On Photography: Part One

My very first camera was something my father bought me when I went on a school trip to Switzerland when I was twelve. It was quite a long time ago so it was beautiful, but not terribly sophisticated or expensive. I had no idea how to use it. It was a classic black and white film camera, you gave it to the drugstore, and they processed and printed postcard-size pictures. My biggest regret in life would be not documenting everything I experienced, the way Jacques Henri Lartigue did from the age of five. I would have loved to have had an iPhone fifty years before anyone else did because I have so many memories of such extraordinary things, especially when I started working at René of Mayfair.

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

I befriended the photographers, that’s what I remember. My favorite was Barry Lategan, a South African who came to London and eventually became one of the top Vogue photographers, specializing in beauty and hair, and he was good at fashion too. He took those iconic images of Twiggy that helped launch her career. He and Leonard of Mayfair worked together frequently, and I just loved his photography.

I got to work with him once when I was quite young, maybe 20, and I was hopelessly terrified to actually be in a studio with Barry Lategan. I was working for Elizabeth Arden, and they gave me a piece of paper and told me to go to this studio in Chelsea to do hair for a photoshoot. So I got there and it’s filled with people: a famous makeup artist, Barry (who I don’t think even said hello), three statuesque models, and then there’s me, with my little bag of tricks. At lunchtime the photo assistants would set up a ten-foot long piece of wood over a trellis table, and all this food came out. I had never seen food like this before. It made a deep impression on me. My ambition was to work with Barry in his studio more often, but it didn’t happen. I left England in 1972 to move to South Africa.

I started doing hair for one of the best fashion photographers in South Africa, Georgina Karvellis. She would send a girl in, often her girlfriend Marge, with a tear sheet from American Vogue. I would do the hair, and they’d jump in a car and go to the studio without me – and yet, amazingly enough, the hair looked pretty fantastic in the photos. I had a friend, Alan, who was a yoga teacher and a photographer, and he had a studio in his house where we used to do pictures for Bumble.

I moved to New York in 1977, and then Barry moved to New York around 1978 – he fell in love with someone, that happened a lot. I used to work quite a bit for Mademoiselle magazine, where the beauty editor was very supportive of Bumble and I was comfortable with her. I overheard her talking about doing a beauty story with Barry Lategan, so I asked to do the hair. The studio was in the West Village, I still walk by it sometimes. He didn’t remember I was the same little guy from London.

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

I started talking to Barry about living in South Africa, and it turned out he knew my first wife Di, because she’d been a model there. We all had dinner together a few times. He asked if I’d like to come to Rome and shoot the collections with him for Italian Vogue. I said yes, I’d like that very much.

In those days Rome was the fashion capital of Italy, and had fashion shows twice a year. There were two studios, with Barry and I in one, and David Bailey with the legendary Italian hairdresser Aldo Coppola in the other. They actually asked me if I’d cut Aldo Coppola’s hair, that was kind of a thrill. We’d start getting the models ready and photographing them at 6pm, and it would go on until about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a great experience.

I did a few more shoots with Barry. There was one stunning story that we shot in Fort Lauderdale, with ten pages of saturated blue skies and colors. (This was where I first heard the name Steve Hiett, because people kept asking if it was inspired by his work.) I also did a few ad campaigns with him. But I realized that if I was going to make Bumble a success, I couldn’t be out of the salon so often. I stopped dreaming about being an editorial hairdresser at that point.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

I started taking photos for myself around the early ‘80s, when my daughter Sian was maybe three or four. I used to take her and her big sister Heather away once or twice a year on vacation, just the three of us. I took pictures of the girls at the beach, and they came out well. I’d always been around photographers, and one day I just knew how to take a picture.

Eventually I moved from photographing kids to photographing models. In 1985, we had moved Bumble to the new location on 56th Street. On the top floor of the building was a model agency called Zoli, one of the top agencies at the time. They often sent their new girls downstairs to Bumble to ask us to make their hair different, to give them a look. That’s where I met Stacy Williams, from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s common that if you’re a model with a photographer boyfriend, they usually take the best photos of you, because there’s trust and intimacy between you. Stacy’s friends started asking for pictures, so we had a steady stream of girls that wanted to test at Bumble.

