PEOPLE: Eugene Souleiman on being a ‘student for life’ and how hair can make or break a picture
Interview: Allan Hogg
Images: Karl Collins, Andreas Laszlo Konrath, Arton Sefa
Special Thanks to Eugene Souleiman
Considered to be one of the most influential figures in hair today, Eugene Souleiman’s path into the world of hair was, perhaps surprisingly, one of pure chance. Describing himself as “an art school dropout”, Souleiman fell into hairdressing when a careers advisor nudged him in the right direction. Hair college and a brief stint at a barbershop followed, after which he cut his teeth at Trevor Sorbie, where he spent over a decade.
Souleiman’s session career took off in 1996 when he landed his first high profile campaign for Jil Sander, shot by British photographer Craig McDean. Crediting McDean as the person who “put him on the map”, the two continue to work together to this day. Another long-time collaborator is the make-up maestro Pat McGrath. The pair share an innovative approach to their respective mediums and a desire to transcend the traditional confines and expectations of their materials, in pursuit of the extraordinary.
“I’ll be very truthful; I’ve never wanted a job. I’m probably not particularly employable; I just want to enjoy what I do”
From adorning models with feathers at Maison Margiela, to crafting Björk’s otherworldly scarlet wig on the cover of Biophilia, Souleiman’s versatility with hair means that his creations vary from the whimsical and surreal to the sharp and stripped back. Moving effortlessly between the realms of fashion, art and music, his collaborations are rich and varied. They include working with artists Jake and Dinos Chapman on their Saatchi Gallery exhibition, and sculpting Lady Gaga’s cropped blonde wig for her music video Alejandro.
Now approaching his third decade in the industry, Souleiman continues to be a trailblazer. Despite being in high demand with the world’s biggest fashion houses and publications, he is vocal about the importance of pushing yourself to keep learning. This is perfectly encapsulated by Souleiman when summing up his relationship with hair in his own words; “student for life!”
INFRINGE’s Allan Hogg caught up with Souleiman to discuss recent inspirations and upcoming projects.
Allan Hogg: How did you first get introduced to the world of session styling? Eugene Souleiman: It was when I started working at Trevor Sorbie in Covent Garden, I started bumping into people who worked on fashion magazines. I ended up cutting models’ hair in the salon whilst also assisting Trevor on shoots. I got to meet lots of people that way. I would work for The Face Magazine on weekends with people like Craig McDean, Corinne Day and Norman Watson. Craig took off as a photographer and kind of brought Pat (McGrath) and I along with him, that’s really how we ended up in that world. It was only when I got flown to Milan to do a Prada show that I realised that maybe I should start taking this seriously!
AH: How would you describe your style? ES: I think my style is making things as strong as I possibly can, given the situation. What I do is react to the information given to me, process it and then do something with it. It’s not just about creating an amazing hairstyle, it’s about doing something that will go towards making an amazing picture. I’m just one part of that process. I truly believe that hair can make or break a picture. I think with make-up it’s slightly different, but hair can really destroy it.
AH: What obstacles, if any, have you faced this year and how has this moulded you? ES: I don’t know if I’d call them obstacles because I always look at a situation that faces you as an evolution of the industry I’m in. I think you need to be a good listener, you need to take everyone’s opinions into account. One of the hardest but most enjoyable things that I’ve done in the past year is working with John Galliano at Margiela, the process is really quite extraordinary. He’s an incredibly creative and knowledgeable person, in terms of history, culture and fashion. He finds a place where he can be creative on a broad spectrum, there are layers to his process, which I find really inspiring. But then, you know, this takes a long time and the day could end up being 17 or 18 hours long. His process is about giving you information and just letting you play. Through play you discover things and then you can evolve them. The hardest thing is the night before the show at about 2am, you’ve finally allocated the looks to specific girls, but the thing is whilst you’re working you have to have enough stuff and enough pieces that are done prior to the show. One look ends up being 9 hairstyles, so you’re looking at 30 girls but really you’re talking about almost 300 hair styles. You’re not just talking about one hair-do, it’s always really crafted, complicated and well thought out hair, you know? It’s tiring but you get high on the adrenaline, so the process is really enjoyable in the end.
AH: What are you working on at the moment? ES: I’m currently working on a project for AnOther Magazine, a story on heroines and anti-heroines. Like Joan of Arc and that kind of thing, iconic and heroic women in history. I said to the photographer Sølve Sundsbø and the stylist Katy England, that maybe instead of looking at old references we should bring these characters forward and place them in the present day. I thought it would be good to introduce British youth culture into the equation, and lots of other elements that aren’t necessarily associated with those amazing historic paintings and images.
