Olivier Schawalder's Delicate Touch
Hair stylist Olivier Schawalder was born in Switzerland, trained in Japan and now works in Paris (where he has the pleasure of coiffing some of the têtes françaises trop chic – Carine Roitfeld, Ines de la Fressange, Isabelle Huppert.) For Beauty Papers Issue 5 Olivier styled the raven hair of Susie Cave, and for Issue Six BIG he collaborated with photographer Brigitte Niedermair on a series of efflorescent still lives. As sculptor is to marble, Olivier is to hair.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM
Photography BRIGITTE NIEDERMAIR
Beauty Papers: When did you realise that you could be a hairdresser?
Olivier Schawalder: Actually quite late. I don’t know, I was around fifteen years old maybe.
BP: That’s not particularly late! [Laughs]
OS: Actually you know what, I went to hairdressing because I had to choose something. Because I was at school, and at school I was quite into that No Future situation. I was kind of a Goth, turning into a Punk or whatever and I didn’t give any thought to working. So I was finishing school and my parents really told me, “You’re not clever enough to study anything else, so you’ve got to work and you have to pick something.” One of my cousins was the same age as me and had just started this internship doing hairdressing and she looked like she was having fun, so I asked if I could do a trial. I did that trial for a week and realised that it could be something. I didn’t realise it would be a real job, but it started from there.
BP: Did you look like a punk at that time?
OS: Oh yeah! More like a goth.
BP: What was your hair like?
OS: Black and very high.
BP: Did you backcomb it?
OS: Of course! Backcombing my hair to make sure it was perfectly straight up. I also had that long piece of hair covering half my face. It was difficult, because this was way before the hair straightener and my hair was curly. I would even iron it with a clothes iron! And then after straightening it came the backcombing, and it was also about the way you slept. It was about only sleeping on the side. You couldn’t sleep on your tummy, that was not possible!
BP: What sort of products did you use?
OS: The cheapest hair spray. The cheapest one from Garnier was actually very good. I was spraying so close to my hair with the hairspray and also getting the hairdryer on it! I remember it would hold for a couple of days without needing any touch ups.
BP: The things we used to do to our hair… We’d never do that now.
OS: Yeah, for me it’s not even an option. I’m bald, I lost all of my hair because of that shit.
BP: So at that time you had a style, but when did Fashion come along?
OS: At first it was always more about music than fashion. Obsessed with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Robert Smith, Joy Division. Then I started looking at Jean Paul Gaultier and that was the turning point. In the early 90s the shows amazed me. I don’t know if you remember the Jewish collection he did [Chic Rabbis, 1993] and the beginning of all the piercings and the tattoos and the Eskimo collection… all of that era. That’s when I quit Goth. [Laughs]
BP: Because Goth was not particularly in fashion, right at that minute.
OS: No, it was starting to move. It was also the beginning of the rave, and techno, and industrial music and all of that. So I turned into something, I don’t know exactly what. [Both laugh]
BP: Did your hairspray go back on the shelf?
OS: No, the black hair turned into all of the colours that were possible to do at that time – blue, red, yellow, pink, and I was spending all of my weekends at raves. I was in Switzerland so everything was happening in Zurich, and I remember it was a fabulous time.
BP: Goth, nightlife, catwalks… when did they all collide for you?
OS: I don’t know how to put it together, actually. It came naturally. I was working in a hair salon but on the side I was doing things. I was making clothes and we would do mini fashion shows in the middle of techno parties. Hair was very important – and I was just trying to express myself, experiment and try out different things. I did a thousand mistakes. Ugly, ugly hairstyles and things that now I would never do. I was just doing what I thought was cool. And trust me it was not always cool [Laughs] but at least I was doing it.
BP: So what was the step from the nightclub to the fashion industry?
OS: There was a big step. [Laughs] Because in 2004 I moved to Tokyo because I had the opportunity to go there with Toni & Guy. It was not exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to go to Japan but I didn’t really want to be in the salon again. So I did a year and after that I moved freelance and moved into fashion. But it all started in Japan actually. I wasn’t really thinking about a career. I just wanted to do pictures, that’s all I really wanted. I was so free. It was just so different and inspiring and I started little by little. Then I started assisting Luigi [Murenu.] This is actually when I realised that hair…fashion could actually be a career, and this is how it works. Maybe not for everybody, but for me I needed to go through that. Just to realise how the business works and how you do things and how you work and what you say and what you really don’t say.
"It all started in Japan. I wasn’t really thinking about a career. I just wanted to do pictures, that’s all I really wanted. I was so free. It was just so different and inspiring and I started little by little."
BP: You already had had your education in the salon, how was that going through a second batch of training?
OS: Most of all I learned. I learned so much.
BP: And was Luigi’s approach entirely different to what you had been taught in the salon?
OS: Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s almost like being brainwashed, you erase everything and you start again. At that time I think I really needed to start from the beginning and to learn from a hero.
BP: So then did you move to Paris?
OS: I left Japan and it was 2012 that I really set up in Paris and from there the beginning it was really hard in Paris. Like really hard. [Laughs] I was homeless and travelling all the time. I was trying to find an agent, which is hard because they are very snobby. But Luigi introduced me to good people, like Carine [Roitfeld] for example. I started doing her own hair and she’d give me a couple of options for hair in her magazine. It started little by little.
