Extreme creative goals might be considered de rigueur for an inventive hairstylist like Eugene Souleiman but Maxine Leonard finds a man still exploring the unexpected whilst relishing in the beauty being uninformed.
Maxine Leonard: Do you relate to the idea that in an industry where the visual landscape changes daily, now more than ever it’s crucial artists are allowed the freedom to respond to that?
Eugene Souliman: Now with social media, we receive information quickly and as a hairdresser, I have to work at the same speed. I think that’s a good thing in some respects, to be honest with you. I know a lot of people complain things are changing so quickly, but I think it makes me work in a more intuitive way. In a funny kind of sense, I’m not holding onto a way things have to be done, so my approach isn’t rigid in the way I work. I’m working in a more instinctive way and I’m being truer to myself.
ML: So, you relate to the immediacy of it?
ES: Yes, I do actually. I don’t see it as a bad thing. However, I think it’s good to take time out and it’s important to evaluate where you have been, what you have done and why you have done it.
ML: But do you get that time out?
ES: I make the time. I don’t work every day. I want to concentrate on the quality of my work. It’s more of an enjoyable process when I’m proud of what I have done rather than just facilitating the needs for the job.
I would never go to John Galliano with a book as a reference and show him a hairstyle. That’s not how I work with him. He gives me visuals and talks about his connection and feelings towards them and I interpret those visuals in a completely different way.
ML: Are you now quite strict with yourself regarding time and volume of work, given the amount of editorial you have created over the years?
ES: It’s not about the volume anymore, it’s about the quality and that’s what sets you apart from a lot of other people. People are very hungry to do lots of work and create volume – I am more about enjoying the process because that for me is very important. Now it’s quite normal to work at a fast pace, but I don’t work like that because I think it will give my work more of a life span. I could be wrong!
ML: The industry likes to box people with titles and roles – how do you identify yourself?
ES: It does like to put people into boxes, but I’m not that easy to categorise. In a way I’m probably on the periphery of everything; I’m not in a particular place and I don’t really work a lot with mainstream designers or commercial designers. I work with Thom Brown, a lot of Japanese designers and John Galliano. I work with visionary people who ask a lot more creatively from a hairdresser and a make-up artist. From day to day I’m constantly looking at things around me, and sourcing things, finding places for things where I think they could be interesting for a particular designer – that’s how my brain works. People notice when I walk off and talk myself. [Laughs] I’m having a dialogue with the future and where I think I can place an idea or if an idea comes to me. I’m constantly like that – I’m my own worst critic and I’m very hard on myself.
ML: Well, you’re a Capricorn! I can relate to that being one myself. We are our harshest critics.
ES: I’m really brutal with myself and you may not know that. I may come across as really easy going and easy to work with, and I am, but I process all this stuff all the time and I try to make it easy for the people I work with. I want the experience to be a pleasurable one.
ML: Would you say if that’s the process – like when you’re working with John Galliano – that there’s almost a curation to what you are doing in bringing the ideas to them?
ES: There is – sometimes it’s relevant and sometimes it’s not, but I’m very happy to throw away something I thought might have been relevant. I’m happy to be flexible because I’m on a journey. My journey is for me to be better than I can be. My goals are quite extreme in that sense and I’m very open to learning. I don’t believe I know everything (I don’t), I just try really hard and that’s all I can do.
ML: There’s a sense of freedom to that – would you say you have always been free in how you work?
ES: There has always been a looseness, for sure.
ML: Do you identify with how the industry has changed that? Perhaps there’s more freedom?
ES: I feel I work really hard to find my place in the industry and I think my place is quite a niche. I don’t think I’m for everyone and I’m happy with that – it’s not a problem for me.
ML: There’s a seductiveness to not being mass, no?
