We talked with Paul Stafford, one of the greatest hairdressers to come out of Northern Ireland, about his hair, craft, and future.
What first interested you about your profession?
I was always interested in hair, fashion art and music. From an early age, when I saw the first punks, mods and rockers on the streets of late 1970s Belfast I was obsessed with the wonderful colours of youth and rebellion. I still am.
What were your early years in the industry like?
lt was a completely different age to now. The 1980s in Ireland and the UK were bleak and depressing with few outlets for teenagers. There really was very little to look forward to except a long queue at the dole office. Hairdressing was a way out – an exciting, vibrant route to another life. I lived for work, loved the people and the energy, and though it wasn’t necessarily as progressive as the 60s in hair innovation terms, all sorts of new creative opportunities presented themselves through colour, products and, possibly the greatest invention of the 1980s, hair extensions.
Where do your style ideas come from?
Almost always the subcultures of various youth movements and, more recently, art. The late 1970s/ early 1980s had a profound effect on me; though I love the art and design of couture, I’m more attracted to the ci1y streets of NYC, London and Berlin combined with a passion for music. I’m a modernist in every sense. Though I often look back, my focus is firmly in the future. I hate the words ‘retro’, ‘vintage’ and ‘oldschool’. Though legacy and heritage are pivotal to our development develop we must.
Who do you admire in the industry today?
I admire lots of people for different reasons. From the rebellion point of view I admire Guido Palau, Eugene Souleiman and Laurent Philippon; they all share an anarchy I respect and yet understand beauty. Angelo Seminara is a visionary who is beyond description; genuis is not a word I use lightly but he is as close as there is. In terms of carrying the industry flame in the UK Akin Konizi, Errol Douglas and the Saco team are great ambassadors for the heritage of the craft.
Give us your predictions for this season’s dominant hair trends.
There is a complete swing back to texture. Whether it’s controlled, natural or enhanced, hair is alive again; the haircuts we are doing emphasise not just our technical abili1y but also our understanding of suitability. Boxy, strong outlines and definite fringes are giving way to softer mid-length shapes, less controlled, with centre-parted fringes and broken lines. Products are playing a bigger part in the construction and less in the finish. The careless crop is also making a comeback – similar to Sassoon’s famous Mia Farrow cut undried and worked with styling agents to create an unloved feel. lt looks beau1iful on strong and small-featured girls. And for long hair I see a ‘nearly straight ‘ look that relies heavily on long, deconstructed lengths that have no solid base line, centred round a busted fringe that can be worn any length. Then there is a move away from beachy waves to grungy shivers.
How do you see the styles you create changing in the future?
They simply have to. Everybody needs to change – me included. Elements stay the same but I’m constantly pushing myself to examine my technique and assess whether I’m treading water. I’m currently working on a follow-up to our collection The Others, which is about me pushing my abilities to the limits in terms of what works artistically as well as practically.
How do you keep up to date with the latest creative trends?
lt seems to be a natural progression. Weirdly, sometimes you are working on something and then you notice that without realising others are doing similar things. That happens often. I suppose it’s an obsession – the constant desire to break new ground, but I often sit back for a period and look around at what’s happening in the world. lt’s too easy to get trapped in your own environment. I read a lot and I love pictures of all1ypes, from magazines to books to advertisements to paintings. And people – though I’m not very sociable really I love to study people, especially those on the fringes of of society.
What do you see as some of the main differences between the work of European stylists and those of your country?
Europe has always been more classic, a certain 1ype of glamour, groomed with impeccable finishing. You see this in Paris, Madrid, Milan and Hamburg. In the UK it’s edgier, stronger, more about individuali~ with a very punk rock attitude to fashion. This pushes the boundaries of what’s accepted as new and innovative as well as bad taste and ugly. lt’s a fine line sometimes but at its very best I still believe British hairdressing is the best in the world.
What do you love about hairdressing?
In creative terms I love everything about the industry – the craft, creativity the people, the life I have because of it and the voice it’s given me. I could never have dreamed of a better career.
What’s been your guiding philosophy?
I’ve always had a good work ethic; I believe little comes to those who wait. I also don’t believe in luck. In terms of making yourself a great hairdresser, your only sacrifice is time.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
There are so many: winning NI Hairdresser of the Year three times, being inducted into the BHA Hall of Fame, being an ambassador for Irish hairdressing. I was also recently made a fellow of the Fellowship Of British Hairdressers and I fully intend to play my part in any way I can. But I have so many things I’ve still to do.
What’s your secret to keeping clients happy?
Consistency, surprise and always giving them something to look forward to on their next visit.
What are your personal goals for the future?
My passion is creative development and education- we are a small team and I’d like to develop to become a recognised education brand with an academy or a residency with an academic base. We recently made a small film to accompany our latest collection, The Others. lt was brilliantly received and I’d like to do more of that working with photographers and film-makers to create not just great hair collections but pieces of art. Obviously I’d love to develop the Stafford brand in the US, where we have a great following. I seem to be spending a lot more time there with Denman, who I’ve been working with for more than 20 years and with Unite, a company I’ve just started working with after I was invited to be a part of their Global Session in San Diego last year. I really fell in love with the brand and the people and am delighted to say that it looks like a partnership that may continue in the US in the future.