BP: Do you miss Tokyo?
OS: Yeah, it’s very weird. It’s like I know I will miss it for the rest of my life, but I’m fine. Does it make sense? For example, if I go to Japan, the minute I land in Japan I really feel home, which is really strange. But I’m doing better in Paris. I really loved my years in Japan, but now I’m in Paris.
BP: Do you think those cities have a direct influence on the work that you’re creating?
OS: Yeah. More Japan, actually. Not really Paris. Paris is where the business is. I’ve never been inspired by the Parisienne woman.
BP: Except for Carine, I mean she’s pretty inspiring.
OS: Yeah, I mean Carine is Carine, but I’ve never been really inspired by the city of Paris or the fashion of Paris. I find London way more interesting. So Japan is, for me, way more inspiring. It’s more a philosophy – being on time, being precise, being serious, being a hard worker, listening to what’s going on, what do people want. That actually changed me, that kind of quiet, being calm and looking at what’s going and not arriving on set screaming. Just being focused. Trying to be focused is my gift from Japan.
BP: What for you is an ideal way of working on a fashion story?
OS: First of all, for me it’s more about the photographer. For example when I work with a new photographer, someone I haven’t worked with before, I’m going very, very easy. I mean careful. I’m not trying to show him what I can do. I try to go with the flow and wait for the moment where I feel confident that I can do something and that it will work. I need to see the first picture. You know when you’re in the hair and makeup crew and you do something and you think it’s really nice and then you go on set and you take the first picture and it looked like shit? That’s happened to me. I need to see the first picture and then the real work starts, because you see what it’s going to be like – more or less – and then you can build. You can build up something, or reduce, if it was too much. For me, I really need the people around me to tell me – the stylist or the photographer. I think great work comes with a great team.
BP: Do you go in with a plan or are you more spontaneous?
OS: I always come prepared. Over-prepared. I love to have something to show. I love to have something ready. Even if you don’t use it, at least you thought about it before. Sometimes you just try a wig or you try this or that and then people get inspired, and it may change the direction.
BP: How would you describe or define the hair that you do?
OS: I would say delicate. Even if they are asking for something dirty or punk, even if I really try hard, even when it’s really dirty… there’s always a bit of delicate. That’s the word I would use.
BP: The hair that you did on Susie Cave for Beauty Papers had such a delicate touch. Beautiful.
OS: I love that shoot. Susie, she is delicate. She’s that kind of girl. She’s quite goth, but delicate. She’s so gorgeous.
BP: As an ex-Goth that must have been an exciting moment shooting with Mr and Mrs Cave?
OS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BP: Nick was one of my first hair heroes. “Let’s try and get this hair as big as Nick Cave.” That was the goal.
OS: And did you make it?
BP: Of course! That’s why I now have a widows peak. And that’s why you’re bald. [Both laugh]
OS: Well me, my goal was actually Siouxsie.
BP: Do you have any other hair heroes?
OS: Of course I love The Cure, blah, blah, blah. But the main one, the one that inspires me the most even now is still Nina Hagen. She is for me the ultimate. And Kate Bush. Those two, they came very early, like when I was a kid, actually. Especially Nina.
And you know what, I think Nina is actually maybe the reason I got interested about hair. My father was a fan of her and he was very happy that I was liking her, not because of her looks but because she was German. [Both laugh] Because my father is from Zurich, but he moved to the French side and he was really, really desperately trying to teach me German, and he thought that maybe Nina would make me want to learn German. Then he failed. [Laughs] So I’ve never learned German but I discovered Nina. I don’t understand shit of what she’s saying, I just think she’s major. Who inspires me now? Not many, because it goes too fast. One second I think somebody is cool and then then next week it’s dead.
"What is big for me now? Love. Is that a good answer?"
BP: For people working creatively within fashion, how do you think that we can navigate that speed in our editorial? How do you negotiate it?
OS: I think that’s a good question. I don’t know if you can. I work very intuitively and instantly. So I’m trying to not care so much about what’s going on now or what we should be doing now. I’m just trying to do what I do. It doesn’t answer your question, but this is how I work.
BP: Do you think that fashion editorial has a social responsibility?
OS: No because I think if you think like this, you give too much importance to what it is. It has to still be easy. For example, when you’re on those shoots and they start to masturbate – because that’s really the name – they masturbate about a tiny detail that nobody cares about. This for me is taking fashion too seriously and that’s where you lock yourself into something that can quickly become very boring because it’s not even alive anymore.
BP: The theme of our current issue is BIG, so right now, what is BIG for you?
OS: What is big for me now? Love. [Both laugh] Is that a good answer?
BP: I think it’s maybe the best answer.
OS: Because it’s true! But you know what, because work wise things are good, I’m very happy, but this is all possible because in my personal life, there’s something very, very stable. I’ve been with my boyfriend seven years, we have a dog and this is what it makes possible to do good work, because there’s no stress about your personal life. That’s why I think love is very, very important and BIG.