What makes a genius in the hair industry? As a creative field, the beauty world is one packed full of artists, who have measured their success in various ways.
Eugene Souleiman, Wella Professionals’ Global Creative Director for Care and Styling, is a creative visionary when it comes to hair design and thinking outside the box, who inspires and sets the trends that other stylists have followed for decades!
As one of the most influential hair stylists today, his sense of humor and unique way of looking at hair permeates every avant-garde style he creates. We sat down with this prominent figure in the hair world to explore the depths of his vision and the motivations behind the workflow and team necessary to succeed in the journey that he has plowed for himself. To everyone’s satisfaction, Souleiman’s career began in 1982, when by chance, a job placement center led him to become an apprentice to a hairdresser. Thankfully for the beauty and fashion world, there was no turning back; he had found his niche.
His work is an intoxicating combination technical expertise and inspirational showmanship. He worked closely with Trevor Sorbie for nearly 10 years, learning the ‘Sassoon Way’, before branching out to create cutting edge trends in his own inimitable style. Eugene currently serves as Global Creative Director for Wella Professionals for Care and Styling. He especially thrives to push boundaries, taking risks with both color and length and this is most prevalent in his hair sculptures. His ideas and constant experimentation means he is continuously evolving and creating, and now we get a glimpse into this stream of consciousness that we SO admire.
You see a lot of drama in this world, and how does the hair stylist behind the chair translate that?
“In the world, right now, we are… in a very interesting time. Especially for women right now I feel. There’s the whole Harvey thing going on, there’s the Mister T, there’s a lot of things going on. There are a lot of women’s marches, there’s a lot of demonstration work. If I look, at how that translates to fashion and hair at the moment, it translates in a very, very big way, because there’s now shows with a lot of diversity of culture, there’s a different feeling behind women right now. It’s definitively not the stereotypical vision of glamour in the past, there’s a new glamour, there’s color. There’s a much stronger feeling towards being an individual, and celebrating who you are and enhancing it. In terms of wear-ability right now, I think it’s… people are just chilling out with their hair; they’re owning what they have. They’re pumping it up, they’re doing it in a really cool way. A lot about wearing hair now is about subtle nuance. It’s not about big changes, the big changes in the head. People don’t have the time to do that, and they’re not so interested in that anymore. So I think in terms of wear-ability of hairstyles right now, I think we’re in a very realistic time. People aren’t really getting a ton of weave thrown in their hair anymore, they’re not frying it, they’re not dying it, it’s not getting laid aside. Things are just much more tangible and colder right now, and I think that’s a really good thing. I think the fact that we’re celebrating cultural diversity, sexual diversity, and everything… it’s a bloody great time. Power to the people, that’s what I say. I think it’s a really, really good time at the moment, and I think as a hairdresser, it’s really great because now we’ve started to work in a much more emphatic, soulful way with people. We’re not saying, ‘This is fashionable, this is unfashionable, you’re not cool.’ It’s cool to be who you are, and I hope it stays for a very, very long time. I think we’re in a really good place at the moment.“
Hairdressing sometimes it’s a dance between fantasy and reality, and your work drifts more towards the first end of the spectrum. How do you stay in that mindset, in that world?
“I don’t look at hair like a hairstyle in that sense. I look at hair like a medium, even though I’ve had really amazing training for it, like really great classical training. I’ve always been a dreamer: when I’m here I’m not here, so to me, I don’t know… it’s become quite natural? I don’t really think anymore, I just do. You know? I don’t really know how to explain it, it’s just how I’m made, I’ve learned over the years not to question why I think a certain way, or why a certain idea will pop into my head. I don’t think about justifying it before I’ve done it. I just… do it, and try out. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but even when it doesn’t, you learn something. Sometimes that mistake can be the magic – more often than not it is the magic, because that mistake leads you somewhere else. It’s somewhere subliminal, which to me is far more interesting, because it’s less considered. It feels like it’s happened naturally, like it the mistake was meant to happen.“
Talking about fashion shows, when you said that you really needed to have an incredible skillset to do the Thome Browne look, what exactly are those skills? What are you looking for in a hairdresser?
