James Brown. Style with Soul
For Beauty Papers Issue Six BIG, James Brown styled one of his best friends: Kate Moss. After a three decade long career as a hairdresser, James isn’t quite ready to hang up his tongs, but he is equally at home in the dressing up box. In the Nineties James and his gang of girlfriends (Kate, Corinne Day, Rosemary Ferguson) took a cleansing wipe to the eyeshadow of the Eighties and reinvented not only fashion photography, but our whole notion of cool. Ladies and gentleman: James Brown.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM Photography LISA BUTLER
Beauty Papers: You have done so much. How would you currently define your practice?
James Brown: I would just say I’m a creative. When people say to me, “What do you do?” I say I’m a creative now. For thirty years I said I’m a hairdresser, and left it at that. It was very simple. I’ve styled for years and I’ve took art photos for years, but I was embarrassed about … being too many things. So it used to be “I’m just a hairdresser” but now creative feels comfortable.
BP: You were fashion director on our Kate Moss shoot for Issue Six BIG.
JB: I’ve been styling for years. There’s a sort of buzz about it at the moment and it seems to be I’m coming out the shadows with it. With my shoot for Beauty Papers, I feel like that is what I got into fashion for. For moments like that. That’s what it was like with Corinne [Day]. I loved the clothes and I loved the images and I loved everything, everyone on set, and I just got it. And shooting Kate with Lisa for Beauty Papers was the same. I fucking got it. It was amazing. I mean that hasn’t happened for ten years for me. We all understood each other, there wasn’t much talking, we just got on with it, there were no egos, and we just created – I feel – incredible images.
BP: How would you describe that feeling and that experience to somebody who’s not been on set before?
JB: It’s like falling in love. It’s like the feeling when you fall in love and you can’t breathe and your stomachs turning and you’re tingling all over. For me, that’s what Monday was like. It’s like being in love, falling in love, that magical moment.
BP: That’s what keeps us going, right?
JB: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
BP: What is the process of styling Kate Moss?
JB: The process is very organic. It’s hard to believe this, but literally this has happened hundreds of times. I’ll say “I was thinking about this” and she’ll go pull her phone out and go “Look, I’ve just saved these pictures!” We do that all the time, and then it grows. When we’re together we don’t talk about fashion, we’ve known each other our whole lives. We don’t sit and talk about fashion, it just happens very calmly, very organically and there’s no flustering. There’s complete trust on all sides.
For the Beauty Papers shoot, Kate hadn’t seen one single outfit. I had this idea and I just did it and she absolutely loved it. It’s just a very respectful process. If she said, “I don’t like that” which is very rare, I’d say, “Great. Okay. Forget it. Move on.”
BP: So there’s no trying to force her into anything?
JB: No, never ever ever. Her taste is impeccable, you can’t. She’s got impeccable taste on every single level about every single thing.
BP: What do you agree to disagree on?
JB: “Too short” is usually the thing. I always want it shorter and she’s like “I’m not wearing that!”
BP: Kate completely transcends generations. What do you think the magic is?
JB: I’ve never seen her in an outfit where I’ve thought, “Oh god.” She just wears it and she owns it and it all works. She makes everything look like it’s hers and she’s had it forever, and there’s very few people that can do that. It’s just weird, I can’t put my finger on it.
BP: I think maybe that’s the key, that we can’t put our finger on it.
JB: I used to remake my Dad’s suits, and when she was sixteen she’d wear those. I’ve dressed her for years. You know she never really looks in a mirror, it’s more about if it feels right. I’m the same, I don’t have a mirror in my house. If it feels right, that’s good enough.
"My first ever job was the cover of The Face, and my second or third ever job was the cover of Vogue, so my training was on set. I came from Croydon, from doing my mates, to suddenly being on a job in New York with American Vogue. I didn’t know about fashion, I didn’t particularly care, I just loved doing hair."
BP: Do you think it’s become less taboo for people who do wear a lot of different creative hats?