I got so much information about photography just from watching talented people on set. I was never formally trained as a photographer. There were only four things you could control on a camera, which did a lot: the f-stop, the speed of the film, the aperture opening, and the shutter speed. Eventually it just clicked for me. Photography must have been just occupying my brain until suddenly I figured out how to do it. I was also building a library of images from English Vogue, American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Avedon and Penn and everyone I’d worked with – my eye was becoming more sophisticated.

The New Yorker: Personal Best

I remembered reading this fascinating New Yorker article in 2011 about a very successful surgeon at the top of his field. One day he realized that he needed a coach in order to continue to improve his work. It really struck me that everyone can benefit from coaching, not just professional athletes. Mentoring is something I have been doing throughout my career. The article has inspired me to offer coaching in an official capacity and I will be sharing more information on my website regarding opportunities to work with me soon.

Read More

On Mentorship: Gina, Dante, and Gerard

We recently asked some of the people Michael has mentored throughout the years what this experience has been like. Below Gina, Dante, and Gerard share their stories and some of Michael’s best advice.

Interviewed and Edited by Cat Meyer and Ella Chodos-Irvine


Gina Schiappacasse

Social Media Consultant & Illustrator

How long have you known Michael?
I met Michael in early 2012 at an event he was speaking at for Cutler salon. I was modeling for a hairstylist friend and he struck up a conversation with me while we waited backstage. I was very impressed with his knowledge on the subject of fashion illustration (as I am a fashion illustrator) and thoroughly enjoyed speaking with him. We exchanged contact info and kept in touch for a bit before he offered me a job managing his social media at Hairstory.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Primarily professionally, as an employee of his and as an artist, but he has supported me through a lot of things over the years.

What is some of the best advice he has given you?
There have been so many gems over the years that I’ve been lucky enough to work with Michael, but one of the most recently memorable was when I was struggling to decide whether to take a job solely for the money and he told me, “There is a lot of power in learning to say no.” I declined the opportunity, and I couldn’t have felt better about the whole experience. There truly is a lot of power in knowing your worth.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice? Anything else you’d like to add?
Having a sounding board in Michael has been so valuable because I truly respect him in many ways and so his guidance carries a lot of weight for me. He is also deeply compassionate and really takes the time to understand what you want and how you operate. Having someone really listen to you and take your ambition as well as your needs into account is invaluable.


Dante Pronio

Hairdresser & Educator

How long have you known Michael?
I have been coming to Michael for career advice and support at every turn of my career lately. Since I have followed Michael's advice my path has become much more straight and narrow. I have focused on the important aspects of my career and remained persistent to achieve goals because of the guidance Michael has given.

After I experienced some low points I connected with Michael to seek some professional advice; not only was I given solid advice to reinvigorate my career, but I also shared laughs and friendship on a more personal level, which goes a long way. I have known Michael for close to 20 years now. He has seen me through many relationships, jobs, and eras of my life. In respect to all, he has been very transparent with his advice on any and all of those topics. Michael is honest and doesn't pull punches; he’s not afraid to tell the truth even when it hurts, and that takes courage.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Michael has been especially helpful in guiding me to create my personal brand. Whether it's leading by example or direct guidance Michael has helped me focus on brand strategy and direction for my education business and salon business.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice? Anything else you’d like to add?
Because of my opportunity to work with Michael I have learned what it means to be good at the craft of hair. Michael has shown me the importance of a sharp eye, which makes a great hairstylist, and why it's important to elevate the craft. Without this knowledge, I may have had a lesser view on the overall craft of hair. His exposure and sharing of the best and most elite corners of the industry have been of incredible value to me. Michael has truly shown me what it means to be a great hairdresser and the paths needed to be taken to get there. For that, I am forever grateful.


Gerard Scarpaci

Hairdresser & Hairbrained Co-Founder

How long have you known Michael?
By reputation, professionally since 1991 when I began as a New York City based hairdresser. I first met him personally in 2003 as a Bumble Network salon owner, and truly got to know him on a personal level in 2015.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Perhaps some of the most important guidance I have ever received in my life came when I asked Michael what his key to success in business had been and he replied… meditation. I was so lifted by this unexpected response that I set out on a regular practice, which has greatly improved not only my business success but my entire life and the lives of those who are closest to me.