ES: Yeah, there is but it would be good if more money came in though! [Laughs]
Then again, I don’t see that as the richness in my job. For instance, I’ve been working with John [Galliano] at Margiela for about four years now. The fittings are three days. I unpack the kit when I get there and think about what I can use and how I can utilise what I’ve brought. Once the show is over, I walk away with a feeling and I question what’s been achieved and what’s been the message? It’s an addictive process that I really enjoy. As a kid, I was fascinated by how things worked – how to build a bike, taking things apart and putting them back together.
ML: Where did you grow up?
ES: In Thamesmead, south-east London.
ML: I’ve always had a bit of crush on John Galliano.
ES: Well, he’s a south London boy – he’s from Peckham!
ML: I met him once in a lift in a Claridges. When the doors opened, he was just standing there. I said hello like I knew him and he looked at me like was mad! I was a bit star-struck!
ES: He’s a lovely man and a talent – I adore him! Creatively we are in a similar place. He isn’t afraid to try things. He said he loved the idea of haste, that you leave the shower, put your clothes on and look amazing. I wanted to push that idea forward and I asked could the idea be that you leave the shower and you’re in that much of a rush that you forgot to rinse the shampoo out of your hair? So, I put soap suds in the hair. I whisked up shampoo and literally dropped it on the girls’ heads. He’ll let you do it! It’s somewhere he hasn’t been before.
ML: What was your first job with John?
ES: I used to shoot the Dior campaigns and then I worked with Sean Ellis on a couple of other jobs. I never worked with him on shows but I always felt we were connected in a sense. I’m not sure why. I don’t question it too much but at this point, I put my heart and soul into going to places unexplored. It’s risky doing that. I’m testing my team to go to places they haven’t experienced. He’s an incredibly cultured and intelligent person and I know I have to step up to that place.
ML: There’s an energy in how you describe your journey and it’s brave, but when I look at the results I always observe the work has a certain fragility. There’s a delicacy to it.
ES: It’s because we show ourselves in who we are. We are open and it’s put you in a place where you are not in control and you have to let go.
ML: There’s something sexy about that.
ES: Yeah, it’s brave. I would never go to John with a book as a reference and show him a hairstyle. That’s not how I work with him. He gives me visuals and talks about his connection and feelings towards them and I interpret those visuals in a completely different way. When I started working with him we were talking and I asked him what the shoes looked like. He looked at me as if to ask why I was asking about the shoes. I feel that shoes are the thing that connects us to his world because that’s what his designs are standing on and that’s what gives the girls the posture and the attitude. He started smiling. When you put that together with the music and watch them and see the story, you start to build on what you’ve seen and what you’ve felt.
ML: You mentioned you were having a studio built – what does that space represent to you? Do you sculpt and paint and explore possibilities?
ES: I’ve got two kids so I would like to do that, but what space does give me is somewhere I can be quiet and think. It will pay off in dividends because I’ll know where everything is and I won’t be so fractured and all over the place. I’ll be calmer because there will be a system where I can be organised and creative form. It’s something I have always wanted to do and now I have the opportunity. Everything has always been done in the kitchen. Candle wax in the hair and toxic chemicals on a wig is not really something I want to do around where the kids eat.
How do you expect to have a voice when you’re not prepared to put something out there? If you want to do something and there’s a platform to create, why wouldn’t you do it?
ML: When you are working and capturing the imagery of the behind the scenes at a show, do you have a drive to record more of your work photographically?
ES: I look at the details that are there and explore what I think is important to do with the hair. Technically I’m rubbish, everything is on auto. I don’t mess around with apertures. I enjoy how immediate it is. In terms of retouching, I don’t explore the idea of manipulating the images. There are no tricks. It’s a record of what’s real.
ML: After years of working editorially, I wondered if you had more of a desire to record more of your own work, given that your observation is different from a hair point of view?
ES: I think for me, I don’t consider what I do as high fashion. I see it as recording a time, and by no stretch of the imagination am I Craig McDean or Paolo Roversi. I don’t have dreams of that at all. I just want to see how it looks and feels. It’s purely a selfish thing. It helps me evolve as a hairdresser and I begin to see things in a more detailed way. I always see things as a start. I’m on a journey and I’m loving learning.
