Grande Maison


Standing at the Grave of Antoine de Paris with Laurent Philippon

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.

GM Wow.
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.

GM And not just close to Alexandre…
LP I was in constant contact with these incredible people: Mr Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Monsieur de Givenchy, the list goes on. I was 20 years old, and I was hanging out at Chanel. It was a crazy time.

GM When did you leave Alexandre?
LP In 1992, after two and a half years there. The three first months right after my military service, he put me on an unpaid trial - living off my tips. I was scraping by. But by the time I started on the minimum salary I was making some very interesting tips. (Laughs) But Alexandre decided to sell the company to L’Oreal and when the new team came in they thought: Who is this 22 year old who makes all this money? So they said I could stay on but on the minimum salary again. I was like: I don’t think so. But, thankfully, within a week of that news, I met Julien d’Ys in a club called Les Bains Douche. I told him: I’m going to leave Alexandre - can I come and work with you? He said: come tomorrow.

GM Another forward approach from Laurent Philippon!
LP Yeah, just like ‘89 with Alexandre, Julien didn’t care about my book, my portfolio - he took me in as an assistant. He was starting this new agency called Atlantis which was promised to have these crazy names: Sam McKnight, Guido Paulo, Orlando Pita, himself, and many others. Superstars were represented at Atlantis. I started to assist all of those names, and even though I was back on the low level, I realised that I had to diversify my techniques. What I had learned from Alexandre was so out of the time, it was dusty...

GM Did Alexandre stay on?
LP He did for a few years, but it was the beginning of the end. To this day, it’s still the same owners at Alexandre de Paris - but I don’t think they did a good job in renewing the brand.

“I was 20 years old, and I was hanging out at Chanel. It was a crazy time.”

GM In your career, have you ever seen a sale go well?
LP No, you’re right. It’s never the same. But then, look at Chanel! (Laughs)

GM So what work did you find yourself doing with Atlantis in comparison?
LP Well, before 1992, there were session hairdressers for photoshoots. Models for editorial and photoshoots, and then the fashion shows in Paris were a different world completely. If you were a model for a fashion show, you really only did fashion shows. And actually it was Versace who came in 1992, saying: I don’t want those haute couture models anymore, those old hairdressers like Alexandre. So he brought his editorial models to the catwalks, and they became the Supermodels! Claudia, Christie, Linda, Naomi, all of those. That was a turning point in that environment, and it was also the year that Julien started to do Chanel. It was funny, because the season before they saw me doing the hair with Alexandre, and the season after they see me coming back with Julien. (Laughs) They were like: “What are you doing here?” That was funny.

GM Within two years you were fully freelance.
LP Yeah, little by little I was tested for shows, and eventually picked by Michael Gordon for Bumble and bumble. I was assisting Orlando Pita on a show, it was the Jean Paul Gaultier show when Madonna walked out with a pram in her pointy bra. Michael asked me to fly to New York to give a class at Bumble and bumble. So that is what I did. It’s been 25 years now, and I’m still there.

GM Global Artistic Director.
LP That came later, but I definitely wanted to bring my vision to the table early on. The brand’s DNA was always fashion and I wanted to develop that in a big way.

GM Did you like New York?
LP Yes, in the beginning it was wild: I couldn’t believe it. But then you need to work. (Laughs) Another reality check, another field to play on if you want an international career. Paris, London, New York.

GM From there, your life must have exploded!
LP Yeah, the list of people I worked with grew. My first break with French Vogue was with David Lachapelle. I was upcoming, fresh, new, you know? And I still work with him today, two and a half decade later.

GM So you have Alexandre’s tradition of those long relationships!
LP Yes!

GM You came out with this book, Hair Fashion & Fantasy. You talk about mentors a lot in that book. Do you think mentors have less of a role today with the advent of social media?
LP Nowadays you definitely have to share your vision on social networks. Young hairdressers are active there. We all have to have good Instagram accounts, some of us share our techniques - like me - some don’t. But it’s an amazing tool for the education of the next generation. It’s an un-negligible source of inspiration. And it gives exposure to those who maybe couldn’t get exposure otherwise. I have great hope for the future of our craft, I see so many super talented people coming up.

GM Is there a negative to that? You can have too many people who may not know the basic foundations.
LP Yes, that’s true. But time will do the same washing up for them as it did for us. Kim Kardashian’s hairdresser could have half a million followers for a straight centre-part with flat-iron hair. That’s extremely limited. But perhaps he’ll get bored, and either learn something else or will have to question his abilities. Social media does not hide poor technique in the field, so I am positive overall. It’s a new tool we have to learn to work with, we cannot ignore it.

“I am a hairthinking war machine.”

GM You seem to enjoy the outer limits of this field. In your book you interviewed people who were really not involved in the core of the craft. Why?
LP I think that hair is a universal language. You could come from any culture and see a hairstyle and you can read it. Session hairstylists work on hair for image, so it takes an artistic and symbolic dimension to do it well. I wanted to speak to experts in the theory of art and symbolism. I spoke about the ideal woman, the ideal image. The woman in the glossies is the ideal that we can never attain, so there’s a philosophy there too. I knew there would be many new angles on this idea that we don’t get in the industry that often.

GM Was there anything that really reinvented the wheel for you?
LP I learned a lot! I met ethnographers, artists, an art-philosophy professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was beautiful, a completely different point of view. Hair is a bit like clay or a blank canvas. There are so many combinations, zillions of fibres on the head, it can tell so many different stories. It’s endless. With this book, and like I was telling you about those new promising Instagram hairdressers, I’m thinking: Yes, there are still countless ways of placing hair on the head that I have never thought about.

GM You’ve worked with Lady Gaga, Björk, Miley Cyrus - these ratchet, experimental musicians, who need looks to match! It’s so exciting that the further our culture gets into media, digitisation, anti-reality, the more artists like these will need stylists who can keep up with those changes.
LP Yes, this is true.

GM Do you see yourself on the frontline of these experiments? Or are you more of a mentor now?
LP (Laughs) No, no. I am with Karl Lagerfeld, who said: “Once something is done, I’m done.” I’ve never done the same hairstyle twice in my life. Otherwise, I quit. I am constantly researching, I am a hairthinking war machine. Yes, I have my techniques that run in my veins, but I am always looking for new ways. It’s what keeps me going.

GM Is hairdressing always enough for you?
LP I do a little bit of photography, but I don’t have much time for that. I like taking photos with kites, I love flying kites - it’s really a hobby that I do on my holiday. But my schedule gives me so much to think about, and as long as I keep working with a young team, creative people, I am still in love with hair.

GM Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
LP Exactly where I am now.