What is some of the best advice he has given you?
Michael encouraged me to infuse more of myself into Hairbrained. He suggested that the more personal I made our content and the more our community felt connected to me personally the more we would grow. It has proven to be true.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice?
In all honesty, I am truly a happier, better person, due to Michael’s suggestion to take up meditation. It is as if someone gave me the keys to limitless clarity and a whole new perspective on life and success.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I have so much respect and admiration for Michael, I don’t know if our industry will ever see another hairdresser who will reach the same heights in business again. The landscape has changed so much, but I hope we all can benefit from his wisdom and experience and make a go at it!

Fast Company: How our brains process praise and why it’s killing our potential

I’ve recently recommended this article by Art Markman to people I coach or mentor. I thought it was a great piece to share here.


By Art Markman.

When your brain gets a reward (and your brain treats praise from others as a reward), what it learns is to do that action again. But, repetition builds habits, not growth.

News flash: People love praise. They love being told that they’re doing a good job, that their effort is appreciated, and that they are a valuable member of the team. They love it so much, that we have embedded praise deeply in the culture. Our schools provide plenty of opportunities for students to get recognized for achievements large and small. Parents proudly display sportsmanship awards.

The problem with praise, though, is that we don’t learn much from it.

When your brain gets a reward (and your brain treats praise from others as a reward), what it learns is to do that action again. If you want to reinforce a particular behavior, then praising that behavior is a great way to make that happen.

But, repetition builds habits, not growth. Chances are, your ability to advance in your career (and your ability to help your colleagues to advance in their careers) rests on improvement. You need to discover what skills you don’t yet have. More importantly, you need to find out which skills you think you have mastered that actually require improvement.

The most skilled people in any endeavor have something in common. They love to be critiqued. They want to know what they can do better in the future. And they use criticism constructively–regardless of how it was meant by the person giving it.

In order to use criticism effectively, it is crucial to start by understanding your own reaction to it. Often, you start by feeling a blow to your self-esteem. It can be physically painful to find out that you need improvement.

That pain can quickly turn to anger directed at yourself or at the person who gave you negative feedback. To recover, you start to defend your actions or lash out at the other person. Those bad reactions will lead anyone to think twice before pointing out something that needs to be fixed in the future.

Instead, when you get a critique from someone else, you have to start by smiling (even if you have to force it at first). Thank the person for the feedback. You might even ask more questions to understand more about what they noticed and what they were thinking. Resist any urge to explain why you did what you did. Just listen.

Then, don’t do anything with that information for about a day. In the moment, you might be tempted to stew on the criticism and even nurture the hurt or the anger.

Instead, get a good night’s sleep. It turns out that sleep actually helps you to separate the emotional reaction you have to a situation from the conceptual content of that event. So, after you have slept, you’ll actually be able to think about the criticism without feeling as badly about it.

Next, pay attention to what you were told. Is this something that you have heard before? Perhaps you are learning something new about yourself. Start to pay more attention to that aspect of your performance and see if you notice for yourself what you were told by someone else.

Then, work to improve. In some situations, you might know exactly what you need to do to get better. In many instances, though, you will need some assistance. Find a colleague, friend, coach, or mentor. Have them work with you to develop a program to support your growth.

If you put this plan into action, you’ll make three remarkable discoveries. First, you will get a lot more productive in your work, because you will repair some of your inefficiencies. Second, you’ll learn to be less sensitive to other people’s criticisms. You might even find you no longer need to sleep on someone’s advice before being able to think about it without frustration. Finally, you’ll even notice yourself becoming more self-critical. After all, you observe more of your own behavior than anyone else. The more you notice limitations in what you can do, the more opportunities for growth you create.

Signs of the Times

While digging through old photos in our archive for a presentation I was giving, I stumbled upon some scans of Bumble and bumble’s logos throughout the years. Even though I’m no longer involved with Bb., I enjoyed reminiscing about the journey from our salon in South Africa to the brand we built in New York. I thought it might be interesting to travel down memory lane with you and tell the story of each logo. I hope you’ll find it interesting, as well.


