Gary Gill captures the zeitgeist in hair. Sexy, funny, misfit hair that isn’t about artifice. “I never want anything to look too glossy or to have any hint of glamour to it.” For Beauty Papers Issue Six BIG Gary collaborated with photographer Casper Sejersen on one of our cover stories: a project that was about pure creativity without commercial compromise. Here Gary talks candidly about rebellion, authenticity and his impassioned advice for the next generation.
Words JOHN WILLIAM
Beauty Papers: So… let’s start at the beginning. When did you realise that you could be a hairdresser?
Gary Gill: Well, when I was at school I wanted to do it. My Mum was a hairdresser and I was always creative when I was young. I was good at making things and drawing, but I was a bit of a tear-away at school in my teenage years and that didn’t seem to fit with being a hairdresser, but deep in my heart I thought it was something I could maybe do one day.
So I was a bit of a tear-away and got into quite a lot of trouble, which I’m always quite open about. I got to a point when I was about eighteen, and I just thought, I need to get my act together. I thought I’ll do something which will make my Mum proud of me rather than just constantly thinking I wasn’t ever going to do anything with my life. And so on impulse, I went and got a job the next day and started at a salon. The first day I thought this is it. I’ve found the thing that I’m looking for. I seem to be with the right tribe of people, and it all just kind of fell into place. I’ve never really looked back since.
BP: So it was your mum who got you interested in hair?
GG: I think it was always there because when I was young my Mum did hair at home after school, when was really small I used to go to the salon and wait for her, and we lived above one of her salons. It was just always part of my life. Then when I was a teenager I was a bit obsessed with my own hair.
I had quite difficult hair, so I was always trying to make it do things it wouldn’t do. I was really big into youth culture and I was part of the Punk movement, and Ska movement, and Goth and all those kind of things which are all very hair-centric. So it came from both sides, I was very rebellious. The funny thing is, I didn’t realise until very recently how important those early years were for me, being involved in youth culture and experimentation… and how much it would come back and be a real strong influence over what I do now.
BP: When you started use your hair as a signifier of your rebellion, do you remember what the first style was that you tried to force it into?
GG: Yeah. Well, as I say, growing up into my teenage years in the late seventies Punk was huge, so it was all those kind of looks. Using things which weren’t products, colouring your hair yourself, cutting your hair yourself, using soap and different things to make your hair stick up and give you big spikes. Using colours from Boots and just pure bleach out of bottles and stuff like that. All those really raw things. I loved the feeling of having the control over doing it myself.
BP: Brilliant! I used to use PVA glue and food colouring in mine.
GG: I just loved that whole DIY feeling, and really having control over the rebellion. It’s funny because I suppose I’m quite an introverted person, actually, and I always wondered why I wanted so much attention through my hair. But I seemed to be able to get it without having to interact with the attention I was getting.
Punk was the start of everything in the late seventies. That was a massive, I think the biggest influence on my whole life really, especially with my work now. Even my attitude towards things and people. We were somewhere the other day and my assistant said, “You’ve still got that kind of punk attitude in you, it just hasn’t gone away.”
"I suppose I’m quite an introverted person, actually, and I always wondered why I wanted so much attention through my hair."
BP: Do you think it’s necessary to have a little bit of that attitude in our industry?
GG: To be honest with you, I don’t. I’ve always had quite a strong stance on attitude. With my work, I never have that kind of aggro, it’s purely a visual thing. I’d like to say I’m an advocate for better attitudes, treating people better. I don’t think you have to be an arsehole in this industry to be good. I just think certain people use it as an excuse, because they can, and I think that has obviously been a bit of a theme recently. I think that just being good at what you do, being a good person and treating people well gets you a lot further in the long term, in the long game. I’m not interested in working with those sort of people or having that kind of attitude with people. It doesn’t interest me at all, I’d rather do something else.
BP: At what point were you able to take all of the rebellion and focus it into creativity rather than something destructive?
GG: Having grown up being very rebellious and getting in lots of trouble, and being constantly told by my family, by my teachers, that I was never going to do anything … I’m very tenacious and I wanted to be able to prove a point, to turn that rebellion into creativity and actually end up making a living from that attitude. And I suppose, I worked really, really, really hard to really make a point. Not only to other people, but to myself.
