Honoring Two of the Greats: Patrick Alès and Jean Louis David

We could call this the beginning of the end of grand salons. We could also say it’s the end of an era, having two of the most influential french hairdressers pass away at the same time. I had actually wanted to include both of them in Hair Heroes, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.

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I did meet Patrick Alès, the founder of Phyto, and spent a few great hours with him in the botanical gardens in New York City, where I asked him to come so that I could take photographs of him that connected to his passion in life, which was botanicals of all kinds. He turned his passion into one of the few, in my opinion, fabulous hair companies, Phyto. His English was very poor, my French was even worse, and my tape recorder wasn’t working, so I ended up not having enough content to put him in Hair Heroes. I’m quite sure he influenced many people, including Horst, who founded Aveda. Before we made our own products at Bumble we used to import some of his product by the caseload. We loved the Phytoplage, which came in a tin can and smelled more like a car oil than a hair oil – we couldn’t keep it in stock. He was a true visionary, unwilling to compromise his integrity. Though he was courted and pursued, he never sold out to any company, because he could never trust them with his creation.

When I started my career as an apprentice at René of Mayfair in the mid ‘60s, Vidal Sassoon dominated hairdressing around the world, and created a culture, methodology, and style that no one else did. It was still the time of the “grand salon,” which meant that in most capitals of the world, the most well-known salons were still grand – they were chandeliered, with lots of assistants everywhere, everyone in immaculate uniforms, and maids constantly cleaning the bathrooms. In New York, the grand salon was the House of Kenneth, and in Paris there was Monsieur Alexandre and the Carita Sisters, where royalty and countesses and duchesses went. Then Jean Louis David emerged. I had been to Paris twice when I was an apprentice, and tried to convince the head receptionist at Jean Louis David to let me come and watch. She looked down her nose at me and said, “No.” So out I went with my tail between my legs, and spent the afternoon on the other side of the street watching clients come and go. His salon was still grand, but it was modern, with lots of young, cool, good-looking hairdressers, and their style was quite different to the establishment.

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In some respects he created a revolution in hair as much as Vidal did, a style he called La Coupe Sauvage, the wild cut – it was tousled and disheveled, not blow-dried into place. He also had an army of talented hairstylists that would do the magazine work. There was Didier Malige, Bruno Weppe, Valentin, and Bruce Libre, among others. When asked for a comment, Didier noted that “all the hairstylists who have worked with Jean Louis are in deep admiration for his excellence in craftsmanship and his intellectual capacities. I am lucky to have met and worked with this remarkable man.” 

Jean Louis was very much a businessman – he recognized that you couldn’t become rich running a salon, so he created essentially the first franchising salon chain, and ended up with hundreds of salons around the world. They were, in the beginning, very modern, cool, no-nonsense, and successful. Their marketing was mainly striking black and white photography of their hair collections, which were much more what you’d expect to see in a fashion magazine rather than a hair magazine. All their photos were taken by Jean Louis and they were magnificent. In a sense he changed hairdressing, at least in France, forever. There were no more grand salons being birthed, and his franchising efforts were widely copied, so in a strange way he created the end of hairdressing as we knew it. Lots of different smaller salons opened, as opposed to one grand salon, and those bigger salons that people looked up to stopped being born. Almost like what’s happening today with the advent of chair renting, blow dry bars, and barber shops. So for that reason and the fact that I wasn’t sure where Jean Louis lived, I decided not to look for him. And naturally, I regret it – I should’ve gone to the ends of the earth to interview him.