British hairdresser and make-up artist Mathew Alexander has been called “the makeover maestro” and listed among the UK’s ‘Ten Most Trusted Hair Colourists’ by Harper’s Bazaar; Glamour describes him as “A secret for your little black book.” He has prepped actors Gillian Anderson, Natascha McElhone and Rose Byrne for the red carpet, and has shown catwalk looks for Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, Betty Jackson, and Caroline Charles.
We spoke with Mathew on the occasion of opening of his new salon in central London, England. Set over two floors, the salon offers cutting, coloring and hairstyling services, in addition to makeup applications and lessons. Clients may also sit for a portrait with photographer Stephen Perry. Worktops are made with recycled marble and eco-friendly paint; ‘Green Hug’ styling chairs are made with recycled and recyclable materials. The atrium is dressed with an extensive selection of plants – curated by Mathew and his friends at Blomenelle, who have a pop-up space within the salon, selling succulents, cacti & others.
Tell us your professional hair story.
I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a hairdresser, but I started off when I was 14. I’d always watched my mom glamorize herself. I thought it was quite extraordinary, the transformation. I started working at a hair salon and I got on really well; I was in college to do drama and photography which I skipped out of because the guy that I was working for was named British Hairdresser of the Year and won all sorts of accolades. He told my mom to convince me to pursue a career as a hairdresser ’cause he thought I had a talent that he didn’t very often see.
So, I decided to give it a wiz, and when I was 20, I moved to London from the West Midlands to assist Sam McKnight who is a fantastic hairdresser; he did Princess Diana’s hair, all the shows, all the ad campaigns, and has a range of hair products. I started doing shoots, record sleeves, pop videos, that sort of thing. It was a dream come true doing what I really loved.
After working in London for about 10 years for other people I decided that I wanted to have my own salon. That was 12 years ago, so this salon is now my second... well, actually I had a pop-up shop for a little while, and then I was based in a hotel, but this one is a big, all-singing, all-dancing, 12 stations, two-floor salon.
It’s got a very glamorous, old-school solemnity to it rather than being modern and austere. There’s lots of energy here, but it’s also very calm, a bit like going into a lovely hotel suite. Lots of plants, beautiful handmade chandeliers, and a light oak French chateau floor that runs throughout. So, it doesn’t look like a typical salon, and it’s got this beautiful Georgian front which I really love.
It sounds like this is a dream moment becoming reality. What were some of the challenges?
We’ve got a really long lease, and I think that’s important. I’ve had a lot of offers of financial backing from different people, but one of my best friends has invested in the project, which is great. But if you try and put the focus wholeheartedly on the business side, other things tend to fall by the wayside, and after working in a salon now for 30 years, I think the most important thing is to make sure that people are happy, and then everything else tends to flow from there. So, that is what I’ve learned and that is hopefully a philosophy that I’ll carry on through the salon – the people side of things is more important to me than the business side.
Is there a particular kind work that you're known for?
They say it’s unusual to be an equally good hairdresser & makeup artist; but that’s my U.S.P. So, I was a makeup artist for a few years and did lots of red carpet, actresses for BAFTAs, press junkets for films. I think that reflects well on my work as a colorist, but I do all aspects. I cut hair, I color hair, I style hair, and put hair up. I think that every hairdresser should be able to do everything. There can be something that you excel at or prefer, but as a salon owner, you need to be able to do everything and be able to make sure everything is covered.
What is your attitude toward education for your staff?
Education is really important, regardless of how old we are and how well we’re doing the craft. I think we can all learn from each other. I used to teach a hair, makeup, and fashion styling course at London College of Fashion, which I really, really loved. So, I would like to think that I am in tune with making sure that everybody gets what they need, including me.
I think we can all learn from each other. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not looking at tutorials on YouTube or Instagram to see what other people are doing, to see how they’re putting the hair up and the shapes that they create. I know how to put hair up, but I want to be able to be better at it.
I think these days, we need to be able to do more than we used to. In some salons, you see quite a divided clientele – older clients going to one salon, and younger to another. But I have clients in their 20s and in their 80s, and I think if you are on the ball and up to scratch there’s no reason why that shouldn't be possible for everybody. If you keep yourself up-to-date, your clientele will grow with you.
The educational burden is shifting from product companies to hairdressers, and many of them are now marketing themselves as independent educators. How do you feel about that?