BP: You used the word tribe when you talked about the salon and the people you met there. What were they like?
GG: I grew up in Brighton which was a pretty open place for many reasons, with hippy culture and music and art and all those things. But I suppose when I started doing hair, all of a sudden I was in a really concentrated environment of those kind of people all in one… It’s like the whole Bowie thing, where you feel he was the leader of the alternative, lost people, the misfits. I felt hairdressing, especially in late seventies… It wasn’t as trendy as it is now, so it seemed to attract even more kind of misfit-y people. I think it was the first time in my life I thought, I feel really comfortable with these people. Everyone’s a bit fickle, they’re a bit temperamental. I think it was the first time I felt really accepted.
It was a small, independent place. It was the first time as a young man I’d been involved working with lots of gay people, and mixing in that environment a whole world opened up. Even though I am straight I loved that environment. I liked the creativity and the flamboyancy. Especially early 80s, I was going to drag things with my bosses and going to Heaven and places like that. It’s like everything opened up. It was so good. I got a lot of inspiration from that.
BP: I think for a lot of people Fashion has offered that great space for misfits. When did you move from the salon into the fashion world?
GG: It was quite a long time. During my salon years I always was doing stuff outside of the salon. I was doing hairdressing competitions and little photoshoots that I’d plan myself. The bosses I had were very supportive. Then I opened my own salon when I was 21. I’d only been hairdressing for about three years!
There was a young girl I worked with and we just opened the salon together. We didn’t have any experience, and I don’t know how we did it, how we got it together but we did. It was an opening for me to take that misfit thing to the next level, and then I would be employing all the misfit people. Which I did. My partner used to come back from holiday and I’d employed like two or three people and she’d go, “Who the hell are they?! What were you thinking of?” They might not look it, but honestly they’re really nice … I just loved that feeling of having this real mix of random people and cultures.
I had the salon for 20 years, and we were always doing lots of our own creative projects: photoshoots and things like that. I never really wanted to fit into that mainstream hair salon photoshoot thing, so I was always using fashion photographers – young ones. I’d never use the sort hair photographers or beauty photographers, and so the Fashion world opened up to me. I thought oh, actually, this is the real next level of that misfit area… This is really the proper level that I want to be involved with.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties really, that I really started doing it properly. I suppose I wanted to find the next level of taste. It was all about taste level, and I think fashion really opens up a whole new spectrum of tastes that I’d never really been fully exposed to, which was really exciting.
BP: Now that the industry has become so huge, do you think there is still is a place for those misfits and strays?
GG: Yeah, I do. Absolutely, for sure. I’m always working with a lot of younger photographers, because I enjoy the reminder of that. One of the boys we used for the Beauty Papers story is so typical of the very misfit, niche people working in fashion. I still find that very exciting. I suppose social media has allowed fashion to be cracked open for people to see inside a lot easier, which has put a bit of commerciality on it. I mean, in my world, every kid wants to be a fashion hairdresser now.
I don’t think it is as such a secret world as it used to be. Even ten years ago, it was hard to know how to get into fashion. You really had to know somebody or you had to go a really long route round to get into it. But I think it’s a lot easier now, which has also put a slightly more commercial spin on it.
"We just look at the person, we look at the outfit, we cut, we colour or we don’t do anything. And it’s just about fitting that character to the outfit, to the mood. That’s been the process with Vetements and Balenciaga from the beginning which has been for me a dream way to work."
BP: Talking about commercial, you have an amazing relationship with Balenciaga and Vetements.
GG: Yes, that’s true. Again it was next level working with people like Gosha Rubchinskiy, Lotta Volkova, Demna [Gvasalia.] I find in this industry you’ve got little platforms, and this platform opens up and you step onto it and you think, oh, this is another version of what it was like when I first started hairdressing. I feel right with these people. There’s something here.
My first contact with that group of people was with Gosha who I’d worked with when he was a photographer. I just clicked with his thought process, I clicked with what he was trying to do – you know, that whole 80s Russian influence. I was always really fascinated by those Eastern European countries when I was young, and the aesthetic. I was very curious about it. Working with Gosha really opened that up, and I did his first show in Paris, and that’s where I ended up meeting Lotta.