AH: These images, like those of Joan of Arc, are really iconic though aren’t they? ES: I mean, they are but I think it would be good to look at ways to make it different, maybe recreate the same haircut but it looks like it was burnt, make the roots light and the ends orange and blood red to create something very textural… Maybe even blow smoke into the hairstyle and shoot with smoke coming out of it. I think that’s where my head is taking it. It’s really about pushing the idea and giving it a new dynamic.
AH: What’s been your most memorable experience this year? ES: Oh I can’t tell you that! I’ll tell you what, I’ll be honest with you, I really loved going to TrendVision. I really enjoyed the whole experience. It’s where hairdressers from every country compete to win an award. They do whatever they want at this event. There’s a colour section, a cut and styling section, it’s very simple but you would be surprised by how diverse everything is. It was really nice to see how people interpret ideas, you get some pretty nuts stuff. Because I’m a session hairdresser I never really get to socialise with other hairdressers and you forget just how brilliant they are. It was really nice to be in that environment, a complete breath of fresh air. Even though I’m creative I’m involved in a very corporate kind of world, with designers that have to sell clothes. Hairdressers are so funny, honestly I just really loved it.
AH: How do you think your work has developed and changed over the year? ES: Personally I think I’m currently producing some of my best work. I think there’s a very good reason for that… I noticed about a year ago that I was starting to repeat myself and I started getting very paranoid about it. I thought, “right. I need to do something fresh and not look at what’s around me – do it from my heart and from what I feel.” I’ve been very happy with that mentality and with what I have done so far. In a way I feel like I’m entering a new chapter.
I’ve always been my biggest critic, I just want to do work that I’m proud of and can look back at and be like “yeah, that was really good”. I’m not there yet and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say that – but I’m nearer now than I’ve ever been. It could all change because it’s fashion and that’s the thing, but I enjoy the evolution. You set out to understand the rules of your craft and then you break them. Then you realise that what you’ve broken has become another set of rules and then you have to break them again. Everything is in constant flux and that motivates me.
AH: Are there any hairdressers that you look up to? ES: I really respect Julien d’Ys. I would never touch any avenue he’s ever gone down, I seriously admire what he does because when I look at his work I instantly know it’s him and it comes from his heart. As an all-round creative hairdresser, I think Sam McKnight is amazing. He’s someone I’ve assisted, not for very long but he was wonderful. He can do any kind of hair, whether its tribal, glamour, up, minimal – the man can do it. He’s like a menu, he’s got so much to offer! He has an amazing repertoire and skill set and I really admire that.
AH: What commission would you say has been the most reflective of you? ES: A-ha! Commissions… in my opinion or in other people’s opinion? I think probably the work I’ve done for Yohji Yamamoto is what people think of as being the most reflective of me. On one hand I agree, but I also feel that some of the work I’ve been most proud of and that is the most reflective of me was actually never seen. It was for Alexander McQueen for his last Givenchy show, no press was invited…
AH: What was the hair like for that show? ES: It was basically: ‘Marie Antoinette travels to Africa’. There was a lot of grading, shapes and binding. ‘Punk-toinette’. 18th Century couture. It was amazing. No one ever saw it, we weren’t allowed cameras backstage to take pictures of it. It was quite a heavy show, a lot of fun… 3 days and 3 nights of work, we really went for it and it looked amazing, I was really really happy with it.
AH: For you, what defines an interesting piece of work in this day and age? ES: It could be anything really, it could be a piece of music, a piece of art, a hairstyle, a chair, jewellery. It could be anything for me. I do look at other people’s stuff but I do it to make sure I don’t go where they’ve gone. I guess the most inspiring things for me at the moment don’t necessarily come from hair. Heston Blumenthal is amazing. His whole philosophy and process, the understanding of the materials he’s working with and the manipulation with the knowledge of science is incredible.
AH: Would you say that about your own work? ES: Yeah, there are a lot of layers to it; I don’t think any person is one thing. We change, we have different ways of thinking at different times. I’m very good at changing my thought process. I get bored if I don’t. I admire anyone who can actually do the same thing day in and day out. Personally I’m not made that way. For me Allan, I’ll be very truthful; I’ve never wanted a job. I’m probably not particularly employable; I just want to enjoy what I do. I’ve always been that way and if I don’t love doing it I don’t do it. I don’t know where my job ends and where my life begins. I’m constantly thinking about my kids, my wife and hair, it’s all belted into one.
AH: How would you sum up your relationship with hair in 3 words? ES: Student for life!