Image: Brijesh Patel
June 01 2011
One of the pleasures of summer is the increased frequency with which I visit a basement on Savile Row. It is not some troglodytic fear of the sunlight that sends me subterranean like a vampire before dawn, but rather a need to keep my hair shorn. The haircut is a ritual that I used to dread almost as much as going to the dentist, but now I have come to look forward to sitting in the barber’s chair in Brent Pankhurst’s trichological bunker, where the feel is something akin to going to a nightclub. Separation from the sun’s diurnal passage across the heavens quickly suspends the passage of time and having one’s hair cut by Brent is a social activity as much as a grooming stop. Brent, by the way, used to be the hairdresser-in-chief at Dunhill, and I am still sorry that he relinquished his role as the British man’s brand’s man with scissors, but even if Brent were practising his art in Timbuktu (well, all right, not Timbuktu, but east of Regent Street, which is more or less the same thing), his patrons would seek him out.
The importance of the hairdresser in one’s life cannot be underestimated; Andy Warhol was one of the first people to realise this as he writes in his memoirs of an evening he spent at a New York nightclub in the early evening. “I sat at Le Club one night staring at Jackie Kennedy, who was there in a black chiffon dress down to the floor, with her hair done by Kenneth – thinking how great it was that hairdressers were now going to dinners at the White House.” And of course the social significance of the celebrity hairdresser, who succeeded the celebrity dressmaker and preceded the celebrity chef, was cemented with Warren Beatty’s ladykilling lead in Shampoo. In Britain we too had our high-profile crimpers: Leonard, Sassoon, Justin de Villeneuve, Gavin Hodge (who I used to see a bit of in the early 1990s), inter alia.
However, it is the French, as usual, who have taken the trichological arts to an altogether higher plane. I am of course speaking of that Balzac of the blow dryer, that Cocteau of the curlers, Antoine de Paris, who became so famous that he was known simply as Monsieur Antoine. He “invented” the bob and is widely credited with the modern revival of blue hair (something that was popular with fashionable macaronis in the 18th century).
Monsieur Antoine’s successor to the “de Paris” title was a former apprentice, Alexandre de Paris. It is of course rather wonderful that in a republican country, the “de” still carries an aristocratic payload and indeed Alexandre was hairdressing nobility.
His breakthrough moment came in 1946, when he styled the Begum Aga Khan’s hair on her wedding day and caught the eye of the Duchess of Windsor. It was thanks to the Duchess’s patronage that Alexandre was introduced to the elite of café society and he cemented his position working on several hairstyles for the fabled Beistegui Ball in Venice in 1951. Indeed his work for that famous costume ball would give him the customers, and the confidence, to open his own salon the following year. Back in the day, an Alexandre chignon was as much of a status symbol as a Chanel suit or Hermès headscarf. And it is entirely fitting that in due course, Alexandre was made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, l’Ordre National du Mérite, and of the Arts et Lettres, as well as a Monégasque order of chivalry. Indeed the preparatory sketches of Princess Grace’s hair are among the proudest possessions of the Grimaldi family and represent a priceless treasure in the national patrimony of the Mediterranean principality.
But somehow men’s hairdressers have never received the adulation accorded those who tend the tresses of the opposite sex. And yet, like tailor, shirtmaker, shoemaker, doctor and dentist, a hairdresser is a key member of a gentleman’s (and even a non-gentleman’s) retinue. Therefore I see no reason why Brent “de Londres” or “Monsieur Brent” should not be awarded a CBE for his contribution to his particular branch of the arts, in which the creator wields scissors ands clippers, much in the way that a sculptor uses hammer and chisel or a painter brush and easel.