Personally, I think it’s fantastic. Any tool that can teach us to improve our skills is invaluable, and if it’s a free tutorial on YouTube or on Instagram, amazing. I say, get it where you can. There’s a richness there if we choose to chase it.
I think since that mold has broken, we are all helping each other and communicating better within our craft. When I started my career 30 years ago, a client moving from one end of the country to the other couldn’t get their old hairdresser to give them their color formula to take to their new salon. But now people will put a picture up on Instagram, and they’ll put down the products that they used. So, it’s really good to see how things have changed and how we are more open to sharing and to teaching.
Let’s shift to the client side for a minute. What can a new client expect walking into your new salon?
When you've been doing somebody’s hair for a long time, you fall into a pattern where it is second-nature and you can guess where something’s going. But when somebody comes in for the first time, it’s a lot of pressure to expect the client to do all the work, and to know exactly what they want. Hairdressers are pretty good communicators, so it’s up to us to do the best we can to make sure that the client understands us, and that we understand them.
However we decide to make a consultation better, whether it’s pictures, or other points of reference, like a color which doesn't necessarily relate to hair, it’s down to us as hairdressers really to do everything we can to make sure that our client gets the best from us. You have to be prepared for everybody who walks through the door, and if you can show them that you’re willing to do whatever it’s gonna take to get them the hair that they want, even if they don't necessarily know, that will immediately put them at ease and allow them to communicate better.
Ours is a professional environment, but we have a lot of fun here. It’s a very easy place to come and to be yourself. The staff is all different ages, guys and girls, whatever you want. People usually say, ‘Oh, this is the sort of place that I could hang out in.’ Creating that type of atmosphere is really important for me.
Let me take a self-serving moment here and ask you about Hairstory products and how they fit into this picture.
Okay. I’ve got absolutely no problem saying this. I f****ing love Hairstory with all of my heart. I think it is the most sexy, unique, delicious range of hair products that in 30 years of hairdressing hasn’t gotten me as excited.
It blows everything else out of the water. It’s so refreshing. I've always struggled with shampoo. I’ve got a really sensitive scalp, and it used to get itchy and irritated and spotty, and I figured out it wasn’t due to just the fragrance in shampoos. I stopped using shampoo altogether at one point and switched to only conditioner.
And then I read an article about New Wash and I thought, ‘Oh, my good God. I need to get my hands on a bottle of this.’ I liked it immediately. But over time I thought, ‘I quite like New Wash, but it'd be nice if there was something a bit stronger, or a bit lighter,’ and now we have New Wash (Deep) and New Wash (Rich) – three cleansing and moisturizing systems that are absolutely, 100% genius.
So, the products speak for themselves and they can take a bit of getting used to, but I try and hold my clients’ hands all the way through. I love it. I don’t have anything else at the backwash; I just have New Wash. I have a 100% confidence in it, over and above everything. New Wash leaves hair feeling like hair. I hate that absolutely hideous squeaky clean, detergent-y feeling that you get from shampoo where it strips your scalp and makes the skin on your hands dry. It’s New Wash all the way as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t think anything could change my mind.
Many hairdressers still don’t feel confident enough to do that.
Well, I don’t know. I think it’s up to us to be leaders.
And the Hairstory styling products – I’ve never used a product like Hair Balm which is as good on curly hair as my own, and I’ve got really fine, terrible straight hair. It’s the absolute dog’s bollocks. [Ed. note to non-Brits: that’s a good thing.] It’s brilliant. And I really love Powder. It just makes my heart sing. It’s so delicious, like fairy dust in a bottle. It is the best dry texturizer, and because of the way that you apply it you can get it to a wide area and it just doesn’t hit the roots and make them feel tacky; it provides so much more.
Is there anything else that you would like the world to know?
Just that it’s my mission, really, to let everybody know that I really love Hairstory with all my heart and that they need to be into it.
I know you’re a part of 1% For The Planet, and my business partner Jo and I decided that we wanted to do something similar, so we are donating £2 from every bill and asking our clients if they want to match it. We are looking at humanitarian charities, an orphanage called Disabled Children in Africa, and Jo wants to put her half of charitable donations to a Female Genital Mutilation charity.
We’re really fortunate to have lived the lives that we have, that we’re happy and doing something that we love, and we want to give something back. It’s just a little start, but hopefully, it’ll lead to greater things.
Mathew Alexander Hairdressing & Make-Up | 21 New Quebec Street | London W1H 7SA | 0207 4951122
www.mathewalexander.co.uk | Instagram: @mathewalexanderhairmup