In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Cher. Beyoncé. Madonna. Guido. To be recognized simply by one's own first name is to have achieved icon status. And in the fashion industry, over the course of the past few decades, that's exactly what hairstylist Guido Palau (most often referred to only as — yep! — "Guido") has done.
Today, he works backstage at all of the most important shows around the world; his work appears in every major fashion magazine's editorials and across many luxury labels' ad campaigns; he routinely convinces entire castings of models to drastically change their hair — whether via a choppy bowl haircut or unexpected hair color — and he has served as Redken's Global Creative Director for 15 years. But iconic as the British-born hairstylist and his body of work might be, he hasn't forgotten where he came from — or that he was fired from his first-ever job in hair. In his 20s, Guido was training and working at Vidal Sassoon in London, and he was let go.
"They said that hairdressing wasn't for me and it wasn't my kind of medium," he said when we sat down in New York City for an interview. It was this "knock," as Guido calls it, that propelled him to the epic levels of success he has experienced in the years since.
Now several decades into his career, Guido is celebrated as one of the most — if not the most — influential hairstylists in the world, having had a hand in some of the most defining cultural moments and trends of the time. He's quick to share the credit, though: "It's not like I'm the best hairdresser in the world, I've just been around tons of amazing of people who have helped me and guided me in what I do," he said.
I asked Guido to look back at his storied career path, reflect on the enduring trends he helped shape and offer up some advice for young stylists looking to break into the industry. Read on for the highlights.
When did you first become interested in hair, and when did you realize that it was something that you wanted to do professionally?
When I left school, I didn't know what I wanted to do and I traveled around Europe — I hitchhiked, I worked at burger joints, DJ-ed. When I got to 20, I thought, I better get a job. But hair was never really [my interest]; it wasn't like I was brushing Barbie dolls at night. I did have a few friends that were hairdressers. I was very attracted to art and style and magazines and imagery. I decided to get into hairdressing. I'm from the South Coast of England, Dorset; I moved to London, which is two and a half hours away, and I got a job at Vidal Sassoon. It was the mid-'80s and it was a very exciting time in London, because it was the whole new culture of street style and new magazines and new designers. It was like the dawning of a new era in fashion. I was going out at night and there were crazy people with crazy fashion.
But I didn't get on so well at Vidal Sassoon, and I got fired. They said that hairdressing wasn't for me and it wasn't my kind of medium. I went around to other salons in London and then in one salon, a girl was going out to do a photo shoot and she asked me to carry her bag and the bobby pins and all that. On set, I realized that that was what I wanted to do – that's where I felt comfortable. I quickly — like, two and half years into my training — went out and started to get a portfolio together. I would test, which means going out and working with young photographers, starting-out models, starting-out makeup artists and getting a portfolio together, and then going to magazines and trying to get a job.
What was it that really clicked for you when you were on a set for the first time?
I think it was the idea of working with other creatives, a feeling of kindred spirits in this creative world. I think somewhere in life, you have to find where you feel connected, and I was lucky because I think some people don't ever find that. Fashion was a very different industry back then in the mid-'80s than it is today; I found kindred spirits who had a vision that inspired me. I mean, it was small-time; along the way, I built my reputation slowly and started to work with better people.
What do you mean by small-time?
In the beginning, it would be, like, weekly magazines and then it progressed. I started to work for Elle and then English magazines like The Face and i-D. I was really making my contacts. A lot of being freelance in the fashion business then was connecting with people and becoming part of a working gang of people with the same vision. Back then the fashion industry wasn't so public — people didn't really know about it — so you felt like you were in this inner sanctum of people who were creative. I wasn't in the epicenter then, but I wanted to get to the epicenter.
I dreamt about working for Vogue, not knowing if I was going to get there; I just had the aspiration and the drive. When I was at school, I lacked any kind of drive. I think when you don't know yourself and you can't find yourself, some people don't flourish in school. Unfortunately, in those days, the late '70s, there were no people to encourage another side of you. So when I got into the fashion industry, I got encouraged and my creative drive began because I felt I had something to offer somewhere.
Do think that being let go from your first job with Vidal Sassoon was partly what motivated you more?
Definitely. I think something not bad about being fired is that it unsettles you. It was Vidal Sassoon, and at that time, it was a very prestigious salon to work at in London. It made me sort of "I'll show you!" about it. It's funny, because much later on in my career, I interviewed Vidal Sassoon for a magazine, and he interviewed me. It wasn't he himself who fired me and he knew nothing of me — he was living in Los Angeles and I was in London. But later on, it was very nice that a magazine somewhere compared me with his aesthetic about breaking down rules of beauty, so they asked if we could interview each other for a piece. I told him about getting fired, and it was kind of a circle come round — it was humorous and funny, but it was also me being like, "Yeah, I got there."
I wouldn't say I would try and get fired because it's going to spur you on. But we're under so much pressure sometimes to be perfect. Vidal Sassoon training at that time was the best training that you could get, so it wasn't that they were doing anything wrong, but I wasn't right for them, and they weren't right for me. It spurred me on and sort of pushed me, and it gave me some strange independence in a way — you have to have to be self-driven.
You can get breaks along the way, and then there's luck and you work hard and then you get a bit more luck, and then you get a knock, and you either crumble from the knock or you get up and go again. I had that thing where I just kept going; I didn't go on a straight trajectory upward, I was sideways, with little knocks along the way – being fired, being rejected from magazines, people going: "Your work's not good enough." I don't know if it was something that I learned from my parents or something innately in me, but I had that drive to keep going. I wanted to be successful, and I felt I could be.
What were some of your first bigger projects that made you feel like, "OK, this is my career?"
