The Celebrated Hairdresser Reflects On His 25 Years of Rebellious Creations
We sat down with Michael Boadi for a first-hand account from within the fashion industry and some personal, down-to-earth advice about hairstyles, finding your creative inspiration and pursuing your own business. Celebrated hairdresser Michael Boadi has 25 years of experience creating boundary-pushing covers and editorials for the world’s most prestigious fashion magazines.
Could you please tell us about how you got interested in hairdressing.
I always loved products as a child. From as young as I can remember I fantasized of having my own products with my name on them one day. That was the driving and motivating force really.
When it came to doing hairstyles, I just like to do my own thing. I’ll look at something and I’ll interpret it my way. That’s how I am inspired. I am not driven by techniques or trends or anything like that. I prefer to set trends rather than follow them. It makes me a little bit of an oddball but I prefer that.
For example there was this hairstyle called the undercut. It has a short back and short sides. I did my first one back in 1998. I even shaved the whole head, the sides and the back, and left a long bit on top. What are people wearing today? They shave the sides and the back and they leave the top long. You see what I mean?
I imagine that requires a lot of inspiration.
For me it’s not just the hair, it’s everything. I might be inspired by an image, it could be something historical or something iconic. I take inspiration from, yeah, from all around me, not just one particular place. And I don’t look at what other people do, I stay in my own bubble, which again, works for me.
My creations are all fantasy-based. There’s some kind of — you know — it’s fantasy, but then it is reality. It allows you to dream and switch off for a second because you’re admiring what’s in front of you — taking the content of the image in.
Turning hairdressing from an interest to a career couldn’t have been easy.
I have no formal training as a hairdresser. It was all self taught. At first, starting out was really overwhelming because I didn’t know what the business was like.
I owe a huge part of my career to Judy Blame. He was the one that gave me my first job. It was with Glen Luchford for The Face magazine.
That led to a job with Nick Knight for British Vogue with Christy Turlington. I think it was either -89 or -90. When that came out Juergen Teller booked me. After that Jean-Baptiste Mondino booked me for all the Neneh Cherry stuff that he did. The one really led to the other.
After that Judy started at The Face about the same time as they made me Contributing Beauty Editor at i-D in 1990. Rebellious and punk rock light, that was my thing, and it still is today. I love history and I love rebellion, but I also love the future.
Getting to know an icon like Judy Blame must have been quite something.
Actually, I used to live with Judy. Me, Edward Enninful, Pat McGrath and Judy Blame used to share a flat together in West London.That’s kind of where everything started. At that time, Judy had some shoots coming up and he put me on them. Edward had started having ideas of becoming a fashion editor, and later became fashion director, so he also gave me jobs later and then it all kind of spiraled from there. Then I met Pat McGrath, who I brought in as well, and we became a trio. So you had your hair, your stylist and your makeup, and that’s how we all started out in the around ‘89-’90.
Before that, back in ’85, Pat and I used to sit in her apartment and flip through thousands of Italian Vogues. I remember, she said “Maybe I could be the next Francois Nars”. It was so magical back then. And now — to see that she’s doing exactly what she wanted to do then and what we discussed — it’s just, it’s just incredible, yeah, it’s really inspiring.
It’s incredible that all three of you ended up making a name for yourselves in the fashion industry. I would love to hear your speculation as to why that came to be.
We were the same, you know. We came from poor backgrounds and we all wanted great success for ourselves in whichever way possible to better our lives. We also wanted to make an impact. In fashion we had the platform to do so. After that it’s a lot about hard work. It’s a difficult craft and it didn’t come easy. Just look at how long it’s taken Pat for example. She’s been a number one makeup artist for about 30 years but she’s just now coming out with her own products these past years. It takes time.
The fashion industry must have changed a lot since you got started.
It definitely has. It is a lot easier to get jobs today off of social media. How many celebrities you hang out with and how many celebrities you take pictures with, that’s what people base their decisions on when it comes to choosing people for jobs. Whereas, back in our day, you really had to pay your dues and you had to work hard.
Also, the process is so different. When we started out, there weren’t any digital techniques. Photographers were going into the dark rooms to create their own prints. And there was no computer waiting to shove it into Photoshop, giving you a great picture in 20 minutes. Not back then. So everything had to be perfect, there was no retouching of hair, none of that nonsense. You really had to be on top of your game. We spent long nights in the studio. Now you can finish something like a 20 page shoot in half a day, but back then it took days and days to craft your art and really make it special.
That’s why, when you look at images from back then to now, there is a huge difference. It makes you wonder how clever photographers were in the dark room. Just look at Steven Meisel. His images goes way back to the eighties and they were so powerful at that time already. And now you don’t really have that because there’s no differentiation. Everything looks the same, it’s all digitally processed. So now photographers are finding themselves, specially the old school ones, going back to the way they used to work, printing prints and using 10x8 and 5x4 again.
With the territory comes a lot of collaborating. Could you please share how that is for a hairdresser.
When I started out it was really overwhelming. I wasn’t used to what the protocol was like. You had to be there at certain time. You had to do the hair in as little time as possible, because it is not all about just the hair. So immediately I had to bootcamp and discipline myself in order to get my results very quickly. Without wasting time, otherwise people would start complaining that the hair was taking too long. And you don’t want that reputation — your hair taking too long and there’s no time to shoot. So I had to develop methods and techniques that would cut the time in three. As tormenting as it was, I found shortcuts that got me to where I wanted to get.
So even if I’m not technically trained I could look at a hairstyle or a haircut and do my own version of it. And it would also look more original. If someone is technically trained, they technically cut in a technical way. See what I mean? The finish just become too technical. Whereas I didn’t have that training, so I was able to kind of do my version of it. It was a bit messy and that’s still, well, my own style.
