Odile Gilbert remains one of the most in-demand hairstylists after decades working with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Peter Lindbergh, Richard Avedon, Dior and Chanel. This exclusive extract taken from the interview in Issue 4 discusses her work toying with the limits and possibilities of hair.
Interview Maxine Leonard
How did you get your start?
After your childhood in Brittany, did you move straight to Paris to begin your career as a freelancer? Oh no, I went to a hair school for three years, and to different hair salons to train at the bottom. Then I started in a little hair salon. I was 18. I went to see a hair show and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ This hairdresser created beautiful work. I was told he was looking for an assistant, so I went to him three times. As a girl you have to fight a little bit. Finally, I got the job as his assistant. He worked in a salon but he also worked for theatre and magazines. I was there night and day. I loved it. Little by little he started to put me on editorial shoots, the small pictures at the end of Elle magazine. I was so scared. You’d see all these editors who were very well dressed.
I still struggle with that when I go on set!
[Laughs] Yes, but in that moment you are in action, so it’s not about you, it’s about other people. Today, everyone is so concerned about their looks. You have to be comfortable and being on set is about working.
Is the pressure to look good harder on a woman?
Yes, of course. Everyone is so conscious today, with the internet, retouching, you have to be perfect. You have to forget about yourself. You don’t decide about fame.
The obsession with fame has got worse.
Absolutely, people want to be famous in five minutes. It’s hard work. I love photography, when you are lucky enough to work with all these photographers and see the process on the day. Either you understand or you don’t.
That’s something that you can’t learn in five minutes.
No, it’s impossible. It takes years of experience. You have to prove that you are incredible. I advise my assistants they get there by using their hands and their brain. This is a privilege.
Was wig making part of your theatrical training?
No, there was a part that was chemical because you worked with colours, training on heads and real people. And partly in how to cut hair, it was very technical. I was interested in being in the salon and working with heads and people. I love working with my hands.
What drove you to New York in 1982?
NYC was always a dream. I went on holiday, I was like, wow! I had another friend, François Nars, and we shared an apartment, which I liked, as it was hard living on your own as a girl in the city at that time. We shared for four or five years before I was comfortable enough to live by myself. We worked together but he was more successful than me, very quickly. I found it harder. I had a book and I would go to meetings and when I arrived they would say, ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’ Odile can be either a male or female name. It dawned on me then that it was only male hairdressers who worked editorially, not women. Some people are very lucky but for me it was never easy [laughs]. It was always slow, I had to do catalogues. Paul Cavaco was the first person to see something in me. He got me shooting for Steven Meisel and Italian Vogue. He’s a genius, I love him!
Your work has a poetic quality that is fantastical yet sophisticated. The magic feels very ‘French’ with a balance of discipline and outrageousness.
No, people say this. I don’t understand that.
It’s that French thing – there’s a certain sexiness to it that feels unique to French artists.
Do you think? In my mind it’s all about being international. If I hadn’t been a hairdresser I would have loved to have been a journalist so I could travel everywhere in the world, to open my mind.
Karl Lagerfeld encouraged you to publish your work and supported you. What is it like working with him?
One day he said, ‘You should do a book and you must bring everything to me.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ I wanted to choose all my pictures, so I put it together. But I took my time, it took a year, I laid everything out, I asked some people I trust to look. We had a launch at Bergdorf Goodman and did a signing. In two hours I had signed 200 copies!
You’ve witnessed many changes. What are your observations about the current state of the industry?
The internet has changed everything! Everything is faster. I’m fast when I work, too.
It's the idea of transforming… I never played with dolls as a kid, I would take the clothes off my dolls and put them on the dog or the cat because they were alive.
Has commerce affected the creative voice?
A bit, but fashion evolves, you still have to go for it. Creativity and energy get the result.
How do you feel about Instagram?
I like it! I love imagery. I have always been in love with photography. I collect it too – some are here in my atelier.
I spied the Peter Lindbergh image on the wall!
I have Steven Meisel, Paolo Roversi, Herb Ritts. I’ve always looked at imagery since I was a kid. My first print was by Edward Curtis and it’s amazing.
What are you driven by?
By fantasy. You have to have fantasy. For me everything is imagination. Beauty is beauty, but some things you cannot buy. Not everybody is a genius and only some people have this vision. It’s not about pushing a button, it’s about having an eye, a vision. I tell my assistants, ‘Use your imagination – we have to talk to people.’
Did you work with Mr Penn?
Yes. The second time I worked with him, I brought three of his books, including Moments Preserved, for him to sign. He said, ‘You must have a lot of moments preserved in your life.’ That’s stayed in my mind. It was very special. The first time that I worked with him was with Polly Mellen. I was scared, but I really loved her. [Laughs] I had to retouch the hair, but after the shoot she said thank you and it was terrifying but amazing as well. You question yourself – how you will manage when meeting big photographers? If you show too much fear it’s not good.
No, people can smell the fear.
But you have to have it, because it drives you. Voila!
Recent trends have seen hair that looks ‘undone’. Has this stifled your creativity?
I like undone hair. It may look like nothing but you always need a stylist to do it. Hair is a part of the body and everywhere there is a hair culture: Japan, India, Africa. It’s very powerful.
Has your perspective of beauty changed?
Today, there’s a lot of retouching digitally. Society feels the need to retouch.
Do you think with age you become more comfortable in your own skin?
Oh yeah! When I was younger, I was very shy. Don’t forget I’m in front of the mirror with these beautiful young girls and I need to get over it, it’s OK! Some people have been blessed like they have been touched by the beauty fairy godmother and you look at them and think wow! Not me though. [Laughs.]