The early one that people would know is when I did the "Freedom! '90" video, the George Michael one with the supermodels. I didn't really know how I got that job, because I don't think I was ready for it. Inside I was really nervous, but I think the director or George Michael had seen something I'd done, and I got the job. I knew it was special — it was with the five supermodels, a seven-day video and it was a huge set — but I didn't take in the enormity of it. Looking back on it now, how iconic it is still, and how so many people said to me, "That's what really turned me on to fashion, and that's my favorite video, I can't believe you did that video."
That was a big push in my career; I must say, that's probably the first big moment. I'm very proud to have done it. I still love the video. I still see the girls, and we still talk about that video. It obviously meant a lot to all the girls as well. Now that George has passed, everyone feels very proud of their work then. It was a long time ago, but when you look at it, it doesn't feel like we did it that long ago.
You also worked with Calvin Klein and Kate Moss early on; was that also a defining part of your career?
Yeah, that was another defining moment. My first fashion show was with the great designer Helmut Lang in Paris in the early '90s. It was Helmut's big time. He had a very new aesthetic to fashion shows. He mixed supermodels with new girls and older people — it was a defining moment in fashion and I was very lucky to be a part of it. Then I got a call from Calvin Klein — it was like '94 or '95 when he just signed Kate Moss to put her under contract — and Calvin was a huge designer at the point in America and him calling me was a huge step up. I came to New York and worked with Calvin for a great many years on his campaigns and shows. He was a great supporter and a great validator to my style and everything. I think he really established Kate in America, and a lot of other English creatives.
You're constantly creating trends, but do you ever really feel that in the moment? Does that ever change?
I think somewhere, I'm still insecure about myself. I realize that I've had a lot of success in my career, and people have been very kind to me and I've been paid lots of compliments about my work, but I still have the insecure, young person in me that still needs to prove themselves. Every time you get over doing one thing that you're really proud of, there's the next project to get on to. If you want a long career, it's not about looking back, it's always about looking forward. It's nice that people love the work you've done in the past, but I like to think about the future and how I can continue exciting myself and hopefully the people I work for.
How did your partnership with Redken come about?
I was at an Alexander McQueen show in Paris, and there were two Redken girls that were backstage — I don't know how, because it wasn't a time of many people, this was like 15 years ago — and they came up to me and I wasn't with a brand. People had spoken to me about doing collaborations before. They said, "We're with Redken and we really admire your work, and we'd love to talk." We started a partnership in a very small way, and 15 years on, this partnership has continued to great success.
I think what's been so great about working with such a big brand is they've never tried to stifle me. They're very supportive of my style and my creativity. It's been this great collaboration that has been longstanding and something that I'm very proud of. Again, it's something that I never thought would happen. It's funny doing this job, because it started out trying to create style and fashion, and now I have to speak to the press a lot — I never got taught this. Tonight, I have to do a talk with 60 hairdressers and inspire them. Have I learned that? No. But I'll have a go at it. I think that's what's been so great about being a hairdresser. There's constant challenges.
All the designers that I've worked with throughout the years have inspired me, and taught me about their idea of beauty. When I work with Miuccia Prada or Marc Jacobs or Alexander McQueen and they explain their idea of beauty, I learn from that. Working with great photographers like Steven Meisel and Richard Avedon and David Sims and them encouraging me to do my best work — that's how I've become a really good hairdresser. It's not like I'm the best hairdresser in the world, I've just been around amazing people who have helped me and guided me.
What advice would you have now for someone starting out or someone who wants to assist on your team?
I think now you do have to do things quicker; but there's so much you have to learn about outside things to be a great hairdresser in the fashion business, because you need to know about cultural things, about history, about film, about art, about real women, real life, architecture — everything that can inspire you. You can't just go into the studio and go, "Well, I can curl hair." That's not enough. You need to have a breadth. If you want to be taken on by great designers and great photographers, these people have varied interests, so you need to know a lot. Don't think you can do it overnight.
Learn every technique you can in hairdressing. Try and get on a team with someone whose work you admire. You do that by finding out who their agent is and by contacting their agent and hopefully getting on their teams. Always feel like you could learn more. Always keep your eyes open — don't close off to things. Try to be true to yourself and really tap into who you are. I grew up in England in '70s in punk and new wave and that's what really informed me, and so often that's seen in my work. Tap into what you know and really try to pull that out of yourself. Always be courteous, always be polite and always work hard. There's luck involved for sure, but you have to know when the luck's there and you have to be there and grab it and run with it.
Do you still have goals that you want to accomplish?
I always want to challenge myself. It's really my own internal dialogue with myself: I want to go to work and feel like I've achieved something that day and then then sit with my cat when I get home and think, that was a good day. I don't just walk in and out thinking I've already accomplished so much. I wouldn't feel good about myself, and I don't think other people I work with deserve that kind of thing. All the people I work with are the best at what they do, and they deserve the best from me.
When you look back at your work, are there any trends or looks that you had a hand in that were especially memorable or significant for you? Or, alternatively, is there anything you regret?
Every time I do something, I try to make the beauty questionable. I've always looked for the outside idea of beauty, not the classical side. Hopefully I've always pushed the idea of alternative beauty. I always felt like I was on the outside, and I understand people on the outside. I like that person that doesn't quite fit into the regular beauty mold, and I've always celebrated that in my work. The idea of conventional beauty doesn't interest me that much.
What I regret is sometimes I didn't enjoy it as much. I didn't just relax; I was too worried about getting the next bit right, but I think that's just my personality. I have a strong work ethic and I think that sort of guided me in a good way, but it's a pressure that I put on myself.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Homepage photo: Alexander Wang Fall 2017, Imaxtree