Guido Palau is one of the world's most inventive conceptual hairstylists. Recognized for his work with top designers such as Marc Jacobs, Prada, Calvin Klein and most notably, the late Alexander McQueen, he and his team created the masks and head treatments for the recent “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. His radically expressive style can be seen on the runways in New York, Milan and Paris, and in top advertising campaigns and editorial work for such noted magazines as Italian, French, British and American Vogue, W, Allure, i-D, POP and Harper's Bazaar. He is also a Redken Creative Consultant. Redken 5th Avenue Consultant and master colorist David Stanko chatted with him between shows in Milan, to learn more about dark aesthetics and the personal side of Guido Palau.
David Stanko: The McQueen exhibit at the Met included a plaque that read, “All head treatments and masks are designed by Guido Palau.” What was it like collaborating with McQueen and working with the Met?
Guido Palau: It was bittersweet celebrating his life’s work. When the Met asked me to be a part, I was very excited. I understood his aesthetic and how he liked to work in different mediums, with fetish and historical aspects. Hair was not right (for the Met show), which is why I decided to work with masks. Alexander had a dark aesthetic; he’d push me beyond what was normal to the historical and even the perverse.
He had quite a library. We’d meet six weeks before a show and examine art, books, film, music, nature and nurture. You might not see it on the runway but all that research was there. For hair, I might get inspiration from a tree or a building. When I was younger, I didn’t get that—how you can juxtapose texture or use how the color of leaves’ interplay. To be a good hairdresser, you have to store information on everything.
DS: So your advice for young stylists is to learn it all?
GP: Young people want success quickly; they think it’s all about now. They don’t know the history of anything. You have to know all the techniques, every product you can come across and not just hair but paint, powders, haberdashery, buttons and string. To work at a high level in different fields, yes, you need a background in everything.
DS: And your advice for older stylists who have been there, done it and burned out?
GP: You’ve never learned it all. You can get fed up, but what keeps me excited about hair is that there’s always a new appropriation. If I thought everything had been done already, I couldn’t keep doing it. You have to keep yourself under pressure and be around others who are inspiring. They don’t have to be hairdressers, they can be photographers or dressmakers.
DS: When a stranger asks what you do for a living, what do you say?
GP: Sometimes I say I’m a hairdresser; sometimes I say I work in fashion. Then, I have to explain that I don’t work in a salon or that I’m not a designer. I’m a creative person and hair is my medium, but hairdresser is simpler to say.
DS: Do you color hair?
GP: As an amateur, not professionally. Hair coloring is so technical, it’s another world.
DS: What product is missing that you’d love to have backstage at runway shows?
GP: Something that would instantly spray-in curl, or blow dry the hair. Something that would make my life easier when I have to do four blowdrys in a row.
DS: What is your biggest pet peeve?
GP: I hate to see women in uncomfortable shoes. There’s something degrading and offensive about it.
DS: You have professional success; what area of your life do you still want to work on?
GP: I’ve spent a lot of time on my job; hairdressing fulfills me. But I’ve sometimes let the personal things go. I’ll be coming up on 50 next year and want to do things that take me out of my comfort zone, like backpacking through Asia or mountain biking in New Mexico…Things that are about discovery.
DS: What would people be surprised to discover about you?
GP: That I’m shy. In my job I’m not—I can’t be. But I’m not very good in big groups or social situations.
DS: So who are your best friends?
GP: Diane Kendal, a makeup artist who started about the same time I did in the ‘80s. She’s still in New York City, like me, and we can’t believe we’re still doing it. She’s like a sister. Also, David Sims, a fashion photographer I met in the ‘90s. I’m godfather to all his children. I’ve done some amazing hair while collaborating with him; he’s like a brother.
DS: Who inspires you besides your friends?
GP: There are many top designers and photographers who keep me going.
DS: Why do you think editors love to talk to you so much?
GP: Because I know what I’m talking about, so I feel confident. I can be catty and funny; it’s part of my job. I didn’t know it would be part of my job, but working with Redken now it’s part of my responsibility—a part I can enjoy. It’s part of my success. I get to know the editors and build up a relationship. I’m sincere and I’m honest. I don’t try to fake it and say everything I do is wearable.