John Vial on his career, inspirations and upcoming haircare line designed by the late Zaha Hadid
From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.
If you’re looking for hair that is sculptural and architectural, that is colourful and eclectic, that defies both convention and gravity... look no further than John Vial.
The Derby born and bred hairstylist has been constructing elaborate coiffed creations up and down the industry for the last few decades, working with everyone from Vidal Sassoon to Grace Coddington to the late Zaha Hadid – a dear friend who designed the packaging for Vial’s upcoming haircare line before her untimely death. While always wildly creative, Vial’s at his most outrageous when collaborating with friend and client, the artist Julie Verhoeven, for whom he creates fantastical technicoloured looks brimming with irregular shapes and angled layers. For some, these unusual styles might be hard to think up, but for Vial, he says, creating shapes is instinctive, perhaps the results of the formative influences of punk and glam rock on his childhood. “I grew up in a Catholic house, and it never occurred to me that it was odd to have a picture of the Pope surrounded by posters of the Sex Pistols, Hazel O’Connor and Toyah,” Vial says. “I remember Toyah singing “so what if I dye my hair, I've still got a brain up there”… it was a pivotal moment for me. I was always more content around the freaks.”
After training under Vidal Sassoon early in his career and then acting as Creative Director for the stylist’s eponymous brand, Vial has gone to be Creative Director of Hair for PZ Cussons group, become a global influencer for Revlon and co-found editorially lead hairdressers Salon Sloane with Belle Cannan. We speak to Vial about his upbringing, career and working on his haircare line with the late Zaha Hadid.
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up.
John Vial: I grew up in Derby the Mecca of suburbia. It was the early 70s and glam rock ruled supreme – which was camp enough for me. Ska made its appearance, but it was the punk movement that excited me, even as a 9-year-old. I grew up in a Catholic house, and it never occurred to me that it was odd to have a picture of the Pope surrounded by posters of the Sex Pistols, Hazel O’Connor and Toyah. I remember Toyah singing “so what if I dye my hair, I've still got a brain up there”… it was a pivotal moment for me. I was always more content around the freaks.
Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
John Vial: We were pretty poor, so I was always having to try to fashion something out of my parents’ clothing. Once my mother went crazy when I used red food colouring on my mousey brown hair, not because of the colour of my hair, but because I stained the bathroom grout! I remember clearly Culture Club hitting number one, and Bow Wow Wow. I loved them. I once stole a mac of my father’s and painted numbers all over it, Culture Club had just released the Colour by Numbers album. I love rebellion.
Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
John Vial: Weirdly fashion never really inspired me. It was definitely music. I didn't know much about fashion until the clothes show came along. I guess I was really very ignorant with regards to magazines, I certainly couldn't afford to buy them. I knew I hated mainstream, and I found the goth kids and the punks much more attractive in every sense of the word. I live by the motto “poverty fuels creativity.” The kids I hung out with would have super dull hair in their day jobs, then they would have the most extraordinary hair by night. There was a club called Rock City in Nottingham, it was the 80s so big hair was the norm, but these guys and girls just did their own version. I loved it.
Where did you hone your craft? Is hairstyling something you learnt or is it more instinctual?
John Vial: All through school, I would be in the girls’ toilets doing hair. We would use bleach and then old lady rinses to make the most bizarre colours. We frequently missed lessons because the bleach had still not lifted! We had no money, so we would use regular “80s burgundy” hair colour on the hair we had bleached which would give us neon burgundy. We got suspended. I knew then I was doing something right.
Creating shapes is definitely instinctive. At that stage, no one had shown me how to do hair professionally, and I still think some of it was my finest work to date. Wish I had an iPhone then!
Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to “beauty”?
John Vial: I think the word beauty is so personal. Beauty to me with hair is when I'm satisfied and I feel it’s the best it can be at that time. I'm sure my idea of beauty is not considered beautiful by most, though I do appreciate classic beauty.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
John Vial: I'm not sure, I know I prefer sculptural shapes. I hate this shit that is going around, this nothing hair with no point of view. I love it when I see my contemporaries do hair and I think, ‘Wow, could I have come up with that? Could I have executed the look as well as they did?’
