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Interview with Nicky Clarke

Nicky Clarke

A quick test of your current affairs knowledge: can you name three celebrity hair stylists?

Hands up everyone who thought of Nicky Clarke and then struggled to come up with more… Most of you, eh? Not to worry, the same thing happened when we tried it in the editorial office.

Not since the swinging 60s, the era of Raymond “Mr Teasy-Weasy” Bessone and Vidal Sassoon, has there been a stylist to the famous who has become quite such an A-list celebrity in his own right. In Nicky Clarke’s case the fame is well earned, and his ability at his art is in no doubt. It takes a rare talent to sweep both the British Hairdresser of the Year and London Hairdresser of the Year awards in the same year.

Nicky Clarke’s career began in the most auspicious of environments. In the 1970s, at the age of 16, he went to work at the legendary Leonard’s of Mayfair.
“I was advised – and rightly so, I still believe – not to go to college. Go to a good salon instead. Start at the bottom, sweeping the floor and polishing the brass. You know you can’t go any lower, so you concentrate on aiming high.”

His aim was obviously true. Nicky now owns salons in Mayfair, Manchester and Birmingham. He opened the Mayfair salon in 1991, at the urging of his business partner and former wife, Lesley. It was a great move; the business rapidly went from strength to strength, and the list of rich and famous clients just got longer and longer. Gwyneth Paltrow, Sophie Dahl, Yasmin le Bon, George Michael, David Bowie, Gary Kemp, Damon Hill, Nick Faldo, Gary Lineker, Denise van Outen and others have all visited Nicky. And then, of course, there are the royal clients… but space is limited, so we’ll stop there for now.

In addition to the salons themselves, Nicky and Lesley have widened their focus to include their own haircare products. In 1993, they introduced the highly successful Nicky Clarke Hairomatherapy range. Additional lines have followed including the Nicky Clarke Electric range of home styling tools, and Colour Therapy and Vita Therapy supplements to promote optimum hair health.

Nicky Clarke’s status as the king of hairdressers is beyond doubt, as are his household-name credentials. Indeed, he has popped up in the most unexpected places – especially on television: Hell’s Kitchen, Comic Relief, Shooting Stars, An Audience with Elton John, Absolutely Fabulous… Then of course there are the regular appearances on daytime TV. Pretty much any make-over show worth its salt has sought his involvement.

So, when Nicky Clarke decides he would like to personalise his car a little, there is only one number plate that really says it all: H41 RDO.

The team delivers Nicky’s new plates on the day of the interview. Nicky is delighted, and now sports the great registration on his Jeep. His daughter, Tilly, obviously appreciates the perfect match as soon as Nicky shows her the number.

“No way! Oh my God, that is so cool! And it’s really quite subtle.”

Nicky’s son and daughter are well qualified to judge: they are both private number plates veterans. Tilly displays T1 LYC on her limited edition pink Ford Ka, and Harrison has D8 HJC (“Date Harrison J Clarke”) – a kind of joke whose effectiveness Nicky doubts.

“Yes, it was kind of a pulling thing but just a fraction too subtle. No one ever got it! They just saw the D8.”

“No,” insists Harrison, tongue firmly in cheek. “One of my best friends, about a year after I got it, said ‘aren’t those your initials?’.” A hint of gentle sarcasm creeps into his voice, as he grins, “I was like, ‘No! Really?’.”

The whole family’s enthusiasm for their private number plates is quite evident and it is great to see people really enjoying them. Harrison in particular is a fan. “I am always looking at plates,” he says. “I just think they’re good. Something simple like three letters on a car, it stands out.” Harrison produces his mobile phone and shows a photo he took of a plate he saw and particularly admired near where he works.

Nicky laughs. “You just went and took a photo of it?”

Nicky is actually the last member of the family to succumb. Lesley also beat him to it: her Porsche bears the impressive 1 LC. After some time, Nicky began to realise that everyone around him, both family and friends, seemed to have added the personal touch to their vehicles, and he did start looking.

“It was one of those things I never really thought about, but a friend of ours has got N1 KKY or something similar. She’s a client and a friend, and of course every time she pulls up in her really girly car everyone thinks it’s mine because of the private number plates! I tell her not park it too near the salon, please! But with mine, it’s one of those things where I haven’t really gone out and thought ‘Oh, I must get one with 1 NC‘ or something. I prefer the amusing side of it.”

