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Four Hairstyling Icons on the Art of the Craft

Published January 9, 2024
Published January 9, 2024
Daria Kobayashi Ritch

A quick squeeze of the shampoo bottle, frantic scalp scrubbing underneath the shower, a one-and-done blast from the hair dryer—for the everyday consumer, haircare and styling hasn’t been a glamorous affair. But for creative minds like Frédéric Fekkai, David Mallett, Odile Gilbert, and Julien Farel, the artistic innovation possible within the realms of hair knows no bounds.

From majestic updos in the pages of a French fashion magazine to edgy runway presentations in the hands of a talented hairstylist, humble follicles become the protagonist of a visual narrative—be it the sultry femme fatale with softly tousled waves or the razor-sharp, futuristic androgyny of a black bowl cut.

Before there were content creators, an elite few hairstylists, equipped with steadfast determination, a passion for the art form, and a tireless work ethic, were setting the trends on the catwalk, in the pages of magazines, and on movie sets. Building their triumphant path isn’t pure luck, but rather years spent refining their craft and sharpening their editorial eye. They were the original influencers.

Channeling success on the editorial and salon front into a successful product range comes with its different set of challenges altogether: investor decisions, formulation approaches, and maintaining a cohesive brand identity. BeautyMatter spoke to the four hairstylists who have successfully managed to traverse both of these worlds for decades, with no signs of slowing down.

Frédéric Fekkai

Despite being a lauded member of the industry, Frédéric Fekkai’s professional path began in law school at the insistence of his father. Through working as a model to support himself, Fekkai came into contact with a hairstylist who became his mentor and soon introduced him to the creative director of Jacques Dessange salons, for which he opened the New York branch. Building himself a strong reputation for effortlessly chic hair, Fekkai worked on shoots for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He opened his first salon at Bergdorf Goodman in 1989, with clients including Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and Naomi Campbell.

In 1995, he founded his haircare range Frédéric Fekkai with backing from Chanel, creating coveted SKUs such as Brilliant Glossing Crème and Apple Cider Clarifying Shampoo. Beginning with an acquisition by L Catterton Partners in 2007, the company was then acquired by Procter & Gamble for more than $400 million in 2008, and sold for $50 million to Designer Parfums and Luxe Brands in 2015.

The company was split into the Fekkai and The One By Frédéric Fekkai brands before its founder bought back his brand, in partnership with Cornell Capital LLC, in 2018. Blue Mistral LLC, the holding company created by Fekkai and Cornell Capital, owns and operates Fekkai, as well as Bastide, a natural body and fragrance brand acquired by the entrepreneur and his wife, Shirin von Wulffen. The duo revamped the 25-year-old brand, based out of his hometown of Aix-en-Provence, in 2015, to celebrate the region’s artisanal practices.

The namesake range relaunched into Target as Fekkai, "the Tesla of sustainable haircare" approximately a year later, complete with new formulations and a different visual identity. Priced at the high end of the mass market (between $20 to $40 per full-size SKU), products are vegan, formulated to clean and EWG certified standards, offered in PCR packaging (ranging from 30% to 95% depending on the item), and shipped with 100% recyclable materials. The range’s look is colorful and modern, from the graphic all-caps font to the pastel-hued packaging components.

Bestsellers include Apple Cider Detox Scalp Scrub and Super Strength+ Powerbond Shampoo. Most recently the brand debuted the Clean Stylers Green Aerosols collection, utilizing the non-ozone-depleting aerosol Solstice Propellant technology for a talc-free dry shampoo, as well as a volumizing and flexible hold hairspray. Sustainability continues to remain a passion point for Fekkai, with his two New York City salons now being Green Circle-certified.

What separates the art of hairdressing from commercial hair salons?

The art of hairdressing involves treating hair as a form of sculpture or art, creating extraordinary and extravagant looks that may not necessarily conform to conventional beauty standards. On the other hand, commercial hair salons focus on providing styles that complement the customer's appearance and lifestyle.

