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Devil’s Haircut Christiaan

Interview

As one of the world’s premier hairstylists, Christiaan (born Peter) has coiffed every supermodel imaginable, and his work has appeared in every magazine you can think of, including on nearl y tw enty co v ers of V o gue. Lik e Carangi, he is both the best and a badass—Christiaan invented the essential haircuts of punk, including the undercut, Grace Jones’ flat top, Debbie Harry’s shag, and a patterned chop called the “digithead,” which he ended up famously giving out for free in Central Park (it kind of looks like the view of a field from an airplane). Sky Ferreira specifically sought him out when she wanted a radical change. He said that she had to “stalk him for a while” to get it done.

 

It’ s hard to quantify Christiaan’ s impact on hair and beauty in general. He arrived in New York from his native Holland in the 1960s, when women’ s hair (at least non-hippie women’ s hair) was always a laborious production that was hard to keep up in everyday life. “I could see that women were just as attractive undone, and that the hair could be just as attractive without all that stuff, ” said Christiaan. “ Which is exactly what happened.” His looser, frills-free approach, so different from the glamorous beauty parlor styles of the day, had a profound influence. “Stephen Sprouse and I were pissed, always, at the glamour , ” he laughed. “ W e were rock’n’ roll. ” Christiaan is rock’n’roll—he is more like a sculptor than a stylist, using everything from steel wool to disposable razors to create his indelible looks.

 

As one might expect of a creative legend who came up in New York in the latter half of the twentieth century, Christiaan’s career stories are insane, with many of his most profound moments hinging on coincidence. As we sat together on a muggy June day, he recounted a few of them.

 

A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY

 

I was the oldest of twelve kids. We were in a poor village, there were lots of mouths to feed, and everybody had to help as soon as they could. So beginning at twelve years old, I had a presence in my father’s barbershop. It began with cleaning the floors, then cleaning up after my father—the third act was preparing and soaping up the farmers’ [beards] for my father to come and take the blades and shave them off, and the fourth act was probably being allowed to take off the bottom parts of the kids’ hair. My father would draw a line, and I would cut off the bottom. It’ s funny now , because it’ s basically the same thing you see on the street today, with the shaved hair on the bottom and longer hair on top.

 

Then I was sixteen, seventeen, and my father was insistent that I learn the female side of the business. So, at great expense, he sent me to the beauty school in Amsterdam, where I did everything really well and quick. And then poof, I had to go into the military service, because at the time you were still drafted in Holland. I picked the Marines, because I thought that these people seemed to be going out of the country and traveling the world. And that worked, because the next thing you know I was on my way to Aruba and Curaçao, and I spent close to two fabulous years there, where I managed to shuffle out of anything hard because I was the barber. And on the side I would go around the island doing haircuts for the prominent families, one of which was in charge of the oil refinery in Aruba.

 

That family took a liking to me and took me in as their sort of stepchild. The husband was named Kurt Weill, and I didn’t know this, but at the time there was a Broadway play in New York, A Kurt Weill Cabaret, which was written by [a different] Kurt Weill and starred his wife, Lotte Lenye. So by the time I was ready to go, the wife of the Kurt Weill in Aruba saw a picture of the beauty editor of Glamour magazine, Amy Greene, and thought, Oh, I went to school with this lady, why don’t I write her a letter and tell her that this guy is such a good hairdresser we should send him to America. And that’ s what happened. Because Amy , who was [photographer] Milton Greene’s wife and a great friend of Marilyn Monroe, confused the wife in Aruba with the wife of the composer. So I got to go to America. I bought a ticket from Aruba to Miami, and I bought one of those really tight two-button suits, like The Beatles were wearing at the time, and I was ready for New York.

 

I had no idea what was happening. In the morning I got picked up by this cute intern from Glamour, and for the next five days, every morning they would pick me up and take me to one of the grand beauty parlors of New York. I’m kind of their guest for the day—a 20-year-old kid that hardly speaks English, and doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

 

So the first day I went to [famed hairstylist] Kenneth. And who was in Kenneth’s chair? Jackie Kennedy. The next day I’m at Vidal Sassoon, and Vidal kept saying stand here, stay right here, watch me. And at the end of the day he gave me his tie clip and said, “Good luck.” Nobody even really knew why I was there, except that I was a special guest of the editor.

