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richard ashforth
courtesy of Instagram/@richardashforth

Richard Ashforth creates architectural works of art with hair

TextAlex Peters

The hairstylist talks inspiration, advice and why his mantra is always ‘beauty first’

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.

Richard Ashforth is committed to beauty. For him, it is the cornerstone upon which hairdressing depends. “Beauty is central to me,” he tells us. “I learnt my craft on the salon floor where making people feel and look good is the bottom line. For the more experimental work, I like to push the beauty boundaries and test tolerances but ultimately, it’s still got to all hang together and be a beautiful look in some way.” 

Known for his signature ‘modernist with attitude’ style, Ashforth’s work is structural and architectural, full of strong silhouettes and striking shapes. No matter how forward-thinking the looks are, however, they always retain that inherent sense of beauty – a commitment which he extends to his salon and education brand, Saco which he co-founded in 2007 and where the philosophy is always “beauty first.” 

Growing up in Sheffield during Thatcher-era turbulence, Ashforth found excitement in the punk and new wave music scenes of the time. It was while taking a year off before university to pursue music with his band, that he turned to hairdressing and found that was where his true passion lay. 

After training at the Sassoon he worked his way up to creative director at the Sassoon Advanced Academy before eventually leaving to start Saco. The brand now has salons and training academies all over the world, from São Paulo to Copenhagen to Tokyo. When he’s not touring the world visiting his salons, Ashforth stages NOISE, pop-up guerrilla hair shows which aim to share knowledge, passion and inspiration to a budding generation of hair stylists and give young people access to some of the most legendary names in the industry.

We caught up with Ashforth to talk inspirations and advice.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Richard Ashforth: I grew up near Sheffield, Yorkshire in the 80s. I remember hot summers, bored winters, and listening to late-night local radio and discovering something bigger than I knew. Music (punk and new wave) and subsequently fashion, gave me different and exciting perspective on life. 

Around this time, the infamous miners' strikes were happening just a mile or two away and lots of local families and friends were deeply affected by this. I remember thinking I didn’t want to stay and started to think about how I could escape to London. 

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Richard Ashforth: Before I even hit my teens, I was already in love with Bowie, Roxy, Iggy Pop – their music and their looks. 

My best friend and I would read his older brothers copies of The Face and wished we could have gone to The Blitz club etc. I loved the strange and beautiful and had admiration and fascination for everyone who dared to stand-out – Punks, Skins, Rockabillies, New Romantics, Goths.

Why are you a hairstylist?

Richard Ashforth: By chance really, I planned to study fashion but deferred to pursue some musical ambitions and needed a job. Hairdressing looked like fun, the people looked interesting and they played music all day in the salon so… that’s how it began. Six months in, I loved it and by the time uni came around again, I decided to stay with hair. 

Where did you hone your craft? Is it something you learnt or is it more instinctual?

Richard Ashforth: Both I think. I trained initially with my mother's hairdresser – he was a true ‘dresser of hair’ and taught me lots about shape, balance and finish but my ‘lightbulb’ moment was seeing some work by Vidal Sassoon and realising it was a more graphic/architectural style of work that I wanted to pursue. I applied to Sassoon in London and moved just a couple of months later. I stayed at Sassoon for over 15 years.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Richard Ashforth: The process varies from job to job but I take time to research ideas and explore how to re-interpret them. Often I’m working on the full look and not only the hair so to fully ‘flesh-out’ the idea I often do a list which consists of, ‘If this was a drink/car/book/movie/song etc - what would it be?’ It helps me understand the look and give it more depth. It’s the background thinking that makes the image resonate for me. 

Often the hair is the last thing I think about, which seems strange but perhaps I need everything else to know what the hair should be - never quite figured that one out!

What are the projects that you’re most proud of?

Richard Ashforth: The Saco Foundations project has to be one of the projects I’m most proud of. It was an epic task to produce a book and all the video content (which we shot in 3D but have never used the format) which captures everything I understand about the core craft of hairdressing. Launching our product line is the next mammoth undertaking – work in progress!

What’s the most significant thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career? 

Richard Ashforth: Professionalism and a dogged determination have always been key. 

Tell us about your project “Noise”.

Richard Ashforth: Noise came about as an alternative to the corporate events which are many in our industry. These are often glitzy and also expensive to attend so wanted to do something as an antidote to this. Geared towards a younger audience, we promote through social media and relate the location only a couple of hours before. The ticket price is low and it’s more like going to a gig than a hair show – a bit more ‘in your face’.

What should a hairstyle bring to a look or fashion image?

Richard Ashforth: I think it should, of course, work within the total look but can also be a great statement in itself. Hair can capture a moment in time and make iconic statements too. 

Your work features a lot of unusual styles, lots of volume, interesting angles and colours. What inspires the looks?

Richard Ashforth: I love to reference music icons – channel a bit of ‘Iggy’. Music is such a rich seam of visual icons, I often find myself relating a look to a musical subculture as they speak to me so much. 

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?

Richard Ashforth: It’s certainly more varied – techniques and technologies have moved on a lot so the variety of looks has evolved hugely. There’s now an appetite for individuality too so looks are more eclectic and exciting I think! Thankfully, we’ve also finally left the ‘big blow-dry’ behind – I hated the high maintenance hair our industry has pushed out over the last decade. We’ve returned to a more natural feel and finish which is what I love about salon hair – it should celebrate the individual.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?

Richard Ashforth: Of course, everything is more accessible, instantaneous and also disposable now. Less room for looks to evolve and more demand for something unique. I see this as an opportunity to experiment and not take things too seriously either – beauty can be more playful and irreverent which means a bolder approach is acceptable.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Richard Ashforth: Find a good mentor and learn your craft. Success takes time so don’t be in a rush.

What is the future of beauty?

Richard Ashforth: Individuality! The advancement in technologies on every level is astonishing and provides great scope for new looks but they all need to look good as well as being unique!

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