It really does seem that it is the sheer fun aspect that interests Nicky, rather than any urge to show off or demonstrate his success with his number plates. That emphasis on fun and enjoyment is obviously a prime motivator in Nicky’s professional life too, and he is still very much hands-on where hairdressing is concerned. The passion for his craft clearly remains, and is reflected in his preference for the youngest, rawest recruits when training new staff. As he opens more salons, Nicky obviously find himself in need of top-notch stylists, but he would rather train from scratch than try to force people to unlearn the techniques taught by other stylists.

“It’s not like a KFC franchise,” he says. “It’s not a situation where I can say ‘Here’s the recipe, now off you go!’, so I can’t have just anybody doing it. I prefer 16 year olds to train: it means I get them raw, and I really do like being able to mould them. There is no past training to overcome.”

So is Nicky’s approach to styling really that different?

“Yes. That’s why I prefer to train from raw. If someone has been trained in another method and they suddenly move between companies, well then there is generally just slight tweaking to be done. Moving from that to what I do is a major shift – a real change.

“For one thing, my method involves dry-cutting in a way that makes it quite an unusual thing. There’s not been too much of that in the last 30 years, just a few of us doing it. I do what I call my ‘rough sketch’ wet, but all my fine-tuning is done dry. It’s like a piece of sculpture: like you’re chipping away at something until it’s absolutely right. The attention to detail is much greater. It’s a hard thing to teach en masse because you’re basically trying to show someone how they really have to use their eyes. They’ve almost got to breathe it and live it. “So I have assistants working with me very closely, and I suppose from the outside it looks very grand when you’re doing it.

People sometimes think ‘Oh he’s being such an arse, he needs someone holding the hair for him!’, but what they don’t get is that there are two very real reasons for it. First of all my attention to detail: some sections can be that delicate, so I have somebody holding so I can work on that detail. Secondly, that person who is working with me is learning by actually doing, living it and breathing it, so the method of training is much more fast-track. They are literally on top of it and seeing everything that I do.”

Journalists have misunderstood this close-up training style in the past, and articles have depicted Nicky’s process as a conveyor belt, and him as pretentious and, as he puts it, ‘swanning around’.

“Oh, I’ve had a that a few times, because I generally have at least two assistants with me all the time – sometimes I use three. But, you know, I’m juggling. I’ll do one wet and while that’s being rubbed dry, I’m on the next one. So, I suppose it’s easy to think it’s a conveyor belt, and for people to think I’m being very grandiose, but actually there’s a method in my madness, and it means I can give more people personal attention.” Do Nicky’s stylists in all the salons follow the same fundamental technique that he has been telling us about?

“Yeah, oh absolutely. I know that everyone has their own take on it, and there are some people who don’t necessarily do it exactly as I do, and that’s always the way. I mean, if you’re employing a hundred and fifty people they’re always going to have some of their own methods, but the one thing that stays constant with us is the emphasis on that kind of detail, on that finish that makes it part of our house style.

“It works, and it is working. It’s great. It’s like all that work I’ve done for thirty-two years is starting to pay off. And I still cut hair every day!”
The single biggest reason why Nicky still cuts regularly is that he is fascinated by the diverse nature of his clientèle.

“You really do get to meet everybody,” he says. “Ok some people would say that’s everybody who has four hundred quid in their pocket [the cost of a first-time cut by Nicky], but really, I do meet people from all walks of life, and I just love it. As much as I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of the celebrities, probably more than most, the biggest buzz from actual hairdressing actually comes from working on ordinary people. I like to work on the people whose husband, boyfriend, partner, kids, or whatever, have sent them in for a treat, or people who have decided to treat themselves.

“To those people it’s really something. They look around and they can just see the standards we set. That’s not the case everywhere: I saw a cut yesterday… I mean, I’m ashamed to say a British stylist did that! It was just appalling. It made me want to turn around and say that any of my junior people would have done it better.

“I use the analogy of the Saville Row suit. I have dozens of suits up in my wardrobe, but I really prefer the half-dozen or so that have been made for me. I have to pay more for those suits, but you really can tell the difference. The high price may be a bit annoying, but it’s a bit like that with haircuts: you can just really see the difference.

“There are people who can’t afford to come very often, but they still come when they can, maybe three times a year, just because of the difference they get from us compared to what they’d get from the other guy. And the cost of coming to me gets lower: the first time is a bit expensive, because it’s harder to work on the hair first time, but after that the cost goes down a lot. In fact, it’s a bargain!”

