I’m often asked how I came to be in America. Honestly, I’m not terribly impressed by myself, but when I think about myself as a 15 year old boy starting work in the intimidating atmosphere and ambience of René of Mayfair, I don’t even have words. I don’t even know how I got to the subway station. And a lot of people think I’m from South Africa, because I lived there for five years, but it was more of a passing stop – a very pivotal stop that affected my whole life. Bumble and bumble in South Africa was essentially a test run before I came to America.
Listen to Michael tell the story of Bumble and bumble’s humble beginnings in New York below.
I came to New York in 1977, it was August, it was f’ing hot, as you can imagine. And I took possession of a salon named Debbian. Guess what the genesis of that was – the owner, Mr. Andre, had two daughters, a Debbi, and an Ann. So that’s how they named the salon. It was possibly the most miserable looking place on 57th Street. There were 20 or 30 salons on 57th Street, it was called “Hairdressers Row.” The real row was 57th and 5th, and then all the way to Park Avenue where the really groovy, cool, impressive, intimidating, amazing salons were. The one I bought, Salon Debbi An, was on West 57th Street, and it was, as they say politely, “a little bit close” to the West Side – how could it be so close, it was on the same block. But it wasn’t the bougie part of the block, it was the not-so-bougie part.
It was September 1st, on a Saturday, and I showed up at the salon on the busiest day of their week. I sat there the entire day in the reception, I don’t think I moved, because papers had been signed and I now owned Salon Debbian, except no one there knew it. At the end of the day I was going to have a little meet-and-greet with all of the employees. Six o’clock came, the last clients were leaving, and Mr. Andre, who’d owned the salon for twenty-odd years, called everyone into the back, in the coloring room. He had some wine and paper cups and he said, in a few words, “Well” – he’s Italian, I can’t do the accent – “I sold the place and this is the new owner,” and pointed at me. [Laughs] I hadn’t expected this. I have no idea what I thought was going to happen, but I didn’t think I’d be put on the spot like that. They looked at me and I remember Scott – Scott looked sort of like a fading film star from B movies, he was blond and good-looking – he looked at me and his eyebrow went up about three feet, like “Oh. My God. What has just happened to my life.” I think they felt like they were sold, literally. They’d had no choice. So I thought, “Oh, I have to speak.” I looked at them all and said, “My name is, I come from, blah blah blah, and I lived in South Africa for the last five years, and we’re going to make this the best-known salon in America.” Nobody breathed for at least half a minute. They just thought, “What the… This guy’s off his rocker!” Anyway, that’s how it all began. They looked at me and I realized they were all part-timers. Scott, the good-looking guy, was there three days a week, Mr. Nick was there four days a week, and Andre and Adele were there five (Adele was Mr. Andre’s wife, and she thought she still owned the place, so she used to give me orders).
So we were at 57th Street, close to 6th, Chock Full O’Nuts was downstairs – I mean really right, what an omen, you’re above Chock Full O’Nuts – the salon was on the second floor, and it was September 1st, 1977, I was 26 years old. I’m in New York, I don’t know anybody, and I own this salon. I showed up on Monday, Miss Adele was there. I had no clients, I didn’t know anybody, and the only thing I did for the first few weeks was, in the building next door there was a vaguely famous scalp clinic, and what they did is the women would go there and they’d put stuff on their scalps and hair and wrap them up like a turban, but they didn’t wash their hair. A lot of the stuff was really smelly, so they’d come to Debbian to get their hair washed and blow dried. So I became Mr. Blow Dry for these women from the scalp clinic. Eventually I could turn them, I was turning some of them into clients. It’s not like we had a rush of people clamoring up the stairs to get their hair done.
One of the nice little features we had was an awning, so I decided to change the name of course. I was changing it to Bumble and bumble, and as I was doing it I was going inside, “Oh no, this is a disaster. There’s Xavier down the road, there’s Cinandre and Le Salon,” all these fabulous-sounding, intimidating salons. I got the awning people in, we changed it to Bumble and bumble. The interior of the salon, I don’t even know how to describe it. It was black and white, but it was really really old school. There was a row of hair dryers, I think there were twenty in a row. It was two thousand square feet, which was quite a big size, and as I said everyone was part time except me. The other thing I did was, this sounds nuts right now, I changed the two side windows – they were split when I bought the place, you couldn’t really put a picture there – so I turned it into a bigger space by replacing the windows. I had space to put two pictures in there, and then there was a big space in the middle so I didn’t kill the natural light. I’d done these photographs in Johannesburg with a friend, a photographer, and we had these huge blowups made and mounted on board, and stuck them up in the window. And people actually came up! It was the strangest thing, they just came upstairs and said, “Oh, can I get my hair done like that?” I said, “Sure.” That was kind of amazing. But still, there was me, and then there was them, it wasn’t an integrated salon at that point, there wasn’t a method.
Then I started planning how to redecorate it. I met a very talented graphic designer called Mike Kwon, and there was another graphic designer – I seemed to know only graphic designers – from South Africa who’d emigrated. They were kind of like my little council, my board of directors. Mike agreed to create the logo, which became quite well thought of, it won lots of awards, and he agreed to help me redecorate it with lots of bought plastic things, I’d call them. They were actually called Kartell, they were Dutch maybe, it was an organizational thing and we turned them into stations. Then I got Pirelli rubber flooring in black. It actually started looking really cool, I don’t remember at what point I’d been there. It was transforming, and was going to keep evolving over the next few years.