Hairbrained Up-Close: Richard Ashforth

Richard Ashforth applies one, simple philosophy to his ever-burgeoning career: never say no. “When opportunities present themselves, you’ve got to grasp them,” says Richard. “They don’t come knocking every day of your life. It’s good to say yes. Things happen when you say yes, but when you say no, life’s not so interesting.” And he likes things to occur organically. “If you work hard and believe in what you do, things kind of naturally evolve,” he adds.

For Richard, the possibilities are endless. He ticks off all of the boxes, working as Creative Director for his company, SACO, plus fills the role of Schwarzkopf Professional’s Global Styling Ambassador; in his spare time, he produces NOISE, which is a pop-up, anti-hair show that Richard describes as “raw, visceral and immersive.” It’s these innovative ideas, refreshing authenticity, and diligence that have made Richard one of the most successful stylists, worldwide. Read on to find out where he got his start – and discover why he works so persistently to refresh the craft hairdressing industry.   

Q. As an artist, you use classic shapes and fundamental techniques to create striking, yet wearable looks. Can you discuss your background, and explain how your training has affected your aesthetic?

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A. I think this aesthetic is driven by my years working as a stylist; I was a salon hairdresser for a very long time before I was an educator. I think, fundamentally, what keeps us going as hairdressers – because we’re not particularly well paid and the hours aren’t great, it’s not great on paper – but I think what keeps people going, is the fact that you get such a massive reward by putting a smile on peoples face. That’s fundamentally from making them look good; if they look good they feel good. My approach is from that perspective. At SACO, our teaching is very much about that: our motto is beauty first. So when we’re teaching, we don’t start with technique, we always start with the person: what are the positive features, and what are the features that we need to downplay. It’s all about building the right silhouette for each person; then we decide on the right technique to use to get that silhouette. It doesn’t matter if it’s something basic and creative or uncreative, or whether it’s something avant-garde, the length and weight should be suitable. In the creative world of hairdressing, that’s not always part of the criteria – but suitability should not be forgotten. The ultimate creativity is finding something that’s amazing for somebody. 

Q. How has education – both as a student and an educator – impacted you personally and professionally?

A. It’s impacted me in more ways than I can express, probably – without becoming overly emotional – because I do feel emotionally about it, in a lot of ways.

When I first started, it was my mother’s hairdresser, Robert Taylor, who gave me my first job. He didn’t have to do that – he just did it because he was a nice guy – perhaps he saw something in me. He gave me so much of his time.

Then I moved on to Sassoon. The Art Director there was a bit of a superstar, and so he was never in the salon. It was left to the Assistant Art Director to teach me, but he was only just getting his head around the position, and wasn’t very focused; a lot of the time I was left to my own devices. Stephen Mackinder, one of the Senior Stylists at the time, took it upon himself to train me, though he was quite busy, himself – and he wasn’t getting paid for doing it. But Stephen made the time for me because he knew I needed it. He taught me everything, and he did it selflessly, just because he knew I wanted to learn. He gave me everything in the way of a career, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

As an educator, those are the things that I hold, the things that I keep with me. When I’m teaching, of course I give everything to each and every student. But the students that really want it, that really want to learn? You always want to give them that little bit extra. You try for them in the same way that people tried for you. Somebody gave to me selflessly – gave me a career – and without that person, I’d be in a very different position. Before Stephen, I was a clueless idiot.   

Q. NOISE events are popping up around the globe. Although you’ve showcased some of the craft’s greatest talents – similar to a hair show – to call this event a ‘hair show’ would be an injustice. In your own words, what is NOISE, and what prompted you to create this ‘outside of the box’ experience?

A. NOISE started in 2012. It was a bit of a reaction to being fed up with doing the same thing, year in and year out. We have a very big annual ‘hair weekend’ in London, and I found it to be a bit formulaic; there was nothing new happening. My wife suggested that if I didn’t like it, I should do something myself, so I did. I called up some friends – Peter Gray, Tim Hartley and X-Presion – and they were all in. That’s how the first one started. It was just our four teams, and it was thrown together really quickly. The idea of it is a little bit ‘in your face,’ with a raw edge to it. We’ve really tried to nurture that and maintain it, because I think those elements set it apart.

Also, we wanted to share some of the iconic names with younger people; Tim Hartley is a really great example of that. I believe everybody should see Tim. He’s done so much for our industry, and he’s so integral to modern hairdressing.

Q. Has NOISE, and the artists that you’ve come in contact with because of the event, changed your perception of the craft?

A. I think that they’re certainly broadening my experience of hairdressing. Everybody has a really personal take on hair. I lived for so many years within the Sassoon bubble, that I shared the same take on hair as everybody around me – it was very collective. Stepping out of that and doing SACO, you get to meet and connect with other people, who have different takes. Through this connection, you get to see that you’re the same, yet different; your world opens up a little bit. Through NOISE, I connect with so many people, and I’m drawing parallels between my universe and theirs. People like Andy Wong, who has quite a bizarre take on hair; but the level of detail within his work is very similar to the level of detail that I put into my take on hair. I see a real parallel because of that.

What connects us all is the level of detail we put into our work, regardless of the outcome. I can connect with many different kinds of individuals if they share that one simple ethos. 

Q. NOISE showcases a ton of up-and-coming talent. How do you source these stylists – and how do you stay on the cusp of progressive art within the craft? 

A. For the most part, I keep my eye on social media – although there have been many instances where artists have contacted me, asking to be a part of the event. The joy of the modern age is that you don’t have to wait for a big product manufacturer to discover you; it’s more diverse. You can be exposed in much easier ways.  

Q. Share your thoughts on collaboration over competition.

A. Whilst I love the idea of collaboration, I think that the ideas of collaboration and competition are slightly inseparable. So, I guess I’ll use NOISE as an example, because that’s where I get to collaborate most. I’m 100% behind supporting what other artists are doing; making sure that their work and their presentation is carried out in the best possible way. That can mean me physically helping them do the hair, or me facilitating their desires to be presented in a particular way. But it generates a great competition as well. Certainly if you speak to someone like Peter Gray, he enjoys NOISE because it pushes him to raise his game, each and every time. It’s about stepping your game up – and I’ve been caught short, myself; I’ve been too preoccupied with different elements of the show.

I’ve stood there at the end of the show, and thought: I’ve just had my ass spanked. If you embrace the creative element of NOISE, it pushes you to dig deep, and find something new. So while the spirit of it is very collaborative, it’s also very competitive in a positive way – which is a joy! It’s really nice to have something to give you a nice, sharp prick every now and again.      

Images complements of SACO: Sanguine S/S 2017

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