JB: Yeah, totally. Especially for the slightly younger generation. With my generation I think there are still lots of pigeonholes, and people like to stay safe. For me doing a lot of styling now, I’ll go on set with stylists that are established and some of them are completely are open to it but a lot of them are not.
The younger generation are far more collaborative, which is what I’ve always been about. I don’t care if someone comes and touches the hair, I never did care. The people that I work with never cared if I said, “Oh, what about that outfit?”
BP: Now it’s less about pigeonholing, more “any hole’s a goal.”
JB: Exactly. As long as you know what you’re talking about. I have been on jobs with Art Directors where all of my pictures are on the wall, and they’re telling me how to do hair say, and I’m like, “Well I know because I did all of those pictures.”
BP: When you look at the board, and it looks like a Greatest Hits of your own career, is that helpful or a hinderance or does it just amuse you?
JB: It feels very comforting, actually. It feels like we did such great strong images and they’re still being referenced almost daily, so it’s nice. It’s all good memories. But I don’t talk about it when I’m on the set I just don’t say anything at all.
BP: What was your training?
JB: Well the thing is, I started doing hair at sort of 12 and by 14 I was doing everybody in the street, and then by 22 I had my first Vogue cover, so I never assisted anyone. I just started at the top. My first ever job was the cover of The Face, and my second or third ever job was the cover of Vogue, so my training was on set. I came from Croydon, from doing my mates, to suddenly being on a job in New York with American Vogue. I didn’t have any comprehension about how it all worked. I didn’t know about fashion, I didn’t particularly care, I just loved doing hair.
I was working in a salon and the editor from Vogue used to call the reception and say, “Do you wanna do a shoot?” And I’d say, “No thanks, I’m going to a club,” or something. I didn’t wanna miss my nightlife. I was like 21 years old. I used to tell the receptionist tell her I’m not here! One day she called and the receptionist said, “Oh, I think you better talk to her.” I came on the phone, and she said, “I know you don’t wanna leave the salon but we’ve got this job and you might want it,” I said, “I’m not interested,” and she said, “Well it’s in Thailand.” I was like, what? You’re gonna pay me to go to Thailand and do hair?
I used to do things like [James giggles] I’d say, “Oh I don’t like that dress, that’s horrible, who’d wear that?!” [Laughs] But now I just cringe, thinking of that. I was very innocent, and I think that was very endearing to people. I was mouthy but I was innocent. It wasn’t coming from a nasty place, it was just that I really I didn’t know how it all worked, and I think people liked that. I didn’t look at magazines, I just was part of a movement that was all organic.
BP: I’m surprised it wasn’t really about magazines, you weren’t one of those kids obsessed with fashion?
JB: No. Absolutely not. I’d never even looked at a magazine. I wanted to do hair and ride horses and that was it. I’d be the first one in the salon in the salon every morning and the last one to leave … In fact I used to sleep in the salon because I’d missed the last train back to Croydon!
BP: Were you born in Croydon?
JB: Yes. my family are from Ireland and all my family live in Ireland and have done since 1986. They all moved back to Ireland when I was 18. But I stayed in Croydon and moved to London when I was 19.
BP: I read that you’ve described yourself in the past as a bit more country than city. Quite posh for someone from Croydon?
JB: Well yeah, that’s funny. I grew up in a place called Old Coulsdon which is outside of Croydon, about twelve miles away and it’s all just countryside. There were 300 acres behind my house so I rode every single day before school. I’ve ridden all my life. Even when I lived in New York I had my farm upstate and I shipped my horses from Ireland. I have to ride, for me it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. I just have to be around animals, especially horses. [James calls out to his dog]
BP: How many dogs have you got?
JB: I’ve got four.
BP: Do you do their hair?
JB: Not really no, they’re kinda grungy. I don’t really get into the grooming of the dogs. I had a hair product line, and did this volume shampoo, and the woman who had the World Champion cat or something, I don’t know, she contacted me and wrote this long letter about how fluffy I make her pussy with my shampoo! [Laughs] It’s amazing! This Champion cat, it was so beautiful! Massive and fluffy. She said that she’d never found anything like it. I’ve got two cats on the farm: big massive ginger toms.