Tell me about Jean-Paul Gaultier
My first big show was with John. I learned so much, he amazed me, I thought he must have been a hairstylist in his past life One season, Jean-Paul Gaultier decided to do a show on Brittany. The hair was based on the headwear the women wear called ‘coif’. They are shaped to sit on the head and made out of lace. So we created versions in hair for the show and designed them with the emblem – also made in hair – and little flowers.
When you have a show that involves this level of prep, what is the process, do you sketch ideas?
No, never. I’ve never been good at drawing. Karl Lagerfeld can draw something in two seconds that is unbelievable. It’s about form for me. I get inspiration from architecture, paintings, everything. Everything has to have a meaning for me. That’s why I love Japan. Everything has a story, a reason. When you draw from cultural references, you have to know the story behind it – you don’t want to send an image that isn’t correct.
Your work has been bought by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Did it tickle you that the establishment recognised the anti-establishment?
When they called I thought someone was playing a trick! Jean-Paul Gaultier asked me to create a hat out of hair. They said they wanted to buy an exclusive piece. They use these pieces to do talks with the new generation. When they came to pack it, they brought massive boxes and packed it like it was a painting. It was crazy; they treated it like a piece of art.
Is your atelier a space for you to play?
No, I come here to prep. It’s important to have a story to work from. But if you calculate too much in advance it doesn’t work. It’s not just what I create, it’s an exchange of energy between people, a balance between you all. It’s very important to remember it’s a team.
Beauty is beauty, but some things you cannot buy. Not everybody is a genius and only some people have this vision. It’s not about pushing a button, it’s about having an eye, a vision.
In 2001, you launched an accessory line, Odile Gilbert Creations. Is this an ongoing project for you?
It’s one hairpin which I created to form the shape of the head. There are three sizes. Often people asked me for hair accessories at the shows, so I wanted to make a big hairpin so a woman could do a chignon by herself. The head is round so the pin is shaped to this form.
Etiquette is a French word signifying ‘label’. As a woman, you paved the way for others, having worked hard in a male-dominated industry. How did you stop yourself from being labelled ‘the only female hairdresser’?
Now there are more, but I think I opened the door. Now there’s pressure on women to be everything, to have a career, children, cook… it’s crazy! You have to be a superwoman.
Was this frustrating for you?
As the years went by it changed. My male contemporaries were always very respectful, I guess they understood how much work it is.
Love letters are a collection of sentiments from your book expressed by those who have worked with you over the years. Peter Lindbergh says, ‘We definitely don’t need to talk about hair. What I want to talk about here is you, not your work. You have always been insecure and still are. How beautiful this is.’ We all are. It’s crucial to creating the work, however taxing. Has insecurity played a part in your drive to create and succeed?
You have to be sensitive to feel the work. When I asked people to write these letters for the book, they ended up very personal. It wasn’t the idea, I thought they would write about hair! We are lucky to work in this industry. There’s people who do [important] things in the world, such as doctors. We should calm down, we work on beauty. I try to keep my feet on the ground.
Were you ever conscious of breaking the rules?
No, I followed my instincts. It’s not a conscious thing, that would be boring.
In 2005 you collaborated with Sofia Coppola, art directing the hair for Marie Antoinette. How long did you work on the creations for this film, what was the process?
What was important was the speed of changing the looks. I didn’t go to set every day. I took care of Kirsten Dunst only. She had a bob and we built the hair on top of her bob.
Those weren’t wigs?
Not at all. What was interesting was to exaggerate the looks and not play so historically to the theme. The hair on Kirsten was a modern way to see it. The film was a social document of rich kids having everything, not living in reality. I’ve just worked on her new film, The Beguiled. The film is a period piece and the actresses all had to have long hair. We had to source antique accessories for it to feel authentic, and be sensitive with the colour of the hair so it didn’t appear like a colour you’d see today.
As a visual artist you have been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French minister of culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, for creations and contribution to French culture. How was the experience?
You find yourself immersed in protocol. You have to know the correct way to speak and write letters. Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix were there. I was very nervous. I had to do a speech. The evening is very formal and is all about protocol and how to behave in the establishment. I was in the car the next morning at 6AM to travel to LA to shoot the cover of the American Vogue September issue.
No rest for the wicked!
[Laughs] Voila! The cover was with Annie Leibovitz shooting Kirsten Dunst dressed as Marie Antoinette. That was a very big deal because they had never shot a cover like this before.
Did you find the etiquette a little pompous?
It’s not a normal approach, but it’s very much what it is all about. I had no idea how to make a speech. I thought maybe I should take a pill [laughs] to relax but no, I just focused. I’m always backstage and suddenly now you are onstage and the focus has shifted. People were so supportive afterwards, though. I am the first female hairdresser to be awarded this.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your journey?
Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, also a lot of young designers. Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Paolo Roversi, Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton. I always wanted to work with Bruce Weber. The first time I shot with him I said, ‘Please, I would love to do one of your shoots with all the people and the dogs and the whole thing.’ Nice, no? It’s a dream. I also work with and love Sarah Moon.
It takes energy and resilience to succeed. What’s kept you going?
I love my work. I love travelling. I love going on trips, where I’ve never been. I have worked in India and Africa and I’m like, wow! It’s so amazing.
What advice would you give for my journey with Beauty Papers?
You have to follow your dream, keep going. You have the nerve to make a magazine. In life there can be days when you are up and down, but the day you’re down is the day you go for it. If you believe in your dreams they come true and nobody can take them away. The fight for what you want is the drive, the obsession. It’s a question of energy and if you believe in it people will follow you. It’s exciting; people have ideas but they don’t always see it through. I imagine when you first launched you were nervous. Aren’t you proud that you did? Actions speak more than words. If it doesn’t work one way it will work in another. You go with the flow.