And a well-executed shoot is also a lot about balance, I gather.
For me, I always think about the overall image. I don’t want the hair to overshadow the makeup or for the hair to take over the whole image. And that’s what a whole lot people don’t see these days. It’s always set up to be a hair-show or a big makeup statement. In my pictures, sometimes they have no hair, sometimes they have hats on, that’s part of my process. I’m part of creating images, I’m more than a hairdresser in that sense. I’m an image-maker that just happens to know about hair. That’s it. Understanding how to create powerful images.
How do you make a collaboration work in a creative environment?
Personally, I just come in and say what I feel. Exactly what I feel. And, you know, it always works. I can see something and say “OK, try that picture” or “stand here”. That’s what I do with everyone, all the photographers I’ve worked with. Shoot one from this angle, shoot one from that angle, because I see something different than they do. No matter who the photographer is, I will always put my two cents in. If they want to do it, it’s fine. If not, at least I’ve mentioned it. Maybe they found something better than what I saw.
But there’s no place for bickering on set, it’s not a competition for me. You can’t look for who can out-do who, because you can’t create images that way. Our team is supposed to be a marriage. If it’s not, there’s no play in it. It’s about all the four elements. You’ve got the clothes, the makeup, the hair and the photography. And it’s important to consider that so it’s in harmony. Otherwise you might go on set and you come off wasting your time just because maybe the eyes were too black or this was too that.
I wanted to ask you about about one of your shoot in particular. You did a shoot with Peter Beard for i-D. Please tell us about that.
Well, I like Peter Beard and I have always loved his work. So, as beauty-editor at i-D at the time, I said I wanted to do a 12 page story with him about braids. But instead of doing braids on black girls, which is so obvious, both now and back then, I wanted to do it on caucasian girls. And not just on any caucasian girls, I wanted to but on all the big supermodels at the time. We had Karolina Kurkova, Eva Herzigova, Bridget Hall and Amy Weston. They all took part in a 3-day project that shot over fashion week in New York.
So they’d run from show to fitting and then come and get their hair done with me. Because the hair was elaborate. The braiding-work on there, it’s a lot! We worked far into the night, until about 3–4 AM. And then the girls would have to wake up, do castings and fittings and come back. It was really sporadic but it was also great.
I’m sure it sounds less glamorous than people usually think the fashion industry is. There’s really nothing special here, but if you have a passion for your job and you like what you do, then you enjoy the process, make sacrifices and stay as long as you need to get it all done.
When you’ve put that much effort into a shoot, I’m guessing you’re curious how it will be received.
The story was a big risk for me and it was a huge risk for i-D. What can you do with braiding to make it current. And yeah, it was received as very rebellious. Then again, they wouldn’t expect anything less than that from me. I found my destiny really quickly you see, just started doing stuff no one else does.
That was back in 2002, we’re now in 2017. Fifteen years ago. What are people wearing now? The majority is braiding in some way, shape or form. So for me I am always ahead of myself, way too ahead. In this case literally by two decades.
What advice would you have for an up-and-coming hairdresser?
Well I mean, I’d tell you to just enjoy doing what you’re doing, you know, and do what comes naturally, or what feels natural. Everyone’s different. I wasn’t trained but I was kind of smart enough to hone my craft and figure out what was my unique selling points, or style, was at an early age. But not everybody has that, do you see what I mean? So the best advice would be to just try and enjoy it, don’t take it too seriously, and just be passionate about what you are doing.
Anything to advice against?
When you try to make a statement, it shows that you’re trying to make a statement. Doing this crazy hair-do so that when someone looks at the page it’s the first thing they see. For me that’s all that is, it’s not true craftsmanship. Sorry to say it. But then again, what works for me, might work in another way for other people. So I can only speak for myself.
Hairdressing is an expression of yourself and your artistic contribution at the end of the day. It’s your department, in terms of the rest of the people on the set or your team. So as long as you deliver what you’re supposed to deliver, deliver to a hundred percent and your collaborators enjoy what you have delivered, then you can’t really go wrong.
If you had to guess, how would you describe yourself to work with?
I am a very rebellious person. It’s probably because of my childhood, so I embrace it. I can be, you know, divaish at times, but it’s always for the right reason, because I just stick to what I believe in. And then you do it and they’re all “alright, you were right”. And that’s how I’ve done it all these years. It’s 30 years now.
During the past decade, you’ve been working with perfumes as well.
I did my first fragrance branding 2006. It’s called the Boadicea the Victorious. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it but it is mine. It became a household brand in 6 months. It went to be launched into Harrods exclusively. Now it takes in three to four million pounds, every year, in Harrods alone.
And that eventually led to your latest perfume brand, Valhalla.
Yes, which is my fourth fragrance company, believe it or not. It’s for people who really love their fragrances. Fragrance for the fearless is the thesis of the brand. It’s based on complicated compounds and elaborate blends that one would not normally experience.
It tries to portray fragrance through art, through fashion and through images. And no brand has really done that yet. I am taking history and bringing it not just into the now. Rather, I am taking history and taking it into the future, imagining what the viking culture would look like year 3000.
The vikings are still vikings. The beliefs are still the same. They’ll fight for what they want, they’ll fight for what they believe in, and even if they die trying, they know they will go to a nicer better place in the afterlife. That’s how people always thought and that’s an inspiring message. With all the nonsense that’s going on in the world today, I want to create a little world that you can escape to and, you know, fantasize for a little bit.
Perfumes would not have been my first guess for a iconic hairdresser as yourself.
I’ve loved cosmetics and fragrances ever since I was a kid. It would have been a natural progression from hairdressing to hair products. But I didn’t want to do that. It is just so predictable. And I’m an unpredictable person! You’ll never know what I’ll get into next. ◆
Find Michael Boadi at @therealmichaelboadi