BP: Jodhpurs aside, back when you were trawling around nightclubs, what would be a classic look for you and your gang?
JB: Lots of Vivienne Westwood. Like Vivienne Westwood head to toe. Every single week it had to be new Vivienne Westwood. I still have it all.
BP: Would you get roped into doing the hair for everyone or did everyone look after themselves?
JB: That’s how I kind of started, because I used to do Kate’s hair when she was 15, 16 and I used to do all my friends from Croydon. Then I met Corinne Day, and I was looking for somewhere to live, she needed a flatmate. So then all my girlfriends used to come to the flat to get ready to go to Kinky Gerlinky or wherever, and then Corinne used to say, “I love how you do hair” and I’d say, “What’s she talking about?” I didn’t really get it.
And then one day she came into my room and she said, “This model is here, will you just get up and do what you do to Kate and everyone’s hair?’ And I said, “Well not really, no.” But then I did get up, and I thought fashion was all big boobs, bright red lips and big massive hair. I used to call it prostitute hair. It wasn’t my visual. My visual was rock and roll, cool, Iggy Pop. When I came out of my bedroom and Corinne was shooting this girl, she had like skin tight black jeans on and a dirty old t-shirt and I thought, “Oooh, this is quite good.”
That’s literally the moment that changed my life, cause I was like, “Oooh, I like this aesthetic.” Didn’t know what that word was then, but I liked how she looked and I got it. So I said to Corinne, “Oh, yeah. I’ll do a shoot then,” and then that was the cover of The Face with Rosemary Ferguson. It was all so organic.
BP: Is that organic way of working something that is still possible for you, and your career now?
JB: Yes. 100%. I think it’s possible for everyone. The problem I find today is a lot of people want to be at the top of every industry but without doing any work to get there. They see things and think “I can have that,” well no, you have to work really hard and continue to work really hard. Look how hard Kate works, she works five days a week still. She works, works, works. We all work really hard still.
I’ve been styling for two years now really, and I’ve just been getting on with it. I walk around London on foot to all my favourite vintage shops, and all my favourite junk shops and I do it all without anyone knowing about it, no clients to appease because I do it all for creativity. Because I love it.
BP: Do you think that fashion editorial has a social responsibility?
JB: No. It’s fashion and it’s fantasy, and take what you want from it, but my understanding of it is it’s not there for that. It can be current and it can be respectful of what’s going on in the world, but I don’t think it’s for that, no.
BP: With your career, do you think you’ve had a glamorous life?
JB: Yeah, definitely. My sister is a nurse in Ireland and saves lives and she does a ‘proper job’ as I call it, but I’ve definitely had a privileged, glamorous life. It’s hard work but I’ve been very, very lucky. There’s loads of people that are better than me in the world and there’s loads of people that are worse. It’s a mixture of luck, hard work, talent. You can get a lucky break, I’ve seen so many people be the new hot thing and then they’re gone a year later. You have to sustain it.
BP: What is your earliest memory of glamour?
JB: My older sister was my total inspiration and I used to go to the hair salon with her every single Saturday. She’d have her hair done and then she would come home, wash it again and blow dry it herself. She was very glamorous, it was the eighties. She had massive blowdried. One day I said, “Why do you go to the salon and have your hair done and then come home and do it yourself?” She went, “Well that’s what girls do. We go and have our hair done.” I said, “Well, you don’t like it. Why don’t I do it, because I know how you like it.” That’s how I started. She was my idol, my glamour idol.
BP: What do you think is beautiful?
JB: What do I think is beautiful? Nature for me, is the most beautiful thing and I know that’s a cliche thing to say but it’s fact. My phone is all pictures of horses, dogs or trees. I love silver birch trees, I’m just obsessed. I take lots of pictures of them. God that’s so boring isn’t it. I love when nature is all wild.
BP: Following on from that one, what do you think is ugly?