“Well it’s different for every hairstyle isn’t it, really? Because you have a different philosophy behind it, right? For the Thom Browne look, you need to be able to do something that is very clean and very minimal. The thing about something very clean and very minimal is: if there’s a mistake, it’s going to be very clear where that mistake is, it lights like a bulb. It’s just visible. It really relies on having strong basic technique. Everyone that works on my team… they have to be able to braid hair. They have to be able to put hair up in a textured way, and in a very clean Parisian way. They have to be able to do a set of waves. They have to be able to do big hair. They have to be able wrap hair. They have to be able to do wigs. They have to be able to do a lot of things, like a blowout or there’s an element to what I do that’s kind of always slightly askew, and sort of stronger. So, to be able to do a perfect wrap, and then create this graphic shape on the surface of that wrap, you need to really be able to work very cleanly and with control: It has to go where it needs to go. You have to be quite assertive when you’re doing it, and with confidence.“
Was that your favorite show last season? Thom Browne?
“I think Thom Browne was, from a hairdressing perspective, a very technical perspective, definitively one of the strongest shows. I thought Margiela from a conceptual point of view, and a new type of styling was really interesting. There were a lot of details in that show that I don’t think a lot of people realized. I mean, that show: the fitting for that show was four days, right? And the way it works with John Galliano is that we go in, he explains the collection to me, I walk out of there with my head full of ideas but not really knowing where to start; so I have a cup of coffee, have a chat with myself, look at Instagram for five minutes to take my mind off of it, then I go back in there for a second take and then I start to ask him lots of questions. That narrows my focus down to what I feel could possibly work. Then we have a conversation, and we have four days of fittings where we play!
I’m just taking things to him that I know he’s going to respond to, and I’m taking things to him that are completely abstract –that probably have nothing to do with grief– and generally he loves the things that are completely abstract, really. So, we have quite an unusual process. We have three days of fittings; we shoot everything, back in the fitting room: everything is recorded. We shoot step-by-steps of every look that we do; we probably do like three hundred looks for that show, and then the midway on the fourth day, just before the show, we go in and we allocate looks or elements of looks and we mix them up and talk about what characters they can work with and ‘maybe take the look from 375 and look number 2 and morph them together’, ‘this could work with this length of hair’, or ‘we can maybe add some length of hair’. It’s only then that we really build the show, and that’s when all the girls have been fitted in their outfits, we look at how the outfits move, and we play the soundtrack – the soundtrack’s played over the three days… so it finds a way of sinking into you without you realizing it, subliminally feel the spirit of the show, the pacing of the show.“
The hair is highly unusual; you’ve never done that before with any other design?
“Yeah, it’s like normal fittings are four hours, five hours. I think, what you have to realize is that if you really want to do something different, then your process has to be different: the process in itself is probably the most important thing –the journey, right there– is the most important thing. You can never do anything that’s different if you use the same, or a similar, approach. You will always end up feeling similar to what you’ve done before. I guess for me, a huge motivation with John Galliano is the sense of fear that I have, because I think that can really motivate you and push you.“
Fear of what?
“Not being good enough, right. Not doing the right thing or, not really understanding the grief. I think that’s the thing that motivates you. But saying that, at the same time, I play with hair all the time, and sometimes I just have this thought: “That’d be really nice for Thom,” or “This’d be really nice for Yogi” then I play with the idea. I’ll give you one instance: there was a time I really wanted to color hair the color of flesh, I wanted the hair to melt into skin and it took me like, a year and a half to really get it to work, and then I was on the internet one day, buy these party balloons for a party… and I found these flesh-colored balloons. I was like ‘Oh my god! Skin… hair skin… synthetic skin’ I lost my mind! I was like ‘This is really weird! I love it!’ I did this wig: It was really bizarre. It looked like this type of sci-fi, Japanese animation, manga, kind of Grecian sculpture, because the balloons look like fruit, like grapes, or looked like coral. It was like synthetic flesh-colored coral with hair that was flesh, and flesh clothes and it was really quite sick. I just went “John, I just want to show you something” and he went “what is that?!” I was “Balloons!” Then he went “Hair-skin, skin, skin balloons… that’s major. I’ve never seen it before. I want it in my show!” And so there’s also that: the process is, I guess there really isn’t a process. There is just. You do what you have to do to get where you need to go. When you kind of go into an environment like that, a highly creative environment that is quite revolutionary, in the sense of fashion… you absolutely have to be a little selfless, and you need to not just be a hairdresser in the conventional sense of being a hairdresser. You need to open your mind and become inspired, and I guess that’s… that’s how we end up where we end up, but the process is always different. Sometimes you write a little story, a little twenty-page story of a character, or his observation, one story was an observation of an old bag lady who fell from riches and ended up in Central Park and befriended pigeons and stuff like that. It was a whole story that he wrote and I really love that: someone gave me a reference, there was a visual. I had to supply the visuals myself, and I thought ‘I swear, that is really cool!’ and I found that really inspiring. I could be inspired by music, and I can see things when I hear music. When I see clothes move, I get a sense of emotion and I can work it in a motive way. When I see the shoes, the shoes in a collection play a really important part because they give a person posture when they walk. You can walk fast, or you can walk slow, heavy. It gives you a mood because people move a certain way. People walk differently, right? When you have a pair of heels you walk different than when you have a pair of pumps or a pair of boots or whatever. So, your body language is very different, and that has to do with your personality, and that I find inspiring too. Music, same thing. I guess I’m more inspired less by the visual and more about the emotive.“
How large is your core team?