Where do you gather your inspiration from?

I draw inspiration from my travels, as well as from vintage books, archived magazines, classic movies, and especially, my hometown of Aix-en-Provence in the South of France. Aix is one of the most style-conscious places in France—something I believe to be intrinsic to its vast nature and rich culture. As a child, I remember wandering through La Place de la Madeleine, a massive square in Aix surrounded by centuries-old plane trees where, to this day, a thriving farmer’s market happens three times a week. The sheer abundance of colors, vegetables, spices, fabrics, crafts, antiques, scents, and textures leaves me just as spellbound now as I was then. In fact, these memories inspired the colors and aromas of my line. When developing Fekkai, I wanted to evoke the same sense of tranquility and ease I feel whenever I return to Aix—so that everyone can experience the South of France wherever they may be.

What principles were important when it came to the development and design of your haircare?

Developing my haircare line sparked from being in the salons with my client—and when developing and designing our product, it's crucial to me that they are at the center of our principles, which is delivering exceptional products focusing on quality, innovation, and sustainability.

When launching my brand, I introduced the “skinification” of hair. I would see my clients taking excellent care of their skin with facial treatments and investing in complex skincare with active anti-aging and protective ingredients, and I wondered why they didn't do the same in products for their hair and scalp. And the reason why was because it didn't exist! 

At the time, haircare products had basic formulations for dry hair or dandruff but did not have innovation or active ingredients to improve the hair and scalp health and nourish and treat. My customer was coming to me to look their best, so I knew they would be receptive to haircare delivering the same type of experience and results as their skincare. The next step was to find dermatological labs where I could create those products. I start with what I want the product to do for the hair, then research the best ingredients. Each product is a unique formula.

What have been the key tools in growing and nurturing your company over the years?

The key to growing and nurturing your company is to build brand trust—not only with your customers but also with the team working behind the scenes. Building a successful team that’s passionate involves finding individuals who genuinely embrace and celebrate the essence of the brand's story to ensure a focus on consistently surprising customers with innovative service and product ideas.

How has the landscape of hairdressing changed?

The landscape of hairdressing has experienced a profound shift from traditional styling to a realm of artistic expression and personalized customization. Advanced technology, innovative techniques, and a strong emphasis on individuality have redefined the industry, while sustainability has become a key consideration in shaping its direction.

What impact has social media had on this new landscape?

Social media has made it easy to connect even faster with customers, build deeper relationships, and substantially influence a point of view with a broader reach. This influence extends even to professional hairstylists, who now draw inspiration from these platforms while mastering new styles and addressing hair-related issues their clients face. While celebrity styles have historically shaped trends, social media has spread these trends to a broader audience more swiftly than ever.

What is the key to maintaining a creative signature across your salons, products, and editorial work?

I adhere to a philosophy of "French beauty," which emphasizes elegance, creativity, and effortlessness. I believe in the principle of less is more, using a style that defines and enhances each individual's personality and silhouette. Style is not about age, height, or weight—it’s about a sense of ease, a sense of dignity, a sense of individuality shining through.

How did you approach choosing the right partner for growing and scaling your brand?

I chose my partner based on their understanding of the international market and their support in terms of product technology and manufacturing. This partnership has been crucial in the brand's success.

What was the impetus for buying back your brand?

The decision to buy back my brand was driven by a desire for greater control over its direction and a deep commitment to its core values. This move allowed me to align the brand more closely with my vision, ensuring that its growth and evolution stay true to the principles that originally inspired its creation.

What advice would you give to young hairdressers?

Being a hairdresser requires empathy and recognizing that the heart of this profession revolves around the connection between you and the client. You have to be connected and curious about what they want. Before any cut, I spend much time consulting with my clients. I observe their hair from every angle and ask many questions to fully understand their lifestyle to enhance their look unique to who they are. We look at images for inspiration and craft a cut that works well for their hair type and texture. The end goal is to create a look that is truly unique to them. 