 

So then the week was over. I was going to back to Holland, and I was still supposed to take the barbershop over. And almost immediately I got letters from the company that owned Kenneth, seeing if I wanted to come back and work for them in New York, at Bergdorf Goodman. I had been in Bergdorf Goodman too, and watched the situation there as well. And everyone I saw there who was my age was a shampoo boy. The30- or 40-year-olds, the grand gay masters of the universe, they were the coiffeurs. So I think, Yes, I want to come, and I’ll be a shampoo boy.

 

It took a while for it to dawn on me that Bergdorf’s didn’t want a shampoo boy. They wanted a cute kid that they could set up to do all that stuff. And I was a cute kid, number one. Number two, I had a fanatic attitude about hair in those days. I wanted hair to be less Park Avenue, less stuck up. I was pushing the daughters of all those old ladies to come and complain that they didn’t need all that gold chandelier shit, all they needed was a cute corner with some water to get their hair washed and cut and get out of there. And that was how they started the salon BG Cutaway. It was a bit of a trend, and Paul Mitchell started Crimpers across the street in Henri Bendel. That was the beginning of the looser hair salon type of thing. So all of these things worked together to make me established, and after a year I was the creative director.

 

That lasted about two years, but then my rebelliousness kicked in, and Bergdorf’s and I parted. I got fired, pretty much. [laughs] I had just gone to Paris and came back with a whole bunch of these brown Pierre Cardin suits. I came back and they wanted everybody to only wear blue suits, and I said goodbye. I was on the street and I remember being totally devastated for a little bit, but I had all my contacts and the next thing you know I became a fully engaged freelance hairstylist. One of the first, actually, of a very small group.

 

You’re in a privileged situation. You get to touch a person, and not like a doctor. I have to touch a person in a loving way. I have to adore the touch and feel of the hair.

ELEVATED IN THE ELEVATOR

 

I met [photographer Arthur Elgort] through the invitation of an editor, and one day we were gonna shoot a cover. I was kind of flabbergasted, because I had already worked with the earlier, established generation of photographers, and that was like walking into church, scary and godly. But with Arthur it was like, let’s go out into the street and shoot in the phone booths and that’ll be a Mademoiselle cover. I was like, Is that possible? So easy, so relaxed? From that day on I always gravitated towards him.

 

Every one of us, as they wrote in those days, was “elevated in the elevator.” Like my wife, Marianne—she looked very cute, but she had no fashion background whatsoever. After half a year of setting up house, she had had enough and wanted to go to work. She went to one of those employment agencies and they sent her to Wall Street, but as soon as she was getting on the elevator to go out, one of the owners of the agency

 

looked at her and said, “Oh, you’re so cute, you came from my agency, did they treat you well?” And then she says, “Oh, darling, you don’ t want to go to W all Street, come back inside.” And they sent her to the advertising department of Harper’ s Bazaar.

 

A couple weeks later I worked with Harper’s Bazaar, a shoot with China Machado and Hiro. So I go pick up Marianne, and the elevator opens and there is [Editor] Nancy White and China Machado. They ask Marianne, “Where do you work?” And she says “ The 16th floor , advertising department. ” They go, “No, darling, you don’t want to work in advertising. Come see me tomorrow, maybe we can find you something on the editorial floor.” So, as they say, “elevated in the elevator.” [laughs]

 

LEND ME YOUR COMB

 

The undercut—[ V ogue editor] P olly Mellen ma ybe hit the bottle over that one. [laughs] In retrospect it was genius, but at the time it didn’t feel that way. It was purely a utilitarian effort on my part, basically coming out of years and years and years of all those grand fashion shows where the long hair had to go into a chignon, and it would always get dragged out at the bottom. You needed more and more bobby pins to get the neck clean at the end. I saw the evolution. I started thinking we should just take it away, cut that part away so I could do the chignon up top and it would be clean. And it just so happened that at that point [model] Bonnie Berman was a very good part of our little club, and it was easy to conceive that if you take away the hair underneath, nobody would see it. So that’s what we did one day—I drew a line, put her hair up in a ponytail, and shaved the back.