ML: After all the achievements and longevity of your career to date, how do you challenge yourself and what’s the drive that keeps you going?
ES: It’s the aspect of learning. I have a low tolerance for being bored. I don’t view my job as a job – I see what I do as play. I’m very lucky to be in a job where I play. I fall into a small percentage of people in the world that actually get something from their job. We forget how privileged we are. We learn so much doing what we do. I got the gem of an idea last season regarding a nomadic vibe that I observed. I found a really amazing book of images of Algerian women that had moved to France, and it was the first time they had ever taken their facial accessories off because they had to be recorded by the Government. You learn about other cultures – I’m intrigued by the world and the possibilities that are around.
ML: With the job that you have, do you identify with a nomadic existence in a sense with all the travelling?
ML: And do you feel the travelling has enriched what you do?
ES: Yes, because I’m always learning. I love flying, I love looking at the clouds, I don’t love airports but I love being on a plane sitting with the idea that I’m going away to do something. I’m not getting on the 7.45am at Streatham Hill to go to an office – I’m lucky. I look at travelling as free time on a plane.
You don’t have to be privileged to be successful.
There are lots of people that come from environments that are not conducive to success. Having that point of reflection as an outsider gives you something special and drives you.
ML: Do you draw from the world around you, sourcing ideas from what’s happening near you? Does politics affect your work?
ES: Subconsciously I do, but consciously I don’t because I’m a hairdresser and not a politician. At the same time, I live in reality and I do think there’s a zeitgeist around you which is part of popular culture. I don’t set out to use it as a source as inspiration as it’s not premeditated.
ML: Do you relate to the idea that if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention? Is there an essence of punk in you?
ES: I’m heavily influenced by punk, but it’s the attitude I love, not the studs. I love the music. When I grew up on the council estate, where I lived I was probably the first person not to wear flares and to have spiky blue hair. Setting that aside, for me ‘punk’ is about a moment in time for new ideas; an explosion; a time of rebellion. It was the start of something and I relate to that. Some really great things came from punk and it had to happen. It spurred on a lot of amazing things. There’s no way you’d have The Smiths, Electronica, a really strong youth culture or even acid house and hip hop – they came from a place where things needed to happen.
ML: You love music, don’t you? I remember when I was on Dick Page’s team in Milan and your music would drive him mad – it would be blaring!
ES: He loved it really, bless him.
ML: There have been really big movements in the industry recently. You can feel that artists are trying to break the formula. There’s also been a big movement with the controversies. Do you see this change as a positive notion?
ES: I think everything is positive to be honest with you, even when it doesn’t feel it. There’s always a positive outcome, but that is maybe because I am a positive person. Politically, at the moment, there has been a lot of areas that have been addressed and they needed to be addressed. That is not necessarily a bad thing! I think of things being momentary. We are always going to learn from where we are. We have to, it’s how we grow. I think that is the environment we are in at the present. I think we are in a privileged moment, but at the same time, I don’t think people realise how privileged we actually are.
ML: In what aspect do you think we are privileged?
ES: We are allowed a voice. There are some places where you aren’t given that choice. We have freedom in the Western world. We have amenities that others do not and I feel we should be more grateful for them.
ML: Glass half full, or half empty?
ES: I’m from south-east London and I know what rough is. [Laughs] But, by no stretch of the imagination am I in a rough patch. I’m grateful! I’m not back in the place I was when I was growing up. I appreciate what I have.
ML: Do you think your background gave you the push you needed to succeed and strive for success?
ES: Absolutely. When an opportunity presents itself, you jump on it and you’re instinctive. I don’t ever think I’m going to be handed it on a plate. I have dreams, and opportunities have arisen that made my dreams a reality.
Someone quoted me as lucky the other day. I don’t think it has anything to do with luck. People can be good at finding excuses for not doing things, but what you put out there is what you get back. I think it has a lot to do with how you’re made. Class has something to do with it but it’s not a ball and chain. You don’t have to be privileged to be successful. There are lots of people that come from environments that are not conducive to success. Having that point of reflection as an outsider gives you something special and drives you.