I also recommend spending significant time on the ground with hands-on learning from valuable mentors to improve your craft. Whether behind the chair or side by side with a stylist—my biggest lesson is always listening and being open to learning.

“The art of hairdressing, unlike haircutting, is an art that is disappearing. Cutting hair is a vital skill, but hairdressing and styling is an exquisite accessory to a hairdresser’s career.”
By David Mallett

David Mallett

With an aesthetic described as “combining glamour with a distinct point of view on practicality and naturalness,” Australian-born David Mallett has been building a hair empire since his teenage years. Arriving in Paris at 27, his work was soon highly requested by publications like Vogue France, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. His clients include Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, and Natalie Portman, and he has worked with fashion designers like Haider Ackermann and Giambattista Valli. He opened his first salon in 2004, with only one coworker, since tripling the size of the space.

Today, David Mallett operates four salons, one in NYC’s Soho district and three in Paris. The newest opening in September 2023,  David Mallett Privé, is a private and highly exclusive hairdressing salon celebrating with a "high couture" approach—white peacock taxidermy included.

The company's haircare range—encompassing shampoo, conditioner, treatments, and styling products—launched in 2016, emphasizing natural formulas free of phthalates and parabens. The highly concentrated and made-in-France creations come housed in reusable glass packaging, available in white, clear, and black colorways for maximum shelf appeal. A dual face and body mist, Fresh Eau de Concombre, containing hyaluronic acid, polysaccharides, and organic cucumber; as well as a volume powder containing bamboo, followed in 2018. The Pure range was launched in June 2022, containing fragrance-free formulas with no dyes, silicones, sulfates, polyethylene glycols (PEG), or mineral oil, but boosted with 96% ingredients of natural origins such as wheat microproteins to restore and nourish hair. The brand is available at salons and retailers in 20 countries across the globe.

For its latest release in November 2023, Mallett collaborated with jewelry designer and client Suzanne Syz on "Épingle à cheveux," an oversized safety pin hair accessory in 18 karat gold and silver to pay homage to punk fashion pioneered by Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, which inspired Mallett throughout his career.

What separates the art of hairdressing from commercial hair salons?

The art of hairdressing demands great craftsmanship, incredible psychology, insights, great aesthetic, great connection with human beings, and the skills to be able to realize the way to make someone look really good. Commercial salons tend to be a little more about just executing work, and the art of hairdressing is about supreme aesthetics.

Where do you gather your inspiration from?

My inspiration comes from the fashion world, art world, the metro, walking down the street, traveling, films/cinema, and my dreams.

What principles were important when it came to the development and design of your haircare?

It was absolutely vital to me that we had a nongeneric range as I found so many ranges of hair products so interchangeable, so uninteresting, no sense of humor, and all the same. I wanted a line that expressed my feelings about the world and about hair, that differentiated us from the rest of the market.

What have been the key tools in growing and nurturing your company over the years?

Incredible dedication—choosing the absolutely most perfect people to accompany me. Working 75 hours per week and relentlessly pursuing excellence.

How has the landscape of hairdressing changed?

The landscape of hairdressing has radically changed, and I feel it has become extremely diluted. People no longer spend the time on the floor to learn the skills I believe they need to know. And the art of hairdressing, unlike haircutting, is an art that is disappearing. Cutting hair is a vital skill, but hairdressing and styling is an exquisite accessory to a hairdresser’s career. It’s something I absolutely love and is where all the references from the cinema and art world come. The art of hairdressing is in danger. 

What impact has social media had on this new landscape?

I’m not sure of the impact of social media on the landscape of hairdressing; it allows communication in a very positive and negative way about things—from tendencies and mistakes to miracles.

What is the key to maintaining a creative signature across your salons, products, and editorial work?

The way to maintain a creative signature is to constantly reevaluate your aesthetics and constantly search for a new silhouette...the journey is relentless, but it’s something you need to nourish in permanence to make sure that you are continually advancing. I am a man that needs projects, and I continually enjoy reinventing myself, reinventing my vision, and reinventing what we are doing.

