Living the Revolution
Hair legend Christiaan talks to Maxine Leonard about life as a punk, pioneering the 80’s hair scene, and reacting to the modern beauty industry.
Interview Maxine Leonard
Maxine Leonard: Where do we start? When did you come to New York for hair?
Christiaan: 1966. A teenager. Happy.
I was, yeah. I was discharged as a Marine in Aruba, in the Caribbean. I flew to Miami for the suits: two buttons, skinny [trousers], black skinny tie. I went to New York for my appointments — that’s a fluke.
How did you get into hair after being a Marine?
I did hair way before; my father was a barber in a village. I started when I was 12. I was the oldest of 12 kids.
Where did you grow up?
In Holland, in a very small village. When I came here another life unfolded. There wasn’t punk, but I was punk, I was feeling the revolution. It was hippy time. I was part of no movement – I looked from the outside in. But I saw it all. I was at Woodstock, I was in Central Park. I was here.
How did you start doing session hair?
I was hired. They needed people to go with stars and models to their jobs, instead of going to the salon and doing the do. Whatever you see now didn’t exist then. But they wanted people to go with them to jobs, and because of my Marine fluke of being in New York, they looked at me and thought, “He’s cute.” So they got me. I came and conquered. In terms of the industry— there was no industry.
So you had freedom?
The inspiration was just life — drugs, sex, alcohol.
You ticked all the good boxes then?
And music. We lived it. We didn’t complain. Sorry, yes, we complained. But we were in a beautiful environment. The balance between the old that nobody wanted anymore, and the new that we were unconsciously making.
Do you think people work like that today?
No. God bless a child that survives in an independent realm, like I did, today. It would hardly seem possible. It’s unbelievable to have lived so long independently. I’ve basically been what I’ve always wanted to be.
You do clay work. Do you exhibit it?
No, it’s [for] me and my friends. I’ve no ambition for any of that.
It’s simply to feed the soul?
I make it and I give it to people to avoid having to go to Barney’s for their birthdays.
That’s a good plan. And how did the word work start?
When I was a child I noticed that my father always had a piece of paper and a pen on his desk. And every so often he’d write things, because on certain occasions the culture in Holland required poems. I think I caught the bug. A beautiful one. I started doing the same thing.
I started my four-letter word work after Studio 54, when the curtain came down. I felt like running up to the curtain and writing a four-letter word, but I didn’t — I would have been arrested. But when I got home I asked people to tell me four-letter words. My first four-letter word was “twat”. I was with British people.
Have you ever done any graffiti with the four-letter word?
No, but I used to go to clubs in Paris and stick tape on people’s feet without them knowing. I love tape. And yes, Sonia, I remember ruining your fabulous Yves Saint Laurent jacket by drawing a cross on your back.
Are these Antonio López? [Gesturing to two illustrations in the corridor of Christaan’s apartment].
I asked him to give me illustrations of long hair, and he gave me these.
Did you work with him?
We were good friends; I cut his hair all the time. It was all about friends. In those days there were no schemes or planning — just people liking each other and coming together.
I’ve found that with this magazine. Because we have no money and we approach people with the idea that they can go off and do what they want to do, I need them to show me some love.
That’s why I wanted to see you, to see if you were worthwhile as a person.
Have I passed that test yet?
I don’t know. [Reading Maxine’s hairline.] I can see your soul.
Is the soul at the back of my neck Christiaan, what’s going on here? [Silence] The silence is slightly unnerving me.
You’re not exactly a balanced person. I can pretty much confirm that. I can tell.
Is it a bit all over the place?
No, there is a force to the ground. There’s a mother Earth, it’s not exactly in the centre, but that doesn’t matter. Am I flapping in the right direction?
Flap as you wish.
So how are we going to make waves?
Not by “cruelling” women. I think there is too much cruelling of women. In images, pages after pages, all the fancy people are cruelling women.
Do you think we brutalise them sexually and visually?
Is that in the context of too much nudity or in general?
Mostly male characters are able to relate to creating interesting visuals and I’m sorry about that.
Do you think that has come from commerce?
No, I think it’s through lack of honour and space in their creative minds. I think it’s also the fact that simple is boring. Plain is boring. So you have to crash the car. But we don’t want to crash the car. Yes, I drive sometimes, and I want to make a mark, crash the car, kill myself. But no, there has to be something else in there.
Do you think within the editorial world that in trying to reinvent the wheel and crashing the car, we are brutalising beauty and not acknowledging its simplicity anymore?
Yes, completely. What could the woman in the Andes, the woman in Iraq, or the poor woman in Naples possibly have to do with the images we show them? It’s confusing as a woman, actually. It’s confusing as a punk. I feel it in myself even though I work in the industry and I know what it’s about.
It’s hard not to judge yourself by what’s being put out there. I think fashion magazines and editors have a social responsibility, and when we adorn the covers with women like Kim Kardashian I think it is a really confusing message. It’s like watching pop eat itself. This I can tell you: when I landed in New York hair was stuck up, no way you could fuck the babe without screwing up her hair.
It’s hard not to judge yourself by what’s being put out there. I think fashion magazines and editors have a social responsibility, and when we adorn the covers with women like Kim Kardashian I think it is a really confusing message. It’s like watching pop eat itself.
Is that part of the pleasure?
It’s like saying “I’ve got high heels, so my legs look good” but no, there are no high heels in painting, in love, in sex.
So, I landed in New York; I had my own naive teenage ambition — to make women more appealing, to me. That worked. I became extremely opinionated and started shit that made its mark.
All the editorial work shifted from the glorious Avedon: there was Harper’s Bazaar; there was Diana Vreeland. They were creating gorgeous images that were stark — but did not abuse women. But then it switched to our side, and we just wanted to photograph the chic, and get beautiful pictures of the chic, the chic we wanted to fuck.
So that went on well until the mid-1980s. But it was a movement in any case. Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were in on the gig, Bill Blass was in on the gig. They started liking the women, instead of making up the women. And then that got boring. How far can you go with the real woman, unless you have characters that really know how to do that?
Then it got blended with the kids who were young and new and were punking it up. “Blitzy”, you name it, became the thing. It started an entire new generation of photographers, editors — Camilla, Steven, all the different guys. For me that was the beginning of no blame, the beginning of the brutalisation of women.
Are we now re-evaluating the essence of the woman?
Yes, I hope so. We still work in conflict — the force to create mind-boggling shit: “fuck up the face”, “fuck up the body”, “fuck up the hair”, to make an image. There is still nothing like this. But the people are there, the characters in fashion that I am sure you are in touch with, they do understand all of that stuff. And you’re here.
But for your magazine, isn’t there a new word for punk? You only use the word for revolution. Because at the beginning I felt like I was starting my own revolution at the kitchen table.
It’s actually regrettable using the word punk, because it’s the misrepresentation, and the sentiment of it that I really wanted to get across, not the aesthetics. I don’t actually relate to punk that much in terms of the aesthetics. It’s more the idea that it is liberated. It feels like the right time to bring that back in a sense. Because I feel like our hands have been chained and we’ve been dictated to for a while.
[Christiaan does Maxine’s hair again. He takes a camera and points a lens an inch away from her nose and snaps.]
Are you covering the lines, Christiaan?
No way. Anyway, I’m happy to help your magazine.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
I’m happy to help anybody, and now I’m in a position to do that because I have no overlords. I’m the only one left.
Do you think the word work would be a good representation? I like the randomness of our conversation: in the middle of it you’re sort of playing about with my hair and reading my scalp. I like that it is out of context, so I think having the double page of your word work and the history of your work.
Yes, that would please me enough.