on myself. People say just let it go, but I can’t.
I hopefully keep my work fresh, because I don’t rest on it. I’ll look at something and learn from it and [ask myself] what would feel new to me? A lot of people get locked in one style that they do very well, but how you evolve your style is really important.
Have you encountered any mishaps along the way?
Probably thousands of horror stories.
I’m quite OCD about my work and and that drives my team insane. The thing about being backstage is you can’t have a disaster because part of your job as a person keying shows is to think about every eventuality that could go wrong just as much as you think about things that could go right. I’m always thinking about all the things that could go wrong with hair and timing. The other day, I did Dior then Isabel Marant. I had to go back and forth. Leave, walk out, and run to the next show. My team knows how stressful that is. Part of it is keeping the client, the designer, feeling very secure that everything is alright. In this role, you’re many things, you’re not just a creative person.
When’s your birthday?
February 4, Aquarius.
How do you come up with concepts at shows?
Every designer works very differently. At Givenchy, Riccardo [Tisci], for example, is so detail-oriented. I’ve never worked with anyone who’s so detail-oriented about simple things. Many meetings with him…half the girls had wigs on them, half didn’t. He’s got so many orientations on a wig and he’s got a very good eye. It’s almost like he’s a hairdresser himself, which one way is great and the other is ahhh. Marc Jacobs is very detailed—I can spend four days with Marc working on a concept. But sometimes, like with Miuccia Prada, it can be two hours. And it can be for the smallest detail that people call you back to re-do.
It’s not about you—it’s not about your work. Maybe the designers don’t understand what your vision is so you have to be patient. They don’t always understand hair. You’ve got to have a very gentle approach and as I say, each designer is different. It can be a three, four, five day process. Sometimes, they can call you two weeks before. Or it could be a couple of hours. You have to be able to adapt very quickly, you have to understand the brand, and understand what their vision of a woman is and the nuance of it. That’s another thing I find that’s quite difficult to explain to hairdressers. Like, a simple knot can be many different things and it means a lot of different things to different clients. A lot of the stylists look at me and go, “But it’s a knot and it’s clean.” I say yes, but that’s a messy knot and that’s a bun and that looks Spanish. You can see them going, “What are you talking about?” Because their eyes aren’t focused in on the detail. There are a lot of lazy hairdressers—they work in salons, they get very complacent, their client comes in, and eventually they’ll probably lose that client. I have to keep my clients excited, and as a stylist in the salon, you have to do the same. Really look where you’re going to layer around the face, where it really suits her—not just, “I’m gonna long layer and put some layers around the front.” Is the layer better there for her face, what does it do, who is she? Doing color, what really suits the face—is it more ash, more blonde, more yellow, more white?
It’s an art form and when it’s done really well with great hairdressers and great cutters, they can make a woman look really special and beautiful. Again, that nuance of that knot—is it a bit stuck out, is it really clean, does it have gel in it, does it have texture in it? All those are indications to different clients that mean different things and it’s important they switch into it very quickly and know what that client is trying to say to his woman. They’re probably going, “Oh, that’s old-fashioned,” but if that’s what that brand is about, it’s for me to understand that. Sometimes hairdressers have a hard time understanding that. You can be a hairdresser and just do hair in the shop or you can really get into it and really understand the client. I’m working for Ralph Lauren and he’s got an idea about a woman that you have to try to convey in a simple knot.
A lot of them, for example, really don’t want you to tong the wave into that loose wave. Often when they see it on a celebrity, they don’t want it in the fashion show. Now, when you’re doing natural hair, it’s about twisting it and letting it dry naturally, rather than tong natural movement. Whereas two years ago they were happy with that, when it felt new. Now, it feels like, everyone’s doing that and every celebrity who wants to do natural hair does that, so designers want to move away from that. I picked up on that. If you start seeing too many people on the red carpet with their hair like that, you know it’s become done…designers need something new.
What advice would you give to hairstylists who wish to follow in your footsteps?
I’ve had a 30 year career. I know everybody wants to be instantly successful now and yes, it is a different time and we’re working at a different pace and I understand we’re not working 30 years for our success anymore, but if you want to do what I do, you have to understand every nuance of men and women—style, film, fashion, and history—lots of things to be able to craft what you do. For example, I went to a shoot yesterday and they tell me about a period and a feeling and luckily, I’m old enough that I was around at that period, but if you were a younger hairdresser, you might think, “What do you mean ’84 English?” You have to have the expertise—you have to have a great library in your head, as well as being talented.
I don’t know every technique in hair-dressing and this job pushes me to, so if I want it, I’ll have to learn it. Or I’ll learn it from my team, who does know that technique because for some reason that’s their preference. I’ll learn from them or we’ll learn together. Never feel like you’ve got it all. Hairdressers reach some accolade, whether it be winning a local trophy or event or they’ve done a photoshoot and it becomes all about that point of their career, and they don’t shift. Don’t lock into that, because if you do, you’ve stopped your career. You have to keep going. You have to keep your eyes open.
The guts of my hairstyling is British, but when I went to America in the early 90’s, I had to understand an American sensibility. I had to quickly understand that their sensibility was different from mine. Though they wanted my edge, I had to understand their point of where it would go. It’s a tipping point in America, where they want an edge but it’s palatable. You have to understand them and you learn something else. When you work for an Italian, what’s their idea of sexy? England is much rougher and harder. East coast is one thing, West Coast is another, and France has another idea of something—that cool, that Jane Birkin. Italian’s much more rich. West Coast is beachy. You have to keep your eyes open the whole time. If you want to be international and be taken seriously, you have to understand all the different nuances of men and women.
Follow @guidopalau for more #manespiration.