ML: Do you think you’ve succeeded because of your acceptance with that?
ES: Yes probably. I don’t mind being stretched, personally, emotionally, without any resistance, there’s no growth – there’s always an element of pain that comes with growth. I think the other thing is that I have learnt that you can never inflict your ideals on anyone, it just doesn’t work. There’s no point in going there, you can lead by example but you can never sit down and tell someone how to think.
ML: Are you a relentless character?
ES: I’m driven, that’s for sure. I don’t know if that’s the strong Mediterranean gene in me, I’m not sure? I just get on with it.
ML: What’s your heritage?
ES: I’m half Turkish Cypriot and half English.
ML: I believe the balance between art and commerce has shifted and there’s a pressure to evolve into a brand and perform – how have you managed this balance?
ES: Blimey. I don’t think I’ve ever managed it! I’m constantly trying to find ways to balance. Today I’ve been looking at my accounts from the shows and I can tell you my first assistant is earning more than me!
ML: Can I assist you? [Laughs]
ES: I’m a purist in that sense and I feel it’s about what I’m doing more than about what I’m being paid. I wished I got paid more, but I don’t! I’m ok with that.
ML: I think people that are genuinely here to be a part of this industry don’t go into this driven purely by money.
ES: No, it feeds you in a very different, personal way. When you are engaged personally in something, you are a lot lighter because you do something you love. Eventually, people pick up on that and hopefully it pays off, but that’s not the point.
ML: You’ve been quoted as ‘The Hair Hero’ – what advice would you give to the next generation?
ES: I would say you need to be a little selfless. You need to be open, listen, and accumulate information around you. I think you have to work in a personal way and learn the basics to perfect your craft. If you choose to step away from the technical, that’s great, but the basics are important. After a period of time you get to experiment with the rules, then you get to break them. Afterwards, you realise you’ve created a new set of rules, which in turn you need to break again. That’s the process and that’s how things evolve. If you want longevity in your career, you have to think that way.
ML: Do you think that’s more challenging now, given how society has evolved? Information is provided through a backlit screen, so we interact less?
ES: People go out and meet up on Tinder?
[Laughs] Our needs are the same but we find different ways of fulfilling them. It’s natural for things to evolve that way. There will always be human contact. I don’t think we’ve changed as much as we’d like to think.
ML: Who are your heroes?
ES: One of my biggest heroes is Mark Rothko, I love what he does. My mood can change by simply looking at his colours. His red painting in the Tate was incredible.
I love Heston Blumenthal. His approach is extraordinary and I love where his mind goes. I love food. I think what he does is an art form. It deals with your senses. He understands combinations and you get a feeling when you eat his food.
For me as a hairdresser, Julien D’ys is incredible but I don’t really look at hair or hairdressers for my craft. If I go to those obvious areas I won’t go anywhere new.
I’m inspired by bad taste, not good taste. When you look at bad taste you have to think about it – it’s not ingrained in you, you’re unfamiliar with it. Good taste is the death of creativity. It’s so boring.
ML: What’s your reaction to the idea that socially we have been influenced by brands like the Kardashians? How has it affected taste and identity? Do you have an opinion on that?
ES: I used to, but then I worked with Kim and I loved her. She was informed and smart and a good business woman. I respect that. If you go out and everyone is affected by it, you see it all the time. For me, plastic surgery is a form of self-expression. What’s the difference between a tattoo or a nose job? It’s body enhancement. Personally, I wouldn’t inject poison in my face. It’s way too late for me, mate!
ML: How do you feel about ageing?
ES: Physically my body can’t do what my mind or heart wants it to do, and I think that’s something you want to hold on to in order to able to achieve your dreams.
ML: Does that scare you?
