With a career spanning three decades, renowned hairstylist Eugene Souleiman looks back over the years at his favourite looks and defining moments.
In our series Icons we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy.
Eugene Souleiman never planned on becoming a hairdresser. But when he walked into a job centre in 1982 the careers advisor took one look at his burgundy asymmetric haircut and steered him towards the salon. “I stumbled on the medium I love working with,” the now industry-renowned stylist tells us. “It wasn’t a conscious thing that I wanted to become a hairdresser.” An art school dropout hailing from “a very grey built up council estate in south-east London,” Souleiman developed a strong sense of ambition as a result of constantly feeling like an outsider growing up. “I didn’t love my reality so I created my own. And I dreamt a lot,” he says.
After the jobcentre placement, Souleiman moved onto five-star hotels where he worked as a barber before training with esteemed celebrity hairdresser Trevor Sorbie for almost ten years. Then, in 1995, Souleiman landed his first high profile campaign for Jil Sander which turned out to be a life-changing moment for him although at the time, he says, he “didn’t realise what a big step it was.” Since then, Souleiman has been called upon season after season to create show-stopping looks for everyone from Prada and Yohji Yamamoto to Alexander McQueen and a four-year working partnership with John Galliano for Maison Margiela. This season alone, Souleiman worked the hair at Jil Sander, Preen, Wales Bonner, Jeremy Scott, The Row, Dion Lee, Thom Browne and Maison Margiela Couture, as well as doing the hair on Calvin Klein’s latest campaign.
Citing friends Craig McDean and Pat McGrath as the most influential forces on his career, Souleiman says the three have learnt from each other through years of working closely together. Currently serving as the Global Creative Director for Wella Professionals, Souleiman’s creative versatility shines through his rich catalogue of looks that vary from futuristic to whimsical to completely stripped back and simple, and all evidence as to why Souleiman remains celebrated as an inimitable trailblazer who has never been afraid to take risks.
You were born in east London, how did that shape your understanding of beauty and the world you saw around you?
Eugene Souleiman: Coming from a very grey built up council estate in south-east London made me dream. I didn’t love my reality so I created my own. And I dreamt a lot. When I was growing up and I was a kid, punk, skinheads, Teddy Boys, dreads, rude boys, and rockers were around. There was a lot of youth culture and rebellion from working-class youth.
How would you paint a picture of what your life was like in London in the 80s?
Eugene Souleiman: Most of the people around me, my friends at school, all went into the arts. Creative friends that went to art school that were going out clubbing and went to see bands. They were hedonistic. I used to go out a lot out to clubs see bands always around people who were alternative.
Where did your interest in hair come from?
Eugene Souleiman: When I was really young I used to cut and colour people’s hair. I always did my friends hair and coloured it since I was the age of 15. I’ve always been a visual person and gone for it. That is something the punks always did. The DiY hair! The first time I styled someone’s hair it was a mate of mine. He had black hair that I cropped and there was an anarchy symbol on the side of his head. Making mistakes back then was fine because no one wanted to look perfect. It was about the attitude.
What is about dressing the hair that appeals to you, even today?
Eugene Souleiman: I enjoy that you can touch something and change the texture. I’m fascinated by the fact that you can create things through manipulating hair and making it do things that it doesn’t want to do.
You worked with Trevor Sorbie for a decade, can you describe the experience?
Eugene Souleiman: It was amazing because I stayed there for so long. He taught me a lot about hair and gave me the best work ethic and it really wasn’t easy. Really stimulated me. I loved his energy in how he pushed people around me. He challenged me. The education was incredible.
What were the most significant things you learned?
Eugene Souleiman: First and foremost I learned how to communicate with people on a creative level. Also, he was one of the most creative people I met. Not only in knowledge about our industry, but his mind is phenomenal. It was so fast and lateral and I never knew from one minute to the next what was going to happen. And I was creatively stimulated by the challenges he presented to me. In my mind, there are only a handful of people like him in the world. And his training was really diverse. When I finished with him I had a huge skill set that I’ve drawn from over the years but I guess the most important thing is being committed and brave with the medium hair.
You made your entry into session styling in the 90s after landing your first high profile campaign for Jil Sander, shot by the British photographer Craig McDean, how did that feel to you?
Eugene Souleiman: At the time Craig, myself, and Pat McGrath were a team. And if I’m being honest, I didn’t realise what a big step it was. We were friends working together on a project.
How did your career unfold from that moment onwards?
Eugene Souleiman: It went really fast. By the time the brochure and campaign came out literally I was being flown around the world. Everything happened so fast. I was having fun trying to create great images.
Could you have ever predicted your success?
Eugene Souleiman: Never
What have been some of your career highlights so far?
Eugene Souleiman: Jil Sander as my first show and campaign with Guinevere Van Seenus, Pat McGrath and Craig McDean. One of my most favourite things was working with the Chatman Brothers on the hair for their Chess Set artwork, I really enjoyed the process. Working with the famous Art Director Mark Ascoli. Prada being my first show in Milan. Yohji as my first show in Paris. Working with M/M in Paris. And currently working with John Galliano for Maison Margiela and Thom Browne.
What are some of the looks that you’ve created that have stuck in your mind?
Eugene Souleiman: The fishtail braids from the Yohji Yamamoto show. Normally when people do braids they are very clean and technically well done and I wanted to do them dry, static, and weather-beaten. The hair was braided then pulled apart to make the braid look just as if it was about to fall apart. I like the happy mistake.
The Jil Sander campaign – revolutionary hair of its time. It was something that is still used as a reference even today. And a story in Another magazine that was done by Norbert Schoerner. It was all done on Afro hair and it was hair topiary on the head.
How can the right hair transform a person?
Eugene Souleiman: I don’t believe in the right hair. I think that everything boils down to chemistry and communication. Sometimes the wrong things can be beautiful. It’s a whole different mindset. For instance, when I worked at Trevor Sorbie, I had a 15 stone woman who was very bubbly that could wear cropped pink hair. It's not, by any means, the thing that would normally enhance someone’s hair but she had the character and the hairstyle worked with her personality.
What is it you’re trying to convey in your work? Has that changed over the years?
Eugene Souleiman: Everything changes over the years. I’ve grown with it. I think things have gotten more complicated from a study point of view. Even though it may seem simple it is very complicated. I don’t work for people who want a ponytail, they want something much more from me.
What do you think your archive of work says about how beauty has evolved over the years?
Eugene Souleiman: You would be looking at many forms of beauty if you look at it very closely. Beauty has opened up and become less specific. Not looking at one thing. We have gone from glam-obsessed to something that is more tangible, and finding this more beautiful regardless of age, colour, or size and it is something I welcome. There are less rules now and more freedom.
What makes a beautiful hairstyle?
Eugene Souleiman: The intentions of personalising is how I define beauty. A big part is about the person you’re doing it on, who they are and finding the quirks that give it uniqueness to them. It may not suit your face shape or age, it fits your personality.
How do you think social media/ selfie culture has changed our perception of beauty?
Eugene Souleiman: Well I think it has really changed it. It has opened up the industry and given people a voice who didn’t have a voice before. I think it has changed it drastically. It’s all about the numbers that bring the Benjamins.
What is the future of beauty?
Eugene Souleiman: Who knows?? That is the most exciting part of what we do.
What do you think we will look like in 30 years from now?
Eugene Souleiman: 3D hologram?
What are you working on at the moment?
Eugene Souleiman: A book.
What are you most excited about moving forwards?
Eugene Souleiman: I’ve been designing a workspace with an Architect and I’m really excited about it. Can’t wait to move in.