insight - Michael Van Clarke

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Occupation - Hairdresser

He has been hairdresser to supermodels, rock stars, A-list film celebrities, and members of nine royal families, but Michael Van Clarke was actually led to a career in hairdressing by his love of cinematography.

“I was at school taking A-levels, and my brother (Nicky Clarke), who had started in hairdressing three years before with a man called Leonard, was having a fantastic time. They were doing a show at the World Hairdressing Congress, and knowing I was very interested in cinematography they asked me to make a 30-minute documentary.?Being at the show was amazing, such an incredible, energetic, colourful, glamorous scene. It was such a buzz and I just thought at the time, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to university’. My application at school from that day simply went downhill because I knew that I wanted to do hairdressing.

?“I went to speak to Nicky’s boss at the time, John Frieda. He was very wary because I was taking A-levels. Our salon takes graduates on from university now – that’s how much the industry has changed. But I finished my A-levels and started as a junior straight after. I loved it from day one. I moved to the West End and it was all sparkly bright lights, people you see on TV, going to their houses – you’re just in a different world. It was fantastic and I’ve loved it ever since.

“I was very fortunate to train with the best in that era. There’s a heritage line in hairdressing that goes back through London, and the top West End salons that service our level of the market, which is the elite, come from that pedigree. Despite lots of people trying to come into the West End from outside, no one has successfully had a big salon at this level in the West End that hasn’t come through that pedigree. From Leonard – which was the salon of its day – we had John Frieda, Nicky Clarke, Michael John, Daniel Galvin, and myself.

“I was John Frieda’s apprentice, in this very creative environment where we weren’t quite recognised in the industry for what we offered at the time. The Sassoon thing was so strong then, and a lot of what we were doing was ridiculed by the Sassoon society – things like round-brush blow-drying and hair-up.

”?Nevertheless, Michael developed along that route, doing lots of magazine work – with his first magazine front cover after only about seven months as a junior and a Vogue spread after only a year. “That spring-boarded me into doing a lot of session work with all the top photographers of the day, which was fantastic, but I realised after two or three years my heart was in the salon on a more intimate level with people.

?“I opened my own salon in 1988. We started on a back street, which was deliberate. Marylebone was not at all fashionable when we started here. But it was cheap and it was a fantastic building. It was central to so much – Regent’s Park at the top of the road, Bond Street five minutes down the bottom of the road. And now people have discovered that it has become one of the most fashionable areas of London.

??“Slowly we built up our reputation. We didn’t seek a profile at all; it was more about an obsessive quality to the work. Year after year we got busier, more people joined, and we were doing a lot more work abroad, teaching, giving seminars to other salons and doing weddings. About six or seven years ago we launched our first product range, so that took us on to the next level.

”??Michael has developed his techniques into something unique for the industry and for the salon, which they have as their own method – the Diamond Dry Cut. “That’s starting to attract a lot of attention now because consumers are starting to get more demanding and want something that is absolutely tailored for them. The problem is, hairdressers generally aren’t taught to work that way. Ours is a method that delivers what is absolutely right for the client.” Outside the salon, bridal hair is the core of their work, with a bridal team of about 12 staff that do the catwalk hair at wedding shows. The salon also has a team that do different hairdressing shows and seminars in other countries and photographic work for magazines.

?“I don’t do much of that work any more – we’ve got enough people doing it, so they don’t need me any more! So most of my time is spent on staff development, making sure everyone’s moving forward – and I still have my own loyal clientele to look after. But a lot of my work now is writing articles for the trade and national press, keeping up with the websites to get our message across, and developing new products for our range.?

“We’ve recently launched another product range called ‘3 More Inches’, which is a system for extending the life of hair, based on a trichological range that we’ve had for 15 years, and a development and improvement on from that. For me, the product company is something that is hugely creative.

”?The salon has also started producing training films for the industry to change the way hairdressers are taught, and a recruitment film that was made for universities and colleges to shift perceptions of what hairdressing is. “It’s directed at people who are intelligent but thought they were too intelligent for hairdressing,” explains Michael.?

After quietly building the business up to the success it is today, the salon has started to make waves in the industry with a recent flurry of awards. Last year it won more awards at the British Business Hairdressing Awards than any salon had ever won before.

?But it’s not just the awards that prove Michael Van Clarke is revered in the industry. He has a loyal client list stretching back more than 20 years – some more than 30 years – and his salon work is where his passion still lies. “For me it’s the thing that keeps me sane. I know I am a master of that craft – of cutting hair, working hair. I’ve been doing it long enough and I do it with an intensity that people appreciate, and a refinement and a precision that I know other people can’t match, so that’s very dear to me.”

The History of No.1 Beaumont Street

The site now occupied by the Michael Van Clarke salon was formerly a place of amusement known as Mary-Le-Bone Gardens in the 18th century. The area was developed into the streets now known as Devonshire Street, Devonshire Place, and Beaumont Street in 1781, and uses of 1 Beaumont Street have included, among others, a private hotel, a tailoring establishment, and, more recently, a chemist.

?“Locals told me stories of a chemist’s business that once served royalty and celebrities, but it had fallen into disrepute,” explains Michael. “The interior was now just a shell strewn with rubbish and there was evidence of some earlier fires.?

“But when I first entered the building I was really taken by the space. It had a good vibe even though it looked pretty awful inside.

”?Michael opened his salon there in 1988, and at 915m2 it was the biggest salon in London at that time. However, he only had the staff and the means to fit out a third of it. As the business has grown, so has the space, with the ground floor and lower salons and the colour studio that stand today.

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