 

Halfway through, Polly walked in, walked right out, and we didn’t see her for the rest of the day. The next day she came and said, “I do not ever want to see this.” So we had to hide this for the rest of the shoot for American Vogue. But then the next day we were in Paris for the Comme des Garçons show , the second or third show I’ d ever done with Rei Kawakubo. And Rei was enthralled with the cut, and she wanted us to show it. So Bonnie went out there with a ponytail for all the world to see.

 

When I got back to my hotel, there were all these girls waiting to get a cut. It somehow had hit a note with girls and boys in the underground channels. Vogue wanted nothing to do with it, didn’ t mention it for years. W e did a special session for GQ, with boys, and there were gorgeous pictures, but they didn’ t publish it. It’s bizarre because 30 years later everybody has the cut.

 

My cutting became less confined, and more and more liberal in a way. I experimented with incoherent hair, discombobulated hair, all kinds of hair. I did a show with Stephen where we cut holes in wigs. Polly was a big fan. “Darling, darling, this was genius.” And I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t be who I am today without Polly Mellen.

I wanted hair to be less Park Avenue, less stuck up. I was pushing the daughters of all those old ladies to come and complain that they didn’t need all that gold chandelier shit, all they needed was a cute corner with some water to get their hair washed and cut and get out of there.

Haircuts in the park were another one of those genius ideas. My younger son Henk was about nine years old, and we were hanging around the pool in the Hamptons. His hair was long because Stephen Sprouse forced him to grow it out, he wanted him to be a little rocker kid. But he’d had enough, and he wanted me to cut it off. So he comes out of the water, with hair totally stuck to his head, and I said ok, bring me the scissors. He brings me the scissors and not the comb. So I went close to the scalp with the blade, away from the scalp, then close,  and so on, and that became the “digithead.”
That was an insane thing. When I was finished cutting all his hair off, what was left was something nobody had ever seen before. So then we thought, how do we get this out into the world? It’s not really something you could take to the beauty parlor. So my friend Peter Arnell and I decided to just offer ourselves up for a day in Central Park. We set ourselves up with a sign saying free digit haircuts. It wasn’t the exact same style but the same technique—cutting without a comb, just on the head. The night before we passed out a bunch of posters, and the next thing you know it was a beautiful day in Central Park and hundreds of people showed up. Peter photographed the cuts, and it became a 10-page spread in Interview Magazine. And at the time you don’t really think about it, but years later they become iconic.

 

The haircut in the park thing became something when I wanted to try something different and I couldn’t just get a model in a studio. I did it in Moscow and Times Square, I did it in Amsterdam, I did it a couple years ago in W ashington Square Park. But I enjoyed it because it was really educational for myself as well—I really very quickly have to decide on a style and just do it. There’s no time for discussion. It was fantastic.

 

THE TOUCH, THE FEEL

 

I gave a quote-unquote master class the other day—I don’t know how I got into that. But I had 35 or 40 professionals hanging on my lips. I have never done that before, so I thought, they already cut hair, what am I going to teach them? But the day before I thought about what is important about our craft. And there has never been any question that the number one thing about it, for me, is the importance of touch and feel—when you first approach a person, how your touch is received by the person. Do they twist? Or can you feel them sinking into their chair, like they’re ok? Anything short of that is no good, and that’s purely related to your touch. It doesn’t matter what you say. You could say shit or jokes or whatever, but it’s still about how you communicate with the energy through your fingers.

 

You’re in a privileged situation. You get to touch a person, and not like a doctor. I have to touch a person in a loving way. I have to adore the touch and feel of the hair. And that’s a unique experience, a unique thing. I’m blowing it up, but I’m blowing it up to make an example. If people relax and feel comfortable, that is the goal.

— END

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