How did you approach choosing the right partner for growing and scaling your brand?

We are a very small company, and the growth and the people that we connect to are very organic. Many of them are clients and people we’ve been friends with for many years, so it’s quite easy.

What advice would you give to young hairdressers?

Be prepared to train and work very hard; do not give in when things become difficult. Comfort is the enemy of hairdressers. Strive for excellence and feed off every single great hairdresser that you encounter and learn their skills.

Odile Gilbert

A mainstay fixture at the most recognizable fashion brands and publications, Odile Gilbert’s path began as an apprentice with esteemed hairstylist Bruno Pittini in 1975. She moved to NYC in 1982, working for photographers like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Nick Knight, and Steven Klein. Her campaign work includes Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Dior, and Fendi, while her editorial work has graced the pages of Vogue and W.

She has styled the locks of celebrities including Faye Dunaway, Cate Blanchett, and Kristen Stewart. Her film resume includes Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled. Gilbert also created the hair looks for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production of Don Giovanni. A tome of her work, Her Style, Hair by Odile Gilbert, was published by Éditions 7L in 2003, containing a foreword written by Karl Lagerfeld. In 2006, she was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, being the second hairstylist in history to receive the honor.

Further broadening her creative horizons, she opened her beauty talent agency L’atelier (68) in Paris in 2000. Her hair accessories line, Odile Gilbert Creations, launched in 2001, with a range of copper and zinc alloy hairpins, available in finishes and colors ranging from iridescent lilac to gold with Swarovski crystal accents.

What separates the art of hairdressing from commercial hair salons?

Artistic hairstyles are mostly for film, images, or advertising. In the hair salon, you are more with the customer but when you work on film or pictures, sometimes you have to create something like for a person in a hair salon: the hair, color, everything. So they are different worlds, but both are related somewhere.

Where do you gather your inspiration from?

From everywhere, from everything. I used to live in New York and have worked in the fashion business for a long time, traveling a lot and gathering inspiration in every kind of country. But when it comes to the inspiration for a model or someone who wants their hair cut or styled, it's up to them. You do the look, but also you want the person to feel good. My path is to create whatever that person needs.

What principles were important when it came to the development and design of your hair accessories brand?

It had to be ergonomic. I did three sizes depending on how much hair people have. I was always wondering why all these hairpins were straight and needed something round because the head is round. It's why we formed the hairpin in this shape; the idea was that it’s not only your hairstylist who has to put in the hairpin; it has to be a woman at home who wants to put her hair in a chignon in a very simple way by herself. That’s why it has been successful.

The material we chose was copper because it had to be something that was not dangerous in case somebody put the pin in their mouth or had kids around. 

What have been the key tools in growing and nurturing your company over the years?

It took me one year to do this hairpin because it was quite complicated to make and perfect the shape. It's a nightmare in a way, but also because I was still working on fashion shoots and shows [at the same time]. 

We sold it to Colette and Le Bon Marché in Paris, but today it's available online on our website. It’s easier that way. Colette closed of course, but also because of COVID, it's easier that everything is online and people can buy directly.

How has the landscape of hairdressing changed?

Everything has to be possible. Suddenly on a shoot maybe they want long hair or the girl has dark hair and they want her to be blonde. Instagram changed things a lot. Most people don’t realize it but if you’re a hairstylist and look at a singer’s show you realize the hair is a very important part of their look. It's very consistent; most of the singers have private hairstylists who take care of them. You always need the hairstylist in the end, because you can't do it yourself, between coloration, extension, and wigs.

What impact has social media had on this new landscape?

The trends come and go for sure. It could be punk, it could be anything, because fashion is always about an old look becoming a new look—it could be the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. Everything moves all the time.

But at the same time, you have to keep the point of view in front of you. You could be working with a model, an actress, or a woman in a hair salon; you have to respect their hair and make it look better. That's very important.

The images on social media, whether retouched or not, are there to make dream people: suddenly you have incredible hair, even if it’s fake. It’s about who has the best skin, hair, makeup, and clothes. It’s because social media has moved so much to the front, but why not? I’m fine with that.

