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.