I’ve learned so much from her she’s quite a remarkable person in many ways. She’s got such a great eye and the first time I shot with her she said “We’re doing a Vetements show in three days time, will you do the hair?” And that was their first show. I said, “Lotta, I just can’t do it. I’ve got work, it’s just too difficult.” And I turned down the first Vetements show, which I can’t believe that I did. But I did the next one, which was the one where they really blew up. It was only when I was standing in line, finalising the hair I thought, Wow. This is something else. There is something here that is just gonna absolutely explode. And of course it did from that point onwards.
Then when Demna moved to Balenciaga he emailed me and said, “I want you to come along and be involved in this.” And I just felt really at home there, like I’ve understood everything that they wanna do. I think because I’m that bit older they know that I understand the whole 80s, 90s feeling – and with Demna coming from the whole Margiela thing… It’s a mix of this group of slightly older people, with that slightly younger influence with people like Lotta.
BP: With Lotta, Demna, and that gang, what is the approach to the hair? Is it about testing? Is there a reference? Is there a character?
GG: When we test for Vetements and for Balenciaga, it’s a three day process. They fit, they cast, and we do hair and makeup tests for three days. There’s never any visual reference. We just look at the person, we look at the outfit, we cut, we colour or we don’t do anything. And it’s just about fitting that character to the outfit, to the mood. That’s been the process with Vetements and Balenciaga from the beginning which has been for me a dream way to work.
For so many shows it’s very cookie cutter. You get one model, and this is the look, and they all get it. Which is fine, and that’s the way some brands want to be, and I’m completely happy about that, but with Vetements and Balenciaga, it’s what giving it that slight point of difference is that it’s very very character driven. Sometimes it’s so nothing that it’s something, and then sometimes it’s so full on. It’s that real contrast of having a guy with really bland office hair, walking next to a guy with spikes a foot off his head. It’s that real polar opposite that I love about what they do.
BP: When it’s menswear and womenswear together you work alongside Holli Smith?
GG: Yeah, me and Holly are working in the same room, which is great. I love that.
JW: It seems so collaborative, and that is one of the things that makes it feel very relevant – the collaborative spirit.
GG: Absolutely. And that’s what I love about it. What I really, really do enjoy about it. When Holli and I started, last season, we did the first show together and it was just so wonderful, I loved every minute of it. We had so much fun comparing notes, just working together in the same room, all our team working in the same room. When I was busy she would lend me people and vice versa, and we used the same colourists to do both of our colours.
It was really special. Very collaborative. I think maybe a first ever, especially for a big show like that, so I was really pleased to be doing it with her. I’m friends with her and so it feels like another tribe that I enjoy belonging to. There’s never any tension and I definitely think it’s a new way. There’s not this competitiveness, there’s just this admiration of each other’s work and the joy of being able to work together. It’s the way forward.
BP: Now brands like Balenciaga are producing quality content that feels very editorial, whereas a lot of fashion editorial has become very commercial. Do you think that the relationship between working on editorial, working on commercial, has changed?
GG: I do think it has a little bit. Why don’t we take the last five years as a time frame. We’ve entered the whole street casting scenario, the alternative look became a trend and all of a sudden all these models are being plucked out of nowhere and traditional beauty has been taken away. I went through a period of my life running up to the time I starting to work with Gosha and Lotta where I enjoyed a more traditional beauty. Am I doing the work that I really wanna do? Do I wanna be seeing that kind of hair, is that what I had in my mind? And it’s only when I started working with those guys that I was like, no, this is what I wanted to see. This is what I was looking for. Because what I love, referring Balenciaga to being editorial, what I love about what they do and their attitudes is that they do not care what other people think. They really don’t, and I think that is what’s made them so relevant. We will do what we do, we just do not care what people think.
The problem is when you’re shooting editorial, it’s so rare to be able to do what you want and so many times you’re having to fulfil a brief that has got a commercial spin on it. “Well we have to shoot this,” or “It has to be shot like that,” or “we have to be able to see this.” I think that’s why we are losing the creativity.
That’s why for my shoot for Beauty Papers I said… I don’t want styling, I don’t want makeup, I don’t want anything to do with any brands. It has to be about a full on creativity. Not necessarily with hair, but just as a project photographically. So I suppose that is my reaction to things going a little bit commercial.