1972

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When we first opened in Johannesburg, I cut the hair of the creative director at Grey Advertising, the most renowned advertising agency in South Africa. One day, as I was cutting his hair, he offered to do our logo. Nowadays that might cost $50,000, so it might seem strange that he did in exchange for the occasional haircut, but people used to do things like that. I loved the curvaceousness of this logo; so 70’s. The window of the salon was painted over with a very rich blue with the logo in silver, because we didn’t want people looking in the window. This was for a few reasons. The first was because we had, in my opinion, the most unique and beautifully designed salon maybe ever, and I preferred people come in the front door and see it for themselves as opposed to just peeking in from outside. A few of my clients at the time were the best interior decorators in Johannesburg, and they also redesigned the entire salon in exchange for haircuts. It was beautiful, structured as an octagonal maze, and it was by far the best salon design I had ever seen. The second reason was we usually stayed open much later than was officially allowed, and needed privacy to continue doing that. So, we just had this big, curvy logo on the window. It was lighthearted, flippant, and funny, and reflected the playfulness of the name and the atmosphere of our salon.

1977

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When I relocated to New York, I didn’t have enough money to redo our logo. I quickly became so nervous about our name, our look. I thought, “What the hell am I doing coming to New York with a name like Bumble and Bumble?” I worried I’d become a laughing stock, and that I would fail even worse than I had imagined. It really was such a stupid name in comparison to the rest of Hairdresser’s Row, which was very, very French. Luckily, I met a fabulous graphic designer called Mike Quon. And what do you know? He did our new logo for free. It was very cool and everyone absolutely loved it; it actually won a few awards. For me, I always knew it was great, but had a feeling that it was too rigid for us, at least compared to our first logo.  Regardless, people loved it, and we kept it for about five years. Looking back, I suppose we were the only salon that could afford to have a bit of fun with our logo, because everyone else was so buttoned up. We could afford to morph and play around and change, and I think this logo reflects that.


1986

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After about eight years of real success, we decided we needed to move. Our lease was up and we had to find a new place to go. We found a fantastic building in the design district that used to be a carriage house, about 12,000 sq. ft. It was the mid 80’s and everything had an air of Miami Vice. This era unfortunately influenced the salon design, which was pretty hideous. I don’t think I had grown into good taste at that point. I made Mike Quon change the logo again, against his wishes. I regret it to this day. Whenever I think about how the salon looked and how I looked, I groan. Looking back, I was this logo’s worst critic, but I still think it was pretty bad, even now. But we really had to recreate this entire new space from scratch, and this was the result. It was certainly a sign of the times. I only wish I would’ve met Ross Anderson sooner, who ended up making the space incredibly beautiful.


1992

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So we had this massive space, and it quickly filled up with new business. This is when I first met Tibor Kalman and Alexander Brebner, who were working for the famous design firm, M&Co. Tibor was a charismatic, verbally gifted guy, that had this very cool agency with great clients. He was the best salesman I ever met. Alexander was working for him when he got his first haircut with Howard [McClaren] at Bumble and bumble. I wanted to change the logo again, and Alexander had actually already started designing t-shirts for us, so we figured who better for the job than M&Co? Their team wanted to do a complete salon redesign along with a new logo, and of course I was on board. For the interior, I was introduced to Ross Anderson, who did really cool work with industrial aesthetics and materials, which was unusual at the time. He undid everything that was bad and brought out all the good underneath. He found gorgeous steel behind all of the enameled stations, he changed all the ceiling tiles.

For our logo, I asked Alexander if he could do something calligraphy-inspired, with black ink on paper, no computers. And he came up with the logo that Bb. still uses to this day. There was never a “correct” way to write it, and no two products had the exact same logo. The handwritten style complemented the industrial feel of the salon and gave it such a handcrafted look. It really represented the craft of hairdressing and showed just how far we’d come. After that, I convinced Alexander to join us. He was at the height of his creativity and did really great work. He was very hands on, and had done lots of boards and explorations of how to apply the logo. I think his words sum up the journey of the Bumble and bumble logo better than mine could: “As a company evolves, as this one has - and as a designer evolves, as I have - so does visual identity, as ours certainly has. But a brand is much more than a logo - it’s the people, the environment, the total experience you provide that makes it memorable.”

Meeting Alexander and working with him during this time at Bumble I believe we were at the height of our creativity. I think the work he did for Bumble in that period is legendary.