The business really is a family concern. Harrison has also joined the team, to Nicky’s evident delight.

“I have to say he’s been great. He’s been with us for a year now. I had thought he was originally going off to university in Edinburgh, but now, rather than just take it as a year out he’s actually said that he doesn’t really want to go. It was quite hard for someone from my generation to accept that. I felt that if you got a place at university you sort of just took it up; but I’m actually coming round to accepting it now.”

Harrison says, “I’m the only person from the school that isn’t going. And I got one of the highest marks.”

Harrison’s decision was certainly not down to poor marks. With two A grades and a B he was accepted into one of the UK’s top universities. His reasons were more to do with him already being focused on what he wants to do. That focused attitude would still be applied if he did decide later on to attend uni.
“If I was going to go it would be to get a degree, not just to have a good time or anything. I already have a good time here.”

Harrison’s role is already a varied one. He is training to become a hairdresser, but he is also working hard on the business side. With his fresh perspective, he is bringing a new approach and new ideas. He also provides a useful link between Nicky and Lesley and the younger staff, many of whom are his age.
With the business branching out to include so much, there is certainly plenty for Harrison to learn. Nicky is very pleased with the way the additional products have performed.

“We launched Hairomatherapy in 1993 and it was, and still is, a phenomenal success. We were the first of the main designers in designer hair care to go into supermarkets. At that time, of course, everybody just thought we were nuts. You have this high-end brand and what do you do? You sell them in Tesco. But it worked! And then, on the back of that, we launched Nicky Clarke Electric, which is now huge. We’re one of the biggest in the country. So we sell more men’s hair clippers than anybody by two to one. There are about six lines from our range where we are the biggest-seller in the country. It’s been a huge, huge success.

“We’re re-launching the products in February. Since ’93 when we launched the wets (shampoo and conditioners), there’re now quite a few celebrity hairdressers around, and some are actually on my doorstep! There are four hairdressers in my street… I don’t know what they are thinking. It’s not like shoe shops where people go in and browse!”

Nicky seems completely unconcerned, and even a little baffled by the thought that any of the new crop might be seen as competition per se, and many would agree. Certainly, Nicky has been the first really high-profile celebrity hairstylist since the previous generation of superstar crimpers, back in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the first famous people to visit Nicky’s new salon in 1991 was Gianni Versace.

“The night before we opened, he just walked in through the door. He was here for Vogue’s 75th anniversary and he was staying at the Connaught. Anyway, he walked in about 1 o’clock in the morning while we were all there polishing and cleaning and stuff and he said, ‘What is this place?’, because it wasn’t very obvious straight off. So, I said it was a hairdressing salon and he thought it was fabulous.

“There were statues everywhere. You see, a friend of one of my stylists had a really upmarket, smart furniture shop in Pimlico but he didn’t have enough room to store all his stock, so he said, ‘Look, I’ll put all the stuff in here!’. So, we had about £5 million worth of furniture. He said that he’d rather show the furniture to customers in situ in central London, and if something was sold he’d simply replace it with something else. It worked out great! We opened and it looked incredible.”

It certainly impressed Versace, and Nicky did the hair for the opening of the Versace show. Who are Nicky’s current favourites from his list of famous clients?
“I think it would be unfair to name one person, because a lot of them have been around for a long time and I have real affection for them. George Michael has become a friend and Liz Hurley has been a client since we started. She wasn’t really known then, she was known mostly as Hugh’s girlfriend. But the list is endless. There are a lot of people who are my own heroes; for example, when I’m doing Bowie I have to try to not be too gushing!

Jonathan Ross is a nice guy. We went to his house once when he had a show to do and he had just taken delivery of about twenty of the new PSP games consoles. They were just out and Harrison had been trying to get one, so Jonathan just gave one to him!

Naomi Campbell doesn’t always get the best publicity, but I’ve known her since she was 16 and she’s always been lovely. She brings her mum in. The press would probably rather I said that she was bitchy, but I’ve never seen that. I’m not covering up, that’s how I find them. They’re always really nice.”

Hairdressers know all about mirrors, so perhaps it is surprising that Nicky doesn’t seem to realise that the reason his clients seem so nice may simply be that they are reflecting the way he treats them. We found Nicky and his family to be friendly, patient and very helpful. We are very grateful to them for their time and hospitality.

by Rick Cadger

Reporting team:
Angela Banh and John Doherty

Photography: Stan Thompson

© 2006 Regtransfers

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