"For my shoot for Beauty Papers I said… I don’t want styling, I don’t want makeup, I don’t want anything to do with any brands. It has to be about a full on creativity."
BP: So as well as having a creative responsibility to yourself, do you feel like editorial has a social responsibility?
GG: I do, absolutely. That’s why I felt very comfortable doing editorial using street cast models, using people who are alternative looking. I think it’s very, very important that things aren’t over-manipulated and that people are really seeing what’s happening. I’ve never really enjoyed the Fashion industry in it’s truest form or in a traditional sense. Sometimes I see things and I feel a bit embarrassed to belong to it. I mean there was a recent shoot with a big magazine, big photographer, big model and they just changed her so much… and that’s everything I despise about what we do. The picture that’s being taken is not being kept. Why change it so much? I think when you’re telling stories you’ve got to be telling the truth, and I just don’t think people do. I think they make stuff up.
I suppose to be honest with you, I’m really not that bothered about Fashion. I mean, I like style, I love design, I love photography and obviously I love hair, and that’s where Fashion is kind of a conduit for me being able to fulfil those things. But I do feel by doing that, I like to feel that I’ve got a social responsibility whether it’s to how things are perceived when they’re shot, how I work with my team, how I work with other people, how models are looked after, how they look, how that is put onto paper. I do feel quite strongly about that.
BP: When I look at your work I feel there is a strong sense of irony. How would you describe it better in your own words?
GG: I think it’s humour, and I think Fashion is way too serious, and I think people take themselves far too seriously. But on the flip side of that, it’s one of the biggest grossing industries in the world financially, and so there’s a lot of money at stake, hence why people do take it seriously. I think the process is very serious, but that sense of irony just gives it some light relief, and I feel like the top layer of Fashion needs some light relief. At the end of the day it has to be a fun job. I like for it to give me a little smile when I look at it.
BP: With that sense of irony, how do you keep it beautiful? Or is beautiful the wrong word to you?
GG: No, no, no. I think beauty is the right word. It’s just my idea of beauty… I mean beauty is very subjective isn’t it? I suppose I’ve been very, very strong on making sure that something isn’t too beautiful but it’s not ugly at the same time. It just fills that kind of middle ground where there’s a level of taste in beauty without taking itself so seriously. I suppose I don’t overwork things either. I never want anything to look too glossy or to have any hint of glamour to it, while retaining some kind of beauty. I suppose when doing this project for Beauty Papers, I fulfilled all my dreams in terms of this project, of it being more of an art project as opposed to a hair project or a Fashion project. I do feel quite empowered by the sense of beauty this has without it being too serious.
BP: It’s MEGA.
GG: I’ll be really honest here, I’m the biggest critic of my own work. I’m an absolute nightmare to myself and I drive myself to insanity. I pick things to pieces ten times over, and I’m just never happy with anything, but I’d say personally this is maybe one of the first projects where I look at it and I think, actually, I can’t pull that to pieces too much. Which is a big sign.
I mean, there are things, oh I should have done this, that doesn’t look how I expected it to look, why didn’t I do that? And so on. But as an overall project I fulfilled my dreams. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked on anything before. Because I had complete creative control, I didn’t have to answer to anyone else, I didn’t have to fit into a styling brief. Maxine just said, “go and do what you want.” And so I spent a long time thinking about it, and working with Casper [Sejersen] on this. Me and him think so alike. He’s more of an art photographer than he is a Fashion photographer – although he shoots Fashion amazingly – but he always brings that kind of art element to it.
BP: Are there any beautiful people who have stuck with you as muses or inspirations?
GG: Yeah, I mean there’s lots of real obvious ones. Bowie was a massive influence on me, like he was so many people in this industry, so I think he was one of the biggest. I guess it’s a bit too obvious, but that’s where a lot of what I love stemmed from. I was very lucky to work with some amazing bands in the eighties like Duran Duran and The Cure and that whole era was very hair-centric visually. So I suppose going through the New Romantic era, Goth, Punk, even to the simplicity of things like Joy Division and Ian Curtis and just the way he looked, he was so simple but there was something there. It’s definitely a big music thing for me. Those are people who always come back to me, and it tends to be where I go back to.