“Twenty-five, and my core team is about eight of us. I know that if everything starts to go horribly wrong we can all bust out. I think what you notice on my team is that there’s always one lead hairdresser and two people always work together, and always get the strongest hairdressers to lead so the other people assist them, so they’re learning whilst they’re working.“
So of all the EIMI you’ve been using in the last two years in fashion shows, what is your favorite product?
“Oh Sugarlift, brother, Sugarlift. Love it, just love it. Damn right, I love it. And I love it for various reasons, I love it because for me it’s a wet styling product. I like to use it like a gel sometimes, squash hair with it, and create this satin kind of texture. I love that it kind of makes hair feel-depending on whether you put it on wet hair or dry hair, the amounts of hair that you use – as a matter of fact it makes it feel like its processed chemically, you know I don’t like working with bleached hair because it’s like ‘come to daddy where I put you?’ and it does that. I love it for breaking down the hair stock; makes it feel more lifted and softer. I like it for a lot of reasons… and I keep finding reasons to like it even more. So, for me it’s my favorite product. It’s great for men’s hair too. Then you mix it with stuff and you get some crazy stuff.“
You really like to play with products a lot. Have you found any ways to play with the irons that ghd, now that you’re working with that?
“I like to play with things that are not even related to hair I like to put shaving foam here, I like to put shampoo in hair and whisk it up and make foam and pour over it to make soufflés. Yeah, I’ve kind of been using ghd to create… I’m using them for what they’re not designed for. A straightening iron, really, is a tool used to create movement and flow, and I’m using it for the opposite reason. I’m to create some kind of discord in a hairstyle. I like to straighten areas and leave little areas out to create mistakes, imperfect states…imperfectly perfect as it’s got to be written. I like it for that reason. I like to use things, sometimes, in a kind of naive way, not to use them for what they’re designed for.“
What do you want to do when you want to create your thing? What would be your thing?
“I’m into other kinds of work. I’ve started making furniture; I know how to do other things that probably bear no relevance to what I do. Invariably, I get some inspiration from them or they find a way of becoming part of my work. I kind of don’t think of it: you put me in a white room and I’m happy being in a white room with nothing in it, I still find it interesting. I’m one of those people that finds everything pretty much interesting. I draw, I’m an old arts college student, so I guess I kind of come from a different mindset: before I was in art school I was in a band. I just follow my heart, really. And it hasn’t let me down. There’s no point questioning how I feel, or what’s in my head anymore, I just get on with it, I just do it.“
Eugene, for those hairdressers who want to be Eugene Souleiman, what advice would you have for them?
“Don’t do it! Don’t do it. Become a musician, I want to be a musician. Don’t do it. It’s a lot of work, if you want to work a lot for the rest of your life, then yeah. Do it. You just have to work hard really. You have to love what you do, follow your instincts. That and get the best training you can and realize that you’re constantly going to learn: you’re never going to be perfect but you must try to be perfect. That’s it really. Celebrate your mistakes, take your work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously. That’s the most important bit, really. Got another question?“