What are the projects that you’re most proud of?
John Vial: It’s a terrible thing to admit, but everything I do, I look back and wish I had gone a bit further or made it more polished, or bigger. I guess that's what keeps you going, the eternal quest for the best.
What’s the most significant thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career? What was the moment that “made” you?
John Vial: I’ve learned that you have to be you, bring what you bring to the table. There is no point in trying to do something you just don't believe in, it never works. Surround yourself with the best in class, they will organically push you. Work with those who want to push it, everyone wins then. Mediocrity never really wins.
When working on editorial shoots or runway shows, how much of the process is a collaboration and how much comes from you?
John Vial: It depends on who you work with. Sometimes you take the lead, other times it’s the stylist or the designer. Working with someone like Val Garland is a beautiful thing. She pushes ideas further each time. Working with her and Nick Knight is quite simply divine. I always love collaborating with people, they push me further than I would normally go and we usually end up a thousand miles from the original idea, that's when it gets exciting. It all comes back to rebellion I think.
What should a hairstyle bring to a look or fashion image?
John Vial: I think it depends on angle of the story. If it’s beauty, it should complement the look without taking over. The same with fashion, it should be an addition to the look rather than all about the hair. Obviously, if you're shooting a hair story or a hair commercial it becomes all about the hair.
How does hair convey emotion?
John Vial: I think ultimately hair is the only fashion accessory you don't take off, so it says everything about a person.
The hair you do is often very sculptural – lots of unusual textures, shapes, angles, volume. What inspires these looks?
John Vial: The inspiration comes from everywhere, for me, it’s all about the people you surround yourself with. London is a hotbed of creativity. I love working with designers like Christopher Shannon, James Long, Charles Jeffery. They inspire me and always want to push the look. Their references are always genius. My best friend (Louise Wilson) was the head of Central St Martins MA course. She would not let the kids use Google for reference because they would always come with “the same fucking shit” if the did according to her. And she is right. St Martins library is the best place on the planet for references. I have to say, Dazed is always a great reference!
Some of your wildest, most insane looks are on Julie Verhoeven. Where do you start when beginning to create a look for her?
John Vial: Julie is a joy in every sense of the word. She is a true creative. She will bring a reference to the table and that will be the starting point. It never ends up there, but it starts the mood. She is totally open and that is joyful. Then my friend Tracy Hayes does the colour for me, which is an imperative part of the look.
How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?
John Vial: Well on a technical level products are far superior than they were 35 years ago when I started. Bleach is less damaging. In fact, we permed Julie Verhoeven's hair last week and she has a full head of bleach. In the 80s her hair would have broken off! It seems the world and his wife want to be a session hairdresser now, that wasn't the case when I was a kid.
How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
John Vial: I think Instagram has given hair and make-up teams around the world a harder task. Everything is so retouched. When I first started, retouching was so expensive it never happened.
What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
John Vial: I can only draw on my own experience. I did every shoot I was asked to do, I assisted constantly. I worked every day off, and weekends. I sourced references from everywhere. Surround yourself with the best you can. For me, when I take on new assistants, hunger is the most important quality they can possess. I am always looking for new team members.
What is the future of beauty?
John Vial: Well the good news for hairdressers is that a machine or computer can’t do it! I think we are going to see a real return to discipline in hair and make-up. Real old school skill…that will separate the men from the boys!
What are you currently working on?
John Vial: I am currently working on my haircare line. One of my dearest friends, the architect Zaha Hadid designed the packaging for the brand. It was pretty much the last project she worked on. Sadly she died soon afterwards, and I decided against launching. Recently her niece reminded me of all of the hard work Zaha had put into the design, so I am going to launch at the end of the year!
Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
John Vial: I would love to hear Julie Verhoeven's view on beauty. I also think manicurists get forgotten a lot, and I think Marion Newman has contributed massively to looks.