How do you see the woman of today?
The woman of today is strong, independent individualistic, socially and environmentally conscious and not easily led. She researches everything and makes business like decisions on things that affect her and her family personally. She will not settle for second best but will still put others before herself if needed.
What are the main differences between a hairdresser and a succesful hairstylist?
Time – it’s as simple as that. Good hairdressers are naturally talented but often take their gift for granted. Fantastic hairdressers never know when they are good enough; they put the time in over and over again, relentlessly honing their skills untiL even before they know it themselves, everyone else is acknowledging their greatness.
What is the secret of your success?
I have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a c uriosity and a childlike passion for everything I do within the c raft. My wife says my enthusiasm is infectious, my passion immense and my drive furious.
What is it that inspires you the best?
it’s hard to say; when I was younger I just wanted to be the best I could be, then it was to get recognition. But inspiration is an elusive friend; he’s never there when you need him, and he can abandon you mid-flow. I use instinct as much as inspiration. Instinct can be very inspiring, so I rely very much on instinct then our old friend inspiration shows up to take all the credit.
In your opinion, is if necessary to travel, to stay at the top of your profession?
Yes, absolutely necessary; the craft is different the world over. I love to see how other nations, cities and people create hair. it’s how we develop and learn, and though the internet has made it easier, nothing beats travel for opening your mind to new ideas.
Which is the country furthest ahead in the field of hairstyling? And which is the country most famous for its hairstyling?
Well, the UK is the most developed creatively, especially London, but Australia is closing the gap, while the US is light years ahead on the business side. But eastern Europe is starting to develop creatively, with much stronger, more progressive salons coming through. The Japanese are also doing some incredibly interesting stuff.
What has been the most important satisfaction you have received in your career?
I couldn’t answer that as I get satisfaction from so many things – from a haircut seeing an assistant become a stylist watching a collection grow globally or simply shutting the salon door on a Saturday night. I work in Ireland with the great Italian colour house ALFAPARF Milano and recently did a series of seminars for them titled Meet the Master. it’s a year-by-year account of my career to date with footage, film and live models – the highs and the lows. At the end of the seminar I received a standing ovation; I’m not sure if it was satisfying but it was very humbling.
How do you put your name to your styles?
When I do a collection the concept theme and inspiration come first. We usually have a working name and then the looks just flow (usually). The name never really changes, though. With The Ohers it was simple, the collection was based on social outcasts or people on the fringe of normal society, individuals on the outside looking further out with no desire to be part of anyone’s world but their own. lt was a deep project over three days and was quite stressful. The name stayed the same from start to finish.
How is the relationship with your eo-workers?
I think I’m a good leader. I’m good at delegating, I play to people’s strengths and allow them c reative freecom under direction. In terms of shows, shoots and seminars I’m very strict and have absolute final say on everything, mostly because I have a sense of ownership but also because of my experience. I’m the team leader but I’m not unfair, I respect my team and try to give them the benefit of my experience. They are dedicated and talented but need direction and nurturing. We have a great team relationship. Mostly.
Why is hairstyling considered as the Cinderella of the arts and people’s general opinion about hairdressers is not so complimentary?
Well, I hope that’s changing, but in truth the industry; like fashion, will always have its good and bad side. The business is like every business – about money; desireability and aspiration. At the very top end this is valued but further down the ladder less so. The idea that hairdressers are not recognised is not true, but if we are being completely honest only the very best should be recognised. That’s not to say that styfists all around the world aren’t doing a great job, it’s just that well they are just doing their job. In some cases that’s all it is – a job. The fact that the industry is sometimes considered a last-ditch career choice is down to illadvised careers advisers. And it still is a great path to take if, like me, your academic career opportunities look limited and you have a passion for creatMty.
How often do your clients come to you?
Well I’m a cutter, so I see my clients every eight weeks, depending on my schedule. I’m out of the salon up to two weeks a month, so it’s a juggling act. I see eight to ten clients a day and when I’m at home I work in the salon four days a week.
lmmagine if you are asked to categorize your clients: which category is the most satisfying for you to work with?
My clients are professionaL edgy, bright c ultured and young at heart. Oh, wait that may just describe me. The most satisfying c lient though, is the one who trusts you completely; because you can enjoy the relationship better when it’s based on trust, and she’s going to get the best result.
Do you think it is more important for a woman to be well dressed or to have a good hairstyle?
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to that but let me say this: if a woman priorilises a handbag or shoes over a good haircut she has her priorities wrong.
What is your message for “Queen International”?
My message is simple: I’ve had more job satisfaction from a client’s smile than the tip she left behind. Rarely, though, does one come without the other.