Michael Barnes on his journey from washing celebrity hair in London to doing hair and fashion shows in Vietnam
Some creative talents are made in an instant, in a single epiphanic moment that changes one’s fate forever. For Michael Barnes—one of Britain’s most accomplished hair artists, now resident in Saigon—his calling to the profession occurred the very instant he first walked into a professional salon, entering into a chamber of the kind of beauty and glamour that, as a thoroughly working-class drifter of 13 years old, he’d simply never seen before.
“It was by chance really,” he remembers. “Me and a friend used to bunk off school. There’s a road in London called King’s Road, which in the ‘60s and ‘70s was really trendy. We used to hang around there looking for odd jobs. One guy asked us to clean his cellar and then we painted it. His name was Manolo Blahnik—he’s one of the top shoe designers in the world now, he got really big when he kept getting mentioned on Sex and the City. He had a shop called Zapatos off King’s Road, and the girl who worked for him asked if one of us wanted a Saturday job. I took it. From the day that I walked in, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. It was so different. I grew up on a council estate; most people that I knew either grew up to go to prison or become builders. So to walk into an environment with attractive women and gay men and all that kind of stuff that you don’t know about, coming from my environment, I just saw it and I knew I wanted to do it.”
Quitting school the following year, Barnes went on to train at a salon owned by Ricci Burns, one of the leading hair stylists in London during the early ‘70s, whose business catered to both the wives of Jewish millionaires and the big celebrities of the day. Washing hair for the likes of Peter O’Toole, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, he quickly began to develop skills in British precision cutting—his proficiency in the style becoming well-known by the time he was in his late teens as he began traveling the world to showcase his technique at international hair shows.
“I did my first show in 1976,” he says. “Then I did my first trip in 1977, I went to Italy, Switzerland and Japan to do hair shows. The difference between hair shows and fashion shows is obviously that the hair is the focal point, whereas in a fashion show, the hair just complements the clothes. But in a hair show, the audience are hairdressers, and it’s designed more to inspire them. If the hair show has a technical element you’re demonstrating, then it’s designed to educate them. So you’re there to educate, motivate and inspire.”
COVERED IN HAIR
Barnes’ precision cutting style is essentially a form of hair engineering, largely concerned with angles and elevation. “The other way of cutting is called the visual technique,” he explains, “because you look at the head shape and you’re just cutting hair off to make the shape look OK, and you’re not necessarily cutting straight lines or using a guideline to blend everything in. That’s how cutting was before the ‘60s; it’s how the French still cut hair. A lot of hairdressers aren’t really trained here, so they use a visual technique, whereas in precision cutting, you cut a guideline, and everything connects to that guideline—depending on how you overdirect the hair is how you build up weight. It’s normally planned from the beginning. Visual cutting, which I use as well, gives you more freedom. It’s fine, as long as you know the precision way first. But a lot of people skip the precision side and go straight to the other one. It’s better to have a basic understanding of precision cutting. Even if I do a haircut that looks like a visual technique, I do a precise haircut first, and then chop it up. Then the balance is right, and the weight is right.”
By the late ‘80s, Barnes began to gravitate towards avant-garde techniques, teaching himself by trial and error. “Basically I have to think of an idea and how it’s going to look,” he says, “and then find a way of doing it. For most of my pieces now, I use two-part polyurethane foam, like expanding foam. I have a polystyrene head that I cover in tin foil, because if the foam touches the polystyrene, it’ll melt. I then make a really rough mold out of cardboard, put the foam in so it expands, and when it’s set, I sculpt it—and it’s got the head shape, so it fits on the head—and then I cover it in hair. It fits to the model’s head and I use the model’s own hair to blend it, so it looks like the model’s hair. That’s the tricky part, that’s the part that makes it look real.”
Moving to Vietnam was a simple decision—after a short assignment here, the thought of returning to London was simply too depressing. Even in hairdressing, however, living in Saigon still has its share of frustrations. Unable to buy two-part expanding foam in Vietnam, he resorts to an industrial gap filler to make his sculpted headpieces—and despite a population of 90 million people, he struggles to find a source of human hair. “It’s actually illegal to bring it into the country,” says Barnes. “If they search your bag, they take it. But although Vietnam is a supplier of human hair, when I first came here, I went to a place to pick it up, and I was shocked. A piece of hair sewn onto a weft, enough to make a ponytail, is VND3.5 million—which is a lot. You can get the same amount of hair in London for about 15 pounds.”
His high-profile salon in London is now officially closed, and these days, in between styling jobs for high-profile fashion events, Barnes is focusing on a new salon—Ace London Hair—soon to open above Gosto at 98 Nguyen Trai, with local staff trained to deliver international styles to the Vietnamese public.
Michael Barnes himself is offering boutique cuts out of his private apartment in District 2, albeit at premium rates. In a country often celebrated for its inexpensive cost of living, clients have often asked why he charges international prices for a haircut in Vietnam.
“Because I’m very good!” he laughs candidly. “If you think about it, in Vietnam, how many foreign hairdressers here are there? There are a handful. How many foreigners here are there who can do fashion shows and hair shows? It’s almost unique, so that’s my selling point. That’s what I do. I’m not good at anything else, but I’m good at hairdressing.”
Hair Images Provided By Michael Barnes