What is the key to maintaining a creative signature across your products and editorial work?

I like to use different things because everything depends on the light of the photographer or the film; the atmosphere that they want, if they want beautiful, romantic hair or something sharp. It could be super shiny finger waves like in the ’30s or very masculine hair on a girl wearing a suit. It depends on the photographer or film director.

When you work on a shoot or film, there is always a story. You have to listen because the thing is it's not just your work, you work in a team with a lot of people so we have to change and know exactly the direction and the result of the pictures or film. That's super important. It's a decision between a lot of people. It's a feeling.

People who are in front of the camera have to feel amazing, beautiful, and confident. That's also what you bring; it’s not just hair, it's more than that. When I designed these hairpins, I was trying to design something modern and beautiful, but it had to be comfortable using it yourself. It’s important to make people feel good.

How did you approach choosing the right partner for growing and scaling your brand?

I did it myself. I designed the hairpin myself but worked with jewelers to make it. I didn't want to do a huge business. I just wanted to do something that I like.

I used my hairpins on actresses, and people liked it and wore it. It happened naturally. Catherine Deneuve loves it. One time, I had a phone call from Celine Dion, and she bought so many I thought somebody was making a joke. I was not designing the product thinking, “Oh my god, it's going to be incredible.” I said, if it works, it works. If it doesn't work, I stop.

What advice would you give to young hairdressers?

Work, work work. With hair, you learn every day. It takes a long time; between the coloration, haircut, extensions, this and that, there is so much to learn. The more you practice the better you are.

I also think I opened a lot of doors for women in the US, because in the beginning when I was in New York, it was only men who were working in fashion. I noticed after a few years, a lot of women came to see me and said, “You opened doors for us.” Back then, female hairstylists were in hair salons but not on shoots and films. People would say, “Oh dear, you’re a woman,” and I said, “Yeah, why, is that the problem?” But it was funny because it was mostly men doing hair back then, but I didn’t think about it until someone said that.

“The landscape of hairdressing has experienced a profound shift from traditional styling to a realm of artistic expression and personalized customization.”
By Frédéric Fekkai

Julien Farel

With two high-end salons in New York City and Palm Beach, the Julien Farel salon experience is described as a space “where beauty and wellness meets Ooh La La.” The couple behind the enterprise are hairstylist Julien Farel—who has worked with celebrity clients including Kate Moss and Richard Gere, as well as for fashion brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton—and CEO Suelyn Farel.

Julien first began cutting the hair of women in the French Alps to fund his skiing adventures but soon caught the eye of famed French hairdresser Jacques Dessange, under whom he trained, later leading the Dessange New York Training School in 1992. Soon after, he became a training lead at Frédéric Fekkai before opening his own salon in 2001. It began as an interim space in a room at the Pierre Hotel before moving to a venue on 57th/58th Street and Madison, expanding to its 10,000-square-foot flagship—Julien Farel Restore Salon and Spa—inside the Loews Regency Hotel in 2014.

The New York business has been going strong for over two decades. So much so that at the height of the pandemic, the space garnered a waitlist of over 1,000 clients. A one-stop luxury shop, services include cuts, color, styling, wigs/extensions, facials, massages, nails, waxing, and eyebrow shaping/wax tinting. The company partnered with Natura Bissé for its spa offerings. For those short on time, the space offers a “Power Hour” service, combining three simultaneous services in 60 minutes for the on-the-go urbanite.

The Julien Farel haircare range, launched in 2011, encompasses a Hydrate Shampoo, Vitamin Shampoo, Hydrate Restore, and Vitamin Restore, as well as styling tools. The formulas are the results of their trademarked The Science of Hair approach: using 30 bioactive ingredients and 50 years of skincare research for optimal results. Case in point: Its Vitamin Restore product contains resveratrol, hyaluronic acid, and echinacea stem cell extracts to boost the health and feel of the scalp and hair.

