Over the last three decades, Nicky Clarke has cut, primped and preened the hair of some of the world’s most famous people and he’s gained celebrity status in his own right. He has worked with Penelope Cruz, Princess Diana and The Beatles to name but a few of his glamorous clients, proving that Nicky’s hairdressing career really has been a cut above the rest!
Moving On went to his London salon in Mayfair to talk to him about how it all started…
Do you remember the first time you picked up a pair of hairdressing scissors?
Yes! Well, maybe not quite the first time but I do remember that my father sent off for a kit with combs, clippers and scissors in it. He would lay out a white sheet on the floor and a barber would come round and my brothers and I would watch. He was quite particular about having a proper barber cut his hair. Saying that though, he was very happy to let me mess around and give him a quiff sometimes! I was a teenager at school when I started to take notice of men’s hairdressing. I had seen the film ‘Shampoo’ which is actually a really good cult movie. Unisex salons were popping up all over town and (unfortunately!) glam rock hair was all the rage. Although I don’t remember the first time I picked up a pair of scissors, I was always sort of interested in hair and fashion.
So did you know as a teenager that you wanted to go into hairdressing?
No I didn’t actually. My school friends would sometimes let me cut their hair (I’m not sure why!) and at the time, the look was a sort of feather cut and you felt like even if you weren’t on trend that you could kind of have a stab at it. But there was never any talk of wanting to do it as a career – we were just playing around really. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 16! I didn’t know where to start… the only hairdresser’s I’d seen was around the corner from where I lived and it was always full of old ladies, sitting under hairdryer banks. I was not aware of what the industry was really like at all.
How did you break into the hairdressing business?
By the time I’d left school I think my qualifications weren’t that brilliant and I was living at my sister’s house, sort of hiding from my dad! She used to have a hairdresser come over to do her hair. I asked her for advice on what to do if I wanted to go into hairdressing and she said that I should go and get a job in a great salon and just start from the bottom. She gave me the names of two salons. One was a salon called Leonard, run by Leonard Lewis, one of Britain’s most influential hairdressers who created the famous haircut that launched Twiggy’s career in the 1960s and it was a hip and happening sort of place. I went for interviews at both salons but I was more interested in working at Leonard because it was stylish and it had a gold plaque outside the door. They called me up a month later and offered me a job.
Did you start from the bottom and work your way up the hairdressing ladder?
Yes, very much so. I was paid £12 a week to be a dogsbody. I swept the floors, polished the brass, made the tea. I started from the bottom – there really wasn’t a lower position than that and I still believe that is the best way to do it. You go to the best place that you can and start from the bottom.
Who was the first celebrity client in your hairdresser’s chair?
It was the singer Lulu. John Frieda was a young, up-and-coming stylist at the time and Lulu was his girlfriend.
It seems like a case of ‘right place, right time’!
Yes, in a way! At the time, it wasn’t just celebrities who came in to the salon but models too. I did some work for Vogue magazine in 1976 and I’d only really started hairdressing in 1974. I couldn’t believe it. The idea of me having my own pages in Vogue just felt like nonsense! It was just one shot of a girl, who was one of the house models and I’d done the hair cut.
After all the madness, when did you decide to go out on your own and start your own hairdressing business?
It was never my intention to have my own salon. I mean most people would start working towards that in their late twenties, which would give them enough time to establish themselves. But that wasn’t the case for me. My circumstances were different. At the time I was unique, in that I was one of the only people working half in a salon and half in a studio and you don’t get that anymore – you get either salon hairdressers or freelance hairdressers. I was doing a ton of work as an assistant and most nights I would stay up late and work on my test shots; models were doing it, photographers were doing it. After the highs of being in Vogue a few times, my career had gone into a bit of a dip as they do, but I always had work at Leonard. And I wasn’t really interested in the money…I didn’t have the time to spend it! I grew up in a council house, I didn’t even come from a background in hairdressing but I just loved what I was doing. There is time to worry about money in the future, for now you should just take time to immerse yourself in learning your craft.
Are there any other tips that you can offer Moving On readers who want to go into hairdressing or do a hairdressing apprenticeship for instance?
I think that there is something to be said for going to who you believe will promote your talents. That could be the local hairdressing salon or you might find it through school or college. You can learn speed and a steady hand in any of those places but you should choose the place that suits you the best and a place that will give you some great life experiences too. For me, it always comes down to, “The harder you try, the luckier you get.”
For information on hairdressing jobs available at Nicky Clarke salons in London, Birmingham and Manchester, go to the Nicky Clarke website. You might also be interested in alternative careers in the hair and beauty industry.