Paris Fashion Week - of course. Where else would we arrange to meet Laurent? It’s cloudy, but there’s a glimmer of sunshine peering out from behind those romantic attics, the homes of so many young creatives on penniless pilgrimages to the home of styling. With so many others swanning around us, stylists styling, photographers crouching behind their lenses for hours a day, models parading the latest and greatest down the catwalk, we can’t help but think: how long this legacy is. We want to put it into words to Laurent, to describe how strange it is that each person here is on their own journey through the craft, trying to master the legendary techniques yet always trying to leave a mark of their own. We open our mouths, but Philippon - his mind ever full of poetics, philosophies, and one of the richest careers in the biz - is way ahead of us. Before we know it, we are standing by the grave of Antoine de Paris, face to face with legacy. For it was Antoine who taught Alexandre de Paris, and it was Alexandre who first taught Laurent. Once upon a time…
GM Your beginnings seem so romantic. A father owning a barbershop in a small town in France. What was the reality?
LP Yeah, it was a nice childhood. My home town is actually pretty industrial though, a lot of factories, cheap home projects. We were living the posh area, but we were the poor family in that area. The owners of the industry businesses had beautiful homes with swimming pools, white houses -there was a lot of glamour going on. My father was just a barbershop owner, so we weren’t like that. But all my girlfriends were chic, posh.
GM How was his barbershop, was it chic to match the clientele?
LP It was as chic as can be in a provincial town. He was very passionate, very talented, respected. He won competitions as a barber - it was a high end service.
GM Did you know from a young age that was the route you’d take?
LP No, I didn’t like it actually. I wanted to make pocket money of course and perhaps unconsciously I liked the ambience of the salon, but the work of barbering is actually still something I’m not that into. It was only when I started doing the hair of my girlfriends that I found a passion for this work, and that came later.
GM That’s still before you did your obligatory military service, right?
LP Yes. By 15 I’d already dropped out of college to start an early apprenticeship in a hip salon in my hometown. The name was: Maurice et Gerard. A couple who had a salon in Paris, one in Geneva, and a couple in the region I grew up in - the French Alps. They were students of Vidal Sassoon, and I liked that style. I got an interview and then started my apprenticeship in around April.
GM What was it about Sassoon that you liked?
LP Oh, you know. It was ‘85. Mum had a few fashion magazines at home, but she didn’t have time to be glamorous or be into fashion, so I didn’t have a huge idea about it. Vidal Sassoon was an instant attraction, the graphic, geometric haircuts. It was hip at the time in my hometown. (Laughs)
GM Do you still remember those first lessons you learned from that apprenticeship?
LP Absolutely! They were really good cutters, and one girl who worked there: I still think she’s an amazing hairdresser. I was watching and helping her, and she was a really sharp cutter. It helped me understand geometrics in hair, something I still use today as an amazing foundation. And they weren’t doing any backcombing or sets. They wanted modern clientele.
GM Were you competing yourself already at that time?
LP I became really interested in that at that time. My parents would drive me to the contests, around Lyon, Geneva, there’s a big contest in Evian - where the water comes from. I did a lot of those and then moved on to national hair contests, then European contests, then the global contests when I was 18.
“During a competition in Geneva I actually got my model to be escorted to the jury by two firemen! I won…”
GM So you were doing this during your military service? Was that not a bit of a scary double-life?
LP Yes and no. There’s a rule that says if you call in advance to sign up, they give you a choice of which corp you want to go into. My father said I should be a fireman, he didn’t see me playing war. So that’s what I did, and I was accepted to be a fireman in Paris. And then, during a competition in Geneva I actually got my model to be escorted to the jury by two firemen! I won it, and I gave the cup to the HQ of the Paris fire department. It’s probably still there.
GM You’d think hairdressing and firefighting were about as far away from each other as it was possible to get. It’s so nice you had their support.
LP (Laughs) Yes!
GM What happened next?
LP Well, I thought I knew everything - it gave me a real false sense of security. But I was about to find out that I knew nothing! That’s when I met Alexandre de Paris.
GM That’s a big reality check!
LP Completely. So I had all my saturdays off when I was in the service. I walked into his salon, I didn’t know anybody in Paris, and I wanted a saturday job. I was passionate about hair by that point, so I made a list and at the top was Alexandre. I walked in, naive, not checking the reception, just searching for him and told him my story. That I’m a fireman, I wanted to work alongside him for free on saturdays. I think he could feel I was very motivated, he said it was cute - so I came next saturday.
LP He was really tough. Obviously, as its a salon the atmosphere is always positive for the client But he was tough, in a human way. I never felt he was unfair, but he was the master - that’s all there was to it. Every morning I remember thinking to myself: Oh my God, I’m working with Alexandre. I felt blessed.
“I feel the lineage with the tools in my hands. There are gestures I picked up from Alexandre, that I know Alexandre picked up from Antoine.”
GM Any moment you thought you’d messed it up?
LP Not really. I was doing my best to maintain my mission. Keeping his space clean, the hairpins together, basic cleaning up, all that stuff was easy. What I was finding more difficult was the actual styling. I had this doll-head, and I was obsessed with it. Whenever we had time off I would go to the doll-head to try and learn the French Twist, which was one of Alexandre’s signature. And the Marcel Waving. These are two techniques that take a lifetime to master. So I’d march up proudly with my doll-head to show him my work and he’d say: start again!
GM But he was encouraging you to keep going…
LP Yes! And the strangest thing was that I was the only young, motivated stylist in the salon at the time.
GM In Alexandre de Paris’ salon?!
LP It was bizarre. There were younger hairdressers, but all they were into was making money. I have no idea, when you have this legend here, why you don’t want to learn the artistic side! Perhaps I was the last in line of that breed, I don’t know. He was already 75 when I started to work for him. He was 85 when he passed away, so it was towards the end. I don’t think he was bothered at that age, not to have dozens of apprentices, but he seemed happy I was there.
GM Standing by Antoine de Paris’ grave, did you feel the power of the lineage; Antoine taught Alexandre, Alexandre taught you?
LP I feel the lineage with the tools in my hands. There are gestures I picked up from Alexandre, that I know Alexandre picked up from Antoine.
GM Real parts of people, passed through the ages.
LP That’s the stuff that stays, a legacy. But then it happens naturally that we develop a new spin on these old ways. It’s a slow evolution, over a long career. I remember, at the time, Alexandre was styling for many shows, including Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, all the biggest fashion houses. He had long term relationships with them, I think he styled the first ever show for Saint Laurent, right up until ‘92 when I finally left. Alexandre would be their go to, doing the hair for little one-off shows. For example: “The Queen of Jordan is coming to Paris, so we’re throwing a show for her. Can you come?” Nobody wanted to leave their clients to do these jobs for almost no money, but I was there in a moment! I loved spending the time in those houses, close with Alexandre and picking up his techniques.