I’m a big lover of social documentary photography as well, because I love the reality of what I’m seeing. I worked with Perry Ogden recently on a project that he did for a book, and I’ve always been a massive fan of the Pony Kids book that he did. I get so much from that. I just managed to acquire a copy a few years ago at great expense, and that week I got it I got an email from him out of the blue. I’d never spoke to him, I never had any contact with him, I just loved that book and I was quite fascinated by gypsy culture because of the extremity I suppose.
He emailed me and said, “Would you come to Ireland and do a story with me in the Horse Travellers Fair to a book?” I couldn’t email back quick enough to get there and do it. Unfortunately I couldn’t do it all, but I did like a third of it, which was a dream.
BP: What words of wisdom would you pass onto the next generation?
GG: Oh you’ve got me there. I’m very, very, very passionate about influencing the next generation.
I used to be determined that I never wanted to be represented, I always wanted to look after myself. Again it was that DIY punk attitude, I didn’t want to fall into this kind of trap of being made to do things I don’t wanna do and being forced to work in an environment with people I don’t wanna work with, and things being commercial, and as soon as you go to an agent everything becomes commercial. So I spent 13 years representing myself, and I’ve only been at Streeters for two years, and that was a very drawn out process getting there. I was very, very specific about what I wanted and how I wanted it. I was very lucky at that time when I joined that agency that I had a lot of other agencies that wanted to sign me. It was a really good time for me to join, because I could join on my own terms. I was spending all of my time working – I had no down time because any down time I did have I was producing my own shows and working on lots of other projects. I started not to enjoy my work because I didn’t have any time to think about being creative, so I was lucky to be able to join. And this is leading to the answer to your question.
So I knew that joining an agency was never gonna be the be all and end all and I had to join an agency on my terms that would allow me to be who I wanted to be, and be the hairdresser I wanted to be, and if no-one was gonna let me do that I was gonna carry on repping myself. Streeters were very open with that, and they’ve allowed me to be that, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that.
I did a lot of education, I still do a little bit now and I love that feeling of seeing kids excited about what they’re doing and where they’re going and I’ve seen myself in them, and I love that feeling. I don’t have this desire to be that 70 year old hairdresser clinging on by their teeth, scraping their nails down the wall, kicking all the young people down behind. I really wanna encourage them to come forward and do it. So with a lot of my team, I kind of mentor them. My first assistant – I’m always encouraging him to do his own work, I’m always encouraging people not to join agencies, I’m always telling to them, you find your point of difference. Find a strong voice. Be very adamant about who you wanna be as an artist and make sure that you have the final say on everything you’re doing and where you’re going.
Because I’ve seen so many friends that are hairdressers who’ve joined big agencies young and their careers have fallen flat because they’ve not had the experience or the knowledge to know who they are, and they get boxed in to this little market place where their careers are ruined because agencies are just trying to make money out of them. I suppose my biggest message is to really be tenacious with who you want to be as an artist and always have complete control over that. Not in an arsey diva way, but just in the way of saying, This is who I am. This is who I wanna be, and I am not changing. I’m happy to listen, I’m happy to be advised, but don’t expect me to do everything that you want me to do.
I think after representing myself for 13 years, joining an agency was always gonna be difficult, but what it did bring me is it gave me some autonomy. When I’m in control, I do my best work. I suppose that’s my biggest message. My first assistant and I were having a discussion one day and he said to me “oh you’re so lucky, you grew up in Punk and Ska and when Hip-Hop was good. You’ve got so many good influences, I haven’t got those.” And I said, “But you’ve gotta look inside yourself, because everybody has something that can make a point of difference and be an influence on your work.” Unless you’re prepared to look inside yourself you’re never gonna find yourself. You’re just gonna mix in stuff: middle of the road, average, what everybody’s doing. You’re gonna get lost in the shuffle. It’s so important these days, to find your thing. If you don’t find it the results will never be what you want, because you’re just doing the same as everybody else.
I’m really big on making sure that a lot of the young people who are working for me are getting opportunities, and I’m giving them the support that they need. Because I feel that’s a moral responsibility I have as a slightly older person in the industry. If there was a legacy that I left I’d love it to be “he really helped me find my voice. He really helped me be confident in who I am as a creative person.” It is really so important to find your own voice and not fall victim to pressure and join an agency and just end up being a money machine for somebody else. You’ve got to be a money machine for yourself.
Beauty Papers Issue Six available here