Recently, its growing client base has expanded even further. In September 2022, Julien Farel opened a salon at Via Flagler by The Breakers, a stone’s throw away from the luxury resort. The 3,000-square-foot salon offers cuts, color, styling, and makeup application.

What separates the art of hairdressing from commercial hair salons?

Personally, I approach hairdressing as creating geometry in space, not so different from architecture. I customize and tailor each haircut by creating shapes that take into consideration bone structure, face shape, and what should be highlighted. Every hair connects to the next strand like a puzzle and for me, that is the art of hairdressing.

Where do you gather your inspiration from?

Travel, museums, and architecture from all over the world. My wife and of course, our girls. My meditation and it’s very important that I exercise every morning.

What principles were important when it came to the development and design of your haircare?

The focus on scalp care was at the foundation of product development for the haircare line. Farel Scalp Non-Foaming Shampoo is always and only about rebalancing the pH of the scalp, supporting the long-term health of the follicle, and keeping the hair cycle nourished into reproduction. We had created a technology to keep the scalp at the ideal pH in any type of water for the best foundation to continue the growth of the hair cycle. We focus on hydrating and nourishing the scalp, hair, and hair follicles—to keep them alive, growing, and beautiful forever—with clinically proven formulas containing no sulfates, detergents, silicones, or parabens.

What have been the key tools in growing and nurturing your company over the years?

It’s not necessarily a tool, but my partner in life and business is Suelyn Farel. She’s the nurturer, CEO of our company, and together we operate our salons and the haircare company. We have worked together for now over 15 years. Some people ask: how do you do work-life balance? And the short answer is we don’t! There is no division between personal and professional lives; it’s more of a blend rather than a balance. We incorporate a personal touch into our professional lives and vice versa. We were working like this before the pandemic and after the pandemic. Since we have been operating in this mode for so long, we have been able to execute and elevate to a new level, given how complicated the business landscape is right now. This approach has allowed us to grow into a new location in Palm Beach and add 35% growth in NYC this year.

What impact has social media had on this new landscape?

Social media is a great tool but also misleading. To think that you can learn hairstyling skills by watching videos and tutorials on YouTube, IG, or TikTok is misleading people to think you can take a shortcut or make it work in one try! It’s great for inspiration and providing a visual for getting what you want, but beyond the how-to’s there are techniques that require training, practice, education, and more practice. Sometimes, young hairstylists refuse training, and they do not realize they will never have the skills to push and compete with the best. To me, that is short-sighted because we all need to learn and keep evolving and growing—just look at all the hairstyles over the years.

How has the landscape of hairdressing changed?

Post COVID, it is a totally different world. Sadly, many salons didn’t make it. People want to spend more quality time and leisure time outside the office. We have opened a location in Palm Beach because of this shift in business. However, the ethos of our work ethic has not changed. We have and will always be committed to a world-class, special experience for our clients.

What is the key to maintaining a creative signature across your salons, products, and editorial work?

I always use and follow my intuition. It is important to listen to your inner voice as I receive so much inspiration from my team, co-workers, and community. The level of talent we have in-house is truly astounding from the artistry of hairstylists, colorists, makeup artists, aestheticians, massage therapists, and eyebrow specialists. Creatively speaking, we have our Creative Director, Kevin Lee, who helps to define and sharpen our creative vision. He joined our team in 2014, from leading the legendary Kenneth Salon. Kevin has become my true right hand; he’s a true visionary and the nicest human being. I am so grateful to work with him.

How did you approach choosing the right partner for growing and scaling your brand?

We are 100% privately owned, completely independent with no investors in our salon businesses in NYC and Palm Beach. For our products division, we fundraised with Friends & Family investors in 2012. 

What advice would you give to young hairdressers?

My advice is to work harder than you can imagine. Take the first client before anyone else and the last one after everyone leaves. Always say yes because this is the hospitality industry. You are here to give and sell an experience for the client to remember. There is no mystery to success; just passion, determination, and perseverance when everyone else quits. Voila.


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