Among cognoscenti, Guido Palau is one of the select few in fashion to have achieved mononym status. Mention the first name of the British hairstylist to insiders and they can readily reel off a litany of his memorable style “moments.” Think blowzy glam supermodels in the George Michael “Freedom! ’90” video; grunge-era Calvin Klein campaigns featuring Kate Moss when still a waif; stark theatrical collaborations with Alexander McQueen; and campy Versace shoots staged by Richard Avedon.
In ordinary times, Mr. Palau and his team spend months each year jetting around the planet to create influential ad campaigns and to style hair for top designer runways. The pandemic limited those activities, of course, and yet did little to curtail Mr. Palau’s creativity. He still assisted at shows and photo shoots, not least an arresting January 2022 British Vogue cover that features the 56-year-old model Kristen McMenamy with her gray mane center-parted and dyed in rainbow hues. For much of the last two years, though, Mr. Palau has focused his energies on a series of coiffure experiments posted to Instagram and now assembled in a new book published by Idea: “#HairTests.”
Reached by telephone at his weekend house in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the hairstylist, who is 59, talked about his unlikely career trajectory and his conviction that hair can be a transformative medium.
Guy Trebay You’ve been at the top so long people tend to forget how you got there.
Guido Palau To be honest, growing up in the England of the ’60s and ’70s, I was probably the least likely to succeed.
GT This was in Bournemouth?
GP Yes, Bournemouth was a seaside town where young people would bring their styles down from London. I couldn’t wait for bank holidays to see what the Londoners would wear, though it’s not like I knew anything about the small world of fashion back then.
GT It’s astonishing how much of what would later become thoroughly mainstream in fashion emerged from those subcultures.
GP England of that period was full of street culture. There were lots of subgenres. I had no deep-seated desire to do hair, yet I always kept an eye on how people looked. I’d been traveling around Europe before moving to London, being young and irresponsible. It was fun, but when I came back to my hometown at 19, I had to think of something to do to make a living. I had a couple of girlfriends who were doing hair, and I thought, “I can do that.”
GT In pretty short order, you got yourself both hired and fired by Vidal Sassoon.
GP Working for Sassoon was a very big deal. The salon was on South Molton Street, a closed pedestrian-type street that was like a catwalk. I was much too shy to be a peacock myself, but I was in awe of people who would perform in that way and was obsessed with how people looked. That was formative, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
GT It does make a certain sense that you would become known for your range of cultural reference points.
GP Going out to clubs was my education. London was this melting pot of creative people that wanted to be designers or pop stars. I would go down to the clubs with my new friend, David Sims, a young photographer’s assistant, and the two of us started to form a kind of gang and build our own visual reference library.
GT In a funny way, fashion reminds one of the Robert Frost poem — “home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
GP Fashion is this funny, dysfunctional playground for misfits. That’s what bonds us. I was very lucky with my career because I was quickly picked up by magazines; it’s not that it was my skills.
GT That seems unduly modest.
GP When I was a grumpy teenager, confused about stuff, my dad would say, “You’re really lazy and you’re never going to make anything of yourself.” Even now, I can happily do nothing all day.
GT Doing nothing is highly underrated.
GP I still daydream like I did when I was a teenager. I dream up characters or something I could do with hair. Daydreaming is part of the work. I daydreamed this book.
GT Can you talk about that and how you started “#HairTests?”
GP I’ve always met with designers before shows to try things out on models and come up with ideas. I photographed those looks on my phone to show to my team. Then people would also ask me for pictures from backstage to post to their accounts, and so I was already taking these pictures.
GT Those sound like fairly straightforward documents. “#HairTests” feels closer to something Cindy Sherman might have done.
GP This wasn’t some great photographic exercise. When things started to slow down, I still needed content. People are very responsive to new imagery. The thing with Instagram is you have to feed it.
GT Maybe what I’m responding to here is the format. You shot only in profile, quite simply, yet there’s this formal, though improvisatory, way in which you create ephemeral sculpture and unexpected transformations using the medium of hair. One model looks like a Klingon, another like a character from a De Sica movie.
GP “#HairTests” is a sketchbook, really. Initially, I thought, “I’ll ask models if I could do their hair, and I’ll just do a snap on my phone.” I planned to do a little fanzine. I even went to a Staples and I stapled these things all together and thought, “Oh, that’s not too bad.”
GT Then Idea came along, and now you’ve got yourself a $90 volume that looks as if it should be sold at Art Basel.
GP I really don’t want it to sound like I’m bigging myself up. This has all been very low-key. We’d get a group of kids and sit them down and sculpture their hair. I’d look at them to see what fantasy they gave off.
GT Still, the book has a very cool design, this fluorescent ring binder encased in cardboard, and feels like a proper art book, rather than another designer vanity publication.
GP What I wanted to do with this was to make a book about how hair can change somebody — how you can use it to create a character. Whenever you’re creating a hairstyle, it’s like you’re doing architecture: the shape is the structure of the house and the texture is the walls. Then you offset things. Even when I do the most simple hairstyle, I always want something to be a little questionable. It may be too blunt, or too short, or something is off — so you have to ask yourself why it’s interesting.
GT The sculptural shapes you devised on Black models seem particularly noteworthy. It’s not just that they became elements of a fantastic British Vogue cover and shoot — the one for last April’s issue — but that they amount to potent cultural statements. The coiffures are so extravagantly architectonic that the models end up looking as stately as Benin bronzes or divinities from some 18th dynasty frieze.
GP It’s funny. That young lady I photographed with a big half-dome had beautifully-textured hair. I just took what was there and pulled it up into a knot. We used some hair pieces, then puffed it all up and over a pad. The whole thing looks a lot more complicated than it was; it probably took 20 minutes to create. Then, of course, as with all hairstyles, the entire conception is just one minute away from being pulled apart.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.