ES: Yes, but it’s the only thing that does. I mean, I’ve got a receding hairline and I’m nearly 50, but that’s what happens in life. I have two kids, I don’t have the time to change anything, I’m surrounded by three women. [Laughs] I’m fucked, I know.
My mantra is being true to yourself. Being a sociopath isn’t advisable but I believe in the freedom of being.
ML: Earlier you mentioned having a dialogue with the future. Are you a romanticist? Do you ever look back?
ES: I am, definitely. I dream a lot. I don’t really think I’m from this planet or live in this word half the time. I’m a dreamer.
ML: What are your big dreams for the future?
ES: For me, from a professional point of view, I would love to see the creatives have more control in this industry. I don’t know if that will happen, but it would be amazing if it did. You can market research in terms of business but you will never end up anywhere interesting. I would love for us to be in the moment and not on the phone, or on the next job before it’s started. No being available all the time. Focus on what you are doing and communicate with the team. That’s what it is all about and I would love to see more of this.
ML: Do you think you’ve seen a slight shift in the industry with the creatives gaining more control?
ES: I think it’s changing a bit. I was having this conversation with Judy Blame before he sadly passed away. He was a beautiful bloke, bless his soul. He was a genius. He always stood up for what he believed in. We were talking about the first time I ever met him. I was working at Trevor Sorbie and I did my first ever hair picture. It was African inspired. The stylist said, ‘I’ll get my mate over. He makes this amazing rubber jewellery’. That’s how it was done. It wasn’t about who was doing the catering, or if you were getting a car. You got on the tube walked with three heavy bags down City Road with a cheese sandwich.
We were talking about how people used to really help each other out back then. That’s the thing I really miss, people actually creating with each other for no reason other than that they are really into doing what they’re doing. Doing all those tests with Corinne Day was over the weekends, but you’d get a story in The Face. We were doing it together. There were times we didn’t realise where it was going but it wasn’t about that. We were happy in supporting each other. Judy was true and talented. I was so happy for Judy when he was starting to be recognised for what he did. He was just brilliant. It’s a huge loss. At the end of the day, it’s different now, but there are elements of what’s been that are slowly creeping back. People began to realise there’s a need for an injection of soul in our industry. We are in an unusual place right now because people have so many options. They don’t know where to go. Now if we really want to move things forward, we have to start working as teams again. I’m talking about building a relationship with a team, dialogue with the same make-up artist and photographer. I want to work with people that I like and I could go out for a drink with. I don’t want to work with artists because I think I should be working with them. I’m interested in where people want to go, not where they have been. Keeping it a bit real is not a bad thing – it’s genuine. Things must have integrity.
ML: What do you think about the future of print?
ES: I see a value in print because it’s a physical thing. It gives more permanence and strength. I think not being beholden and being pure is a great thing editorially. At the end of the day, we need to step back a bit and look at things objectively. Creating something new is important, selling ideas from artists is important and you can commercialise in other ways. If you start off saying you want to make money, it won’t be on your own terms. The success is in doing what you want to do and say. How do you expect to have a voice when you’re not prepared to put something out there? If you want to do something and there’s a platform to create, why wouldn’t you do it? When you look at real visionaries you get the sense that they need to do what they are doing regardless.
ML: Do you relate that?
ES: I do. I can imagine myself doing another form of creative but I would say I’m naturally drawn to my craft and it’s innate in me. When I look at a fashion picture, I can see and feel what the hairdresser has been through. You can pick up on the nuances in the picture and have empathy with the process and the result. I can envisage that process when looking at the visual. I’ve done shoots that have been absolute torture, and if I don’t feel it, I don’t use the image in my book. I don’t want to be reminded of that. I want to open the curtains and step into a new day. You’re meant to experience these feelings. They make you grow and it makes you more articulate. You’re a student for life.
ML: What would your parting words to me be, apart from goodbye?
ES: I would say we haven’t talked about what I was going to do for your magazine.
ML: To be honest, Eugene, I’m just relieved we’ve finally spoken – it’s taken four months!
ES: Expect the unexpected.